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An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the RPG Codex to Larian Studios
Preview - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 20 April 2013, 21:48:37Tags: Divinity: Original Sin; Dragon Commander; Larian Studios
An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the RPG Codex to Larian Studios
[Written by Gragt]
Divinity: Original Sin is currently on Kickstarter seeking your support! Be sure to check it out if you still haven't.
When I first met Swen Vincke in Larian's offices in Ghent on March 25th, I felt intimidated. The reason was vain and instinctive - at 1.9m, I'm taller than most of my peers, but Swen is even taller than me. I also didn't know how he'd react to my presence. After all I was an "emissary of the RPG Codex", which is a fancy way to say that I am not a member of the Codex staff and was sent there because I live not far from Ghent (then again, nothing is far from anything in Belgium). I have no previous video game journalism experience, my words do not carry weight in the video game community, and this meeting was organised because another Codex member bitched on the forums about Larian running out of money, to which Swen had replied on his blog that he'd invite one of us to Larian's office to check on the progress of Divinity: Original Sin in order to dispel such rumours. "I didn't think they'd actually send someone!", I heard him say later that day. This was all good fun, but I knew that the folks at Larian had to be very busy, working on two games at the same time, and I was afraid they might not appreciate my intrusion.
All the tension melted away when Swen and I started talking. He's the kind of man with a calm and amiable attitude that makes you instantly feel comfortable, so much in fact that you just want to sit next to him to have a chat about various things. That's actually what we did for the next few hours - sit next to each other, chat and play Divinity: Original Sin in co-op.
Before I go on with the preview, let me repeat what I was told numerous times - what I played was an alpha version. That means that the game is still a long way from its final form, that not everything is implemented yet, that there are still bugs to be found, that many items, models, texts and animations are temporary placeholders, that many features are still missing and that balance is still being experimented with. Also, it is important to note that Larian have received a lot of suggestions since the Kickstarter campaign began, and many things may have changed once more. Still what I saw is enough to get a good feel for the game and its potential.
A little background first: Chronologically, the game takes place before Divine Divinity and our two main characters, a man and a woman, are Source Hunters. The Source is a forbidden type of magic at that point in time in the Divinity world, and our characters are trained to fight it and those who use wield it. But something terribly bad happens and the Council of Seven is frozen. Standard magic is ineffective at freeing them and a young Zandalor asks our two heroes to learn the ways of the Source in order to save the Council, thus having them turn into what they had trained so long to oppose, similarly to the Dragon Slayer in Divinity 2 becoming a Dragon Knight. The adventure starts off on a light tone, though it will become more epic in scope as the game progresses.
I picked the man and Swen picked the woman. The skill system isn't implemented yet, but each character starts with a few spells, the man focusing mostly on fire and lightning magic and the woman on ice and water. Swen decided to make his character a ranger so I focused on being a melee fighter. We started on a beach where I was given a quick rundown of the basics. The game's controls will be familiar to anyone who has played a Diablo-like game in the last few years - click on the ground to move around the world in real-time, press buttons to open windows to check your inventory, press the plus buttons next to the attributes in your character screen to improve them, etc. There's even an action bar at the bottom of the screen where you can activate your various skills, and the character portraits display the usual red and blue bars for life and mana. It's certainly functional, but thankfully this is where the similarities to Diablo end.
The six primary stats should again remind you of many past CRPGs, recent and old, but they also have non-combat properties. Strength governs the physical damage you deal, but also the amount of loot you can carry, the distance at which you can throw items, the ability to lift heavy items and your Intimidate dialog skill. Dexterity influences your damage with ranged weapons, but also lockpicking and your ability to not break items inside a container if you force it. Intelligence is the primary stat for magic users, but also determines the information you can see about creatures (such as their level and resistances) and your Reasoning dialog skill. In the case of creatures it affects their AI level, thus making it possible to curse an enemy into being stupid enough that it'd walk into a pool of poison you just created in front of it. Constitution affects your hit points, as well as your ability to charm others — because, you know, you look better. Speed determines your initiative during combat, the number of action points you receive each turn, and your defense and chance to evade. And lastly, Perception determines your sight distance, and also the amount of information on the minimap and how much loot is highlighted when you press the ALT key — the kind of stuff you get by default in other games. Each stat caps at 20 and a character is awarded only one point per level-up to assign to any stat, but there are many extra points to find or receive during the course of the game. It is nice to see that Larian is trying to do more with the stat system than increase your damage output. The interaction between the stats sounds especially interesting, like how someone with high dexterity could attempt to pick a locked container, but someone with high strength could simply force it open and then use his dexterity to prevent items from breaking. Linking stats together like this could potentially mean that no matter how a character is built, there will be no obvious dump stat.
After a quick demo of the spells and combo system, which I'll cover later, I was shown the ability to manipulate the objects in the world. Just like in Divine Divinity, pretty much everything can be picked up or thrown by simple drag and drop actions. This brought back some fond memories that I shared with Swen, like how I loved being able to pick up the locked chests I'd encounter in a dungeon to drop them in town until the moment I'd have a reliable way to open them. Try to name a game released in the past 10 years that lets you do that! "You'll find a much higher level of interactivity here than in Divinity 1, or at least that's what we're trying to do," he replied. That was great news. The first Divinity game was rightly praised for its high level of interactivity with the world, something that was sadly missing from Divinity 2, so having it return here was one of the first hints that Larian was returning to its roots. I took the opportunity to mention the bugged bed that you can put in your inventory and carry everywhere with you in the game, making it quite valuable. He chuckled, "Ah, so you found it! It is something that was never intentional but that we intentionally never patched." The bugged bed and Larian's attitude towards it is the kind of little detail that helps the game develop an identity, and it is also something that so many other developers lack - that sense of playfulness and the desire to open possibilities, intended or not, to the player.
The ability to manipulate items also extends to the possibility of combining them. This is easily done by dragging and dropping one item onto another in your inventory window. One example I was shown was to combine a bunch of nails that I had stolen from a merchant with a somewhat useless branch we found earlier, thus creating a mace dealing decent crushing damage which proved very useful against skeletons we encountered later. Swen on the other hand decided to use a knife on a pumpkin to create a Halloween pumpkin that he used as a helmet — certainly a more fashionable choice than my bucket. This is actually the game's crafting system, which I was told will be very extensive. There's no menu or special screen involved - just go to your inventory and combine items together. This might sound simplistic but I also find merit in that approach. After all using the inventory to manipulate items sounds very intuitive. There is no need to find a special workbench and go through a long list of possible actions - I remember times when I opened a crafting menu only to feel thoroughly confused as to how I was supposed to use it, such as in Neverwinter Nights 2.
That surprised me. Like many others, I wasn't very enthusiastic about the co-op feature of the game. After all, co-op in CRPGs - for example, in the Infinity Engine games - usually means that one character plays the face of the party and deals with most interactions while the other players stay in the back and wait, and although co-op combat can be fun the experience has always felt lacking. The two Neverwinter Nights games were better in their multiplayer aspect, and their editors helped to prolong their lifespans, but they still felt clumsy in how limited the party interactions were and how unsatisfying the combat could be.
This is one instance where I am glad to declare that I was wrong. The co-op in D:OS is surprisingly good. It is both simple and elegant, and allows the two players to play apart or together as much as they want but always be able to interact with each other if so desired. To the skeptics who believe that the focus on co-op is a detriment to the single-player side of the game, I can safely say that no, it won't get in the way but instead is an alternate way to play the game - one that might open more options and where some unexpected situations may arise. In fact I'd go as far as to say that the co-op is optional to the solo just like the solo is optional to the co-op, and that you could play one mode and be fully satisfied without really knowing what you missed from the other one.
It's a drop-in/drop-out system. That means that you could play the game solo, in which case you control the whole party, and later a friend could join you, splitting the party in half with each player controlling one of the main heroes and their henchmen. The whole process is instant and smooth, without the need to quit the game or do anything special. If your friend leaves, then you get the full control of the party back.
Both players are free to either stay together, or to split and explore the world as they see fit. It's a very interesting approach that's very different from what we've come to expect from CRPGs. Interactions with NPCs and quests do not require both players to be present, thus two different quests could be solved at the same time by both players, but when in close proximity they have the opportunity to interact with each other through conversations and to react to certain events.
The first example of party interaction that I encountered was at the very start of the game. Swen and I wandered a bit along the beach and found a corpse. On it we found a bugged scroll containing only gibberish, but I was told that it explained that the guy had been told by a magical lying statue that he could fly, and had subsequently jumped off of a cliff and had a bit of a disagreement about the matter with gravity. This started our first party interaction as exclamation marks popped up above the heads of our characters to show that they had something to discuss. In this instance, we could share opinions on whether the man was right to take risks despite the grim outcome, or if it is always good to take everything with a bit of skepticism. Nothing special happened after the discussion ended, but I could see that we had both gained points in stats, namely Faith and Skepticism. These stats are part of the personality system the two main characters share, which defines how close they are by comparing their levels of Faith or Skepticism, Compassion or Aggression, Greed or Generosity, etc. The effects aren't immediately apparent, but I'm told that this system will affect the relationship between the characters - if they like or dislike each other, and at some point even the romantic side of their relationship. The game isn't called Original Sin for nothing, and according to Swen, something happened between the two, even if they do not remember it yet.
Speaking of which, just as the heroes can explore independently, so can they also engage in combat without any input from the other player. Characters caught in a fight will switch to turn-based mode while the other one will still be able to explore in real-time until he is too engaged in a fight. This means that a player stuck in a difficult fight can wait for his comrade to come support him without the need to rush.
Combat is strongly reminiscent of The Temple of Elemental Evil with a hint of Fallout. That isn't a coincidence, as when I asked Swen about it, he replied that ToEE was a direct inspiration for the combat in D:OS. He even added: "It's a game we took a good look at because we wanted a real old-school system. The main difference is that now you play it with a friend." That was great news because while ToEE had flaws like a boring starting area, uninspired quests and some unfortunately boring encounters, it was a great dungeon crawler with solid turn-based combat and no other game since has attempted to recreate something similar, aside from the indie game Knights of the Chalice which was a one-person job. After all, if something is good, you might as well reuse it. Thankfully the people at Larian thought the same.
While D:OS doesn't use D&D 3.5 like ToEE, it still has a load of tactical features, while keeping character building simple, unlike ToEE that joyously swamped the player down in rules minutia. If you've played that game then the way combat works should be quite familiar. Every participant takes his turn according to his initiative score, with faster players acting first. Unlike ToEE however, the number of actions is symbolised by action points as in Fallout, with each action having a different AP cost associated with it. Actions include movement, item use, spellcasting and attacking with a weapon. Weapons themselves have differing AP costs, so a dagger may do less damage than a sword but will take less action points to use. Various tactical features keep the combat dynamic and engaging. Someone surrounded by two or more enemies will be considered "flanked" and get a considerable penalty to defense. Backstabbing, that old staple of roguish characters and corporate executives, will also be there. Attacks of opportunity are also in, meaning that trying to run past an enemy or move away from him will give him a free attack against you, making mobility quite tricky. The version of the game I played didn't have attacks of opportunity implemented yet, thus allowing characters to move around freely and making kiting easier, but Swen insisted that he would later show me a more recent build where AoO were implemented, because no one on the Codex would believe me if I didn't see them with my own eyes (and rightly so!).
One fight, which we ended the demo with, showed how complex the combat and spells can be. It started easy, with a bunch of zombies running for us and patches of poison on the ground. Zombies are immune to poison but vulnerable to fire, and poison can be easily ignited, so an immediate tactic would be to use a fire source to immediately burn the surrounding poison and create fiery floor tiles. But then came a big fiery undead or demon that is not only immune to fire but is even healed by it! Igniting the poison would give you a short-term advantage against the lesser threat of zombies but hurt you in the long-run since the greater foe would actually benefit from this strategy. With the right enemy diversity, not every fight can easily be beaten by using one single strategy. The player needs to be flexible and switch tactics as the situation changes.
You are thankfully not limited to only two characters for your party and can hire henchmen that you may find in various places in the world, though taverns appear to be their favoured locations. So far henchmen do not do much except for being extra characters for hire. Only two henchmen in total can be hired at the same time, and in co-op each player assumes direct control of one of them. Aside from the way you recruit them, they behave exactly like your starting heroes. They'll even gain experience and can be developed in any way you want when they level up, though it is unknown if your main characters will have some unique skills due to their status as Source-Hunters-cum-Source-Users.
The game uses a classless system. If you've played one of the previous Divinity games, you'll know what that means. If you haven't, well, what it means in this case is that the game doesn't require you to pick one archetypal role such as warrior, thief, or wizard when your create your character. Instead the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of a character are defined solely by how you choose to improve your stats and skills on level-up. The skill system wasn't implemented in the version I played, and the few spells were already distributed between the two heroes, but if this is anything like Larian's other games, there will probably be things like combat moves, passive abilities, more spells and rogue abilities like sneaking and lockpicking. This flexible system has proven very enjoyable in the past and I have no doubt that controlling a large party will only make it better by allowing you to create character builds that complement each other. There's a risk here of creating overpowered builds that will make others seem less attractive, something previous Larian games suffered from, but still, that freedom of building your character by mixing elements typically associated with various archetypal classes is simply fun. It is possible to find other types of classless systems, such as in the Elder Scrolls series, but in those you start with every skill available and only choose to tag which ones will increase faster than others when used, a system that can and has been happily abused by many and is at times even counter-intuitive. Oblivion is infamous for its ability to make the various skills meaningless by allowing you to do everything anyway, thanks to the minigames, magic staves and overall little impact of the character system. The classless system of Larian games on the other hand provides you with a skill point per level, allowing you to pick a new skill or to strengthen one you already unlocked. Since the level is capped at 20, at least at the time of writing, this means that the number of skills you can learn will be limited. Yes, just like previous games in the series there might be hidden books and magic items that can provide you with free skill points but these are typically very rare and easy to miss.
So we know that combat can be challenging, but what about death? After all it doesn't matter much how troublesome an encounter can be if you can repeatedly die and throw yourself back at the enemy to wear it down little by little. Well, death in my experience was rather unpleasant since I wasn't supposed to die but did anyway. Resurrection apparently wasn't implemented yet, so Swen had to use a cheat code to bring me back. They do have a system planned for the final release - if one of your main heroes die, he will be out of the game until rescued by his partner, which may prove difficult if he was in an area with strong monsters. One can also imagine that death will cause other sorts of penalties. If both heroes die, it is game over and you'll have to reload. Still, this isn't as drastic as Beyond Divinity where you would reach game over if one of the main characters died. Henchmen death on the other hand is permanent, and you will need to hire another one to replace your loss, although prices will go up as word goes around that you do not take good care of your employees.
It's also possible to flee a battle by hitting a big red button next to the action points counter. This will cause you to be instantly teleported in the nearest tavern. My guess is that Larian will add some sort of penalty for using this system in the future because it seems a bit too convenient and hassle-free, and can remove a lot of the game's challenge. On the other hand, if the penalty is too high, why not just reload your last save and restart the fight from scratch? I am not really convinced by the flee feature, but I suppose it could prove useful in co-op where you wouldn't want to reload every 5 minutes.
As enjoyable as the combat is though, most of the fun came from the exploration of the world. Swen told me that this game is a return to their roots and it is obvious after a couple of minutes. Forget the extended dungeon crawl of Beyond Divinity or the somewhat limited maps of Divinity 2, this time it's a big seamless world like in Divine Divinity. One returning feature is the distinct lack of loading screens, so cities, villages, dungeons, caves, beaches, forests, cliffs and other assorted locations are all part of the same big map. It's amusing how much this widens the scope of the world, and yet you likely won't notice it because it feels so natural. In my case it only hit me when Swen jokingly asked me if I had counted the loading screens since we started playing and I realise that I had seen none apart from when we started. That he was proud of this was evident. They couldn't avoid loading screens entirely, and so far the game counts 4 big maps, but that's far less than what most games do these days, as D:OS isn't limited by console hardware. He laughed when I shared with him that when I played Divine Divinity for the first time, I naively thought that I'd explore the whole map outside of Aleroth and then go to bed — for those who never played the game, exploring the whole map took me around a week and that was back when I had a lot of free time to play.
Here's one anecdote that should tell you what to expect from the world exploration in D:OS. At one point we attempted to complete a quest involving talking statues but it was clear that something was missing. Maybe it was due to a bug in the alpha version or maybe we just missed a clue, and contrarily to what one might think Swen doesn't know everything about the game, so we just started to look around. We couldn't find it and moved on to something else but he had this to say: "I don't know if you remember but it was exactly the same thing in Ultima VII: 'Did I miss something?' I love this feeling of exploration!" No quest compass telling you where to go next, no glowing items to make sure you know that you need to pick them up. Just a big world to explore and interact with, where not everything is readily apparent and where looking for something may have you find something entirely different. "By the way," he added, "we haven't even started on the main map yet. We're just discovering and exploring the world."
The alpha was rough - many things were missing or not completely implemented and some triggers broke. But I loved what I saw. The sheer potential was amazing and it was clear that this was the game Swen had wanted to make from the beginning, what he had wanted to do with Divine Divinity until their publisher made demands. There are even some fun little easter eggs for fans of the series, like how you can stumble on the burial site of Jake (remember Zombie Jake?) or that getting the pyramids also involves you getting only one and using it to reach the other half, except this time you won't find a room full of zombies. There is also a lot of humour in the dialogs, showing once more that Larian takes a very tongue-in-cheek approach to their fantasy, unlike other developers that try to be so serious they end up as silly and pompous.
And then there is the editor. The game will ship with the very tools Larian used to develop the game, so it should be pretty powerful. Some features I was shown were the ability to work with several people at the same time or to test changes on the fly. While this is certainly not unique and it is popular these days to make your game moddable, the large majority of moddable games are single-player only, while D:OS has co-op multiplayer right out of the box. Swen is trying to go back to the road most developers have abandoned or have not even attempted to travel: "I don't think there's been a multiplayer RPG editor since Neverwinter Nights 2. Stuff like Skyrim is only single-player." He didn't say it, but Neverwinter Nights 2 was also in real-time and had a clunky interface while D:OS promises turn-based combat and hopefully a better interface. If the game is popular enough, that guarantees that one will be able to find new adventure online, to play alone or with friends, the same stuff that other companies would gladly make you pay for. "There will be no DLC or microtransactions of that kind," I was told. Pfew!
The presentation of Original Sin came to an end, but I still had one lingering question about the affinity system. As I described earlier, various stats track what could be best described as the personalities of the main characters, and these in turn define how well they get along and how their relationship will evolve as you follow the story. That sounds interesting, but what exactly is the impact on the game? Swen answered that it would only affect the story. I saw this as a missed opportunity. Wouldn't it be possible for the relationship between the heroes to influence their performance in combat or other situations? There comes a point if you really know and trust someone that you simply know how that person will perform in a given situation and rely on them that way, and likewise you might also know when to not count on them. One simple way to have this reflect on the gameplay could be for exemple to have the heroes share a bonus to defense if they care for each other, or on the contrary have them deal more damage to vent their aggression because they find it painful to be together. I like good stories in general, and in a CRPG it can be a good incentive to keep going, but when elements of the story have an impact on the gameplay it is possible to create something truly memorable. One recent example I can think of is the spirit meter of Mask of the Betrayer, showing how dangerous the curse that afflicted the main character was and that all that talk of urgency was actually true instead of mere flavour. I described my idea to Swen.
What happened next surprised me. Swen looked very interested and called David Walgrave, producer of Original Sin, and had me explain my idea again. David listened, we discussed it, and it turns out that they had some ideas for various skills that they didn't know where to fit, and tying them to social skills actually made sense. Eventually David turned to Swen and asked why they didn't come up with that themselves. So there you go, the Codex's modest contribution to improving Divinity: Original Sin! Jokes aside, it tells you a lot about the Larian people, that they're open-minded enough to listen to suggestions from any source and consider them seriously.
After that I was offered a sandwich and a presentation of Larian's other upcoming game, Dragon Commander. I went to visit Larian mostly with the idea of checking out the current state of Original Sin, but I certainly didn't feel like turning down the opportunity to also play a little of Dragon Commander, especially if a sandwich was also part of the deal. Swen was about to leave to go back to his duties, because entertaining an emissary of the Codex is one thing but getting actual work done is another, when he asked me if I liked strategy games. I replied that I wasn't much of an RTS player but I liked turn-based strategy and especially board games. I could see his face light up with enthusiasm and he invited me to follow him to a table where I had earlier seen what looked like elements of a boardgame. Turns out that was actually the home-made prototype for the Dragon Commander board game! As I discovered, Swen loves board games. He is in fact a big fan of Axis and Allies, so big that a few times a year he sends his family away for a week so he can play the game with friends non-stop! He gave me a quick run-down of the rules, with their custom units and dice, cards, bills cannibalised from a Monopoly box, and cardboard hexes — a nice feature of the hexes being that you can make the game map as big or small as you want by combining them, which allows you to determine how long a game session will take. Interestingly, he told me that this prototype was the actual basis for the video game and that during the course of the development, both iterations evolved in their own way.
That's when I met Farhang Namdar, the Lead Designer for Dragon Commander, with whom I spent the next two hours discovering the game. Farhang is very different from Swen. I didn't feel intimidated by him like I initially did with Swen. In fact Farhang made me laugh a lot. I'm sure that if we had gone to school together, he would've been the kind of guy to make me laugh so much he would have had me expelled from the classroom.
Dragon Commander's story is set far into the past of the Divinity universe, even farther than Original Sin. You take the role of the bastard son of a recently deceased emperor whose children are now fighting among themselves for the control of the empire. Your siblings made a pact with demons, introducing a whole new technology of steampunk design to Rivellon. Maxos, from Divinity 2, needs you, the only pure-hearted heir to the throne, to join the succession dispute and make sure that this technology, which he sees as an abomination, is destroyed for good. Since none of it is seen in the next games, we can assume the player character makes a good job of it. The twist is that in order to win the war you must yourself make use of this technology. This is seen in the various units you'll use, your mothership — the Raven — and the jetpack you'll wear in dragon form; like in Divinity 2, your avatar is a dragon knight with the power to turn into a dragon at will.
Before visiting Larian I had assumed that Dragon Commander was an RTS that allowed you to enter the battlefield in your dragon form and take a direct part in the action; I thought that would be the gimmick that would set it apart from the rest of real-time strategy games. Bear also in mind that I'm no great fan of the RTS genre although I do enjoy some of them occasionally. However, Dragon Commander turned out to be much, much more than what I had expected. In fact, it isn't even an RTS but rather a hybrid of different genres, something that has become very rare these days. In one package, you'll find social interactions and political decisions where your choices actually matter, turn-based strategy with a strong board game feel, and real-time strategy with an action twist.
We started off the demo on the Raven, right in the middle of the game. The Raven is your main base of operations; there you can consult the strategic map to plan out your next move or research and purchase upgrades, but it is also where you live and where the various characters who join you during the campaign reside and where you can interact with them. This a nice throwback to older games like Origin's Wing Commander or LucasArts' Tie Fighter, in which you could wander around your mothership between mission and discuss the current situation with various characters. It is also such a welcome break in the tedious pacing of "mission-cutscene-mission" of many games, including RTS's, that one wonders why this feature is so underused — to Relic's credit, Dawn of War 2 also did something similar by allowing you to return to your ship between missions and listen to the squad banter, even if it was only done for flavour. "I was a big fan of the Wing Commander games," explained Farhang, "but the problem with [these games] was that you could interact with the characters, but you didn't have any consequences for the choices you made. We enjoyed those kinds of games so we just put it in there, but since we have experience making RPGs as well, we put those conversations that you have in normal RPGs on the mothership and you can actually make choices that influence these characters." After a short pause, he laughed and continued: "That was the idea back then! Slowly, bit by bit, it started drawing out. Then we said: 'Fuck it, who cares? Nobody's making games like this anymore so why not try it?'"
The idea is that the first couple of missions are railroaded but after that you are free to conduct your campaign the way you want to. Along the way you pick up various people, including generals to command your armies and diplomats of the various races inhabiting your empire to act as your advisors. At the point where we started the game, everyone was already present on board and Maxos informed us that now was the time to get married. This was to be a political marriage: every race would bring their princess on the ship next turn so we could pick one of them, and of course refusing was not an option. Since this would only happen next turn, we still had time to explore the rest of the ship and take care of other political business.
Your advisors will often come to you with sensitive issues, and as the emperor it is your role to make a decision on them. The nice thing about the political problems presented to you is that they are grounded in reality. Your empire is populated by real people who have down-to-earth concerns, which in turns makes it easier for them to resonate with you, the player. One of the main problems with fantasy is the excessive focus on the setting to the detriment of the characters, something I blame Tolkien's influence for. After all, it is the characters who carry the story and who we can identify with. Farhang shares this feeling, and he told me that was exactly why he had spent a few months going through the news and election programs in various parts of the world to single out some of the most sensitive subjects and integrate them into the game with the intent to leave no player completely indifferent to the in-game choices.
Your council consists of five advisors, each representing his or her race, with their particular needs, preferences and beliefs. While the game itself makes no judgement and simply presents different choices and asks you to make a decision, your advisors, on the contrary, are often pretty vocal about how they perceive your actions. Every decision you make changes the way they see you, and you might end up with one or more races disliking you if you repeatedly go against their wishes. This opens up nice situations where you might make a decision based on your preferences (or those of the character you decided to role-play) but would have to back down on your decision further down the road, lest you lose the support of some of your allies. Since every race brings you various bonuses and advantages based on how much they like you, this is something you have to seriously consider.
As far as the races go, the undead are religious fundamentalists with a very rigid way of thinking, but because of their beliefs they do not shun forced labour, which translates into a discount on production costs during the RTS phase. The elves are the fantasy equivalent of liberal democrats, open-minded and wary of violence, supporting your army with magic powers and defensive abilities. The dwarves (with their councilor reminding me of Winston Churchill) are the capitalists of the game, always after profit and caring little about anything else, although their society is rather conservative and puts a special emphasis on family values. The lizards are libertarians and believe that anyone's actions are his own business as long as he is accountable for them; self-awareness and responsibility are what counts. And then you have the imps. Quite frankly, the imps are crazy and care about nothing but technology and science; their loose sense of ethics means that, to them, there is almost no boundary between right and wrong — science and progress are all that matters. As expected, they are your technicians and researchers.
Since we might as well begin with a controversial example, the first choice was whether or not we should allow gay marriage throughout our empire. Listening to the councilors' take on the matter wasn't entirely unlike listening to the news, except more entertaining. The undead councilor was, of course, repulsed by the very notion of gay marriage, the elven one strongly approved of it, the dwarf didn't like it but didn't seem to mind it much, the lizard thought it was a basic right to be able to decide who you should marry, and the imp councilor not only approved of it but was glad that it would make parties more interesting. I decided to allow it, changing my standing with the various races accordingly. Interestingly, your choices may lead to having to make follow-up decisions later, so that, for example, if you allow same-sex marriages you will later have to decide whether they are allowed to take place in public or whether gay people should be permitted to serve in the army. This is a nice way of showing your influence on the social and political development of your empire instead of having a big list of disjointed issues.
The most direct way your decisions impact the gameplay is by adjusting your standing with the different races, which in turn has an influence over the advantages you get from them. If you exceed their expectations, you may also receive cards that symbolise the favours you have gained with a particular race or person — a nice board game feature. These cards can be played on the strategic map or in the RTS part; some affect regions on the strategic map, others give you more units in the RTS battles or more abilities when in the dragon form. And then you have decisions that may affect the game right away, like allowing your army to go on a holiday. Everyone likes holidays and this will likely make you more popular, but you are also at war and sending some of your forces away might not always be the wisest choice.
The good thing is that all that stuff, which can be rather serious and heavy, is handled extremely well in the game and with a thick layer of humour. I laughed out loud a lot during the presentation, not because of the issues themselves, which I'm sure have most of us bored to death already due to their omnipresence in the news, but thanks to the comments the advisors were making. Seriously, hearing the elf rejoice that elves are now "the gayest of all people" after you have authorized gay marriages in public is so funny that it is hard to not go along with it. Compare that to the heavy-handedness of Bioware games where pretty much everything is treated so seriously that it becomes pompous. Previous games in the Divinity universe have never been too serious and often had a light-hearted parodic take on fantasy, but in Dragon Commander Larian have decided to move to the next level and try to provoke a reaction on the part of the player. "With quests," explained Farhang, "you have to make all the fluff around it so that people can start relating to them, but in this case it's like: 'bang!' You know it since it's been in the newspapers, there are friends of yours that disagree, friends that agree, etc."
At one point Farhang mentioned Monty Python as the example Larian tried to follow in terms of humour, and that reminded me of a lecture by John Cleese in which he talked about the relationship between humour and creativity. Humour and laughter, he claimed, are great ways to bring relaxation and allow someone to enter a creative state, and creativity and original ideas are exactly what is needed to solve many important problems, yet humour is usually banned from this kind of discussions because the subject matter is too often deemed too serious. For Cleese this is a grave mistake, one that stems from conflating "serious" with "solemn". Serious matters, according to Cleese, can be handled with a lot of humour and laughter and yet not lose one bit of their importance, while solemnity on the other hand serves no purpose other than being pompous and serving the ego of the self-indulgent. I believe that with the choices they offer in Dragon Commander Larian have touched on the same problem that Cleese was talking about, and that is also why many people might complain that the game dares to make fun of such serious issues. Instead of making a statement or trying to "emotionally engage" the player, the developers behind Dragon Commander offer the player the opportunity to play with hypothetical situations, many of which should already be familiar, toy with some ideas and see what happens, and — last but not least — simply laugh about them and let you contemplate them from a different perspective. It is amazing how a playful take on a serious matter can make you think about it in a better and deeper way than if it had been played out without any kind of humour. I can easily imagine the player looking forward to returning to the Raven after the battle to see what the game is going to ask him to decide on next!
I told Farhang that the choices and the advisors' reactions to them reminded me a lot of King of Dragon Pass, but he confessed that he didn't know about the game. He later recalled playing it with his brother a long time ago, but it wasn't a conscious inspiration on Dragon Commander — rather, with the latter, he tried to emulate some aspects of Wing Commander or Defender of the Crown. This got me thinking. Swen wasn't kidding when he said that their new games are a return to Larian's roots, but it actually goes deeper than that, to the roots of other games from a decade ago, back to an era where developers dared to try new things, mix genres together, and experiment for the sake of it. It comes as no surprise, then, to see elements in Dragon Commander that are reminiscent of games from that era, even those unknown by the developers. King of Dragon Pass may not have been a direct source of inspiration but the guys at Larian have definitely been tapping from the same spring that gave birth to it, one that still has a lot to offer.
To go back to the game, there are other places to explore on the Raven — the bar, for example. This is where your generals enjoy hanging out, giving you an opportunity to question them and get a feel of how the campaign is going as well as their opinions on your decisions. They may also have requests for you, and how you treat them will shape your future relationships with them. The most interesting of the bunch is probably Catherine, a hardcore feminist who loves to ramble about men oppressing women, women not being treated equally, etc. What she says isn't too interesting, albeit it is humourous, but the trick is that, just like her real-life counterparts, she often makes a good point, either for the right or wrong reasons, but it is almost invariably diminished by her aggressive behaviour, lack of manners, and extremist tendencies. Annoying her is fun, if only to see what colourful insults she can come up with next. At first she bitches about many trivial issues, but in a nice twist she later approaches you with more serious and grim issues and, given her known tendencies to exaggerate, it can be hard to decide whether to believe her or not. Farhang seemed to enjoy that I preferred to piss her off because in that scenario her answers were funnier ("May Hell become your home and Satan be a she!"). Other patrons include Henry, a very bitter human who complains about everything, and Scarlet, a cute girl with "fan-service" written all over her. And then there is Edmund. Edmund is the resident racist lizard who has a lot of mean and sarcastic things to say about everyone, although he does respect you for your ability to turn into a dragon and this is, in fact, the only reason why he even follows you.
Other options on the Raven include the laboratory where you can choose the unit upgrades to research. These are unlocked as the game progresses and may require certain conditions to be met before they become available. Researching an upgrade takes a few turns, but you can also pay gold to complete the research immediately, just like in Civilization. Similarly, you can ask Maxos to find you upgrades for your dragon form. As you can see, between the upgrades and the conversations, there are a lot of things to do when you aren't busy expanding your empire by force!
One last important feature you'll find on the Raven is the princess. As I wrote earlier, you are forced to marry one at some point in order to consolidate your political position, and each race will offer you a candidate, except for the humans because it wouldn't be politically correct and the imps because ... well ... it's kinda complicated. (You'll find out what happens by reading the Rivellon Times!) Each princess has a distinct personality and brings new situations for you to consider, a lot of which may also grant you additional resources to use in your campaign or influence your standing with the different races. As a twist, most races will be happy to know that you treat their princess well, but will get angry if you attempt to make her happy because that would mean having her move away from her iconic role and responsibilities as a princess.
The Lizard princess, Camilla, is a cold and distant person but she also holds the function of a judge and so she will often come to you to ask your opinion about the various cases she handles. One such example is an event similar to the London riots where you can suggest that a group of youngsters should be forgiven since they merely went with the flow or punished because they should have known better. It will then be possible to have her evolve into a strict and harsh person who will apply the law to the letter, or instead teach her to temper her application of the law with compassion and understanding. Aida, the dwarven princess, has daddy issues ("and really big boobs!"). While marrying her will bring you the support of the dwarves and their economic strength, Aida hates her father so much that she will ask you to work against him. While I have no doubt that her appearance will get some of the more stuck-up people on the net angry, it's interesting to note that she will in fact try to seduce you into working with her against her father, though of course doing so might end up hurting your economy (even though you will get cards from her as favours). Alternatively, you could attempt to reconcile her with the king or at least find some appeasement. Lohannah is the elven princess and will likely satisfy all of those with an elven princess fetish. She's lived a sheltered life until the events of the game and doesn't know much about the world, but that's how the elves want her to be. Keeping her that way will actually awaken supernatural powers in her over time, but you can instead try to make her happy by opening up her view of the world. One of the first situations you'll have to deal with if you marry her is that the dwarves decide to throw a banquet in her honour but they only eat meat while Lohannah, being a good elf, is a vegetarian. You can ask the dwarves to excuse her, which will make them angry, or you can encourage her to try the meat in which case she discovers that she likes it, but this in turn will anger the elves because you are somehow debasing her even as you turn her into a happier and funnier person. And last but not least is Ophelia, the undead princess. Ophelia is probably the most unique of the princesses because, being an undead, she is basically a skeleton in clothes — for some reason she reminded me of a less happy version of La Catrina from the Mexican folklore. She is in fact very unhappy about her current state and wants nothing more than to be alive again, though this will clearly anger the other undead and they will warn you against it. As it turns out, you can try to grant her wish but the way to do is a bit ghastly and involves collecting the body parts of various beautiful women in Rivellon and sewing them together to create her a new body. If following the path of Viktor Frankenstein doesn't appeal to you, you can always turn her into some sort of golden robotic undead goddess that isn't entirely unlike the robot Maria from Metropolis. That, or you can go with the wishes of her faction and let her be miserable for the rest of her unlife.
There is an awful lot of choices and consequences in Dragon Commander. After the presentation, Swen showed me The Wall, the place where they pinned all the papers relating to the C&C in the game, and it is certainly impressive. You can evolve the princesses in many ways and there are so many variables with the political decisions that no playthrough can really be identical to another. Swen thinks that, ironically, there is more C&C in Dragon Commander than in any RPG that came before. The way a situation is handled causes another situation to appear, and the way that one is handled will in turn lead to yet another one, and then different consequences will appear together... It's also possible to lock yourself into a no-win scenario if you have made a bunch of stupid decisions and are pitted against a particularly strong AI opponent, in which case you will be forced to restart the game. Swen is ready to receive hate mail for this, but I can admire the will to go ahead anyway with a design choice that won't be popular with the masses.
Once you're done with the conversations and other social interactions, you will discover that there is a whole new game for you to play with. The strategic map is where you plan out your battles and it has a nice board game feel to it — I'll also add that I love the illustrations of marine monsters in the sea zones of the map. While it does not look like it, every region is in fact a hex in disguise and the map wraps on itself, à la Solium Infernum, which means that you are always in the middle of the board and so are your opponents. The map isn't fixed and, just like in Civilization, you can choose the size of the map when starting a new game, thus allowing you to set the length of the campaign according to your preference, or you can pick one of the pre-made maps available. This also applies to the multiplayer. Since the Raven is not available in multiplayer, the strategic map is also where you'll pick your upgrade and research objectives. Each region you own has a population value and also brings you some gold each turn. Population is the reserve from which you build your army in the RTS phase, but since it is a shared resource this means that everyone involved in a fight will draw from it. The higher the population, the more units each player will be able to build in the RTS mode. That's where cards that let you play with the population numbers come in handy: increasing the population means that you will be able to create more units during the battle, but so will your opponents; on the contrary, by imposing a genocide that will leave the country empty, you make initial invading and defending armies more important since nobody will be able to create new units. Other cards can be very useful as well, like increasing the revenues of a region by 200%, increasing productions, reducing the price of units, or even simply but effectively making one of your countries immune to invasion.
Units have a limited number of movement points to use each turn and they can capture a region simply by moving through it if it is undefended, although leaving it without a garrison will also make it vulnerable. Only land units can capture regions, but land and sea units can still be used for support. You can buy various units from your capital, including transports which you can load with a bunch of units to unload them in another country. It is possible to add buildings in countries you own. Academies decrease research cost by 10%, taverns give you mercenary cards (use them and you get some more units for the next battle), gold mines increase revenue, factories let you build units, and parliaments give you cards with various effects like teleporting units to another country, sabotage, etc.
If you are one of those who doesn't like RTS battles much, you have the option to auto-resolve them. The game will then check your forces and advantages vs. those of your opponents and declare the winner. Despite the fact that the RTS section is the one commonly pushed to the front when promoting the game (after all, who doesn't like dragons with jetpacks?), it appears that there was a strong emphasis during the development of Dragon Commander to allow people who prefer turn-based board game-like strategy games to keep doing what they like the most and ignore the part that could disturb them. One key difference, though, is that if the odds are strongly against you, there might be a point where you will invariably lose if you allow the game to automatically resolve the battle, yet you will have a chance to turn the tide if you take matters in your own hands. Similarly, you can opt out of the choices on the Raven by going with the majority vote, but a decision will still be made and you will still bear the consequences.
Once you've completed all your actions on the strategic map, you end your turn, check your opponents' moves, conduct a battle in the RTS mode or auto-resolve it, and then go back to the Raven. As a nice touch, the story progression, the choices you make and the results of your campaign are summarised for you in the Rivellon Times. This is much more fun than looking at neutral pie-charts because it improves the verisimilitude of the setting, but there is also the added factor that the Rivellon Times is a tabloid that is always against you, so whatever choice you make will always be criticised as the wrong one.
Finally, a few words about the RTS aspect of the game. Well, to be honest I'm not much of an RTS player. I liked what I saw — it looked fun — but I play very few RTS's and only in single-player, certainly not competitively, so some will find my report lacking. But I can tell you a few facts. Before the battle starts, you can play five cards that affect every aspect of the battle, from your dragon form to your units. Everyone can see them and know the bonus you get, but two slots are blind and hidden from everyone else. Units are built from recruitment centers and, as you remember, drain the population resource that is shared by everyone in the battle. Units are the same for every player, but they can behave very differently based on the upgrades you pick. You can try to see the path your opponent is going for and pick updates to counter him, or you can go with your default setup you are most comfortable with and attack before he can figure you out. Capture spots on the field will let you build various building that may aid you in battle, and smaller capture spots will let you build turrets. Buildings constructed during the RTS mode can be upgraded by doing research related to them on the Raven between the battles. After a battle is over, you are rated on your efficiency and get to keep some of your units if you did very well.
Then there is the dragon form that allows you to be physically present on the battlefield, just like in Sacrifice from 2000. You can pop-up anywhere on the map as long as you have a friendly unit nearby and your jetpack will allow you to dodge projectiles or reach any corner of the battlefield very fast. Many complained about the dragon parts of Divinity 2 but this is basically dragon combat done right. While most people assume that the dragon is only for offense, you also have several support moves in your arsenal, such as a healing spell or a shield that negates the damage done to whatever unit or structure you cast it on. It is also possible to cast a charm spell that will temporarily let you control an enemy unit. Turning into a dragon won't make the game easier as it means that you won't be able to manage your units as before and some units are specifically geared to fight dragons. If your dragon is killed, it can be resurrected by sacrificing a part of your population, and the penalty decreases over time. The dragon influences the stats of your units, and you can choose among 3 types of dragon: one aimed at those who enjoy the dragon combat, another for those who prefer the RTS part, and finally one aimed at all-around players. "One of the fun things about this game", Farhang told me, "is that it's really a PC game. There's no way you can play this on a console. We were planning to make it for consoles but then it started to get really hard."
Again I'm no expert but the whole thing seemed fun and sufficiently fast-paced. There appears to be a good mix of ground, sea and air units and some of them can work well together, e.g., a balloon increases the line of sight of nearby units and allows some of your naval units to shoot farther than they normally would. The dragon form is far from being a gimmick — it is an integral part of the gameplay, and in theory it can help a skilled player turn the tide of battle in his favor. It looks complex, with many variables, yet fun and accessible at the same time.
So, there you have it. Dragon Commander looks fun and isn't what I initially expected at all. I thought it was mainly an RTS, yet only 10 minutes of the two hour long presentation were actually spent on the RTS mode and the rest on the social and turn-based strategy parts — maybe because I had previously told Larian that my preferences laid there. I am glad that Larian not only tried to do something different (their last three games were RPGs), but also something different from what other developers do. I think that the best way to close this section would be to let Farhang have the last word: "We wanted to give you that 'whole experience' that you used to have with old games, you know like 'North and South' and things like 'California Games' or 'Defender of the Crown'. You had to love different things, but it was part of the whole experience. And it's kinda something that games are really losing now. There aren't really a lot of fun mix-ups to make this unique experience if you know what I mean. It's always very straightforward these days."
The end of the Dragon Commander presentation pretty much ended my visit at Larian. Swen and the others were very busy and had already spent more time on me than was initially planned; still, everyone was very gracious. I was even given a box copy of the Divinity Anthology by Swen. I already owned the games but this was nevertheless a fine gift, especially thanks to the booklet inside, detailing Larian's history. But what made a particular impression on me is that when he gave me the anthology, Swen said that this way I got all the Divinity games in a same box, the good and the bad ones. I'm pretty sure that he meant Beyond Divinity when he talked of the bad ones; I even recall reading that it is a game he wishes he hadn't made. I strongly disagree with this. What hit me during my time in their office is how much Larian has grown over the years. I played Beyond Divinity a few years ago, didn't like it and had to force myself to finish it, yet I wouldn't call it a bad game, merely a mediocre one. Playing Original Sin, it's very easy to see that it is being made by the same guys who made Divine Divinity, but you can also see elements of Beyond Divinity in it, like the party system and the two main characters linked to each other. It didn't work as well in Beyond Divinity, mainly because the game was real-time and there weren't many interesting encounters, but it was still important that they made it because they learned from it and it also shows in Divinity: Original Sin. Even all the trouble with the console development for Divinity 2 taught them things, even if it's just what works and what doesn't.
Dragon Commander should be out in a few months and understandably shows a lot more polish than Divinity: Original Sin. Both games are clearly a labour of love but, contrary to the popular opinion, by itself this is not a sign of sure quality. Yet both game have tremendous potential, and Larian has grown a lot and finds itself free of the publisher meddling now. They have also shown that they dare to make decisions likely to be unpopular with a large part of the gaming masses, be it the humour of Dragon Commander or the co-op aspect of Divinity: Original Sin. You cannot reach greatness, however, if you aren't willing to risk failure. Seeing how many risks Larian is willing to take makes me feel very enthusiastic about their upcoming games.