Drox Operative – Preview
by Adam B
Space is back in fashion. It used to be that every other game was set in the inky void; from the early days of Elite, through X-Wing, Wing Commander, Freelancer, X, Galactic Civilizations, Master Of Orion, Freespace, Homeworld and numerous other smaller titles in-between, but then the setting seemed to fall out of favour and with the exception of the occasional Spore or Shattered Horizon, games moved decidedly planet-side (not to be confused with Planetside). Recently, a number of titles such as Endless Space, Legends of Pegasus, the Sins of A Solar Empire series and a handful of indie games have begun to embrace space once again; the latest of these is Soldak Entertainment’s Action RPG-in-space Drox Operative.
Soldak Entertainment are a small indie developer founded by former Ritual Entertainment (SiN, Star Trek: Elite Force 2, Legacy of Kain: Defiance) technical director Steven Peeler whose previous releases – Depths of Peril, Din’s Curse & Kivi’s Underworld – have all been variations of the classic Action RPG formula à la Diablo or Torchlight. Drox Operative sees their first foray into space with a melding of ARPG, 4X & Roguelike elements to create a game quite unlike any I’ve played before.
The game’s premise is reasonably straightforward: you are the eponymous Drox Operative, traversing a randomly generated galaxy in your ship with the goal of manipulating and/or assisting the resident alien races so as to bring your chosen one to power and eliminate all of the others. Along the way you will explore unknown regions, investigate strange anomalies, ferry cargo and passengers, find shiny loot and shoot an awful lot of things in order to gain influence with your target faction(s). Like many ARPGs, your character persists between games, retaining their level, stats and gear and allowing you to advance through the ranks; as you level up you gain access to larger ships with more equipment slots and thicker hulls and each new game allows you to tailor the relative level of the enemies, depending on how much of a challenge you fancy. There is, of course, a hardcore mode if you’re feeling daring and also a semi-hardcore (hardcore with lives is probably the best description) mode if you’re not sure how daring you’re feeling.
Your galaxy is made up of a number of randomly generated sectors linked by either Warp Gates, which allow you to travel to any inhabited sector where you have paid the required toll, Space Lanes and Stable Wormholes, which are direct two-way paths between two different sectors, or Unstable Wormholes, which are single-use and send you to random destinations. Each sector is populated by planets – some uninhabited and ripe for looting and some occupied by one of the game’s eight races, who may trade with you, offer you quests or shoot you on sight – as well as anomalies, derelicts, junk, asteroids and storage caches, all of which can be looted in the hope of finding shinier gear for your ship.
Additionally, there are five ‘monster’ races who don’t have any planets, hopes or dreams and instead just hang around in empty space waiting to try and kill anything that wanders too close, which is usually you. One of the things that has impressed me about Drox Operative is the way that they have managed to make their space feel big without making it feel too empty; it’s a difficult balance to maintain and they do a good job of it.
Almost everything you do, including nothing, will have a positive or negative impact on how the various factions view you; completing quests, killing their enemies, trading with them, selling them technology or mapping data will improve your reputation, whereas attacking their ships or helping their enemies will eventually lead to them declaring war on you. You can also spread rumours about factions to alter how the others see them, or you can sabotage their planets, steal their technologies and start uprisings to cripple their development. This can get expensive very quickly, however, so you need to balance your careful diplomacy with some careful killing and looting of anything that looks at you funny. The diplomacy element is key, however, as the win condition for a game is to be allied with the most powerful race when all the others have been wiped out, either by simply gaining favour with the most powerful race or by allying yourself with one of the weaker races and helping to make them the most powerful.
Drox features the traditional loot treadmill; your ship has slots, you put things into those slots that affect your stats, sometimes you find better stuff so you use that instead. There is an encumbrance mechanic in the form of Power Load; most gear has a Power cost and some boosts your maximum Load; if you exceed that maximum you suffer penalties to movement, attack, shield regeneration and so forth. There seems to be a good variety of loot – if anything perhaps too wide a variety; my ship currently has three heavy, four medium and four light gear slots and I have close to three times that many things that I would like to have slotted at any given time. Selling unwanted loot can be done at any friendly planet or the occasional wandering vendor, however, merchants have finite cash reserves and I often found myself unable to sell my junk because nobody nearby had any money (The Skyrim Problem), that said, the game’s economy moves pretty fast and so a little patience will usually see their coffers refilled.
As I played through my first couple of games, I found myself becoming frustrated by the lack of detail in some of the quest descriptions; “Explore <planet> in <sector>” is a typical example; the sectors are big and fog-of-warred when you first enter them, so it’s not unusual for it to take 10-15 minutes to find what you’re looking for. A little later, while making myself a cup of tea, it dawned on me that the reason I found it frustrating was that I’ve become so used to games spoon-feeding me everything – step-by-step waypoints, giant “quest here” icons, unmissable flashing items – that I was taking even the thought of having to do a little bit of work myself as an indication of poor game design. In reality, a game like this needs a certain vagueness to encourage you to explore, to think and to do things on your own initiative, otherwise it risks becoming nothing more than a waypoint-following simulator and we have plenty of those already. In addition, I found that the AI was frequently beating me to some of the quest objectives and I suspect this is due to almost all other games taking a “collect & forget” approach to quests and my assumption that I can therefore just leave them until I feel like it without any negative consequences, which is definitely not the case in this game.
Indie games often avoid 3D entirely or take a stylised approach to it in order to mask their comparatively limited resources, but Soldak have done a decent job of making their “3D ships on a 2D plane” universe look pretty; some of the textures are a little simplistic, but the backdrops are beautiful and the explosions and particle effects are suitably satisfying. Unfortunately – and there’s no easy way to say this – the game’s UI looks rather dated. It’s perfectly functional and does the job it’s supposed to but it doesn’t look very good while it’s doing it. It could just be a matter of personal taste, but it doesn’t feel as clean and well laid out as perhaps we’ve come to expect from modern games, indie or otherwise.
All in all Drox Operative looks to be very promising; it has an engaging gameplay mechanic that sucks you in with plenty of variety in terms of missions, loot and locations and its randomly generated environments and persistent characters encourage repeated plays. I didn’t encounter any significant bugs during my time with the game and while there are some small issues with the mission descriptions, and loot progression can be rather slow in places, it’s nothing that a little pre-release polish can’t fix. You can currently pre-order the game from the Soldak website, which will get you access to the beta I’ve been playing and it’s due for release later this year.
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