Dragons and jetpacks, Civilization and StarCraft. Mix'em all together and what do you get? Divinity: Dragon Commander.
Okay, it's a bit more complicated than that, but those are certainly the core elements at play when discussing Divinity: Dragon Commander. It's not quite a real-time strategy game as complex as StarCraft, and it's just shy of being as big-picture as Civilization. It does have jetpack-wearing dragons, however, which sort of puts things in perspective. I mean, what else really matters?
Divinity: Dragon Commander (PC)
Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
Release Date: August 6, 2013
The single-player mode in Divinity: Dragon Commander sets up a decent plot about a being who can transform into a dragon who is disputing with its other, equally crazy siblings. The story portrayed through the cutscenes is certainly well told, but serves as more or less a justification to go from one map to the next.
Though the tutorials don't do much to explain this, Divinity: Dragon Commander is a mix of boardgame-style territory control (a la Risk) and real-time strategy (RTS) battles. The majority of a "match" will have players moving pieces around a game board in an attempt to control and dominate as much of the map as possible. The biggest problem is that the tutorial doesn't even attempt to explain any of this.
After watching the multitude of tutorial videos, it's easy to assume that the game is only an RTS game, as it doesn't touch on any of the mechanics associated with the boardgame portions of a match. When first confronted with the board, some tooltips are displayed to help explain things, but they are incredibly insufficient. The tutorials for the RTS elements are also insufficient, as is the case with just about every non-interactive tutorial. There is a "Training Ground" that allows players to screw around as they please, but it does little in the way of actively teaching anything.
The boardgame portions of the game take place in turns and require a "big picture" type of thinking in order to play effectively. Two types of resources are up for grabs: gold and resource points. Occupying various areas on the map will add to the amount of resources gained per turn, the exact amount being displayed on the territory itself. When a battle occurs, the player has the option to choose a specific general, each with their own playstyle, to auto-simulate the battle and play the odds, or they can control the Dragon Commander and head into battle themselves.
The battles play out like many other real-time strategy games, but with one twist: the player can take control of a jetpack dragon and partake in the battle themselves. Doing so is somewhat limited; there are a couple of minutes in the beginning of the match in which the dragon cannot be spawned (it takes resources, which you don’t yet have, to spawn the dragon), and there is a brief period after death in which the dragon cannot be spawned. The dragon has specific abilities at its disposal as well, each with its own separate cooldown. There are also three different dragons to choose from, each with their own abilities and playstyle.
Playing as a dragon is like playing a third-person shooter; it's very action-oriented. When doing so, however, it is important not to forget about the troops on the ground. Battles will be fought in tandem, as the player commands the dragon in the sky while their troops march beneath them into battle. There are limited army commands while in dragon mode, so it is possible to command an army while simultaneously breathing fire on enemy scum. Mastering these army commands is a hugely effective way to get a leg up on an opponent, since it's incredibly easy to forget about a ground army while soaring through the air and toasting fools.
Playing as a dragon against the AI can feel a bit unfair at times, as it takes a battle with a statistical 30% chance of victory and turns it on its head due to the enemy being disadvantaged and dragonless. It makes the single-player campaign a bit of a breeze on normal difficulty, so long as the player knows when and how to use their dragon. If multiple battles break out in the same turn, however, the player-controlled dragon commander can only be used in one of them, leaving the other two up to the AI and auto-complete. It's a nice caveat to give AI opponents a break from the one-sided dragon battles.
As for the non-dragon RTS mechanics, battles consist of vying for resources called Recruits. Recruits are gained over time as long as the player has Recruitment Centers built on top of certain locations around the map. These locations are neutral in the beginning of the map, and need to be captured by having at least one unit nearby. The beginning of the match is incredibly important as players have limited units and must try to capture and hold as many build locations as possible, both for Recruitment Centers and unit-producing buildings.
Since there are only so many locations that can hold buildings, players must decide which type of buildings to build and where to construct them. Most maps have at least some water, allowing for boats to be built and used, taking the battle from the land to the sea.
Structures can also be built on the boardgame-style map after owning a territory. The buildings have a variety of effects: some will increase the amount of gold or research points per turn, others will generate cards. Cards are strategic advantages that can be played before battles or on territories themselves. Some cards will reduce the amount of units on a territory while others will add units to the player's side during a battle or reduce the effectiveness of a specific type of unit on the enemy's team.
The RTS controls do feel a bit clunky when compared to the standards of the genre. Intermediate tactics like control groups can be utilized, but most units move way too slowly to micromanage effectively. In addition, the camera is constantly shifting position when going back and forth between RTS and dragon mode and it can be quite frustrating to constantly have to re-adjust the camera.
The true highlight of the single-player campaign is what happens in between turns, aboard a ship called the Raven. This is where the diplomatic elements come into play, as a group of five diplomats will constantly bug the player with proposals and recommendations as to how to run a country. Each diplomat represents a specific race: Undead, Elves, Dwarves, Lizards, or Imps. Making certain decisions will alter how each race feels about the player, so balancing the favor of each race becomes quite the juggling act.
The Raven is also where players will spend their research points. These points, accrued each turn, can be spent on new units and unit abilities or on new dragon abilities. Deciding where to spend research points is no easy feat, as doing so can drastically alter a playstyle. One player might want to spend heavily on their dragon, making each player-controlled battle that much easier, while someone else might want to focus on their army and let their AI generals auto-simulate the battles.
A good amount of humor is peppered throughout these interactions. One turn you may be asked to legalize an Elven herb with "healing properties" for medical use and the next you may have to pick a wife in order to form a political marriage with one of the races. There are plenty of goofy situations and decisions to be made, which are only made funnier by the fact that the council is completely serious about these proposals.
A lot of polish has gone into the interactions that take place aboard the Raven. Most of the dialogue is well written and can be genuinely funny instead of relying on cheap jokes for laughs. I continually found myself spending more and more time talking to the NPC characters simply because I wanted to read more of their dialogue.
It is, of course, also possible to take the battles online against honest-to-goodness humans. The Raven doesn't make an appearance in any multiplayer mode, since chances are people would spend forever in between turns, but its absence is made up by the presence of dragon-on-dragon battles. There are two game modes: Campaign and Skirmish, the latter of which is a single battle in the RTS-style of gameplay, without the boardgame map. The former is just like single-player but without the Raven.
The dragon battles are the clear highlight of multiplayer. Battles are no longer instantly won once the player decides to command their dragon, because the enemy player can do the same thing and fight back. The strategy shifts dramatically when a player knows that a dragon can emerge at just about any moment. Anti-air units are way more valuable as most of them, when grouped up, can take out a dragon pretty quickly. The dogfights, er, dragonfights, that can happen in the air are intense and are a true test of a player's focus, as it's even easier to forget about a ground army when using skills and dodging.
Each area and NPC looks unique and beautiful, both in terms of technical graphics power and character design. A pretty big issue for some players, though, is the lack of a colorblind mode, as the default colors of the single-player campaign are red and green. This issue persists on both the overworld map as well as mid-battle. During the battle, enemy units are labeled when far away from the camera with a red icon, but the icon goes away as they get closer for some strange reason, reverting back to the reliance on color differentiation. This is less of an issue in multiplayer, since players can choose their color.
The voice work of Divinity: Dragon Commander deserves special mention. With so many different characters aboard the Raven, the voice acting was immediately a cause for concern for me. Luckily, each character performs well and it is a joy to talk to each and every one. Sure, no one character's voice actor stands out as particularly amazing, but the sheer virtue of not having a single character grate on the nerves is not to be understated.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is a prime example of a game being bigger than the sum of its parts. The RTS elements are a bit rough, but at least it's possible to control a dragon with a freaking jetpack to blow stuff up, while the boardgame-esque territory map requires players to think of the big picture. Talking to the colorful cast of NPCs aboard the Raven in between turns in single-player was easily one of my favorite non-dragon parts of the game and really highlights the writing and wit that the Divinity series has come to be known for. The tutorial needs a lot of work and the game isn't very friendly to colorblind players, but Divinity: Dragon Commander will certainly unleash the dragon strategist in all of us.