Divinity: Dragon Commander is an unexpected delight. This prequel to Larian Studio's Divinity series of role-playing games skillfully merges real-time and turn-based strategy with RPGs, arcade action, and the cutthroat world of politics (both modern and medieval). Somehow this mixture works--and it probably has something to do with the ability to play as a jetpack-wearing Dragon.
While blazing around as dragon is certainly fun, the intriguing part of the game is the campaign's role-playing aspect. The story follows the exploits of an unnamed half-human, half-dragon prince who must defeat his depraved siblings to seize control of his late father's war-ravaged empire. In between turns on the strategic map, you traverse your ship and converse with the characters on board in a manner similar to Starcraft II, except that in Dragon Commander, these interactions are fleshed out with options and consequences. Early on, you receive a retinue of generals, each of whom has personal issues. How you handle these can benefit the empire, improve a general's stats, or, conversely, cause major problems for the war effort.
Emperors-to-be must also delve into the cutthroat world of politics. The various non-human races of the empire send emissaries to the royal court, and their support can impact the war. The undead are religious zealots; the dwarves are plutocratic capitalists; the lizard folk tend to be liberals who promote individual freedom; imps are simple technocrats; and elves are radical egalitarians and staunch environmentalists. Every few turns, there is a council meeting where legislation is brought up for the emperor's consideration. These issues tend to mirror contemporary political concerns like gay marriage, euthanasia, medicinal marijuana, gun control, and genetically modified foods. Each ambassador gives their take on the legislation, and you must choose between your own personal positions, the seemingly greater good, or the most popular position amongst the council members.
While decisions often merely affect relations with different races, some have tangible strategic effects, like a conscription law that reduces the cost of purchasing units. These laws can lead to humorous situations beyond the always-amusing impotent rage of displeased ambassadors. For example, you could follow the elf line and agree to allow trade unions, increase the pay of workers, and give them state funded holiday--and then go along with the imps' plan to lobotomize workers for greater productivity.
Another noteworthy aspect of the story is the royal marriage that you must take part in. At first, the choice of a bride influences race relations, but eventually, there are story segments in which you can sway your chosen bride. For example, as per elven customs, the elf princess is a strict vegetarian and environmentalist, refrains from the consumption of alcohol, and opposes personality cults due to her egalitarian ideals. Through conversations, she can be turned into a meat-eating alcoholic who poses nude for statues of herself and supports genetically modified foods. Then, her corruption complete, you can sacrifice her for personal gain and move on to the next wife.
Outside of these political aspects, Dragon Commander's campaign is similar to campaigns from the Total War series. There is a turn-based strategic mode where you build armies and buildings, conquer provinces, earn cards that affect battle, buy unit and dragon upgrades, and make combat moves. Rivals are defeated once their capitals are conquered and all of their remaining land, gold, research points, and units fall under the player's control. Once all enemy capitals have fallen, the game enters the next chapter and a new map. Unfortunately, this is an often disappointing transition, as the player unceremoniously drops into a new campaign map without a hard-won territory's cash, research, and card flow. This frustration can be avoided by banking gold, points, and cards before crushing the last capital. Incidentally, banking is also a good way to get more opportunities to boost (or destroy) race relations.
Unoccupied provinces fall without a fight, and capturing neutral territories bequeaths you with free units. However, most turns involve at least one battle. You can either resolve combat automatically or fight in RTS mode, but you must make this decision carefully, because the dragon commander can only fight in one battle per turn. Likewise, the generals may only lead troops in one auto-resolved battle per turn, which leaves most battles in the imperial army's hands. Before combat begins, the game displays your chance of winning the engagement. This can be altered by selecting a general to lead the combat and playing various cards that grant advantages like mercenary troops, buffs for particular types of units, or the use of dragon powers that have not been researched.
The outstanding feature of real-time combat is the ability to dive into the fray as a dragon, giving the RTS battles elements of an action game. The titular dragon commander can fly around the map, spew fire at enemies, and activate his jetpack's turbocharger to zoom away when things get too dangerous. While zipping along at intense speeds and burning down bases, you still have the ability to control units and factories; commands can be issued to every unit on the map, troops in the dragon's vicinity, or to player-designated control groups. Unit special abilities can even be used while flying around, so it's possible to order juggernaut battleships to launch tactical nukes at an enemy base while you belch acid at pesky enemy bomber units. You can take to the skies as a dragon at will, and pay to respawn the dragon if it dies.
When divorced from the dragon part, Divinity: Dragon Commander's battles are relatively simple. Population is the only resource, and it increases based on the number of recruitment citadels controlled by each side. Once a side loses all of its citadels, the match is over. Citadels, various unit production buildings, and point defenses are built on specific foundations that may be captured by ground forces. The AI is competent and will rush, fight a protracted battle for control for foundations, or take the defensive based on how powerful its army is in comparison to yours. Dragon Commander's camera can be zoomed out far from the battlefield, turning units into icons in a manner similar to Supreme Commander. This is fortunate, because when the dragon is absent, the game can devolve into a tedious meat grinder where whoever builds the most units triumphs.
As with any respectable RTS, Dragon Commander sports the usual skirmish multiplayer mode. More interesting, however, are the multiplayer campaigns that support up to four players. These work much like the single-player campaign, minus the RPG aspect. What makes these campaigns interesting is that every player can jump into any battle regardless of whether they are allies with a combatant or even have an army near the contested province. This is an excellent feature, as it is far more entertaining to join a match in progress than to sit around waiting for other players to finish their battles. Additionally, this ability to meddle in the affairs of other players has strategic consequences. For example, if an interloper wins a battle, then nobody conquers the territory, and the armies that were brought into the battle are destroyed.
Dragon Commander can be stunningly attractive. The RPG segments are filled with all manner of background details, like the skeleton barmaid wearing a blond braided wig. Character models are emotive, and it is amusing watching an ambassador barely contain his impotent rage after legislation passes that is ruinous for his people. (For instance, passing a one-child-per-family law that only applies to his race.) The RTS battles, by contrast, aren't visually inspired. Most units are too small to reveal fine details, and large units like naval transports and ironclads don't have any outstanding qualities, nor do they convey the fantasy-meets-steampunk aesthetic that permeates most of the game. The voice acting is great, as is the score. However, given how many hours you could spend barrel-rolling your dragon about, the game could use more musical tracks.
A patch released a few days after launch appears to have resolved multiplayer connection issues along with other noticeable glitches, like stuttering dialogue. Some annoyances remain, however, such as the tendency for units to continually repeat "That's impossible, commander," which occurs after giving a move order for all units while in dragon mode. Maybe the navy is just protesting that their ships cannot walk on land? Overall stability is also a problem, with many players continuing to report game-killing crashes.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is a gem. The flaws are overshadowed by the role playing, the politics, the humor, and of course, the dragon in a jetpack. You may not have ever dreamed of a grand strategy game in which the generals are steampunk dragons, and you can marry a skeleton. Thankfully, someone at Larian did, and the end result is a lot of fun.