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Divinity: Dragon Commander Review

If you asked for a game that combined strategy maps, important political decisions that affected your country's economical and social climate, and dragons with jetpacks, some might say you were asking too much. But throw in some real-time battles, an ultra-feminist, a lizard with a monocle and a steampunk/fantasy setting, and you're beginning to get a picture of the ambitious mish-mash that Divinity: Dragon Commander attacks with great gusto and, luckily for us, competence.

You are the last emperor's bastard child. Your three siblings rose against him, murdering him and turning Rivellon into the battlefield of a three-way civil war. Maxos, your father's friend, finds you and requests you also make a claim for the throne, but being an illegitimate child, it's a little difficult getting people to back you. Luckily, you won't have to join the Night's Watch, because your mother was a dragon.

That's right, you're a Dragon Knight, which means you can turn into a dragon and ravage small Scandinavian villages in your spare time. Not really. But you can turn into a dragon, and it does mean that people start paying attention to your conquests. A growing cast of characters crown you emperor as your ship fills with generals and politicians, each with their own agendas, principles and priorities. It's talking to this colourful roster between turns on the strategy map that will take up most of your time.

The Raven is your ship, and aboard it is where most of Divinity: Dragon Commander's fun happens. I know it's a strategy game and that you have a country to conquer and glorious victories to claim and all, but honestly, spending time in the bar chatting to your generals, or in the throne room making meaningful decisions on your public's welfare is just as fun.

There are political emissaries representing each of Rivellon's five races - elves, dwarves, imps, lizards and the undead. They request things of you, and it's your job to judge the consequences before making a decision. Everything from conscription and immigration, to euthanasia, taxes, gay marriage, abortion, unions, referendums on republicanism, legalisation of a hallucinogenic herb, and even experimental genetic modification of foetuses with the aim of creating super-soldiers must be decided on. This is but a handful of the choices thrown your way.

Each decision comes with fallout - some are predictable, most aren't. It is this depth that is Divinity: Dragon Commander's greatest strength. Whether a choice increases your income, decreases your population's motivation, or whatever else, the level of variation on offer is huge. No two people will have the same playthrough, because you get to decide what kind of leader you want to be. Side with the dwarves and see your coffers overflow with gold, or with the elves to see nature protected. Balancing the resources required for your campaign with your public's welfare is part of the responsibility of leadership that Divinity: Dragon Commander emulates very well.

When the time for talking is over, you take turns campaigning on a strategy map in the vein of Total War. Forming plans and attack routes, locating which territories to take for their precious resources, and scanning the enemy's armies for an exploitable weakness are more of Dragon Commander's strengths.

It's not an easy game, and you must make your moves with care. Leaving your capital undefended can see your campaign lost within a few turns. Letting a gold mine be captured can wreck your attack plan and make reinforcements a luxury you no longer have. If you don't have a steady supply of research points, the enemy's firepower will soon tower over yours. I'm normally pretty good at strategy games, but there were more than a couple of occasions where I was forced to sheepishly reload a save.

Act I is pretty simple, but things really heat up in Act II - this when you go up against your three siblings on a much larger map, and I don't have to point out that planning against three enemies is harder than one. It becomes much more expensive to pay your generals to take care of an auto-resolve, and suddenly public backing is crucial. Been pissing the imps off lately? Well guess what - they don't want you in their land and you suffer a big penalty when fighting there.

Luckily, auto-resolving isn't the only way of going about things - yes, there are real-time battles. Unfortunately no, they're not that great. For a strategy game that pulls off so many things so well, it's a great disappointment that the RTS elements are so nondescript. There's only one resource, no fog-of-war, and the terrain holds no strategic significance and looks the same wherever the battle is being held. The units act like units from every other strategy game ever. Oh, anti-air are good against air units? You mean to say my anti-sea units are good against ships? Fancy that.

On the field, there's really only one tactic to win - recruit as many units as you can and send them off quick as you can. Sitting back to think things through will only see the map turn red as the enemy captures resource and recruitment bases and quickly overwhelms you. A mass of highly-aggressive units will all but ensure victory. The AI is impressive and you have to move quickly to stay on top of it, but if things start to turn against you, there's always the jetpacked dragon to fall back on.

Yup, we're finally around to that. Press 'R' and take to the skies to unleash fiery mayhem down on your opponents. A very ordinary RTS finally gets some spice. Bomb across the map at high speeds to reach units in need of help, as the dragon can quickly turn the tide of a tightly fought battle. A customisable ability bar lets you take into battle whichever abilities you've researched, such as healing fire for friendlies. Turning into a dragon makes ordering units around and recruitment a pain, but do you care? You're a dragon. With a jetpack.

Divinity: Dragon Commander has character in abundance, which is surprising given how much content is borrowed from other fantasy and steampunk stories. The elves love nature, the dwarves love gold, and the imps love messing with machines and explosives. There's a wizard who doesn't really do much but sit around and look very much like a wizard, and at one point there's even mention of a kobold lair. In terms of aesthetics, your units and the Raven are full of the whirring cogs and clanking gears that you expect from anything steampunk.

It's all familiar stuff, then. But Dragon Commander still manages to create a world and story very much its own. The otherwise one-dimensional caricatures are brought to life by some sharp, snappy, impressively eloquent dialogue that is taken advantage of by some really outstanding voicework. The soundtrack, though never overpowering, always has something going on and is very much worth stopping to listen to occasionally.

Quirkiness bleeds over every facet of Dragon Commander. The humour is ever present, the newspaper headlines often wittily attacking your most recent actions. For instance, failure to conquer a province after a few turns can land you with 'This Just In: Apparently Dragons Hibernate'. The art direction is vivid to say the least, mashing elements of fantasy and steampunk together in ways that are sometimes overbearing, but it mainly manages to pull it off. The character designs, particularly for the imps and your generals, are brilliant.

Divinity: Dragon Commander presses your nose into some important moral issues, but always manages to refrain from taking a side. You won't lose the campaign by being a terrible person, and you won't win it by taking the moral high ground. But the strategy and politics are brilliantly interlinked and you may well find your principles tested by the lust for gold and conquest. The main weakness of the title is its battles which, despite the attraction of decimating your foes via fireball, fail to inspire. Fortunately, the rest of the game makes for a great experience, and even if you find yourself auto-resolving all your battles, I can guarantee you a good time. It's a hell of an ambitious project and manages to pull most of it off with its own style and quirks.

Pros: 
  • Your choices have consequences
  • Planning on the strategy map is great
  • Well-written dialogue and outstanding voicework
  • Dragons. Jetpacks. Dragons with jetpacks
Cons: 
  • Disappointing, uninspired RTS
  • Art style sometimes tries too much

Playability:

8 out of 10

Replayability:

7 out of 10

Graphics:

7 out of 10

Sound:

8 out of 10

Overall:

8 out of 10
Thom Whyte | 10th September, 2013

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