Drox Operative – Review
The once galaxy-spanning race of the Drox are now extinct, but their secretive guild of operatives lives on, now manned by a handful of the many races that make up the universe. Your role as a Drox Operative in Soldak Entertainment’s latest action RPG is to step into the cockpit of one of those powerful operatives that has the power to make or break empires. Drox Operative provides the player with an inordinate amount of freedom in almost every aspect of the game. From the setup of the universe you will be going into, right through to the way you choose to play and how painful/challenging you wish your adventure to be. There are few games that have so much going on in the background and offers such a dynamic experience – you really will never play the same game twice. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself; before you can conquer the galaxy you will need a ship.
Selecting a new game will take you to a ship creation screen. Effectively your ‘character’, this is where you choose the attributes of your ship by deciding the race of the crew that will man it. Each race has specific bonuses, and whilst there is no class-based selection, this is the closest thing to a starting specialisation, as you can try and skew your ship towards an offensive or defensive skillset or try and pave the way for easier upgrades in the future. Once you have your ship chosen and named, then the real game can begin.
Taking inspiration from games like Diablo, your ship can have many playthroughs of the game, so the next stage in starting a new game is to setup the sector of space you will be playing with. There are a more than a few options from size of the sector, the starting level of both you and enemies, how entrenched existing races are, etc. You are able to create an experience suited to your desires. You dial up the difficulty by setting enemies higher than you (although this will result in many deaths – the game is not forgiving in terms of level gaps) or tweak the environment so that you find less quality loot, money, etc. There is also a hardcore mode that is unlockable after you have a level 25 ship and that means you only get the one life. The game doesn’t limit the player to one ship, and like many traditional action RPGs there are slots for multiple ‘characters’ so you can create a whole bunch of ships to run concurrently and test out the various race bonuses.
Firing up a new sector sees the ‘SS GamingLives’, a human based ship, sat next to a warp gate and a couple of storage boxes. This starting point is, unless you are playing hardcore mode, a respawn point should your ship be destroyed and where your main stash lives. Time to become a legend!
The top down, 2D view places your ship at the centre of the screen and the mostly unobtrusive UI takes up a row along the bottom of the screen, with a minimap to the top right. First time players will get a couple of short notifications advising that there is no tutorial but, instead, a context-sensitive help system. In essence, every time you do something new, like access a menu, the game will pause and you will be treated to an explanation of what the menu does. The problem is that at first you are confronted by wall after wall of text and you won’t take all of it in but, unlike a tutorial, you can access help at any point and review so it isn’t too bad as you progress through the first hour or two.
Controls are based across keyboard or mouse and neither are mutually exclusive. One minute I can be using WSAD to manually pilot my ship, the next I could click on a planet and let the ship autopilot itself to the destination. The same goes for combat, click on an enemy to fire your primary weapon, or use the number keys to target closest enemy. Whilst useful to not lock out the player from deciding between one of the two control methods it can get a little messy – for instance going to click an enemy (in my defence he was a fast mover) and missing will then take that as a move directive, which is fine unless that move then invites another group of enemies to join the fray and that is often something you do not need or want!
As in most action RPGs, there is a frantic amount of pressing and clicking until the enemies are all dead, littering their loot across the battlezone. Hungrily, I speed around and swallow everything I can. Items collected follow the now standard Common->Uncommon->Rare->etc. convention and so it isn’t long before I’m upgrading an existing piece of equipment. Your ship has four separate areas for equipment to be installed: a section that is race specific – predetermined by your choice upon ship creation, then light, medium and heavy sections. Items in your inventory are bordered by a colour, green, yellow or orange, each respectively denoting which section they can be installed into. The number of slots per section available for item insertion increases as you level up, but most start with three in each.
Taking cue from other action RPGs, there are requirements on items; it could be anything from minimum ship level to a skill level, such as level five in computers or a combination. In addition to that the ship requires power generators, which will limit the power drain your items are able to make so you will inevitably deciding between a massive gun or an impressive shield because you can’t power both. On top of all that throw in energy, which is more like stamina, so you will need batteries or solar panels to ensure that your energy used in firing weapons is replenished.
Drox Operative does nothing by half, and even the usually benign activity of choosing the best equipment upgrades is a delicate balancing act a lot of the time between enough defences to hold your own in battle, enough firepower to fight back and enough thrust to run away if needed!
So returning to the SS GamingLives and its now slightly better shields, I decide to go exploring a little further. A couple of battles later and I’ve found a planet. Having not been discovered by anyone else I’m given the opportunity to scan it. Doing this may provide loot, but more importantly this information is then stored in my database and can be used as a bargaining chip with any races I encounter. More battles, one a little hairy, and a couple more planets on I find a wormhole while scanning an anomaly – I’m immediately sucked in and spat out into a new galaxy. Well, this maiden voyage is turning into something out of Star Trek and like any good Starfleet captain, I decide to boldly go where no man has gone before…except the next planet I bump into has already been colonised by man. Oh well.
A flashing icon appears in the top right of my screen next to the minimap, and it appears the humans want a chat. Thankfully they appear friendly, unlike everything else I’ve met so far, and they have a quest for me. Yay! Quests in Drox Operative are fairly varied and most, thankfully, don’t require the usual ‘return to quest giver’ trek but instead can be handed in via the relationships screen. What’s the relationship screen? Glad you asked.
Although being in combat is how the majority of your time with Drox Operative will pan out, there are multiple facets to the game and many ways to successfully win. Diplomacy is a major part of it and each race you meet will appear on the relationship screen (accessible via the toolbar at bottom of screen). From here you can see how well they like you, their relationship with other races you have discovered, obtain or hand in quests and perform diplomatic actions (start a rumour, sabotage, etc). Should two races become enemies then performing actions on behalf of one will affect your reputation with the other.
After taking in all of the information from the relationships screen I took on all the quests available and moved on to the planet. As this planet had been inhabited I was able to trade and sell a lot of the junk or inferior items my skirmishes and exploration to date had yielded. Trading is dead simple with drag’n’drop between your inventory and vendor or alternatively you can hover on an item and press space bar.
Planets also sometimes offer specific fetch quests that will require returning to successfully hand in the quest. On top of that, the vendors are able to repair your ship and identify all items in your inventory. Personally I never used the identifying service as, if you aren’t too pressed for time and find a quiet corner, can manually identify items for free. It could just be because I’m thrifty in games by nature, not just in real life, but I can’t see many instances where you’d want to pay for identification. Regardless of how you do it, unidentified objects can’t be installed into your ship systems.
Departing the planet I carried on exploring and fighting raiders until I finally stumbled across a space lane. These act as the main transports between galaxies and require activation before you can use them. Once activated I was able to jump to a third system and looking on the galaxy map screen they seemed to form a triangle, perhaps I’d be able to find another star lane here to take me back to my starting area? I was obviously wandering a little far by this point as I was getting pummelled by the enemies in this part of space and, despite my best efforts at running away, I succumbed to the lack of oxygen as my ship’s hull flew into a thousand pieces. So much for being a fearsome Drox Operative. My ship came into being once more at the original starting location and I was dutifully informed that I now had to pay off an XP debt before I’d continue levelling. This redoubled my efforts to ensure I lasted a little longer this time around.
Steering clear of anomalies I was back to being king of the galaxy as I mercilessly gunned my way around the starting galaxy. More planets were discovered and I came across another race, resembling bees, along with yet more quests. I managed to sell them the details about a number of the planets I’d discovered to boost my coffers. I found the wormhole and the star lane to take me back to the galaxy with the humans, so I decided to wrap up the quests here before returning. Doing so caused me to level up.
Levelling up is a simple process, you have five points to assign across your ships attributes. After so many points you get bonuses from each attribute, such as ploughing points into Drox commander will unlock additional equipment slots and upgrade the ships stats. As mentioned previously, some equipment will require a minimum level of points in certain attributes in order to install them.
Soldak Entertainment have made an amazing effort to keep the universe dynamic, so I was impressed but also slightly disheartened when a few of my human quests could not be completed as either they had fixed the problems themselves, or in the instance where they wanted me to protect their colony it had been wiped out. Something you learn early on in the game is that you cannot do everything and so you find yourself checking who is the most powerful or weakest in the system quite regularly and either taking them down or rallying behind them depending on your aims for victory.
As you play, empires will spread and decline and races will declare peace, war and sign no end of treaties amongst themselves. Travelling traders will wander the stars and are vulnerable to attack, just as the expanding colony ships of the major races. Throw in randomised galaxies, a myriad of anomalies as well as the quests and Drox Operative really takes it to the next level in terms of dynamism – you literally can’t stand still or you’ll be left behind as the galaxy goes about its business.
By the end of a couple of hours my first sector had been completed. I had chosen a tiny galaxy with races that only owned a single planet to their name at the beginning. My victory was one of might, I ended up siding with the humans to wipe out the competition. That wasn’t only way to win though, my second game was a more peaceful win and I had two remaining races in a peace treaty. It was only on my third game that I noticed the Drox Guild gives additional bonuses for certain conditions, I failed it as they were wiped out before I discovered them, but it was to try and keep a race alive until victory conditions were met.
The more I played the more I had to cram items into storage as when you start hitting enemies with strong resistances to certain weapons then you need an alternative and it’s normally difficult to travel with more than two weapons equipped at once unless you sacrifice speed or defence. Similarly, picking up various platings, shields and other items to resist radiation, thermal damage and other things is recommended, even if you don’t immediately utilise them.
So, putting my gameplay experiences to one side, I’ll focus on the other aspects of Drox Operative. The graphics are not going to win any awards, but that isn’t to say that they are sub-par. The ships, planets and other objects are quite nicely rendered from a top-down view and the void of black space is kept interesting by a lot of background art depicting swirling galaxies, stars and other space phenomena. Various weapons have different effects: beams, missiles, balls of fusion, an old boot…okay, there were no boot-based weapons.
For me, personally, it was the menu screens and other UI elements that lacked flair; very boxy, with lots of words and, dare I say it, quite old fashioned. I have to praise the amount of tooltips and such to explain almost anything you choose to hover over but Soldak Entertainment definitely placed functionality over glossy looks. There were instances when a mission completion or other window would remain temporarily and cause some overlay when in another screen, making that area unreadable. A lack of graphical amazement shouldn’t stop a game like this being enjoyable and that is definitely the case here.
The sound follows a similar trend to the graphics, perfectly functional sounds from zaps when you fire a beam weapon to a satisfying fizz when a shield takes damage. The soundtrack is melodic and unobtrusive although easily ignored/phased out by concentration on playing the game. Above that there is little else beyond the realm of standard sound effects. It is clear that all efforts went into making Drox Operative fun to play rather than getting distracted, as so many games do, with the shiny stuff.
There is a co-op multiplayer mode, however to date I have not found any servers running so wasn’t able to test that out, which was a shame as I quite fancied double-teaming the galaxy with another operative.Pros
- Incredibly dynamic
- Very high replay value
- Fun, and easy to play
- Huge array of items, quests, things to do
- Large amount of lore and accompanying text for races/ships
- Ability to customise game elements, such as enable hardcore mode
- Not the prettiest or sexiest action RPG
- Difficulty spikes can be a little harsh
- A couple of graphical bugs, such as superimposed screens
Like FTL, Diablo and other such randomised games, the replayability of Drox Operative is very high – especially when you factor in the diverse range of options related to the setup of the sector. This is a game that throws you in at the deep end but if you can stick with it for a couple of hours then it all begins to make sense and you get a feel for how your actions can impact the universe and you find your feet.
Having been a big fan of action RPGs in the past with Torchlight, Sacred, Diablo and others sat in my collection, it was a nice change to be in a sci-fi setting rather than the usual fantasy environments. Apart from the, sometimes, irritating mouse/keyboard controls working against each other I cannot really fault the gameplay at all. I had immense fun reviewing this and the only drawbacks for some players will be the rather basic graphics and sound but it was something that I soon forgot about.
I’d highly recommend this to any fan of action RPG games that wants something a little more in-depth than stabbing gnomes repeatedly in the face until they reach the boss. Drox Operative offers a unique game every playthrough, amazing control over your game experience, plenty of variance in quests and a whole heap of lore, stats and ways to complete the game. You couldn’t demand much more from Soldak Entertainment.
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