Divinity: Dragon Commander seems overly ambitious. Starting life as a boardgame, before evolving into a RTS/RPG hybrid with jetpack and rocket-equipped dragons, it’s promising a lot. Robbie Palmer investigates to see if the reality matches the legend…
Everyone knows Dragons are pretty awesome: the jury’s not out on that. The problem with the mythical, flying creatures, however, is they’re rarely fun in the context of a game. Even the Dragons of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which succeeded in capturing the scope and awe of the creature, felt underwhelming whilst in combat.
Dragon Commander strips all previous conventions of the mythical creature and decides to go for a jet pack-fuelled absurdity. Gone are the fire-breathing attributes of yore, replaced by a never-ending barrage of missiles and rockets; you can even fire a nuke – not exactly the most traditional-interpretation. Essentially, think Falcor of The NeverEnding story, but a hella more pissed off.
The game blends RTS and RPG, allowing you to switch between the two, as you either control the battlefield from the strategic position of general of swoop down as a dragon and get up-close-and-personal. The RTS matches I experienced were all territory-based. Controlling more areas of the map meant more currency for units and more areas to produce units from, and battles were over very quickly due to a set amount of resources constraining their length.
Separating the RTS elements of multiplayer is a Risk-like map, an outlook of Dragon Commander’s world and the territories occupied. Units move as pawns on a map similar to the Total War series. The developers stated that the game originally started as a boardgame prototype, before evolving into what it is today: assumedly the map overview remains as an artefact of what could’ve been.
Just add rockets
With the ability to transform into a dragon at any stage, the game actively encourages you to debilitate your enemies’ crafted army. At no point are you yelling orders out as a literal Dragon Commander, meaning a more fitting title probably would’ve been Dragon/Commander.
What’s great about playing as the dragon is that you barely feel in control: this is strange praise, but it adds to the feeling that you are part of a wider-ranging army, as well as contributing to the frantic nature of combat that you’d expect having strapped a jetpack to a dragon. Attached jets propel you quickly across the battlefield at a dizzying pace, meaning you have a barely coherent understanding of the battle in this mode.
Divinity: Dragon Commander would benefit from transitioning effects between the RTS side of things and becoming a dragon. It’s unspectacular the way you simply spawn as your winged-destroyer-of-homesick-grunts. There needs to be more fanfare, something that embraces the silliness of what you’re actually partaking in. By the time the game is released, I dearly hope you are greeted with something just as absurd as the premise upon transforming; perhaps ‘DRAGON TIME’ emblazons your screen, along with multiple explosions and an action-film voiceover, to emphasise just how ridiculous controlling the dragon truly is.
The biggest danger Dragon Commander faces is balancing. At this stage, dragons seem considerably overpowered compared to other standard units. Dragons belittle the other units, bullying various squads by raining down rockets. Larian Studios have the difficult task of preserving the powerful feeling that accompanies a dragon and the impact they should rightfully have on the battlefield, while making the fight doesn’t become unbalanced and unfair whenever one pops up. Not an easy task, by all means.
The single-player aspect has a hub similar to Starcraft, in which you’re placed on a mothership. Talking to characters within the ship gives a strong Mass Effect vibe, with Larian Studios claiming to have similarly consequential dialogue trees. Not only will the choices you make between battles eventually affect the combat itself, but they’ll also affect the outcome of the ending.
Talking to these characters briefly unveils democratic issues true to real life: feminism, abortion and same-sex relationships arise. Whilst I admire Larian Studios’ ambition in tackling such heavy subject matters, it remains unclear whether these key issues won’t feel out of place in a game where you barrage steampunk armies with jetpack-fuelled dragons.
Dragon Commander currently feels like an ambitious pipe-dream fuelled by dragon-loving 12-year-old imaginations. Its main goal of delivering insane dragon combat is clear, but the raft of other features make that pure vision feel convoluted. Many of these ideas probably would’ve been cut by a publisher, and while the power of Larian Studios to self-fund and self-direct is to be admired, it could end up being their downfall if Divinity: Dragon Commander ultimately suffers from a case of not being able to say no, and embracing everything to its cost.
Divinity: Dragon Commander, from Larian Studios, is due out for PC and Mac during Q1 2013.