Dragon Commander depresses me because I don’t like it. I desperately want to like it. It deserves to be liked. It begs to be liked. It should be liked. It has an endearing and deliriously loopy playfulness, like a dog chasing its tail. Here is a videogame that refuses to adhere to any established genre, giving it an unhinged quality you won’t find in better games. There’s a reason no one is jamming real time strategy games into RPGs into turn-based boardgames into card games into action games where you fly a dragon around. And that reason is because it probably doesn’t work. You can tell by playing Dragon Commander. Which I really wished I liked.
After the jump, my god, it’s full of genres
Dragon Commander is — deep breath — a Wing Commander shell with Mass Effect/Fable 3 style decisions around a turn-based strategy game with card powers in which territory control is decided by an RTS battle with a dragon arcade game as a superpower. That sounds like a mess because it is. A sometimes inspired mess. There’s nothing like making the elves mad because you’re letting the imps eat orc meat, so you get a lower unit capacity fighting in that elven territory you’re trying to capture because you want the extra cards you get for controlling the elven observatory, so, wait, why did you let the imps eat orc meat in the first place? Oh, hold on, it doesn’t matter because your dragon just spewed acid on everything. Inspired, but still a mess.
The feet of clay in Dragon Commander is its RTS. It always comes down to this mode, which is both the foundation of the gameplay and its weakest point. It’s a horrible blobfest with blobs of units spitting stuff at other blobs of units in an unimpressive graphics engine that holds you at birds-eye length from the floaty action of units scudding across the map like scrubbing bubbles. I suppose you could be polite and call it traditional. In much the same way that RTS’s from before RTS’s were really good are traditional.
I suspect the objective was to keep the RTS simple, which explains the lack of fog of war, scouting, building options, formations, and resources. But there are several factors that affect a battle before you play, mostly in the form of a research tree at the turn-based strategy level. It’s not much of a tree. It’s really a list. Well, four lists. Okay, it’s more like a menu. You buy new units and upgrades, and then you see them in action when you’re playing the RTS. A lot of these upgrades matter a lot, but the AI in the game is brutally efficient at shoving around the blobs, so the upgrades often take a back seat to reflexes and endurance.
Dragon Commander lets you skip the RTS by auto-resolving, which streamlines everything into a slightly less clunky turn-based strategy game. But then you’re missing the whole point of the title, which is that you’re a dragon. You probably thought you commanded dragons, right? Nope. You are the dragon. In the RTS, you turn into a big flapping dragon that uses a row of powers on an MMO style hotbar to trash the other teams’ units or to buff/heal your units. It depends on what kind of dragon you are and what upgrades you’ve bought. The computer doesn’t get a dragon. Which is why you ideally want to lead all the RTS battles. But you can only lead one per turn, which tosses a little balance into the lack of balance.
It’s different, but it’s not the kind of different that will hold up for very long, and it’s unfortunately not the kind of different that the developer will be able to whip into shape over time. Without a solid foundation — namely, a better RTS at the bottom of everything — Dragon Commander is a frail novelty that will fall apart shortly after you’ve handled it.