I've mentioned before that I have a soft spot for Larian's Divinity franchise, dating back to 2003. The games have never been flawless, but with only one glaring exception, they have been fun. So in a way, I had my fingers crossed, hoping for the best, when I went to Larian's demo room at E3 last week.
I was only expecting to see Divinity: Original Sin, but Larian also had a demo running of upcoming dragon-based real-time tactical game Dragon Commander, and so I had a look at both.
Divinity: Dragon Commander is an interesting sort of hybrid. I wasn't a fan of the dragon flight features in any version of Divinity II, but from what I can tell from the hands-off demo, they've been refined a bit. And as all of the dragon flight segments are designed as aerial command play, the game doesn't run into issues of flight zones vs walking zones as Divinity II did.
So here is Dragon Commander: you have to take over the whole world, one territory at a time. The current owners of these territories are less than fully enamoured of your empire-building plan, and so in addition to straightforward battles, you must also manage the political side of negotiations, rebellions and alliances. In true Divinity fashion, you must make mutually exclusive choices about who to support, in what and when, and those choices will create some allies and some enemies.
Tactically speaking, the battles look fun. We observed a multiplayer fight, with two developers taking each other on in the role of attacker and defender. The defender ran out of money early on: after covering his island with turrets, his dragon avatar was taken out, and he had to pay to respawn. Having to pay that much, so early in the round, hurt him badly. His mines were unable to generate him income quickly enough to make up for the deficit, and so he was unable to afford new turrets as the opposing dragon swept in and lit everyone and everything on fire.
Dragons sweeping in and commanding armies to light everything on fire? That's a pretty good time.
But where the strategic tools and plot look sound, the politicking part of the game worries me. Rather than keeping with the idea of keeping Dragon Commander cool and complex, the politics fall back on tired, tawdry tropes.
The cheerful, colourful, steampunk-inflected style of the dragon knight's home base makes a fun venue for back-room dealing. As the player moves through the world, taking over new territories, emissaries from the various races come on board and seek to make deals to benefit their own people — or the linings of their own purses — and to disadvantage others. The decisions made on-board result in a number of playable cards for the dragon knight. Say you agree allow a particular religion's clergy into a territory to open hospitals. You then get a card that works as a blanket heal, but you also run the risk of that religion, say, spiriting certain folks off into the night as sacrifices.
The secondary, political features should be great, but I had one huge problem with them. Impractical armour aside, the Divinity universe has never had a history of treating its female population particularly worse than its male population. Dragon Commander changes that.
Bluntly, the back-at-base level of the game is all about women as commodities. Underdressed women of the game's five races show up as princesses, who can be married or thrown over for political and tactical reasons. I get that marriage is perhaps humanity's oldest method of securing political alliances, but throwing boobtastic models around like so many collectible trading cards, in 2012, feels particularly distasteful. And there are other ways political marriage and spousal stat benefits could have been managed.
For many players, of course, having a curvy elf breathlessly greet you, with much heaving of the breast, on your return to the ship will of course be a highlight. But on the whole, having the poster and other marketing materials covered in a topless blonde felt like it cheapened the game.
Because really? The game's kind of a neat idea. It fills out a long-gone era of the enormous world Larian has been working with for the Divinity franchise for over a decade. Using magic and machinery together for tactical goals is something we don't necessarily see that often. And dragons with jetpacks, who control and destroy armies, are just the plain old kind of stupid, grin-inducing fun that I like to see from games.
At this stage, having seen videos and a hands-off, 15-minute demo, it's hard to tell where the balance will lie. The game may be mostly battles, with politics dropping in here and again, it may be mostly politics with battles to break the tedium, or, most likely, it will be an alternating mixture of both. Based on what I saw, I hope it's mostly battles. Being able to hover in air and take in a full 360-degree view of your troops, managing something almost like a dragon flight bullet time, and challenging yourself against both AI (in the singleplayer campaign) and fellow players looks like a great, creative take on the strategy genre. And that's where the creative thought has gone: into the combat, instead of the conversations.
Larian is aiming to release Dragon Commander in the first few months of 2013.