Ah yes, now we’re bringing out the big guns. I fell in love with Divinity II a couple years ago now; all the wit and charm of the earlier Divinity titles packed into a properly sumptuous 3D hack ‘n’ slash RPG adventure.
It was, then, with some disappointment that I realised Dragon Commander was to be too demanding for poor old Daedalus. That old “minimum 4GB RAM” chestnut again.
Now, though… My body is ready.
Divinity: Dragon Commander
It’s hard to say what kind of game Dragon Commander actually is, because there are quite a few genres delightfully entwined here.
I mean, overall, it’s a grand strategy. There is a world map; go conquer. I haven’t played a grand strategy since… um… Star Wars: Empire at War? But saying that is doing it a grand disservice, because there are all kinds of bells and whistles on top of that… Well, actually, maybe those bells and whistles are standard fare for grand strategies and I just don’t know.
Naturally, I totally arsed up my first attempt because I had no idea what I was doing, but a quick restart of the campaign later and everything went just fine.
You Call That a Grand Strategy?
It’s not just about moving armies around a map, though. It’s also like being aboard the Normandy, with a big interspecies crew trying to get one over on each other all the time. On the one hand, you have your generals — who can be used to win battles for you — and on the other you have politicians — who will affect how much popular support you have in the places you conquer. Basically, you have to keep everyone sweet to make your life easier.
It’s not quite an RPG but it’s getting there. Before heading to the strategy map to wage actual war, you get to poke around your command ship the Raven and deal with the pressing political issues of the day.
The political stuff is like a greatest hits tour of all the contentious issues in the world, ever. Gay marriage, the censorship of violent media, industrialisation, genetic engineering, fair trade, euthanasia, state healthcare — the works.
All of these issues are presented with appropriate panache by sublimely well-written and well-acted monologues by the various councillors and generals. Most decisions will result in several factions liking you more or less, which leads to bonuses when conquering a territory full of a particular race, but they can also affect more concretely how much money you get per turn.
Generally I just went with what I thought was right, though, and still finished the game with most races at 70% or higher approval. Whether they love you or hate you, though, each race’s councillor is a distinct personality and they’ll berate or congratulate you on your decision in their own unique styles.
Alongside the political decisions of the councillors, there are a few more personal issues around the generals. Every one begins hating at least one of the others, if not all of them, and varied occurrences can get them to work better together, or at least hate each other a little less. Picking the right options makes them better at their job, of course, which improves their success rates when you get them to fight in your place; but depending on the situation, can cause the politicians to get antsy.
It sounds more tangled than it really is. You deal with something on one turn and then read about the outcome in the next; then some result is baked into your stats. It’s clean and clear and very easy to get absorbed into.
While you can choose to take direct control of a battle, you can only do that once per turn — inevitably, most turns will conclude with more than one battle. You will then have to ask a general to command for you, and depending on the units you have available one general might be more likely to win than another.
The strategy map is as delightful as the rest of the game. The map is half a technological marvel and a hand-drawn piece of parchment, with pencil designs like stylised sea monsters and hatched clouds drifting gently over the board as you push your little wooden army markers around. Pile all your people onto a region controlled by an enemy, or have all their units piled onto one of yours, and the fight begins.
Dragon With a Jetpack
I can only describe the RTS battles as Supreme Commander on speed reimagined as an AoS where you control the spawned minions rather than a hero. Err, not an AoS, a DotA-clone… er… MOBA?
Base-building is only on pre-placed foundations that have to be captured by units on the ground, and there is only one resource — recruits. The fun thing about recruits is that there is a finite population in any scenario; once it’s depleted, you’ll have to make do with what you have in play and hope for the best. Repeatedly battling over the same province (or deploying genocide cards in the strategy map) can even lead to a population that begins depleted.
The population is apportioned out to those who control Recruitment Centres, so the start of any skirmish is a race to control as many as possible. A lot of maps are almost linear in their layout, so that’s where the AoS comparison comes in — as you try to get as many bases down the lane as possible to give you the winning foothold. The one who gets the most points fastest won’t necessarily be the winner, but it has a fairly big impact.
The finite resource and the initial push lends a frantic pace to skirmishes — they last no longer than five minutes and most barely top three. As the initially spawned units deplete you build hundreds more to replace them, but a successful push to control all the Recruitment Citadels can effectively end a match before it’s begun by depriving your enemy of resources.
Once you’ve told all your forces to attack-move to the enemy base, of course, you can dive into battle yourself and provide support as a dragon with a jetpack… Neatly offsetting any boredom you might end up with from watching the icons shoot at each other when there’s nothing else you can do.
Yes, Divinity: Dragon Commander is just plain excellent. Makes me mighty interested in catching up on Divinity: Original Sin once they release a definitive boxed edition…