I’m a bit stupid when it comes to bargains; can’t get enough of them. You should have seen how quickly I emptied my wallet on the Steam Summer Sale. Divinity: Dragon Commander is actually something of a bargain, even when full price. Because it is so clearly divided into 3 segments, it is more like 3 games for the price of 1. Wahoo!
This is going to be a rather large change in direction for Divinity fans. Rather than the usual RPG action, the formula has been blended with other genres into a fine soup. You now have a rather interesting mix of turn-based strategy, real-time strategy and management simulation. The main story is progressed via a strategy map which lets you take turns to shove your units around the board, taking over territories, and establishing dominance. Most battles are decided by dice throws, influenced by the strength of each army in each encounter. But for 1 battle per turn, you get the option to fight directly, with your eponymous dragon commander.
When you choose to fight yourself, you will start with some base military units, plus the option to expand over the map, building structures that will both create units, and give you the resources to do so. After a specified period of time has elapsed, you will also get the opportunity to enter the battle yourself. As the story paints you, you are a human/dragon hybrid. Although in battle you only get to play a dragon, which happens to sport an unusually powerful jetpack. So a deadly flying creature gets a useful item that helps him to…fly. Genius!
So when fighting a real-time battle, things get a whole lot more complex. You get various buildings to construct, with a vast array of possible units. And each of these units can be upgraded to have certain abilities. So some will be able to self-destruct, and wipe out surrounding enemy forces. Others can capture buildings. Others can use various tools to heal, maim, or destroy. There is no lack of tactical opportunities within the RTS game mode. But whether or not you actually get to use these is questionable.
The fly in the RTS ointment here is the very thing that makes it unique: you. Having a fireball-launching dragon to influence battles may appear to make things somewhat one-sided. The key would be to tune down the power of your dragon. But sadly that doesn’t really happen. With such a huge influence over the sway of battle, you tend to focus everything on keeping your key unit (your scaled self) destroying things. So instead of using tactical finesse, and strategic nous, you instead are funnelled towards a style of gameplay where you just need bulk behind your dragon to keep pushing the enemy.
Let’s be clear here. I completed the entire single-player campaign in the default difficulty level, without a single strategic move. I didn’t invest one iota into unit abilities. Instead I upgraded my dragon, and got some mean killer units to surround him, as well as some healer units to keep in good health. Then I simply churned out units to accompany myself as I winged my way through the enemy base. Thus, even battles that suggested I had a 5% chance of victory, I decisively turned in my favour, purely through the brute force of having a killer unit to control.
This means the single-player campaign is fairly redundant. The only battles I ever lost were ones that put me under a 5% victory chance, or ones that I didn’t get to personally control, submitting to the decision of dice. Especially since the enemy never gets to fight back with their own dragon, you can just launch devastating attacks in quick succession, and even vast armies will bow under your winged prowess. Exacerbating the situation are the facts that you get increasingly more powerful spells to give your dragon, and also the fact that even if your dragon dies, it will only takes a few seconds and resources to respawn him. The entire game is grossly unbalanced in your favour, so long as you have the faintest rudimentary idea of how to take over an RTS map.
Time for a glance at the management and diplomacy aspect of the game. Whilst the war is waged on the strategy map, at the end of each turn you will return to your ship, and be greeted with a variety of counsellors who wish to guide your judgement on the way your kingdom should be ruled. So you will constantly be making decisions such as whether to allow gay marriage, whether you wish to permit euthanasia, or whether it is morally acceptable to eat Orc meat.
Your decisions will affect your relationships with each race within the game, which will in turn affect the support they will give you. The problem being the entire management sub-game has a 100% assured method of overall success, even if it means making decisions that you as a player really don’t want to make. So take a really banal issue, and listen to your counsellors witter righteously about it, then you simply side with the majority, which will guarantee you the most success overall. Gameplay be damned, this is purely about the numbers. Admittedly it can be entertaining to hear the races spout endlessly about the hot topics, such as ‘poof nuptials’, but if you aim to progress in the game, you are never in doubt as to which decision to make. You are encouraged to sell out your values to tickle the ears of the majority if you wish to progress.
You may also be intrigued to hear of a 4th small sub-game, which deals with your marriage. You get the opportunity to wed someone from your kingdom, who will then move into your quarters with you. Various storylines and issues arise, depending on the character you choose, and you get to help them make decisions that will affect the outcome. Let’s rephrase that. You get to lead their lives for them, making every major decision, for better or for worse. You are certainly the king of this castle.
Multiplayer does ramp up the playability significantly. When fighting human generals, each will have their own dragon, and you can play with just 1 enemy, or several. This makes for some rather insane fights, with multiple dragons swirling around the skies trying to decimate each other. There are certainly a whole host of tactical opportunities opened up when fighting human opponents and you do tend to use your units abilities a bit more than in the single-player, where they were largely redundant owing to the power of your avatar. But here the playing field is levelled, so any extra edge could prove to be decisive. You can also play campaigns with other humans, which can also be fun.
One downside in multiplayer mode comes from the fact that most games appear to be hosted by one of the players. I was playing a map once with 2 other opponents. The host of the game was wiped out early on. So instead of staying so we could finish the match, he just quit out, meaning myself and the other opponent never got to finish our tussle. Lack of host migration could be a very damning flaw if it is not addressed through a patch. Also, at the time of writing there were very few people playing online, although this should hopefully change in the near future.
Divinity: Dragon Commander tries to juggle several balls at the same time. To give it fair credit, it manages to provide an entertaining, albeit simplistic experience. Each part of the 3 main game styles intersect with the other styles well. The biggest issue is that the carefully devised real-time strategy section, with lots of options and gameplay styles, is mainly rendered useless in single-player by the ease of winning with your overpowered dragon. You rarely use all the wonderful options, simply because you don’t need to. Plus there are no enemy dragons to provide a challenge. Attacking the enemies is usually like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. The squidgy remains are tasty, but you feel like a bully for being so forceful. But there is plenty of life to be had from the multiplayer, so do be sure to invest in it, especially as you get 3 games for the price of 1!
Note: The Divinity: Dragon Commander review was written based on the review code provided for the PC.