Divinity: Dragon Commander contains two distinct components and in just over an hour of playing, I found much to like in both. I’m not entirely sure that the parts combine in a particularly meaningful way, but the total package managed to surprise me more times in that hour than many games do in a week of playing. You may well expect one side of the game, if a fast-paced RTS revolving around dragons wearing jetpacks is ever truly expected, but it’s the remainder that inspires the strongest response.
Before battle is met, Dragon Commander swiftly confronts players with a hippy elf and a skeleton princess. She is wearing lipstick, despite her rather obvious lip-lack. It’s skullstick, then, bonepaint that seems little more than a visual gag until the lady in question expresses her desire to return to life, clothed in flesh, inviting at least a modicum of sympathy. The management aspect of this strategy-RPG tells many stories and their branching political dialogues are designed to provoke reactions.
A sizable portion of the desired reaction is laughter, or at least a smile or groan, but Larian are seeking to apply pressure to more than the funny bone and are prepared to cut close to several other osseous masses. As representatives of the five ruling species crowd the player’s audience chamber, raising a new (random) issue at the beginning of each turn, they come to represent more than the clichés of the fantasy genre. They are broad containers for a collection of ideological viewpoints and arguments. I’d been playing for five minutes when the leader of the elves urged me to legalise gay marriage throughout my lands. I’d planned for dragons with jetpacks strapped to their backsides, but I hadn’t expected a skeleton to rebuke me for refusing to discriminate on grounds of gender and sexuality.
The viewpoints represented are capitalism (dwarves), libertarianism (lizard people), fundamentalism (undead), science-ism (imps) and liberalism (elves). At first glance, the characters offer gross exaggerations, played for laughs, which may come readily, uncomfortably or not at all depending on the topic and the player. Beneath the comic surface, there’s something more though.
“Every quote is pulled more or less directly from statements made by politicians or pundits about these issues.” Larian CEO Swen Vincke explained. The current press tour is the first time the game has been played by the gaming media and Vincke has since blogged about the nervous wait for the ‘flak’ that he believes is heading Larian’s way: “One thing that worries me a bit in particular is the discussion I’ve had with several journalists about the political and satirical topics in the game.”
The full blog post is worth reading, providing the kind of insight we rarely hear from the other side following a hands-on event. Judging from the limited number of encounters I arbitrated upon and other topics that I discussed with the team afterwards, I didn’t feel that Larian were attempting to court controversy but were, instead, interested in marrying direct concerns about society, science and morality with an otherwise conventional fantasy world. The dialogues engage with the player’s experiences and ideas outside the realm of dungeons and dragons, pushing buttons and teasing out reactions. Even within the cartoonish setting, I feel much more uncomfortable roleplaying a leader who spouts off like Glenn Beck’s wet dream than I do taking on the mantle of Horrible Necromancer #56.
It’s a bold move in a game for which the marketing has so far emphasised the gleefully ridiculous but I appreciate its inclusion, although it’s unclear how much of an impact the specifics of each conversation will have on the other parts of the game. At the moment, all that’s clear is that relationships with the races change for better or worse based on their reaction to the player’s own stance on the issues, and occasionally the player's earns a card that provides bonuses such as one-off units or a boost to production speed.
Those paragraphs may seem like a great deal of noise about a small part of the game, but that’s not the case. The dialogue trees are time-consuming and extend beyond politics to personnel management, with different generals also reacting to the players’ decisions. I spent as much time exploring the conversations as I did suffering inglorious defeat in battle, and it’s through interactions with advisors and assistants that upgrades to both the dragon and units are undertaken as well.
The strategic map is simple and reminded me of Defender of the Crown. In fact, after playing I spent a good while talking to Vincke about the games I loved in my Amiga days, including the rarely mentioned Dragon's Breath. Dragon Commander could have been plucked from that time – the sort multi-genre experimental compilation tape that lives long in the memory.
Army construction is simple – click on a territory and choose the units that it will produce – and movement is just as easy. Select an army, select a destination and click. Neutral territories don’t put up a fight but enemies, whether AI or human controlled, are also trying to dominate the map, and movement is simultaneous. You plot your construction and your manoeuvres, then commit, and live or die with the consequences.
When armies meet, the jetpacks come into play. And the nukes.
Every region has a specific population and while you’ll begin combat with the troops that you moved into place on the map, recruitment is essential to victory. All new armies are taken from the current population number, which means there’s a limited communal pool that both sides will want to drain as quickly as possible. To build units, strategic positions on the map must be captured, each allowing construction of a number of buildings, including recruitment centres, which increase the speed at which the population is siphoned into your hands, and the various types of factory and shipyard.
Certain units work well against others, although their position and any upgrades can have a powerful effect on the outcome of an encounter. The maps are small and the action is chaotic, made more so by the presence of the dragons. Yes, finally, here be dragons.
If the camera is close to friendly units, a player can summon his dragon and fly around the battlefield dropping bombs, breathing fire, healing squads and generally being a disruptive git. My attempts to assist my troops lasted about twenty seconds, at which point the other player’s dragon jetted in behind me and burned me to a crisp. There’s a cool-down before dragons can fuel up and divebomb back into action, although it can be skipped at the cost of a few population units. The intervention of the creatures is devastating and with the correct upgrades they can completely turn the tide of battle, but without support from the ground they can’t win the war. Success will come from careful use of the dragon, I imagine, knowing the best moment to strike and the correct skill to use rather than blundering in repeatedly.
In the build we were shown, the combat AI isn’t in place so the troops that overran my defences were controlled by another player. There was a lot happening on screen and it was happening quickly, but there is an icon-based clarity stencilled atop the busy graphics and once attuned to the pace, I think even my slow, methodical chess-player’s wits will find the tactical considerations simple enough to manage in real-time. That said, the use of population as a shared resource does favour the commander who acts quickly.
As with the multi-genre games of the early nineties that Dragon Commander reminded me of, there’s a suspicion that each part may be entertaining but slight. Only more time with the combat, and experimentation with various units and upgrades, will reveal the extent of variety in approaches, and intriguing though the characters are, dialogues could well be elaborate performances without any significance beyond the adjustment of popularity sliders.
Dragon Commander is an engaging curiosity that may yet reveal unexpected depths, but even if that’s not the case, it’s an unusual proposition and one that I appreciate. When it first skipped onto the stage, I feared it had used all of its best material in the opening salvo, but there may be more surprises yet.