(PC Review) Divinity: Dragon Commander

Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
Genre: Strategy / Action-RPG
Players: 1-4
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Minimum Requirements:
Intel Core2 Duo E6600, 2 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT (512 MB) or ATI Radeon HD 4850, 15 GB Hard Drive space

Larian Studios made a big splash with their role-playing debut Divine Divinity. Released in 2002, the pseudo-open-world action-RPG combined the interactive elements of Ultima VII and the action of Diablo, making for a uniquely ambitious entry into the genre. Since then, the studio has expanded the series to include Beyond Divinity, something of a side story within the universe, and later a full-fledged sequel, Divinity II: Ego Draconis. Larian added more personality with each title, including more humor and expanded mechanics to go beyond potion-quaffing and button-mashing; eventually, this grew to include a Battle Tower from which to operate and the ability to turn into a dragon, shifting the genre from role-playing game to third-person shooter. The culmination of their experimentation has led to their latest release, Divinity: Dragon Commander, a hybrid action, strategy, and role-playing title that takes players all the way to the beginning of the Divinity universe. As with the initial release of its series predecessor Ego Draconis, the out-the-box experience sees a lot of great ideas and excellent moments marred by uneven execution.

Set before the era of Dragon Knights, Dragon Commander has players take control of an illegitimate son of the recently deceased emperor who is in a fight for his life to defeat his corrupt siblings and become ruler of the realm. The emperor’s other children have turned into despots, sacrificing themselves and their people for supreme power. They are using their steampunk-styled technology to wage war with one another from bases of power scattered across three maps, with each map representing one act of the storyline. The player has friends as well, but for a slightly different reason: his unique ability to transform into a dragon. A dragon that wears a jetpack. That kind of power is sure to inspire a modicum of confidence, even if only enough to receive token recognition at the outset of the campaign.

The various races of the land have thrown in their respective lots with every contender, and onboard the player’s airship, the Raven, there are generals and representatives of each of the realm’s races: Dwarves, Elves, Man, Imps, Lizards, and Undead. Each ambassador will do what they can to persuade the player to side with them in arguments of issues ranging from same-sex marriage to public breast feeding, state-sponsored education, and genetically modified foods, and it’s up to the player to walk a fine line between satisfying their allies’ demands and following their conscience. Generals also have to be handled delicately, as they can be called upon to lead forces in battle; players can only partake in one battle per round, and the four hirable generals are far more skilled than the catch-all Imperial Army option. All of these characters are open for interaction between combat, in addition to Maxos, a sage wizard who will guide players to the throne. Along the way, this upstart army will be expanded with new units and upgrades provided by Imp engineers, while the player will gain new powers with the assistance of Maxos. But before players can amass an intimidating host and terrifying powers, they need the necessary resources.

The two currencies of the realm, money and research, are only attained by holding land that generates them. Those same lands also provide the recruits that make up the campaign armies and the battlefield armies. Campaign armies are units purchased on the overworld map, and appear at the start of battle and require none of that province’s recruits. These units can only be purchased with a war factory present, but factories can only be constructed if money is available. Money is procured automatically by holding territory, but the amount required to fund a conquering requires sums attainable only through the use of mines, which generate more wealth per turn for the province they are constructed in. Not every province is fit for each building, however, as some generate more wealth, others more research, and others more manpower. If the province’s specialty isn’t required, then players can construct buildings that generate strategic playing cards. There are a variety of cards, all of which are randomly attained, including those that bestow mercenary units, dragon powers, unit advantages, and subversive types that harm enemy units and production. This setup is reminiscent of the system found in Rise of Nations, with players moving their chits around a RISK-style map and utilizing cards from their collection before ending their turn and facing any enemy units in real-time combat. The difference in Dragon Commander is that the decisions made at council meetings affect what takes place on the map. For instance, a province dominated by a faction happy with the player’s decisions will have an increased popularity percentage and will offer more support during battle in the form of recruits; also, if the player approved conscription, overworld units will be cheaper to construct. The tangible benefits (and repercussions) from interacting with the emissaries adds a fascinating element to the game, but they are fairly minimal in both number and impact.

Battle is joined when units of opposing factions are within the same province. Combat can begin between several factions at the same time, and the probability of winning is displayed in a pre-battle screen that allows for cards to be played and the commander chosen in order for players to see how the changes will impact the upcoming engagement. If the odds don’t look good, then retreating might be the best course of action; however, I nearly always lost units when retreating, so don’t count on pulling out unscathed. I found that the probability didn’t always end in a result that they indicated. If neither the player nor any generals have taken part in a battle, then all options are available: dragon (the player), the four commanders, and Imperial Army (auto-resolve). Only unit cards make a significant impact on the odds of winning, and those subverting enemy units and offering bonuses to allied units seem to have little sway. Generals also increase the odds of winning. In some cases, though, with all five card slots filled, a general on the field, and an 87% chance of success, I would still lose some. Granted, it wasn’t 100%, but even the handful of losses I suffered at that disparity was alarming. If a situation is too precarious to count on a general or the army’s faceless lieutenants, then it’s time to send in the dragon.

Combat begins with each faction in a starter base, with foundations to build defensive structures (anti-ground, anti-air, or mortar turrets), recruitment centers, harbor structures (an aerofactory or a shipyard), or a training facility (battle forge, war factory, or an aerofactory). Not all of the foundations are claimed, so after taking hold of a few foundations with the starting units—if no units are stationed on the map, the attacking faction automatically takes the province—it’s a mad dash for the chokepoints and recruitment centers. Maps look bigger than they are, with barriers blocking units from wandering outside the battlefield, but most have a chokepoint or two that funnel units to the base foundations. Recruitment centers constantly increase the player’s potential pool of recruits, so controlling more centers allows for more units to be trained faster. This is also where popularity plays a role, as players also need the support of the populace to recruit units. It’s possible to have recruits left but not the support to train them. Despite being a sound system, it can often be anticlimactic in practice.

In many respects, Dragon Command suffers from Supreme Commander Syndrome. Both games feature designs that focus around each side pumping out dozens of bland units to slam against one another, only this game doesn’t offer a consistently accessible control scheme. It’s surprising how humdrum the unit design can be given its steampunk influence, and the scale of combat is often such that the camera must be zoomed out to the point to where everything turns into basic units or unit-specific icons. Zooming in helps to make things look more exciting, but it’s too easy for victory to slip away when the view doesn’t allow for a solid grasp on the battlefield as a whole. There are some irksome design decisions as well, such as airborne units that aren’t actually designated as airborne by the game but as land- and water-based units. This kind of ambiguity is really frustrating. Another problem is an ability called Spoils of War for the fast-moving Trooper, which allows them to capture structures way too quickly, especially—and incredibly—the very defense turrets that should be the primary means to stop them. The special abilities that units possess can be difficult to counter as the AI is quick to take advantage of them while the player is zipping around the map trying to put out fires. This is made even more difficult by a default speed that is ridiculously fast, necessitating a quick trip to the options screen to bring the pace down to “slow.” Remaining vigilant to halt such attacks before they are launched would be the best course of action, but it’s not always possible given the player’s AI units and the limited scope of control offered when in dragon mode.

The dragon form is as tricky as it is deadly. Three different types of dragons are available to choose from when setting up new session, with each offering four researched technologies—three for the dragon and one unit—available out of the gate. Research points can be spent towards passive, target, and area-of-effect powers, and all share the same toolbar, so careful selection is necessary when picking what to equip; however, this is offset somewhat by the helpful ability of being able to create several custom toolbars. After a few upgrades, dragons can turn the tide of battle, but maintaining a solid grip on the army and control of combat momentum becomes tougher the longer the form is maintained. An initial countdown goes into effect at the beginning of each battle to keep players from immediately assuming the form, and a recruit cost acts as a check throughout the rest of the match. Those are fair restrictions, but I found the temptation to change tempered by the knowledge that I would need to quickly switch back to commander mode unless I had the army set up to counter as many contingents as possible. Leaving the battle up to the AI for too long results in a lot of headaches, such as units hanging in the back of a cluster and not returning fire while others wander out of position into an ambush, handfuls of enemy Troopers taking buildings and turrets, enemies turning friendlies into beetles without allied units countering—the list goes on. Control while in dragon form is basic, limited as it is to three options: all units, only nearby units, and units within the area of the targeting reticle, the latter being too unwieldy to confidently rely on. However, even with the streamlined control options, trying to move units around in the heat of battle is like trying to herd cats. I found myself constantly struggling to come to terms with a design that calls for sending dozens of units into combat with a control scheme that struggles when commanding more than a handful at a time.

The game offers some really exciting moments whenever it’s safe to morph into the dragon. One moment in particular stood out that showed what the system offers whenever the situation allows, with battleships firing volleys into the enemy’s base overhead as I boosted around, swooping down to strafe the narrow corridor I had forced the enemy into by using siege cannons to funnel them into a narrow entrance guarded by a mass of soldiers. Acid ate away the larger units after a massive roar paralyzed them with fear. The enemy had been softened beforehand with several subversive cards and my initial squad augmented by mercenaries called in by using troop cards. For as frustrating as it might get, Dragon Commander can offer a potent mixture that is capable of producing some fantastic battles.

For as much combat as there is, a substantial amount of the game will be spent aboard the Raven. Similar to StarCraft II, players can move around their headquarters and handle a variety of tasks, such as redressing any issues with their generals at the bar, upgrading units in engineering, voting on matters in the throne room, consulting with the queen in her chambers, and discussing more esoteric subjects with Maxos in the private study. In stark contrast to the unit designs, the generals and ambassadors absolutely shine with personality thanks to humorous and varied dialogue, great voice overs, and charming animations. Navigating a path between the bickering generals and a council that includes religious conservatives (Undead), robber barons (Dwarves), insane inventors prone to accidents (Imps), empire-sponsoring- and nudity-loving liberals (Elves), and prudish stiff-upper-lippers (Lizards) is filled with funny arguments, tricky scenarios, and chances to imprint a bit of oneself in the world.

The best way to learn the game’s many facets is by playing through the three-act story. Unfortunately, it has an uneven pacing that can result in some rough goings if units and abilities aren’t researched in the optimal order so as to best keep pace with the enemies’ advancements. It’s also possible to stockpile money and research to pour into newly unlocked items when moving into the next act, which can lead to players advancing so quickly that they then dominate the enemy. This happened in the final act of the game when I steadily rolled the enemy back to supreme victory with only a single defeat after unleashing the full force of my bulging treasury. This demolishes the entire system of research point-allocation steadily introducing new units and unit upgrades, and can make the game overwhelming for the first few attempts. Also available is a Custom Campaign option that strips out the story structure, but players still have to vote in council sessions, placate generals, and scoff at campaign updates from the scandalous Rivellon Times newspaper. The queen, however, is chosen before the game begins rather than during the campaign itself, a noteworthy event in the storyline, and it’s really their scenarios that will offer the biggest differentiation from the story campaign, as most of the issues that come up in the throne room or bar are addressed in the first playthrough. Skirmish is also available, which strips out the Raven portion entirely. Jostling for position on the world map and engaging in a few battles is enjoyable for a while, but single-player only really shines when the game is played in its entirety.

For those wanting a completely different challenge, both Skirmish and Campaign multiplayer modes are supported. Multiplayer Skirmish differs from the single-player variant in that there is no map portion, just battlefield combat. Units are unlocked, but their upgrades must be researched. Research is done through a menu and is treated as if it is a unit being recruited, pulling from the same recruitment pool and slotted alongside training units in the production queue of whichever facility is undertaking the research. Two to four players can fight against or alongside the AI in nearly 50 maps. Campaign Multiplayer also supports up to four players, but the map count is much lower at six. It’s a good thing that AI play is supported because there aren’t many people playing online, and many hosts restrict the other teammates to the computer. The upside is that other humans will be just as prone to losing control of their forces in dragon form, but the downside is that it can be tough to get a game going.

As with Divinity II: Ego Draconis, Divinity: Dragon Commander has many wonderful ideas that are too frequently unevenly executed. Larian, a small studio, continued to work on and improve Ego Draconis after its release, culminating in an enhanced re-release that addressed many of the original’s issues, so there is hope that Dragon Commander will benefit from the same level of devotion. As it stands now, however, Dragon Command is an ambitious game whose grand ambitions were only partly realized, with some fantastic characters and scenarios set within a framework that includes uneven pacing, fledgling control scheme, and so-so real-time strategy combat.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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