It's tough being a king who's also supreme commander of a steampunk army and also fights in all his battles and can also turn into a dragon with a jetpack and also has to manage social policy for the lands he conquers. Interesting, but tough.
Your long-term goal is the same as that of anyone who can turn into a dragon: conquer the world. The campaign map is divided into a few dozen large territories, and from there you can build units, move them, buy upgrades for them, or get new spells for your dragon form. When you've finished, you end your turn, and your enemy moves.
If any of your units have clashed with the enemy's, you have the option to auto-resolve the battle, or play it out as a real-time strategy skirmish. That takes you to a rather pretty, mist-shrouded 3D map of the region, dotted with control points on which you can build factories and turrets. You start with whatever units you put here via the strategy map, but once you have some production buildings, you can spend Recruits to make more.
The Recruits resource is simple: it just increases over time, faster if you've built extra recruitment centres. But it ties into the strategy map in an interesting way: it's limited by the population of the region. Once the total number of recruits doled out matches that, no one can build anything more. That means taking early control of the few spots you can build recruitment centres on is a priority: it's no use trying to turn the tide later, when there are no more reinforcements to be had.
Recruits can buy various types of infantry (which actually appear to be spindly steampunk mechs), tanks, aircraft and even boats. But your most powerful unit is yourself. If you move your view close to some of your own units, you can hit Enter to go into dragon mode: a third-person view of you, a sizeable dragon wearing a jetpack. You fly around with the mouse and keyboard, spam fireballs at enemy units, and cast spells to turn the tide of a battle. If you take too much damage, you 'die' and are forced back to non-corporeal- RTS-camera mode to order units around until you can afford to respawn.
One of the first spells you earn for dragon mode is the Imp Buster, a single explosive fireball that can destroy a whole cluster of most unit types. It's slow to recharge, but it can do so while you're in RTS mode. I ended up using it in pretty much every important battle: scroll over to one of my units, go into dragon mode, jetpack-boost towards the enemy, fire an Imp Buster, then switch back to RTS mode before anything kills me. Later dragon skills let you make a friendly unit invulnerable, or charm an enemy one to your side.
There's no real cost to using dragon mode except your attention. But that's in short supply: you've often got multiple bases to manage, build queues to keep going, enemy squadrons to watch and armies to control. Taking time out from all that to zoom around and shoot stuff is dangerous, and most of my major failures were things I didn't see happening until it was too late.
I like the idea of that as a tactical consideration. In practice, though, most of my time lost was spent trying to reorient myself with the RTS mode when I switched back to it. You can zoom the camera out as far as you like, but the battlefield vanishes beneath the clouds before you can see it all. They're still tinkering with what kind of overview they'll give you.
Everything gets built quickly, there's no fog of war, and the cap on recruits means a single battle never takes too long. Once it's over, you can fight or auto-resolve any other conflicts that happened on the strategic map that turn. And when everything's finally dealt with, you return to your giant steampunk airship.
A turn is a long time in Dragon Commander: it's not unusual to have five conflicts going on at once, each of which you might want to play out as an RTS match. In fact, the whole singleplayer campaign is only expected to take about 20 turns, although obviously that'll vary a lot from player to player. So when you return to your ship between each one, a new chunk of story stuff unfolds.
That takes a few forms. There's a main story that's the same each time, but I didn't see how that progresses in the few hours I played. The rest of the story stuff is randomised, and there's more of it than you're likely to see in one playthrough.
The simplest part is your council: one of them will propose a new law, in response to some recent controversy, and the others will weigh in on whether they think you should pass it. Despite the fantasy setting, all the issues are taken directly from modern-day newspaper stories: the elves want to legalise gay marriage, for example, but the undead are dead against it. Each race is a thinly veiled analogue for a real-life political party, and your decisions affect their long-term disposition towards you.
The various species you're trying to keep happy aren't factions on the map: they're all part of both warring empires, both of whom fight with interchangeable robots. Listening to a hideous living skeleton denounce homosexuality as 'unnatural' is entertaining, but this part always felt rather disconnected from the cataclysmic war that's going on around it. Should you be prosecuted for crimes against someone trespassing in your home? I don't know, can we think about this when we're at less than 4,000 casualties per turn?
Then there are personal stories: you also have generals aboard your airship, and they'll come to you with their problems. As far as I played, all you need to do is make a decision: yes, I'll do what you ask, or no, I don't agree with your proposition. But these storylines have several stages, and the combination of your decisions can lead you to several different endings. At some point you'll also be forced to get married, apparently for political reasons, and your new wife will have a similar ongoing story built from decisions you make between turns. Yes, it has to be a woman – even if you legalised gay marriage.
While these scenarios always leave the choice to you, it's hard not to feel like the game is making some judgments of its own in the way it presents them. One of your generals has a storyline in which she advocates for women's rights, starting with equal pay for the females on your staff. But while her proposal is reasonable, her justifications are presented as the ravings of a man-hating lunatic: she calls women the 'superior' gender and believes they should rule over men.
If you choose the undead bride, one of the options in her storyline is to transform her into a human. “A half-naked human, I notice!” I say to Larian CEO Swen Vincke, looking at some concept art of her topless human form. Swen agrees.
“Yes! It's a game for boys... it's not really for girls.”
If you're not happy with your bride, I'm told, you can make a deal with a demon to have her discreetly killed. That way, you can take a new one without political controversy. There's even a different form of murder for each species of wife.
The game doesn't force you down any of these paths, of course, but their presence gave the story side of Dragon Commander a seedy feel that made it harder for me to engage with. A sense not just that it's for boys, but that it's for a particular kind of boy.
Once you've made all your decisions, you return to the strategy map and go through it all again for the next turn. That's when Dragon Commander might get really interesting. If you got beaten by a lot of air units in one of your RTS battles last turn, you can buy anti-air rockets for your Hunter jeeps. If the enemy dragon commander caused you a lot of grief with his Protect spell, you can start researching it yourself. And if you've made one of the races happy with your political decisions, they might grant you a card that'll give you an advantage – such as a few free units – for whatever battle you choose to play it in.
Everything except the story also works in multiplayer, in teams: you take turns on the strategy map simultaneously, and then everyone playing participates in each skirmish. If you don't have any units in the territory concerned, your dragon still shows up and you can build an army from scratch to help out your ally.
The idea of a long-term campaign where each turn involves handling so many different systems and concerns is exciting. But we won't know how well it works until all those pieces are finalised, and we can play it long enough for all of them to come into effect.