Here be Dragons
Divinity: Dragon Commander is ostensibly a new contender for the competitive RTS throne. You build units, you fight for territory, you play a little rock-paper-scissors in terms of unit types. Where it branches off into something unique is the fact that you are a titular Dragon Commander, and can take to the field surprisingly regularly to go fly around and breath some fire or cast some spells. There’s also a Risk-style map that makes up much of the campaign side of the game.
The overall strategy of DDC campaigns (both single player and multiplayer) is fairly straightforward. You want more territory than your opponents(s) and therefore you build as many units as you can and spread them over the map in the board-game style overview. You each take a turn and have limited resources in money and research points that you get to spend and then see what everyone else has done. There’s little balance to be done because each side is basically the same. Although you can pick from four teams, they’re simply there to seperate players, they don’t make any different to how you play. So of course with only one side for everyone to play, everyone quickly works out (and has worked out in the beta) the most effective units and research paths, so it’s a race and a little bit of luck with a RNG to decide who can spread out the most. In single player there is an additional layer of strategy and story where you make policy and research decisions with your advisors. It’s sometimes unclear as to waht the policy decisions actually do but the flavour is nice and some of the characters you come across are inventive to say the least.
Once you enter a territory occupied by your enemy you are taken to a battle. Before the skirmish begins you can use some cards that give your units a boost or add a few to your army, and then you’re put in a multiplayer skirmish stlye map (you can play these fights as their own skirmish mode from the menu). The maps are large are not terribly inventive, they usually contain a bit of water, starting bases for up to four players and then odd little structures dotted around the map. Some of the maps even seem broken as the AI doesn’t like loading transports up with units and so on one they can’t actually escape the southernmost base which is only accesible by water due to a mountain range being in the way.
In order to gain resources to buy units you need to capture citadels. There are set places for each different kind of building, so much of the strategy of the game comes about from making sure you control these buildings. For any building there is a blank plateau that can be turned to your colour simply by having units near it. This leads to some interesting situations where your units being in an enemy’s base turns their turret placements to your colour, allowing you to build turrets that attack the base from within. Aside from citadels you can build factories for infantry type units, tank type units and eventually airborne units, and then there’s a seperate one for naval units. While testing the game we managed to win every single encounter by massing grenadiers until we hit the unit cap (which gives you about 100 units at maximum) coupled with a few healing Shamans. There are 12 units in total in the game, which can seem like a paltry number, especially when some of them aren’t particularly useful.
So once the battle has begun you will build up an army and send it to attack other bases until you have captured enough to destroy the enemy completely. One of the annoyances of the game is that you have often won long before the enemy is actually destroyed, as once you hold more than half the map they can’t possibly keep up with production to beat you. In other games like Starcraft this is where the commonly used ‘GG’ comes in, and they surrender to allow the pace of the tournament or ladder series going. While that’s possible in multiplayer here, the AI seems insistent on playing until every last building is destroyed, even if it’s completely hopeless for them. This means every battle takes a ridiculous amount of time, and in any campaign there might be 5-6 battles going on per turn, each one being almost identical. This feels like a grind more than anything. You can of course auto-resolve the battles but this seems like just avoiding the issue by not playing the game.
Aside from using your units, you can also summon yourself to the battleground as a jetpack-wearing dragon. The jetpack is an usual addition that does allow you to get about the map incredibly quickly, and is a lot of fun, but seems out of place with the aesthetic of the game. It’s a jetpack for jetpack’s sake. As a dragon you are horrendously powerful and can easily decimate an army within seconds thanks to huge amounts of splash damage. You also have access to an array of healing and defensive spells that can be customised and unlocked as you progress through campaigns. As you get to use your dragon lots (it costs hardly any resources and the timer goes down quickly once it dies) it’s almost easier to just use the dragon then to build troops for attacking. The controls are simple to use and flying around is quite a lot of fun at first, but you’ll soon find yourself just doing the same thing over and over, torching enemies, eventually being brought down by anti-aircraft fire, then starting again. You can command your units from the dragon mode using the function and ‘q’ keys, which is a nice touch. In multiplayer you’ll often end up deciding the victor by who can keep air control, shutting down the opponent’s dragon whenever it spawns. Sadly the AI seems reluctant or unable to use the dragons and so defeating them is a matter of tedium rather than a challenge. We played through a two-player co-op multiplayer campaign and didn’t lose a single fight or even a base because whenever the enemy made a big enough army, we’d just team up and raze it to the ground. Winning the whole campaign was simply an exercise in waiting for units to build and constantly respawning our dragons.
Graphically the game is average. There are some lovely vistas when a war is in full swing and four dragons are competing in the air, but all too often you’re looking at the same units doing the same things. The units have some interesting and unique designs but from a distance they just look messy and it’s unclear as to what they actually are due to the complexity of their structures. There’s very little interaction with the environment so battles get samey and boring to watch.
Overall, Divinity: Dragon Commander can be a fun diversion if you’ve got a group of friends who are into strategy games and want something new, but it’s not going to hold your attention for long. The AI is simply too poor to put up anything like a real challenge and the campaigns are long and tedious. If you’re thinking of picking this up for the single player, I’d definitely give it a miss, there’s some fun to be had with the dragon combat but never enough to really hold your attention. It just goes to show that RTS games take so long to get right and so few are remembered fondly for a reason, delivering depth is much harder than it looks, you can’t simply add dragons and jetpacks.