Full review has now been published here.

Larian Studios were in London last Tuesday, and what they had to show us were two unique and independent titles within the same universe: Divinity: Dragon Commander, and Divinity: Original Sin. We’ll talk in some depth about Original Sin some other time, today focusing on Dragon Commander, and what that title is to the gaming community, and the developers who made it. If you want to see just what it means to develop games on your own, you can read our exclusive interview with CEO of Larian, Swen Vicke, here.

Divinity: Dragon Commander might be a satirically rich, high-fantasy RPG adventure – but it’s also a genuinely solid RTS game. My primary concerns with Dragon Commander are ironically centered around the idea that the core concepts, whilst genuinely thought provoking, deep, and solid, are so juxtaposed that they require explanation. To some, Divinity: Dragon Commander might be an RPG with watered down RTS mechanics – whilst to others, it might be seen as an RTS with watered down RPG mechanics. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I am relatively convinced that it is neither. I’ll explain why.

Talking to Swen Vincke in the aforementioned interview, he talked about how the set-in-stone genres defined by marketability are harming gaming. This must be an RTS, this must be an RPG; this is a first person shooter, this is an action game, etc,. What he said made a lot of sense, and this philosophy is clearly evident in what the team had created. So what is Divinity: Dragon Commander? It isn’t a watered down anything. In fact, it became evident upon playing the title that the juxtaposed elements that require some consideration are actually quite independent from one and other. We shouldn’t be criticizing Dragon Commander for being a mix of genres, we should be criticizing other RTS games for having crap campaigns. It seems to be a solid RTS with a very intelligently created campaign.

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This philosophy has grown since Divinity II

Divinity: Dragon Commander has an RPG rich campaign filled with real, actionable choices that affect the game both immediately and down the line. For instance, the team looked at current trends in international politics. They took those issues from which policies are built, and built their own for fantasy factions with their own political agendas. Whilst the burly Dwarf spoof’s our preconceptions of capitalism, and the richly Libertarian reptilian species is derived from the “every man is an island” concept of independence, we can see elements of educated satirical content. Larian Studios are known for allowing players to be whoever they want to be – and this philosophy has grown since Divinity II. 

DC_Artwork005When I sat down to demo the campaign mode, I was met by a council from within the Divinity universe – mediated by Maxos (although I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you that). It’s an old cliche, but in that room one could easily say “if a bomb went off in this place, everyone who matters in society would be dead” without a hint of irony. This ‘control room’, if you like, is where you get to meet the key characters from the Divinity universe and play politics with each faction. Each faction is represented by a diplomat from their race. The aforementioned derivations of real-life politics span from liberal to richly conservative, to “fundamentalist”. The Undead are the most fundamentalist race – although I suppose their literal “bare bones” beliefs makes sense. Although I can’t give you their names, the beautifully rendered and richly animated characters were: Reptilian, Dwarven, Elvish, Undead, Impish.

The RPG system works through a system of rooms, each of which contain story characters. Every character will be fully voiced using their own facial motion capture technique – which I personally found astonishingly evocative – giving each character a personality. I don’t mean personality in the “this guy is an asshole – that guy is a good guy” kind of way, I mean these guys have flare. 

My decline or acceptance of gay marriage would go on to spark another debate later

A racist Lizard in 19th century clothing; a feminist with a stiff upper lip and frown; a boisterous, bald fighter and all the bickering in between. I’m laying so much emphasis on the RPG elements because, really, they’re quite unique. Each of these characters help you to shape the world depending on how you react to them. You’re asked questions that actually mean something, and questions that should literally shock you. The first question I was asked was along the lines of: “there’s a gay Dwarf couple from X town who demand the right to marry, should we allow them to marry?” I heard the plea’s from every race, and all their objections – objections that were, sometimes, direct political quotes from global parties – and then made my decision. Based on my decision, certain parties affiliation with me would either increase or decrease. This allows me to unlock certain abilities and upgrades from parties in my favour. There was no way to know what decision would unlock what, but it didn’t seem to matter. I was making important decisions that I recognized from real life. It wasn’t “gay marriage is okay,” so much as “what do you think about gay marriage?” Larian Studios had taken the time to cover all angles, and this is why the RPG element, with the unique and richly characterized factions, is wholly impressive.

My decline or acceptance of gay marriage would go on to spark another debate later in the game. Given that I accepted the Dwarven plea, I’m told I would later have to decide whether or not homosexual soldiers in the army is acceptable.

DC_Artwork006Alongside the council decision making comes discussions with your generals. As I mentioned before (one of them is a Lizardy racist, as racists so often are) the generals are equally characterized, and will often bicker between themselves. I can listen to their plea’s and either accept or ignore them. Befriending generals will unlock powers for them to use in battle. Whilst there’s no repercussions for pissing any of the characters off, the aim is to work with what you get from basing your decision making on a mix of ethics and tactics – just like reality. Taking a libertarian stance on X might not be as morally right as taking an ethical stance, but it’s not as bad as Y and could unlock Z – so that’s what I should do, etc,. I’m told that, for instance, I can either bring the racist Lizard into tolerance, or embrace his racism, therefore causing all sorts of diplomatic problems: “If you make him even more racist, he might go to another faction on a mission and just punch the king, or something.”

Each of the council members have their own story, too – and their own daughters. At one point, I had to pick a wife from the daughters of each of the council members. Every daughter has their own story, and each story is dynamic and reminiscent of general high-fantasy themes. For instance, if you marry the Undead daughter – who yearns to be alive again – you can either help her resurrect, which will make the Undead clan furious, as they hate the living – or you can subdue her and keep them happy, whilst she will be miserable. The Dwarven daughter, too, is a funny and dynamic character – and whilst her ample bust is a tongue-in-cheek joke about Dwarves and preconceptions, she’s actually one of the best written and most in-depth characters in the game. Larian seem to have turned tricks at every corner, both shocking and surprising us. They pull it off, though, because they’re giving us choices to make. They are choices derived from the real world.

Abortion – a topic that is actually talked about in the game – is no longer about women’s choices: it’s about whether or not one race could literally stop the birth of another, thus bringing an end to their species.

That’s a lot of RPG for an RTS… isn’t it?

That’s the campaign mode. I don’t want to liken what I’ve seen and played to Total War to a point where the comparison obfuscates what Dragon Commander actually is, but think about the way in which the Total War dynamic transfers successfully to its own multiplayer component. That’s sort of what we’ve got here. The development between the campaign and multiplayer clearly hasn’t been split, and the package comes as one unique experience that works interchangably. There are no RPG elements in multiplayer, and the game becomes an interactive game of Risk.

We retain the world-map from the campaign mode, but each player has to capture regions to drain it for resources, pegging their units all over the map. Once another player enters a region you are occupying, then you enter into battle which you can either resolve in game, or auto-resolve. There’s no economy manage per-se, but each region will give you varying amounts of gold, and affect the amount of recruits you can call in, in game.

The actual game maps themselves are 400x400km, or, “the same size as Oblivion”. Whilst that makes the game sound enormous, it plays on a much smaller scale. Mixing elements of micro and macro, Dragon Commander pits 13 equal units against one-another. Whilst 13 units might not sound like a lot, there are over 60 upgrades. That’s where the game goes from rock-paper-scissors and E-Sports to something more skill-based and strategic. The controls are tight, and the units are incredibly well balanced at first. You have your standard mix of air units, land, and sea units, with varying abilities – all with a Divinity, fantasy aesthetic.

The aim is capture as many building points as you can in order to recruit more units on map, with each team starting at a base area. You cannot built bases wherever you want, but build locations are restricted to concrete points on the map. Capturing these points through the versatile and non-linear map is the key to flanking and winning. This is a game of adapting to your opponents tactic, like the best RTS games – but this one takes it further. As we discussed in our interview, the upgrades add a dynamic to the strategy that you really can’t simply foresee. For example, I could put a [names of units are code-names currently] Zeppelin over my Battleship, which would increase its range. If I upgraded my Battleship with nukes, then I could effectively cover the entire map. Now, if the player is knowledgeable  he could use his dragon to charm my Battleship, gaining control of it for a few seconds, to nuke my base – making it my problem. A tactic Swen is interested in introducing to the game.

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They aren’t gimmicks, they’re deliberate, mechanically rich choices. 

Given that you are a Dragon Commander, you’ve the ability to – from a third person perspective – directly control your Dragon. This works much in the same way as it did in Divinity II. You can fly around the map, manually aiming fire-balls and abilities at enemy units, or supporting your own with heals. Whilst in this mode, you cannot control any of your units, and if you die, it costs 15 resources to respawn. You might think that this mechanic unnecessarily complicates what should be simple RTS mechanics, but actually it was enormous fun – especially when you’re in a corner. For instance, playing with the developer is never going to be an easy ride, but when I was cornered by 5 bomb-dropping blimps, I took took to my Dragon, primed his nuke, and fired at the cluster of ships which destroyed them instantly. He could have taken control of his own dragon to try and kill me before I did it, but he was too busy orchestrating his plan. You see, the ability to gain direct control of the Dragon on the map actually supplemented the action-reaction dynamic of RTS games. He’s busy micro-managing an attack, well I can combat that with some direct input. This unique mechanic may not be loved by all, but it’s not as simple as “Dragons with jet-packs.” Whilst it might feel gimmicky, you could say that about everything in the game. The important thing is that Larian have intelligently tried a lot of new things, and most of them have worked astonishingly well. They aren’t gimmicks, they’re deliberate, mechanically rich choices. 

Matches are designed to take 10-15 minutes each. This was a decision designed to create less intimidating games. For instance, if you’re fighting over each of the 30 or so regions on the map, then that’s a lot of short battles. In order to make games playable, the battle dynamic reflects that well. You might not trust an RTS from the Divinity universe to be as tight and balanced – or serious – as other RTS’ in other genres. I wasn’t entirely sure an indie RTS based on Divinity would really be a serious game I’d like to pick up and play. I’m a huge Men of War and Wargame: European Escalation fan. Frankly, the game intimidated me. It looked overly complicated, and learning new RTS mechanics for one game with the developer was a scary notion – but the controls were extremely intuitive. I am convinced that this is a serious RTS, despite the whimsy and politics.

First impressions analysis

Larian Studios know what they’re doing. It might seem a strange sentiment, but it’s actually completely apt. The biggest problem with this title will be how to market it. Is it an RPG? Is it an RTS? Is it a good one of either? It seems to be a good one of both. Whilst other titles have tried to mix fantasy RPG with RTS (namely King Arthur: The Roleplaying War Game), no one has done it so intelligently and boldly as Larian Studios. Whilst I admit I didn’t get a chance to check out all the upgrades and how the story develops, I can say with all honesty that the core mechanics, and the core principles are fantastic. The beautifully rendered characters, maps, and fluid battle dynamic blew me away – and many members of the press at the event actually broke their time-slot to stay and play some more.

I can certainly see many hardcore players of some of the top played RTS games having problems with the direct Dragon control, since it veers away from micro-management, but given that it’s a game of Risk in the first place rather than instantaneous matches, I’m not convinced it’s a game for them, anyway. Divinity Dragon: Commander is a hard sell – not because it isn’t good, but because there are so many contrasting ideas that juxtapose what we think we know about RTS and RPG’s, that we’re left, at first, perplexed. Try the demo (available soon), and all will be understood relatively quickly.

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Larian Studios have broken genre boundaries with this one, but decidedly so. They’re not trying to be taboo, or revolutionary in their approach – just earnest, and honest in their evident continuing quest to make games that they want to make. Because of that philosophy, they’ve created something quite unique, and most certainly mechanically solid. Whilst micro-management isn’t usually for me, the short game-times and introduction of direct Dragon controls, along with the theme, make this a game that I’m genuinely looking forward to playing. Don’t take my word for it, try the demo when it’s available, as I’m assured there will be one.