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Dragon Commander: weird, flawed, but courageous indie

Sunday, 18th August 2013 22:51 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Brenna surfaces briefly from under a pile of sequels and uninspired clones clutching a copy of one of the weirdest games we’ve seen in ages – Divinity: Dragon Commander.

I’m rubbish at real-time strategy and do pretty much everything I can to avoid it, but when I found out Divinity: Dragon Commander was all about flying around as a dragon with a jetpack, I knew I had to check it out.

Dragon form allows the commander to zip about the battlefield, firing streams of fire and other special skills, including healing fields, buffs and debuffs, while narrowly avoiding ranged attacks. It’s a little bit like having a hero unit, as in Warcraft 3 or similar, but feels more action-y. This resolves one of the major issues I have with strategy games (and MMOs, for that matter), which is that I often feel like I’m not really involved in the fight.

On the other hand, it’s pretty distracting. I struggled to master the arcane art of controlling units while in dragon form, although I’ve heard other, more experiences keyboard warriors had a better time with it, and I didn’t get around to fiddling with the key bindings. I would often forget that I was supposed to be building resources and attacking strongholds with my armies, preferring to chip away slowly at the enemy with my jetpack-wearing dragon; this usually didn’t end very well for any of us, although the enemy quite liked it. Reincarnating your dragon form after you’ve been blasted from the skies isn’t cheap, either. Those of you with longer attention spans may have a better time here.

I feel like Dragon Commander might have worked better with turn-based battles, where you could opt to participate and alter your chances in specific battles in dragon form – as it is, it’s all a bit overwhelming. The joy of flapping about as a dragon has to take a back seat to tactics and management, and for hardcore strategy fans, all the dragon stuff is likely to be distracting. It’s not an easy game, even when you do get the hang of it all.

There is a turn-based element, actually, as between real-time battles you tootle about the map in a ship attempting to keep the empire united. The game is well entrenched in the Divinity lore and the single-player story is quite interesting; there’s even an element of life-sim in there, with your choice of princesses. Occasionally your advisors ask your opinion on a matter of state, and it can be tricky to keep everyone happy, but these little sections are filled with humour and personality.

This shizzle is funnier than it has any right to be. Piss off the lizard
woman in this interactive trailer for maximum chuckles.

A fairly agile indie, I don’t think Larian needs to sell a great many copies of Dragon Commander to make its effort worthwhile. This is a good thing, because it’s going right under the radar. Even in the current console release drought, the approach of the next-gen transition is starting to suck in gamer attention. Europe has always been kinder to strategy, PC gaming and homegrown development, but gamescom will be dominated by new consoles this year. On top of that, we’re coming into triple-A release season, and must prepare for the inevitable barrage of sequels and clones which, lord love them, turn up every year and have been especially egregious for the last few.

Dragon Commander isn’t perfect, but it’s weird experiments like this that lay the foundations for new genres, and when the console transition injects some cash back into the industry we should start to see the indie revolution begin to bear fruit inside mainstream games. If you have any hipster aspirations, don’t wait; check it out now, and get in on flying-dragon-shooter-RTS-empire-building-life-sims before they were cool.

Divinity: Dragon Commander is available now for $40 on PC via GOG.com and Steam.

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5 Comments

  1. bpcgos

    Very want to try this, although I’m much more fond with strategy games closer with Ground Control, Warzone 2100 or warhammer 40k stereotype but at least its worth a try due to its dragon

    #1 1 year ago
  2. TheWulf

    I have a love-hate relationship with this game.

    I love the vibrant, magitech setting.

    I hate how the combat segments feel like a MOBA game with an RTS interface awkwardly jammed on top of it in a ham-fisted way. It feels as though they designed it as a MOBA then changed their minds at the last moment. (The AI works with blobs who follow clearly defined paths, there’s a hero character with abilities, and so on.) It’s jarring.

    I love the politics.

    I hate how the most important choices of the game aren’t actually choices — you can’t choose to not have a partner, you can’t choose a partner of a different gender, you can’t tell Maxos that you don’t want to destroy all technology, and so on.

    I love the turn-based Risk map.

    I hate how some battles must be auto-completed by a general, when it would be much more fun if every general had their own dragon form, so that you could go into some battles as yourself, and others as your generals. (The concept art even shows all the generals as having their own dragon forms.)

    I love the character building, and plot…

    Right up until Act III, which I hated because it turns into a generic mess of saving the world from demonic corruption.

    Love.

    Hate.

    Love.

    Hate.

    Love.

    Hate.

    Love.

    Hate.

    Love.

    Hate.

    Love.

    Hate.

    D8<

    FFFFFFFFFFFffffff

    I can see so much potential in Dragon Commander, and if certain things were fixed it could be one of those games that I'd award 100% to and love it for eternity. But there are also things that I wish to forget, and erase from my memory to never have to encounter again.

    I haven't been this torn about a game in the longest time.

    I kind of want to throttle it for being so close to being amazing, but then squandering that and being so completely and irredeemably awful in parts. I want to hug it and stab it. I want to put it upon a pedestal and polish it, and I want to kick it into a pit of snakes and explosive lemons.

    This game. This. Damn. Game.

    I guess I'm so passionate because I can see why this game could be legendary, but at the same time I want to spend an hour with the nice folks and Larian and I in the same room so that I can scream at them about bad design choices.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. TheWulf

    Oh, and Brenna, don’t feel bad. I completely agree with you about the unit management and how it just doesn’t feel right, and how it just takes so much effort to get used to. To me, the unit micromanagement feels too much like busy work that could be handled by an AI.

    I actually have some suggestions as to how they could vastly improve the combat sections, and I might as well list them here, eh?

    * The building of units is handled by the AI, what units are available though are still decided by the player via research options.

    * Unit movement, attacking, and powers are controlled by an allied AI, but what the units can do is (again) decided by the player via research options.

    * Have enemy-controlled dragons of different types, so each battle includes an enemy dragon.

    * Construction of buildings is handled by the player from the dragon view, so that RTS mode never has to be activated.

    * The allied and enemy AI behaves in a similar way to how the enemy AI does in the game right now, but a small entourage of units is assigned to both player and enemy dragons by their respect AI controllers.

    * Have both the Raven and an enemy flying fortress on the battlefield as attackable targets with an energy bar. Both the Raven and the enemy fortress have a cadre of flying supports that come with them by default. The match is won by taking out the player/enemy fortress. Captured points provide new offensive and defensive boons to the fortress.

    * Give the generals each their own dragon, with different abilities and stats to the player dragon.

    I’ve spent a long time thinking on how to make the combat sections fun, and I’m still thinking about it. But to me, this seems like it would solve a lot of the problems that make the RTS section feel so… well, awful right now.

    And I’m not even just being jaded. I want this game to be amazing. I really hope Larian open it up to modding.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. silkvg247

    @Wulf

    Conversely (and because we’re all different) I loathe anything MOBA with a passion, I find the removal of micro management an insult to the senses, and allowing the AI to progress along a map with you controlling one single component.. it’s just.. I don’t see how such detached gameplay ever got to be so popular. One dude with what, four actions. But you can buy stuff! And there’s tactics because you need your team to put the right heroes in the right place.. which means moving one whole dude, to one whole place. And then hoping you win the rock paper scissors game against your opponent.

    It genuinely worries me that such dumbed down gameplay is so well received, because it will drive developers to continue to strip away core gameplay elements, until we’re left with a screen with a button that we need to press to win.

    Dragon commander is a step in the right direction, but they need to fix some control niggles. For me it’s more or less fine, I am comfy swapping to RTS for a cpl seconds when I need to but I find I’m forced to also use RTS mode to command my troops – the default “select visible” doesn’t work, I can literally only use “select all” which isn’t suitable for my tactical plans. ;)

    #4 1 year ago
  5. TheWulf

    To each their own.

    Frankly, this is why I supported modding, I do believe I said that in my posts. This way, we can each have it the way we like it. And I wish more games supported modding so that this could be so.

    How many times has one to come across that game which could represent sublime perfection, only to be savagely let down by some frankly dumb design choices? To be so close to joy and comfort, and then to have it taken away not by the strange and the exotic (which can be comforting in and of themselves), but simply that a choice was made contrary to the nature of the game.

    For me, I believe the game needs to be a MOBA because it has the underbelly of a MOBA with an RTS atop it, trying to hide this nature. For you, you see the RTS atop and wish that the rest of the experience lived up to this first impression. With modding, we’d each get what we want.

    Though frankly, whilst not fond of MOBAs, I have to say that the notion of an airborne MOBA is a beguiling one. I could see the makings of a MOBA unlike any that had ever come before in Dragon Commander, and perhaps that’s what’s so infuriating. To forego something that’s never been done before just so that it can uphold the tenets of RTS ground trod by thousands before?

    Well, those are my feelings. As I said, with modding, we could each have our own take.

    To modding, then.

    #5 1 year ago

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