Divinity: Dragon Commander Review: The Divine RTS?
Yo dawg, I herd you like strategy, so I put strategy in your strategy so you can strategize while you strategize!
I’m sorry, please forgive me for making that joke…
Terrible memes aside, that meme is a surprisingly succinct description of Divinity: Dragon Commander.
The newest installment in the Divinity series, by Larian studios, is a highly ambitious game that is trying to get as deep into the strategy genre as humanly possible. Layer upon layer of decision-making affects games in ways that, sometimes, can't even be seen until it is time for events to resolve themselves.
The gameplay of Divinity: Dragon Commander is broken up into three stages: The first stage relegates the political intrigues and storytelling to the decks of your command ship (think Starcraft 2, while in between missions). The second stage, and the beginning of strategic combat decisions, is presented as a Risk-style board game, forcing you to partition units across a 2 dimensional map of the country to secure territory. The third stage is a traditional RTS match to decide who owns a piece of territory when two commanders make claim (complete with your very own dragon to control!).
The political aspect of the gameplay greatly interested me going into this title—not many games are willing, or brave enough, to allow a game to put forth complicated socio/political concepts like immigration reform, self-defense laws, and gay marriage.
A little framing first, you are the son of the recently deceased emperor. After your father’s death, your siblings go to war over who will become the next emperor. The game is a fight over both the physical territory of the country and the hearts and minds of its citizens. Oh, and you are a half-dragon—because that’s just how you roll.
So this world you are fighting for is inhabited by 6 different species: Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Lizards, Imps, and the Undead (not evil like I know you just thought). Of these species, 5 of them make up a citizen council that brings the concerns of the realms before you, because you wouldn’t be a very good king if you didn't micromanage the world (BTW, humans are excluded from this council because… I don't know, I guess since you are half-human that counts enough. RACISM!).
As I said, this game attempts to confront you with complicated decisions based on real life events. There is a plethora of decisions, big and small, and if it’s something you've heard on the news, or a question asked of a presidential candidate, then it is probably in this game. The problem is that the handling of these issues is presented in such a ham-fisted way that it does a disservice to the real concerns that real people have. In the context of this council, the “republican” side is designed as caricatures of their real life equivalents. The Dwarfs are money hungry conservatives that , literally, would sell their own mother to save a dollar, the undead personify religious whacks that put their adherence to Holy Scriptures above even common sense, the Elves are tree hugging hippies, the Lizards are reasonable moderates, and the Imps are… crazy. Depending on what side of each argument you are on, you will either be laughing at the dialogue or offended by the over-the-top portrayal of your own personal view. It wouldn't be an issue if this was a comedy or if it was attempting to be satirical, but this game is presenting serious issues to a player as though the player were actually Obama making the decisions. These issues at least deserve an attempt at an even handed portrayal.
Ok, enough about the boring political nonsense, the Risk board is really where the strategy begins. Divinity: Dragon Commander is actually a game that started its life as a brand new board game. Originally, the special edition version of the game was supposed to ship with a physical copy of this, but due to budget and logistical concerns, this project had to be scrapped. It’s a shame, too. The detail that went into the board game aspect is astounding.
Each player has a capital city, and if this capital falls that player is done. From this capital you expand your units into other territories where you can establish bases and utility buildings. Every turn you get a set budget that will allow you to purchase new game pieces (in game units) to continue to expand the boundaries of your territory. Conflict occurs when two game pieces are attempting to control the same tile, and this is where the RTS portion of the game begins.
Depending on the number of game pieces that are occupying the tile, players are given a percentage chance of success rating. Players can choose to take their chances by allowing the computer to auto-decide the battle or they can enter the map and fight mano-a-mano.
This provides an interesting dynamic. The units that each player starts the fight with is determined by how many units they had occupying the territory on the Risk map. Sometimes a player can be completely overwhelmed at the beginning of the match in a scenario that they have no chance of winning. Inversely, if the odds are close enough to start, then a player can rely on superior skill in order to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This dual featured strategy creates a situation where a poor Risk strategist can make up for his deficiencies in one area by excelling in another—and on the inverse, a poor RTS player could make up for his lack of in battle prowess with superior strategy during the Risk portion, overwhelming his foe on the field.
I feel like Divinity: Dragon Commander does the best job of any game, ever, of simulating a real world war. Sure, it’s a high fantasy setting, but in the real world there are battles that are won by superior number, battles won by superior planning, and battles won by superior management. You are the general and the war goes with you.
There is a bit of a monkey wrench that the game throws into the RTS portion of the game. If you still remember, you are playing this game as a half-dragon commander. This has the unique advantage of allowing you to enter the combat yourself in order to turn the tides of an unwinnable battle. The dragon combat is something akin to a third person shooter that allows you full access to the Z-axis of the world (you can fly!). In any other game, I would say that this dragon combat felt incredibly unsatisfying, but it works here. It’s not so much the 1v1 dragon battles that result in multiplayer that are satisfying, but having the ability to completely wipe out an opposing army in seconds, paving the way for your own units to march on their base, gives you a feeling of raw power that is rarely experienced in games.
Dragon mode is not without its risks, though. Going into dragon mode, on top of removing a hefty amount of your in game resources, removes your ability to directly control your units and your base. It is good for hit and run attacks and for entering a climactic battle to affect the outcome, but staying in it too long will leave you without units and your base open to attack. Since the RTS combat isn't as deep as other games in the genre, this “champion” adds a unique layer of strategy to supplement.
The only major negative that I could find with this game may not even be a real negative. Speaking with the developers about the average multiplayer match, I was informed that a single match of Divinity could take as long as a full day to complete. After picking my jaw off the floor I realized how much this makes sense, though it is still astounding.
Think of a game of Civilization 5. If you've played it, you know that a single game of Civ could take upwards of a lifetime to complete. Now imagine if you removed all the city management features. Finally, imagine that every time one of your units battled an enemy unit the game broke out into a Starcraft match. That is Divinity: Dragon Commander in a nutshell.
- Hamfisted portrayal of complicated socio/political issues
- Potentially offensive portrayal of real life groups and organizations
- Multiplayer matches can take upwards of a day to complete
+ Layer upon layer upon layer of complimenting strategy elements
+ Varying strategy components allows for different skills to shine
+ Most accurate war simulation you are likely to find
+ Did I mention you get to play a freaking dragon?
+ Multiplayer matches can take upwards of a day to complete
+ The list goes on...
This review is already a little on the long side, so if you made it this far, I commend you. The truth is, I've barely scratched the surface of the features of this game. If I attempted to describe this game in detail we may end up with a copy of War and Peace. To sum it up as succinctly as I can, if you like strategy of any type, BUY THIS GAME! I cannot stress enough how good this title is. Strategy is my favorite genre of gaming, I've played it all, but I have never found a game that is as deep and varied as this title is. You will never see this game played as a professional e-sport, but that is only because a 4 day event could not contain the sheer amount of awesome that would result from the matches.