Market analysts scratch their heads as they contemplate the synergy between RTS, RPG, and hands on third person Dragon combat. Like the revolutionaries behind the pb’n'j sandwich, thrust into the palms of consumers without proper direction, their first reactions are those of confusion, and if you’re British, horror. None can deny how well these things go together, and you know, the old saying goes ‘if it works, it ain’t stupid.’ It does work, but you need to know what you’re getting into. Sometimes reviews seem useless, but Larian have delivered something so esoteric that a bit of prep will do you no harm.
At its core, Dragon Commander is an RTS; it has 14 varied and balanced units, strategic emplacements, vast and expansive maps which differ in geometry based on the world map, Rivellon, and a series of Dragon and unit upgrades, with buildings on the campaign map to supplement combat. All the requisite features of an RTS are there, but another 50% of the game is something completely different.
On the peripheries of its core, Dragon Commander is an RPG. It’s a little fanciful, and much of it is dialogue based – so don’t expect to go walking around your command ship like Commander Shepard – but every line of dialogue has the potential to affect outcomes on the battlefield. Put simply: the RTS and RPG components of Dragon Commander aren’t separate, they’re completely intertwined. You are a commander further than merely dishing out orders, and actually, that’s something we’ve not really seen in a major RTS before, if any.
Your natural assumption might be to think that Larian skimped on the mechanics of either or, because creating a decent RTS and a decent RPG is rare enough these days. A veteran studio of RPG’s, Larian know what they’re doing in that department, but what about the RTS side of things? The campaign, featuring past games’ Maxos, has you, a lowly Dragon Commander trying to earn the respect of his peers, a colourful selection of characters from five potential races, including The Undead, Elves, Dwarves, Imps and Lizards. Each of these races are represented by a council member, and each council member is in charge of the people and laws of their faction.
What does this have to do with RTS, you might be asking. Well, each of the races inhabit a country on the world map of Rivellon, and the decisions you make affect your popularity with each faction. If you upset the Undead, then you’ll be hard pressed to call in reinforcements in an area inhabited by the Undead. Because of this, decisions you make directly affect the potential gains and losses of the Risk style campaign map.
Split across a series of Acts, Dragon Commander‘s campaign places your relatively weaker force on a single tile, against armies which start with much greater resources. I found that if you made a single mistake at the start of every Act, you’ll be dealing with a round of restarts. The trick to success is fairly simple, but because it’s so intimidating it’s hard to take the risk. Expand. Creating units on the campaign map depends on the amount of recruits you’re able to employ on that tile per turn, and the amount of gold in your depository, which increases based on an amount per tile. Referring to the previous RPG feature, if you annoy a faction upon which you’ve built a War Factory, then expect fewer recruits per turn.
Moving your units to a neighboring tile will gain control of it for yourself, and you’ll gain any neutral units or buildings on it. Units can typically move one tile per turn, and the campaign is laid out so that vast distances may be strategically challenging to traverse. Once you’ve captured a tile, you can build one of the games strategic buildings on it, some offering useful strategic cards, and others offering sabotage cards, or increased gold production.
Strategic cards can be played on the campaign map to either sabotage the opponent or offer economic boosts, but their most useful implementation is in battles themselves. Cross an enemy tile, and you’ll find yourself in an all out war. The battle system is similar to Total War in preparation, using only the units you have on that tile at a given time. The difference is you can either auto-resolve it with one of your character-based generals (once per turn), or you can fight it yourself with the aide of your Dragon superpowers.
Before the battle starts, you’ve a chance to stack up some strategic cards, which can offer boosts and perks varying from extra Dragon abilities for one mission, or debuffs on specific enemy units. Your force too weak to win? You can use a mercenary card to grant access to a mercenary force. You can stack cards, too, meaning that if you jumped on a tile with only a single unit, you could in theory stack up mercenary cards and gain a complete army out of nowhere. However, when a card is used, it’s gone for good until you unlock it again.
It took me around 8 hours to complete the initial phase of the game, Act 1, but at that stage the game didn’t have a tutorial. It does now, and following on from my knowledge gained the first time around, I managed to take over the smaller cluster of islands in only an hour. That said, my knowledge on Dragon Commander didn’t go too far, because Act II presents you with a greater sense of fear. Fighting on more than one front, with an enemy directly behind you, is incredibly difficult, and I’m not afraid to say that Dragon Commander is a hard game. It’s not a casual game, and you won’t find yourself breezing along even on the easiest difficulty setting.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you play less aggressively, so don’t be put off by the overwhelming sense of intimidation. After-all, you are a Dragon!
You are out-numbered most of the time, but that’s okay, because Dragon Commander is balanced with the idea that you can take hands-on control of a Dragon in mind. I found that you’re safe if your forces have an estimated 30-40% chance of survival if you play well with the Dragon, which might sound like it’s an unfair advantage, but you’re out-numbered on multiple fronts. It’s sort of the whole point of the game. While you entertain classic RTS mechanics, after the 30 second battle mark, you’ve the ability to press ‘R’ and jump right into direct control of a powerful Dragon, with its own set of unlockable and upgradable skills.
At the start, you pick from one of three different types. It’s not set in stone, but they appear to be a tank, buffer, and all-rounder. Depending on your customizable Dragon skill layout, you can equip yourself to buff, debuff, or outright damage the enemy. Things have slightly changed from the beta, however, because now it seems your Dragon can be easily overwhelmed by huge clusters of enemies. Because of this, kiting and splitting up your units is a good idea. Blobbing units in the middle to take the enemy force head on is, subsequently, a bad idea, because you’ve lost your ability to micromanage unit and Dragon abilities, and you’ll be overwhelmed. That’s a problem I consider fixed compared to the closed beta.
Winning is a matter of overwhelming the enemy, capturing the most resources, and destroying their base. Each side has a limited number of recruitment’s, which varies on a number of things, such as if you’re attacking or defending, so you’ve to be careful how you approach the battle, even if you’re using your Dragon. Dragon Commander‘s RTS element is enthralling fun, and the matches are designed to be intense, but short, given the amount of them. There are a lot of moments where you’ll find yourself defending a tough spot you just captured, and you might have to fight the same fight a few times. You can auto-resolve, but if matches were any longer, I could see myself progressing very slowly. These short, intense bursts are just what Dragon Commander needs.
Because of this, multiplayer skirmishes differentiate themselves from the crowd too. In visuals and design they seem similar to something like Supreme Commander, but unlike in the campaign, both competitors have a Dragon they can call out, making multiplayer matches slightly longer than campaign matches, also offering a new level of skill: your ability to control Dragon abilities, aiming his fire bolts.
Coming back to the RPG components, Dragon Commander goes the whole hog. There are a lot of characters in this game, and those who are with you from the start learn to either like or dislike you based on your behavior and the decisions you make. The council members are separate to your generals, who are there to be spoken to periodically. They opinions on everything; what your wife does, who she is, or where she’s from will be relieved in different ways to your compadre’s, and whether you win or lose will be noticed by some of the… less eloquent generals.
There’s a xenophobic lizard, a feminist, a sexy, out-spoken mechanic, and a rough and ready brute, and they’re all with you on your journey. After every victory or loss, you can return to your ship to explore and chat to everyone on board. Each victory or loss might bring something new, such as the opportunity to marry a stoned Elf – a proposition I couldn’t turn away from – or a political decision.
It’s already known by most at this point, but Dragon Commander features something of an in depth political system. We mentioned before that your decisions affected the campaign map, and this is where most of your important decisions are made. Each of the council members will proposition you with different political ideas, which are taken directly from satirized versions of real world ideologies. There are themes of homosexuality, unionising, substance abuse, taxation exemption, and other political discussions taken from real world newspapers.
Each character will discuss his view in the name of his race, and you’ll have to hear everyone out before making your decision, a simple yes or no. The dialogue is eloquent, lengthy, and really very well considered. These are real discussions, based on real political ideologies, and they could seriously have been taken out of the morning newspaper. They’re not without a sense of humour, such as the religious extremist Undead, and the weed loving Elf.
Disrupt the agenda of a faction too many times, and you’ll find yourself in a tight spot with the Councillor, as shown in the newspapers after every turn. They also feature funny facts and gossip about yourself, the Dragon Commander, so they’re well worth glancing at between battles.
Dragon Commander is a long, in depth game that takes a lot of time to criticize, analyse, and explain. There are three major elements at play here, and they necessarily intertwine completely. You can’t really ignore the RPG components if you’re an RTS player who really hates RPG’s, but you can go straight to multiplayer and enjoy the game there, or run a custom campaign which gives you the campaign map without any of the story. Really, the sweet spot is in the dynamic of victories split by careful contemplation on the ship. You fight, and you talk. There’s a lot of fighting to do, and there’s a lot of talking to do. That’s genuinely unique, and everything orchestrated on the battle map feels felt on the ship, and vice versa.
Dragon Commander has a silly concept on paper, but it has been very, very carefully considered. It’s a hardcore RTS with high-brow RPG elements. It has a sense of humor, and it’s clearly been created for gamers who have one too. If you’re cynical about Dragons, Dwarves, Elves and magic, then you might not be won over by the dialogue and charm, but it’s still worth looking at for the multiplayer RTS, which dodges RPG completely. If you are an RPG player that likes to dabble in RTS games, then definitely take a look. It has an element of pick up and play, but the campaign is long and difficult, with as little as one or two mistakes setting you back to a point of potentially restarting that Act.
I cannot deny, however, that whilst Dragon Commander can be laughed at for its ‘Dragons with jetpacks’ marketing theme it adopted through no fault of its own, it has to be lauded for completely surpassing the expectations of those who heard about it in its early stages. Each of the three major components fit neatly together, and they’re all fantastic in their own right. It works. It really, really works – and because it works, it’s possibly the most unique title I’ve played in a long while that hasn’t skimped on polish, visuals, or quality. It has everything, and it’s done everything well.
If you like Dragon Commander, you’ll spend many sleepless nights playing it through to the end. If you love it, however, you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to ever replace it, I feel.