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Although Larian are known for their Divinity franchise, semi-open-world action-RPGs set in their fantasy world of Rivellon, Divinity: Dragon Commander is a somewhat unexpected entry in the series. Instead of an RPG, this game is firmly cemented in the real-time strategy genre, though it does keep several of the series' RPG trappings. Instead of a medieval fantasy world, Rivellon is now a steampunk setting full of both magic and technology. If it weren't for some of the more tenuous links in the game's lore and characters, there wouldn't be too much to mark this as a Divinity game at all.
Despite these departures from the rest of the series, however, I thoroughly enjoyed Divinity: Dragon Commander. Like many of Larian's titles, it's an eclectic mix of ideas that somehow manage to all fit together into something enjoyable and uniquely appealing, even if there are still some pretty notable problems with the raw gameplay itself.
Rivellon in Chaos
The story setup for Divinity: Dragon Commander is pretty simple. Set many decades ahead of the previous Divinity games, you play the bastard descendent of the former king of Rivellon, the union between man and shape-shifting dragon. The king is assassinated by his legitimate heirs shortly after his power begins to weaken with age, throwing the land into the flames of warfare. Yet you, the peculiar half-dragon offspring capable of transforming between human and dragon shapes at will, are instead contacted by the wizard Maxos, given a massive mechanical airship called the Raven, and told to bring peace back to Rivellon, by wiping out your warring siblings.
Although the details of the setup are slightly glossed over in the game's introduction, the game's story grows in depth, if not in scope, as the campaign moves on. Aboard the Raven, which is divided into several rooms, you spend much of your time talking with the characters who inhabit it, including your generals, the representative councilors of the land's races, and a number of others. As the game goes on, many new scripted events and incidents occur which offer brand-new dialogue trees to explore. The story beats take place entirely aboard the Raven, and some of the revelations that occur are quite interesting. Of course, you can ignore almost all of the characters and story if you wish, but you'd be missing out on the excellent prose that is much of the dialogue, and the very competent voice-acting that brings life to it (not to mention the gameplay effects these conversations can have).
While the story and characters aren't exactly full of deep lore and dark secrets, you'll be surprised to see how things can change and branch over time. While not fraught with extremely significant consequences, your decisions during dialogue will provide you both with gameplay rewards or penalties, and there's quite a bit of reactivity from the characters aboard your ship to them. When it comes time to pick a princess later in the campaign (for purely diplomatic reasons, of course), I was genuinely surprised to see how many unique events and dialogue bits this unlocked for the princess herself, and for the rest of the game's characters as well.
So, while the reactivity is, most of the time, cosmetic, Larian spared no expense to create a close-knit set of characters that feel like they are paying attention to the happenings aboard the Raven and in their empire. My only real complaint is that, while entertaining, a few of the characters are a little too on-the-nose in their personalities - for instance, Catherine's man-hating tendencies are just a bit overplayed and can get a little irritating. But, for every one character you may not like, there's likely five who you will.
Conquest and Glory
Divinity: Dragon Commander's gameplay is divided up into three parts. The first, I've already discussed, takes place on board the Raven, where you'll purchase upgrades for your troops, advance the story, and decide on matters of policy in your empire, such as whether to deport foreign criminals or allow same-sex marriages. Most of your policy decisions will have an effect on the various races of the land, whose approval ratings are tracked by frequent newspaper updates. The game leaves it up to you whether you want to try to keep the balance between all the races, or gain the favor of just one or two at the expense of the others; depending on your standing in the polls, you'll receive more money and recruits from their lands while you're fighting in them. This, to me, is moral choice done right: you'll frequently be asked to pick between what's "morally right" versus what's pragmatic during wartime, or just for society as a whole. Those questions are far more interesting than any old "good vs. evil" choices.
The second stage of gameplay is the strategic map. This one resembles a board game, with the land divided up into several provinces (both land and sea). Gameplay progresses in turns, and you'll have to make decisions on the strategic map to buy units, buildings, and invade enemy lands. It's here that you'll build gold mines to increase your revenue, send transports full of troops across the seas, or play special strategic cards that will provide temporary bonuses to you. Although things start out simply, as you move from map to map, the playing field quickly expands and it becomes very important to properly manage your unit distribution, and to know whether to attack or stay on defense.
When you do enter combat (by placing your troops in an occupied enemy territory) you'll have the choice to either have one of your generals or your army auto-resolve based on the combat odds presented. Or, you can elect to begin the third phase of gameplay, the real-time battles, by taking charge yourself. These battles are influenced by what you bring to them and where they take place on the strategic map. So, if you start the battle with a lot of Hunter units on the strategic map, you'll also start the real-time battle with a collection of them, and if you're fighting in land or sea you can expect to get an appropriate battle map too. This is further augmented by what sorts of cards you play before the battle - deploying mercenaries, special powers or penalties to the enemy can all tip the scales in your favor.
The real-time battles center around capturing various control points: building nodes and recruitment nodes. Capturing building nodes lets you create structures such as War Factories and Shipyards on top of them, and recruitment nodes allow you to build Recruitment Centers, which increase the rate at which you accumulate recruits, your primary economic resource in these battles. Each map has a maximum number of recruits to collect based upon its population, so battles won't last forever and you'll often want to be efficient in building your units and structures. Beyond these buildings, there's also a variety of turrets you can create, though I didn't find them too useful except for stalling enemy forces for a few seconds.
The units you can construct in battle are relatively stock-standard archetypes that you'll be used to if you've ever played a real-time strategy game before, but of course, they do at least have their steampunk theme to make them fresher. Troopers are your basic infantry unit who have a short, weak ranged attack, Hunters are medium units who are fast-moving and eat light-class units for breakfast, Shamans will heal and shield your friendly units, and Devastators are huge siege units that can fire from a great distance and do huge area-of-effect damage to units and buildings.
On the surface, these units and buildings are very limited; there's only about a dozen units in total, for instance, and they aren't all that exciting to use and are somewhat lacking in personality. Where things get interesting is when you start to purchase research upgrades for your units back on the Raven. By spending research points you accumulate over time, you will be able to unlock a variety of improvements and unique abilities for these units that can significantly change how you use them. For instance, Troopers can get the Spoils of War upgrade that allows them to capture enemy buildings, which is usually much faster than destroying them outright and more economical to boot, while Zeppelins can be equipped with Mustard Gas bombs, an area-of-effect denial ability. Even the relatively lowly Hunters can learn Teleportation to open up all sorts of sneak attack possibilities.
Once you get the upgrades going, the real-time battles become a lot more interesting, as your options for victory are much more varied. You'll begin to appreciate all the differences in your units, and rarely will there be a "better unit" to buy simply based on stats alone; instead the tactical applications will more likely sway your choices. Although I have read there were concerns during the beta about balance, I think those have mostly been worked out as now units are very well balanced against each other and battles tend to feel fair. However, the real-time battles are still the weakest part of the game. First, the strategy itself still isn't as unique and varied as what you would get in a full-fledged real-time strategy game. With only one "set" of units and no races shown on the battlefield, I feel an opportunity was missed for units from all races to appear, and be further influenced by your political choices. There are also no unique maps or special objectives to accomplish, which can make these battles a bit repetitive after a while. The AI is also a bit of a pushover in these real-time battles, and even buggy - for example, I occasionally witnessed it sitting idle and doing nothing for minutes at a time.
Look Ma, I'm a Dragon!
Of course, it wouldn't be a Divinity game, it seems, if you couldn't transform into a dragon, and Dragon Commander definitely lets you do just that. During real-time battles, you may sacrifice a small number of recruits to switch to "dragon mode", which lets you fly around the battle map and rain down fire from the heavens on your enemies. The controls are pretty much exactly the same as those used in Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga, Larian's previous game, so if you played that one you'll feel right at home here. You simply use WASD to move about, with up-down and directional movement handed with the mouse; skills can be used from a hotbar at the bottom of the screen. Since you're also equipped with a jetpack, you can soar around the battlefield very quickly, but only for short bursts.
There are three kinds of dragon to choose from when you start the campaign: Sabre, Mountain and Zephyr Dragons. Despite their differing appearances and descriptions, they're actually pretty much the same in terms of their raw capabilities, damage output and so on; what differs is their starting abilities. The Sabre Dragon is versatile and focuses on utility upgrades; the Mountain Dragon is big and powerful, and emphasizes skills that boost its damage and endurance; and the Zephyr Dragon is all about supporting and buffing units under its command. Each dragon will also start with a different unlocked special unit, which might influence your choice.
Aboard the Raven, you'll be able to upgrade your dragon form just like you can your units. These upgrades cover a pretty wide gamut, and include both passive boosts such as flying speed, jetpack fuel and damage resistance, but also include activated abilities that can unleash pillars of fire, charm enemy units to your side, or heal your own units. Personally, I favored unlocking new units and upgrades early during my campaign, and began to move to dragon upgrades after I felt I had the army I wanted, but I think it'd be just as possible to focus mostly on upgrading your dragon powers instead, should you want to play the battles much more like an action game.
Despite being able to fly a dragon about, this feature is actually fairly well balanced. Although you can likely tank through an anti-air attack or two, if the enemy starts building multiple anti-air turrets and enemies specifically dedicated to taking you down, then you'll find yourself being defeated in just a few seconds flat. You can always transform to dragon form again and are never permanently killed, but there's still a resource cost associated with it, so you'll still have to focus on building and commanding your army, even if it's just so you can take out those pesky Imp Fighters.
I found dragon form to be tons of fun and thought it really spiced up the real-time battles, but there are some drawbacks. Actually controlling your forces in this mode definitely takes some getting used to. You can select all your units on the map with F2 and then command them to attack-move by hitting Q and pointing at a target, or use F3 to select nearby units only; you can also use Z, X and C to swap through your various buildings and queue up unit production. However, navigating the mini-menu it opens can be a bit awkward and it definitely took me a while to get the hang of this - and if you have multiple copies of the same building it's never quite clear which one will actually create the units. On top of that, there appears to be no way to build structures in dragon form - not necessarily a bad thing, because the game still needs to provide incentive to use the standard real-time strategy mode, but I still found myself missing this feature a little bit.
Although not the most technically advanced game ever, Divinity: Dragon Commander is an attractive game thanks to some very solid art direction. Character designs aboard the Raven are unique and expressive, and the steampunk elements are bright and colorful rather than drab and brown, giving the game a consistently vibrant look. The Raven's backgrounds themselves are extremely detailed too, and it's clear a lot of work went into both the design and implementation of the airship. During the real-time battles, the graphics don't impress quite as much, though to say that the game looks bad here wouldn't be right at all; since you can freely zoom and pitch the camera around, you likely simply won't be close enough to the action to pick out all the details on the individual units, like you might be able to in other strategy games.
The game's sound also fits the bill, though at this point I feel that most games tend to have nailed sound effects work, so it's hard to comment in any way other than saying "well done." Voice acting is strong throughout, with not a single weak actor or actress, and just about every character is able to nail the personality of their written script spot-on. From Edmund, your arrogant and "racially superior" lizard commander, to the bull-headed and pragmatic General Henry, each one has just about the perfect voice for the job. The music is composed by the talented Kirill Pokrovsky, who is also responsible for the music in all the previous Divinity games. I admit, he's possibly one of my favorite game composers thanks to his somewhat eclectic style, which is used to full effect in Dragon Commander - you'll hear everything from ambient electronic keyboards, to groovy basslines, to more standard orchestral fantasy numbers, and despite the lack of real consistency they all seem to fit somehow. This might be his strongest soundtrack in a Divinity game, and his work is in no small part responsible for much of Dragon Commander's personality.
On a technical level, Divinity: Dragon Commander is extremely polished. I experienced no bugs, no crashes and no issues to speak of, other than the aforementioned AI hang-ups. I expect these will be taken care of as the game is updated in the future, and the developers themselves seem very concerned with getting the real-time strategy portions of the game up to par with the rest of it.
So, once again we have another Larian game that has all of the trademark personality and wit that makes their games so fun to play, and once again we do have a few more of the issues that their past games can be criticized for - namely, lack of depth in favor of a wide, if somewhat unusual feature set. However, I feel Divinity; Dragon Commander is their most polished game in years, though perhaps not their best. Namely, the strategy component can't stand up next to the like of dedicated strategy games like StarCraft II and Dawn of War II, due to its more limited focus, and the lack of unit variety. With more budget and development time, one images that there could have been even more interplay between the game's different phases. Even so, these issues did not unduly hurt my opinion of the game. I still had fun with it through to the end, and I imagine I'll be giving it a second play just to see all the different effects my choices will have.
At $40 USD, Divinity: Dragon Commander is priced well, though in my opinion the real sweet spot to get people to take notice would have been $30, especially with indie games offering better and better value and replayability every week. That said, for any fan of Larian's past games, I think it's well worth the money. It might not do much to impress fans of strategy games who are expecting more depth, but for RPG fans who want a game that incorporates a wide variety of gameplay styles into a cohesive, and most importantly, fun package, I don't think you can go wrong with Divinity: Dragon Commander.