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Divinity: Dragon Commander Preview

15 Jul 2013  by   Peter Parrish

The other day, someone asked me what kind of game Divinity: Dragon Commander is. I settled on “it’s all of the games,” which was neither truly accurate nor helpful as an answer, yet somehow still seems right for this title.

Like a wide-eyed child who’s planning to be King of the Firemen Footballers when he grows up, Dragon Commander gamely throws itself into being a political decision sim, an RPG, both turn-based and real-time flavours of strategy, and a third-person, dragon based, arcade shoot-em-up. Oh, plus you sometimes get cards to play, because obviously the previous sentence didn’t encompass quite enough different facets of game design already.

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Meet Lord Edmund; tactical genius, racist and Esquire Magazine’s Best Dressed Lizard Person of 1898.

In other words, Larian has gone a bit mental. The Divinity series has always been pretty happy to take on whatever form the developers fancied at the time (Divine Divinity is a top-down-ish RPG, Divinity II opted for third person questing and Divinity: Original Sin looks like it’ll be more like the original,) but this one takes that flexibility of form to a new extreme.

It’s a prequel, of sorts. You’re the half-human, half-dragon son of the former ruler, whose empire was forged by mechanised instruments of war and fell apart when the architect of those devices got the hots for the same spirit-dragon lady as your dad. All of the king’s other sons and daughters are a bit rubbish and have precisely zero dragon morphing abilities. As the child with 100% of the dragon morphing skills, it’s up to you to reunite the realm.

To do that, you need to rally generals and advisors to your cause, negotiate the complex minefield of Undead-Elf-Dwarf-Lizardperson-Imp relations and sustain a powerful enough war economy to sweep all before you. No worries, then.

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If I do, will you all leave me alone?

All of the Imperial strategising takes place on board your flagship, The Raven. It’s here that you can research technology upgrades (fuelled by tech points from your owned provinces,) sort out whatever petty problems your generals have this week, and rule on various hot-button issues such as mandatory conscription and gay marriage for Dwarves.

The decisions you make on these issues will affect your standing with the individual races and, as a knock-on effect, your popularity in specific realms. If you’re in possession of an Elven province and the tree-loving hippies think you’re lovelier than Al Gore, then you may receive bonus strategy cards to play. Anger a race too much and it will have negative consequences for your ability to raise armies and revenue.

This is Dragon Commander’s neat little way of forcing you into periodic choices of political convenience. You might not really want to ship off all foreign immigrants to far-off, shark-infested waters, but you have to throw the zealous undead a bone every once in a while. Even though they already have plenty on display.

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“Was that crack about bones directed at me? You undeadist bastard.”

After getting the turn’s affairs in order on board The Raven, it’s time to handle duties on overworld campaign map. Here, you orchestrate your next conquests, build fresh units, play certain strategy cards (to, say, double gold production in a region for a turn) and prepare, inevitably, for battle. This preview build featured the first segment of the single player campaign, which takes place on a map featuring around 15 regions or so. Later “maps” will probably be bigger and may have multiple opponents.

If the turn ends with rival units contesting a province or two, you’ll be given the option to fight a real-time battle. Even as a half-dragon, you’re only one person, so you can only personally lead your troops in one encounter per turn. Any other fights have to be handled by one of your generals or, if they’re all too busy buffing their armour, by the local militia. These are effectively auto-resolve choices, with the chance to sway matters your way by choosing the right commander for the job and perhaps distributing some mercenaries through strategy cards.

Handle the battle yourself, and Dragon Commander switches into its other main mode of play; the frenetic and hectic real-time strategy portion.

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The criss-crossing dotted lines are a wonderful touch. In fact, this whole map is gorgeous.

This too has some unique and clever properties. Any units who were present on the main campaign map will be immediately available on the battlefield. This can be a huge advantage, as it gives you the chance to hop on important locations before the enemy can even properly react. For the same reason, it’s best to avoid encounters where your foe has brought many more troops than you.

Light base construction can be undertaken at pre-designated points, allowing the building of factories and turrets and the like. These will pump out more units for you (assuming you’ve researched them back at The Raven,) but the amount a province can sustain is governed by its total population. This population pool is drained at a steady rate, which can be increased by capturing and building citadels at certain key points. Control more citadels, and you’ll be recruiting from the overall pool much quicker. Once the population is exhausted, no more construction or recruitment can take place.

Dragon Commander encourages and rewards aggressive play. While it is possible to win a war of attrition (especially when the AI gets lazy and just sends a steady stream of lone units for you to gobble up,) it’s much more likely that you’ll triumph by seizing the initiative. It’s also just common courtesy for a would-be emperor to leave a region with some semblance of a population after his visit.

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OH GOD EVERYTHING’S ON FIRE. Wait, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Phew.

Fights are fast and furious and other words beginning with F. Like fiery. They’re definitely fiery. Most of your mechanised infantry, navy and dirigibles are spitting out flames or explosives of some kind, and, just to add to that incendiary mix, you can also turn into a dragon to help out.

Yes, a quick tap of the R key will transform your classic birds-eye view of the battle into a behind-dragon perspective. This has distinct advantages. You have an Imp-created jetpack to propel you to wherever your troops need most support, a selection of (researchable) skills to aid in combat, and the default ability to belch flames at people. Since your main opposition tends to be the equivalent of trundling ovens, that’s quite useful.

However, you’re just one unit and it’s easy to get knocked out of the sky if the AI units unanimously agree that they’d rather not have a dragon burning them alive right now. Being put out of action isn’t a game over, but to get quickly back into dragon form after a “death” eats up a few of those precious recruits. Maybe literally.

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You can pull the camera back really far, which is terrific.

It’s not possible to keep up with the rapid pace of the RTS and control the dragon form at the same time. Like it or not, your attention will be constantly divided.

Memorising the hot-keys (especially the “quick select” of all your war factories) is pretty crucial to success, because you’re not going to want to have to keep clicking back there when you need to be pushing on a couple of fronts. Keeping constant pressure on key capture locations through both micro-management of your units and personal dragon harassment is the way to success. I’d imagine this will only get even more intensive and demanding in later stages of the game, where more advanced technology like airborne units become standard.

It’d be helpful, then, if Dragon Commander were to implement a couple more fine-tuned layers of unit selection. You can group up (Ctrl + number) and double click a unit to select all of that type on the map, but it’d be handy to have a more localised version too. Select all units of a type in a given radius, that type of thing. Specific options to switch off or tone down unit barks would be welcome as well. Funny the first time? Sure. Funny after more than two battles. Not so much.

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Are we winning? I … have no idea.

The worry with titles like Dragon Commander that try to span multiple genres is that one or more of the segments will suffer from this division of focus. Larian are experienced RPG developers with a flair for the absurd, so all the character-led politicking and choice/consequence decisions feel rewarding. Your choices matter, and the way they impact and interweave with activities on the overall campaign map is rather satisfying.

But the RTS sections may need further tweaking. Though they’re entertaining and frantic (even on the optional slower speed,) there’s a possibility that the demands of having your attention pulled all over the battlefield every two seconds will eventually detract from what actually appears to be quite a tactical, micro-heavy system. There’s a pleasing tension between the need to concentrate on devious unit plotting and swashbuckling dragon attacks, but it risks overwhelming the elements which feel as if they require a slower pace.

Still, no-one could accuse Dragon Commander of being in any way halfhearted in its efforts. It’s enthusiastic, uninhibited and actually makes being trapped in airbourne command center with a racist lizardman somewhat appealing.

Dragon Commander will be released on 6 August.

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