By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), MMOHuts/OnRPG's Mountain Dragon
Politics has always been a draw and a hindrance on the gaming industry. And no I’m not talking about congressional policies crafted by old white men that still use AOL as their homepage. I mean the attempt of luring young active politically driven men and women into a realm where policies matter and have actual impact on the gameplay. The MMORPG field is littered with failed attempts of such features and truly the only success seems to exist in the realm of real-time and turn based strategy games like Civilization and Rise of Nations. Yet even these tended to build their success more on historical politics rather than touchy edgy modern ideals still up for debate.
Thankfully a relatively unknown indie studio out of Belgium had the sense to build the backstory of their longstanding Divinity series of games as the stage for both addressing modern political controversies and creating one hell of an FPS RTS hybrid title. This is the tale of Larian Studios and how they won my heart over with one of the most innovative buy to play multiplayer titles of our time, Divinity: Dragon Commander.
Now I’m not going to waste time explaining the basics as I have laid them out in the past after a small press demo near my office in Santa Monica. You can learn all about the typical round of gameplay from my article here as well as see it in action in one of Larian’s promotional videos.
What it Lacks
Now that you’re educated on what Dragon Commander brings to the table, we’re ready to talk about where it falls short. Now as I stated Larian Studios is quite indie. How indie? Their next title Divinity: Original Sin required Kickstarter funding just to be made. This shows through in a few key points of Dragon Commander.
For one, there is the semblance of a character customizer when beginning a new game, whether it be single or multiplayer. Unfortunately this breaks down to merely being a color code for your units and national borders, a name, and the selection of one of three dragon types. And while the three dragons look incredible and I hope to see DLC adding new options in eventually (or perhaps even a real character creator!), there are no actual stats setting them apart. In fact the only difference that will persist into the gameplay at all is an advanced level dragon skill that’s not acquirable until chapter 2 of the main story. In multiplayer this limitation doesn’t exist at all.
On the note of stories, the game consists of conquering your enemies across a large variety of maps that will force you to make proper use of land, sea, and air units to out maneuver and out plan your foes. However, the strategy maps look about as plain as a Civilization II map. Now granted the UI on these maps are fantastic and perform their function flawlessly. However it would have been nice to see a little terrain or perhaps a tad bit of animation within the oceans and land. Even some weather effects could have added that bit of touch to make this section seem on par with the quality presented in the other two modes. Instead you’ll just be able to zoom in and look at your painted figurines standing around on a Risk gameboard.
Once in the actual battle phase (pertaining to single player only), another issue is the ability to only partake in one battle at a time. Any other battle will require you to pay one of your animated and highly stereotypical generals to fight on your behalf in what breaks down into a series of hidden dice rolls weighted based on overall unit composition. I would kill to see my overconfident lizard general Edmund get his face smashed in on the battlefield. Unfortunately I’m delegated to watching his units budge and disappear with a monotonous explosion sound as the coup de gras.
Now someone considering if they should buy the game might see this wall of text and take a step back. Perhaps second guess their purchase plans? Nay I say, Nay! For each element Dragon Commander is lacking in, it makes up for 10 fold in other areas.
I am Dragon, Hear me Roar!
Whether playing with friends, fighting random strangers online, or just duking it out with the AI featuring vastly adjustable difficulties (ranging from so easy your baby nephew can hang to hard enough to make you throw your monitor out the window), you won’t deny the RTS elements of this game are superb! Sure it might not be the next masterpiece to one up Starcraft with perfect balance between three separate unique factions. But by utilizing a tech tree that I’ll touch upon later, it forces would be tacticians to learn to adjust their strategy on the fly to account for facing foes with superior technological advantages, unfair number advantages, and adept enemy dragons bringing an array of skills, passives, and auras with enough diversity to make recently closed fantasy MMORPGs cry green envious tears.
Flying as a dragon across the open battlefield is another piece of the puzzle that makes combat so satisfying. Ever hated that feeling of staring helplessly knowing your opponent had outwitted you? It’s not enjoyable to sit by clicking buttons feebly knowing there is nothing more you can do to turn a battle around. Well in Dragon Commander you have the option to go down swinging by fighting right alongside your final battalion, launching fireballs, heals, and other buffs in an attempt to turn the tide in your favor. And Larian has found what I believe to be the ideal level of power and skill cap to make dragon fighters a viable strategy in RTS warfare. Plus who doesn’t love the feeling of charming an enemy juggernaut and making it launch an Imp Bunker Buster into the enemy’s capital?! That was all dragon, baby!
One common complaint about the non-dragon related combat is that most maps turn into a battle to see who can spam the most units to overcome their foe. This I feel is rather exaggerated and directly countered with the low population count on most maps. Population represents a shared resource required to do everything from building buildings and units to summoning and resummoning your dragon. Eventually you’ll find the map has hit complete zero and every unit you have counts. This is when special researched abilities like the devastator’s siege mode will separate the men from the dragon commanders. And blindly running a few unit types into a prepared enemy will leave your forces looking like Swiss cheese while your enemy stomps all over you.
The FPS elements make for quite the interesting test of action and reaction battles. Dragon commanders would be wise to hotkey specific unit groups they have researched active power-ups for such as the flying white mage brigade (Shamans essentially representing the hilarious concept of loading white mages into the Good Year Blimp). The Shamans can then be taught to cure allied troops of the various disables such as sabotage and even turning them into giant ladybugs.
Your Juggernaut is now a lady bug. I win!
Overall the combat is quick, painless, and offers just enough of an adrenaline rush between major political decisions and turns of Risk to keep the game pumping at full throttle without scaring off the players that prefer the diplomacy or strategy aspects of the game.
I don't know if anyone can understand this madness...
A Little R&R with your Morality Check
While the combat might be excellent against AI and simply incomparable when dealing with multi-dragon multiplayer matches, I will bluntly state that it’s the single player campaign that keeps me coming back for more. The field graphics are nice but the character models aboard your flying flagship, The Raven, are AAA tier. Seeing fantastical elves, undead, dwarves, imps, and lizards converse in fully voiced dialogue complete with facial mapping technology is about as good as it gets for drawing you into the believable political intrigue of the world of Rivellon. The dwarven equivalent of Fox news arriving in newspaper form at the end of each battle to ridicule and exaggerate your every decision and battle outcome is just icing on the overly liberal elf wife… err cake.
Not only does the wizard Maxos play the perfect part of both father figure and tutorial guidance counselor, but each and every cast member to join your ship offers a spark of originality mixed with overdone clichés to keep you laughing, and cringing from round to round. I can say there were a few times when standing at the round table of races that I felt legitimately pressured by the politicians around me and the impact their backing might have on my world map and RTS war efforts. The lizard politician Prospera in particular even made me feel like a bad person after declining universal health care to save a few gold/turn for my empire. Good for her!
Representative of the lizards by day, the Dragon Commander's nagging mother by night!
And universal health care will be among some of the lesser controversies you as the Dragon Commander will be faced with. From the aftermath of your wife getting a room full of councilors high while passing laws, to facing controversial decisions on euthanasia, gay marriage, and corporal punishment, this game keeps you guessing! It takes a pretty cold hearted or just socially isolated player to not get wrapped up in the excitement and nail biting action of choosing between your personal beliefs and what you believe will be best for your empire.
And that’s the best part! The RTS and Risk elements of gameplay are impacted in serious ways from each action you make. Demoralize the population with an iron fist and suddenly you’ll find yourself hard pressed to find population willing to occupy your machines of war. Carry too heavy of a heart towards the plight of the helpless and you may end up wondering how your empire’s coffers ended up so empty. Make friends in high places and you’ll find your battles won before you begin with powerful cards that can bolster your forces, cripple your enemies, and even blow up a parliament building for laughs. Alienate a particular racial faction and soon you’ll find stiff resistance waiting in nations heavily populated by their ilk. The decision is both yours to make, and yours to face the repercussions of.
Final Verdict: Excellent
While Dragon Commander is rough around the edges and takes some getting used to, especially with the unique RTS controls, in the end it delivers with the force of a dragon powered by a jetpack. The multiplayer is ideal for both quick engagements with strangers on small maps as well as long drawn out campaigns with close friends. The Raven political engagements, world map strategizing and guns versus butter decisions it entails, and the fast and furious FPS RTS battles all properly support each other to provide for a solid game unlike anything I’ve played before or expect to soon experience again. And Larian has offered enough tid bits between various wife storylines, multitudes of political ventures, and unpredictable AI to keep the replayability factor quite high. If the concept of this title entices you in the slightest, I assure you, you won’t be disappointed by making the purchase.
Graphics: 4/5 – Some slight optimization issues keeping me from running the game on the recommended “ultra” setting along with the bland world map prevent me from giving this beautiful title a perfect score.
Controls: 4/5 – Being a dragon can be slightly wonky from time to time. That said after a month of practice I’m sure the dedicated will be flying aerial formations while simultaneously commanding troops.
Features: 5/5 – Between trading cards, voice acted political drama, four diverse marriage storylines, a sinister plot, the beautifully imagined merge of FPS and RTS elements, and an advanced form of Risk that will leave your sweating, it’s hard to think of what more Larian Studios could have done to improve in this field.
Customization: 3/5 – Personal character customization might blow, but the far stretching impacts of your decisions on both politics and research can help a player create a fascinating and original empire whether in single player or multiplayer.
Community: 2/5 – While I can’t say I’ve met any hot-heads while playing, it’s likely in part to the small number of players online. I can’t blame Larian though. Their single player is just so addicting that it’s hard to find extra free time for multiplayer. Bring some friends though and give it a shot as quadra dragon battling is not to be missed!