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Hands-On: Dragon Commander

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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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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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