Hands-On: Dragon Commander

By Alec Meer on July 9th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Dragon Commander is a real time strategy game with a turn-based campaign map and third-person aerial combat from the makers of Divine Divinity. Somehow, that makes a lot more sense in practice than it does on paper. I’ve been playing some unfinished early code.

The dragon’s the least of it, really. While it’s almost staggering under the weight of ‘wouldn’t it be great if?’ sub-games and features, at its heart Larian’s Divine Divinity fantasy battle spin-off plays like a love letter to the giants of real-time strategy. The campaign map of Total War, the battles of Total Annihilation, the air of silliness of Command & Conquer, the theme of Warcraft… It’s not that it’s shameless, really: it’s just picking and choosing what worked, what people loved, and putting it all together in a slightly strange, rather full-on but highly entertaining and tactical combination that winds up feeling like nothing else. The game seems to be having a whale of a time, and it’s infectious with it – while its humour might incline towards the ‘wacky’ end of the gag spectrum, it’s not grating as are the similarly fantasy-lampooning Majesty/Ardania games.

But while the broad political satire (e.g. elves are pro-medicinal drugs, but the Catholic-analogue undead consider it sinful – so will you legalise or outlaw it? One faction may withdraw their support based on your decision) of the between-battle state management is a bit of a giggle, what’s really standing out to me so far is the intensity of the battles. Sure, you can transform from floating camera into a bloody great dragon, but this is only ever an accompaniment to management of a wide variety of units across large maps with maxi-zoom, doing the rock, paper, scissors thing with a campaign-persistent expanding tech tree, fighting wars of attrition where each side has a sizeable finite number of reinforcements to call upon.

It’s proper strategy, like mama used to make – brutal push and pull, steadily advancing a front line amidst massed death and explosion. Commanding and conquering, yes, but the knowledge that, at some point, your reinforcements will run out, prevents cartoonish squandering. Build points are seized by proximity, even in the midst of pitched battle, so there’s a lot of suddenly dropping a turret or a war factory straight into the middle of things to sustain your push, or suddenly finding that the enemy’s managed to build a mortar right next to all your best stuff. Like Supreme Commander, there’s no sitting back and waiting for anything to happen here – it’s all go, all the time, and my jaw aches something rotten from pulling a Clint Eastwood expression all the while.

Throw the dragon in there and it’s even more intense. While becoming a big flying lad who can breathe fire and – hooray! – use a jetpack for added speed is a power trip, you’re disconcertingly vulnerable on two fronts when you don the scales. For one, you’re relatively easy prey for any anti-air units, so you’ll spend as much time desperately evading those guys as you do visiting hell upon landlubbers. For a second, you can’t build anything while you’re in lizard mode, so if you don’t have enough guys on the ground to support you, or they’ve been wiped out in a surprise attack or tactical error, you’re a sitting duck. Well, a highly manoeuvrable, deadly, flying duck the size of a bus, but the effect’s basically the same.

Thus, there’s a constant tension between trying to sow as much destruction as possible in Smaug mode and spending time in build’n’bash view to ensure you’ve got the army you need to win the day. You do have limited control of your troops while dragonised, but it’s not much more than select all/go kill that. Which, frankly, is absolutely brilliant when a fight’s going your way – it’s very much “to me, my army!” as you soar/jet forth with an almighty collective of steam punk mechs, tanks and zeppelins following and spraying death all around. More regularly, I found myself doggedly trying to stay dragoned up because fireballing dozens of enemies is a straight-up good time, only to suddenly realise that I had no mates left and the enemy was just about to seize my last base.

Win or lose a battle, the sensation of space and speed when wearing dragon pants is fantastic. It’s a great looking game, finding itself a colourful middleground between cartoon and photo-real then giving the player freedom to pan or soar across its sizeable maps with as much freedom as the relentless assaults allow. There is the option to auto-resolve battles, by sending out a favoured general to do the work for you, but as well as the heightened risk of failure – and with it the loss of or failure to seize a territory – basically you’re missing out on a ton of high-velocity fun. It’s not just that you get to be a dragon: you get to be a dragon and the boss of a huge magical, mechanical army.

Army and dragon alike have a raft of upgrades to be pursued between battles, spending winnings and earnings from held territories on new unit types, new dragon abilities and – in what feels a little like features creeping too far – cards that offer one-time buffs or handicaps. There’s a lot to get your head around: you will do so, but early forays will feel somewhat overwhelming.

In such quiet (or at least online-focused) times for RTS, I appreciate the attempt to do everything, ever while retaining a solid build’n’bash core, and especially that it’s firmly avoided becoming simply That Game Where You Play As A Dragon, but it is a bit full on. Especially as it’s so perfunctory about how to do important stuff like order units while in dragon mode (F2 to select all, Q to make ‘em move or attack, since you ask) but spends forever and a day bombarding you with comedy Scottish dwarf dialogue. The looking back to the strategy classics of yesteryear goes too far in terms of the traditionally irritating and excessive unit barks, too. Calm down, just calm down. I know you wrote a funny, but there’s no need to make people hear it 5000 times an hour.

Again, to some degree I think this reflects a a clear Joie de vivre in the game, and certainly no kow-towing to the dark forces of focus grouping, so I can forgive it a certain muddledness, especially as once the myriad tricks of the fantasy kingdom trade are learned the scatty tutorial ceases to be an issue. I am finding myself skipping through most of the dialogue and turning off unit sounds, however. Dragon Commander’s a bit like an over-friendly dog that jumps up at you, headbutts you in the crotch, licks you on the eye and then farts in helpless excitement when you come home. While it can be exasperating, its loveable nature and repertoire of charming tricks absolutely wins the day. I’m really looking forward to trying out the more expansive finished product later this year.

Dragon Commander should be released in early August.

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33 Comments »

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  1. elwood_p says:

    “Dragon Commander’s a bit like an over-friendly dog that jumps up at you, headbutts you in the crotch, licks you on the eye and then farts in helpless excitement when you come home.”

    Best game analogy ever.
    (or was that a simile?) :)

  2. razgon says:

    granted, my beta copy doesnt contain the campaign, but the RTS battles were laughably bad. The animations were poor, they had no AI on their own, and it looked like a game from about year 2000 instead of now.

    i realize its a beta, but something is strange when we can have two such different takes on the game.

    I quit rather fast after trying out the poor Dune2000 lookalike, I’m afraid.

    • pakoito says:

      I’m in the beta and I disagree.

    • Dominic White says:

      The RTS gameplay isn’t quite what I was expecting, but it’s a very fun (and very hotkey-centric – never forget that Z selects all factories for easy deployment of new units) arcadey RTS once you get used to it. Only makes sense, as you can switch into bullet-time shooter mode at any point to support your troops.

      I have a feeling the frantic twitch nature of the game will be slowed somewhat once you start getting into second and third-tier units, which seem bigger, slower and generally tougher.

      They’re also making huge sweeping balance changes to the game right now. The latest patch makes the starting two auras much higher-level powers, so you can’t just heal or power-boost your guys through your first few fights.

  3. razgon says:

    What I find especially weird, is that there is such a huge disconnect from the high strategic thinking required in the other part of the game, compared to the rts part, where it seems mostly a game of pushing keys and units out faster than the opponent.

    I was actually very surprised when I didnt just play with the units I had on the map, and instead could crank out hundreds of new units, making those I had of little relevance.

    I’ve always held that fewer units lead to more tactical gameplay, but I know thats not the starcraft way of course.

    • Dominic White says:

      Once you’ve built up a good head of steam on the campaign map, your strategic units can win battles before they’ve even started. If you have enough troops to capture every secondary base point right off the bat and fight off your first wave of enemies, you’re basically won already.

  4. trjp says:

    You can find out what it’s like first hand if you go here

    http://na.alienwarearena.com/giveaways/dragon-commander-closed-beta-key-giveaway

    7K keys left and counting…

  5. Emeraude says:

    The more I read about this game, the more I am reminded of what Brütal Legend could have been.

    If I make sense.

    • boe2 says:

      Bad/worrysome analogy. Brutal Legend would have been so much better if they simply stripped out the RTS parts.

      • Emeraude says:

        Or if they had focused on it only.

        The biggest problem I have with Brütal Legend (apart from being unfinished) is how unfocused and direction-less it felt from a design standpoint. Which is too bad because the game was composed of some pretty good ideas that never could materialize fully.

        • trjp says:

          In fairness, if they’d removed the RTS stuff ENTIRELY it would have been a better game in every possible respect.

          In fact I think they should do that now because – let’s face it – most of us have walked away from that game when another aimless and random RTS bit appeared!?

          • Dominic White says:

            It wouldn’t have existed at all if it had no RTS elements, because the game was a purely multiplayer action-RTS until quite late in development, when EA funding allowed them to expand to a full story-driven campaign.

          • aepervius says:

            Dominic White : Which shows how out of touch EA was already back then : the multiplayer part of brutal legend was AFAIR not much played, and from all the people I am acquainted with which palyed brutal legend, all gave up when the mode switched from story to RTS. There might be some player which liked the RTS or multiplayer part, but I know not a single one. It makes me wonder if EA did not do some market research in a very limited population, and thought they could generalize the result to the whole gaming market.

          • Teovald says:

            I may be in the minority, but I absolutely loved Brütal Legends despite its shortcomings.
            I think it mostly lacked the budget/dev time to create something of that scale. Studios like Rockstar can have an enormous budget that allow them to have many different and polished things, like the cycling in GTAV. I don’t think that Double Fine’s budget was big enough for that.
            As a result, almost all areas of the game could be improved tremendously with more polish. Or starting to cut in the features, but it would have been painful.

  6. Bhazor says:

    Huh. Well that was a pleasant surprise.

    I’ll probably pick it up this weekend.

  7. Joe-Gamer says:

    There is so much about this game that I love, the comedy, the politics, the choices, the strategy, the dragon… but god damn playing this game made me feel OLD, once upon a time I would have had my armies dancing across the AI’s pitiful forces from three different directions all the while raining fiery death and dodging AA like Starfox doing a barrel roll….but damned if I could muster the energy for any of that now. Hopefully once I’m invested in the story(assuming there is a half decent story) I’ll be more energized, and I really hope that the tutorial gets better.

  8. jalf says:

    Dragon… with a jetpack?

    Sounds like the most epic thing since… since… JETPACK BRONTOSAURUS!

  9. LionsPhil says:

    you can transform from floating camera into a bloody great dragon

    Wait, you’re not a bloody great dragon all the time, even when you’re delegating to your minions? I wanted to believe that all those RPG-y conversations were between dwarves, elves, etc. and a bloody great dragon.

    • Sian says:

      If I recall correctly, lore states that you shift between human and dragon form. Otherwise the whole deal with the princesses would probably get a bit complicated at some point. Heirs might be a concern.

      • Ringwraith says:

        Yeah, presumably you are one of the Dragon Knights of the setting, which are ordinary mortals bestowed with the power of dragons.
        Actual dragons tend to be a bit more backseat in Divinity.

      • LionsPhil says:

        In the closed beta at least, which has no talky bits, you are a dragon, and the tutorial outright tells you as much. (With a jetpack.)

        It’s pretty awesome.

  10. Jorum says:

    add the alchemy and eggs and this sounds a fair bit like the (imaginary) expanded sequel to Dragons Breath I dreamed of as a kid.