Drox Operative is the latest title from Soldak Entertainment, an indie developer of action-RPGs (Depths of Peril, Din’s Curse) renowned for their dynamic worlds. Drox transports that concept from fantasy into space opera – its galaxy is filled with alien empires, who fight, intrigue, and negotiate amongst themselves. As one of the titular mercenaries, players accept quests from these empires, fight space monsters and rival empires, plant their patrons’ flags over unclaimed worlds – and try to make sure they’re on the winning side.
On paper, this is a wonderful concept, and it’s given me a couple of memorable moments. For example, at one point I wanted to explore a hazardous, monster-filled region of frontier space. To make my life easier, I took a quest to colonise a nearby planet, then stuck around to defend the new settlement. The result: now I had somewhere to repair, and the owner of the new colony was now both stronger and better disposed toward me. And there is a certain dark satisfaction in teaching recalcitrant alien empires why messing with a Drox operative is a bad idea! Unfortunately, these cool experiences have been the exception for me. As an overall package, Drox falls flat for me; while I can quibble with various “micro” aspects of the game’s execution (1), I think my ultimate problem lies with two key aspects of the game’s design:
1. The limited toolset available to interact with the universe. I’ve seen the game described as “Diablo in space”, and this is a pretty apt comparison – there is no trading, planetary exploration is abstracted to a single click, and the quests are the standard RPG mix of courier work and “kill _____ hostiles”. As such, the game’s prevalent activity is combat, which consists of flying near enemy ships and tapping a button to shoot. After that, it’s a matter of character skill (and ship equipment). The problem is, this occurs to the exclusion of player skill. There’s no element of reflexes – weapons auto-aim, and with a couple of exceptions (2), whether shots connect is in the hands of the RNG. And in the absence of active abilities, there’s no element of tactics beyond “don’t bite off more than you can chew”. The net effect is that for all the factional antics in the background, what the player actually does from moment to moment is just not very engaging (3).
2. Unlike space games such as Freelancer or even Space Rangers 2 or Star Control 2, Drox lacks a sense of place. Here I think the game suffers from being a strict action-RPG – as noted above, there is no trading and no planetary exploration, while I don’t find much to choose between the equipment available in different areas. As a result, there is nothing to distinguish one star system from another except “the monsters are more dangerous over here” (4). The contrast with Freelancer is illustrative – there, each region of space was distinct, thanks to the different trade goods and equipment they offered for sale. If I could buy something cheaply in Liberty space, sell it dearly in Kusari, and spend the profits on a better ship, bang – now I had something to associate with each location, and a great reason to travel from one to the other.
Ultimately, my impression so far is that Drox Operative is a good idea weighed down by its gameplay – I’m not convinced Diablo-esque button-mashing is the best way to bring a dynamic galaxy to life. This is not a universal opinion – I think players will enjoy Drox Operative to the extent that the game succeeds at making them feel part of a universe larger than themselves. Certainly, I’ve seen exciting tales about playing empires off against each other, or trying to build coalitions against a dominant hegemon. You may well end up with tales of your own! But I would strongly suggest trying the demo first.
(1) For example, before I acquired a good engine, travel – and especially exploration – were painfully slow. For another example, if I’ve received a quest to fight another empire in the XYZ system, why won’t the quest-giver give/sell me the jumpgate coordinates? Why do I have to scrabble around the edge of every system in the galaxy looking for a connecting route?
(2) Mines can be dodged, and incoming missiles can be shot down. Splash damage weapons (such as EMP) are especially good for the latter.
(3) Even trying out new weapons didn’t help. Fighters were even more hands-off than direct-fire weapons, and while blowing up whole monster fleets with mines was spectacular at first, the novelty eventually wore off.
(4) There are planetary modifiers, but at this stage I haven’t been able to perceive their effect.
The basis of my comments
Time spent with the game: A little over four hours, according to the game’s internal clock.
What I have played: One sector (small, 6 races, monsters at the same level as me) won. One sector (tiny, monsters higher level than me) abandoned. One sector (tiny, monsters higher level than me) lost. Dabbling in a fourth sector. This was all in single-player.
What I haven’t played: Co-op.
The above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Soldak Entertainment.