I came for the jetpack dragons, but stayed for the political intrigue
I first started playing the closed beta for Divinity: Dragon Commander because I was promised that there would be dragons with jetpacks. Dragons with jetpacks. I don't need to tell you how intrigued I was by the concept of a Jetpack Dragon. In my mind, this game had already deposed Jetpack Machinegun, which later became Jetpack Joyride, as the greatest game ever made on the subject of jetpacks.
A mage of some sort asked me to go visit with the engineer on the giant airship of which I'd been given command as the game began, “Already he has created you a wonder he calls a 'jet-pack',” the mage said with his best high fantasy delivery.
But to my surprise, the jetpack wasn't what made me love Dragon Commander. There certainly are jetpack dragons in this game, and they're certainly fun, but the rest of Dragon Commander was fun enough that they never became the focal point of my play.
Bread and genocide
Dragon Commander is like a grand strategy game. Think Total War, except in Dragon Commander there is far more focus placed on the political intrigue of a fantasy world.
You play as the son of a deposed king, struggling to gain back the throne. With the help of a group of generals, you set out to conquer the continent and re-establish rule. But in Dragon Commander, those who lay claim to the throne have to deal with all of the minutiae that weigh on the mind of an emperor. It's not all about war and lineage.
Dragon Commander is also about managing your relations with the many races of the realm. Each brings their own benefits to your war effort, but each has their own conflicting ideologies and wants. This political system mainly plays out in your throne room as the delegates of the five main races gather to offer you counsel on how their race will react to your decisions, and to yell in your face when you anger them.
You'll be given political decisions to ponder as well: whether to institute conscription to strengthen your ranks, whether you should institute free healthcare for the citizens of your realm, and many other topical troubles. Dragon Commander isn't shy about tying itself to the troubles of our real world.
One of my female generals told me, in a raised voice, that the women I employed as generals were making less than their male counterparts. I told her I had no idea, and I didn't, and ensured that everyone in my crew was fairly paid. It made her happy, but it's a decision that diverted money from the war effort.
I didn't get a chance to see how this system developed later in the game, that's how poorly my military campaign went, but I've heard that this system can include issues as important as genocide and as simple as the price of bread in the realm.
Dragon Commander is really three games sort of smashed together. One is a role-playing game where you are emperor of the realm with all of the responsibilities that entails. In this mode, you're aboard the airship with the ability to visit several different rooms, meets with your generals and diplomats, and make decisions that will affect the realm. The visuals, music, and voice-acting in this part of the game are beautiful. The environments are interesting, the characters are superbly well animated, and the voice actors are top-notch. It feels a bit like the moments of Mass Effect when you're just talking things out with your crew.
Click the strategic map, and it becomes a strategy game where you're moving your forces around the map, Risk-style. Everything here is much more simplistic, and it looks like it could have originally been an iPhone game.
Engage in battle, and you can choose to lead the war effort yourself. At this point the game turns into a real-time strategy game and you must lead your army around the field, capturing production facilities and increasing your forces. Again, the graphics and general production here don't come close to what's seen in the role-playing portion of the game, but it's a unique strategy game that was fun to learn. It's in this mode that you can unleash your jetpack dragon.
By now I had entirely forgotten about the jetpack dragons, but when I finally morphed into dragon-form after directing my forces into battle it was all worth it. I laid waste to the enemy with fireballs and soared through the skies with a powerful jetpack. It was everything you'd expect it to be.
But after a little while of waste-laying, all I wanted to do was come back to the airship to debate the issues of the day with the diplomats and generals aboard my ship.
Dragon Commander will try to tell you that it's a game about dragons with jetpacks, but really it's a game about political intrigue colliding with moral dilemma in the midst of an ongoing war. I never thought I'd say this, but in Dragon Commander, talking was more fun than piloting a dragon with a jetpack.