System(s): Windows (Also available for Mac)
Release Date: December 14, 2012
Publisher (Developer): Soldak Entertainment (Soldak Entertainment)
ESRB Rating: Pending (Everyone 10+, most likely)
Soldak Entertainment has a reputation for making fine, fantasy-themed action RPGs. The graphics and sound are functional, but what sets Soldak games apart is the time element: when you get a quest, the clock starts ticking and you can fail the quest in any number of ways beyond your control. It really takes their games to a level you don’t see anywhere else. Din’s Curse is probably their best in this genre, but they have a few variants. Drox Operative represents a shift in direction, as a science fiction action RPG. While its theme is for different, Soldak didn’t wander all that far from familiar territory. There aren’t any dungeons, but you’ll spend much time flying through space, bashing enemy space ships, which often drop credits and other loot when they explode.
A Drox Operative, incidentally, is sort of a space spy. While other games have you build up a space empire, Drox Operative has you manipulate/destroy empires, which grow in real time as you’re exploring space.
Pick a race and build your ship
There’s no character development in Drox Operative, instead, it’s ship development. First, the player picks his race, from ten available. Each racial ship gets a few bonus slots for equipment and crew, and plays a bit differently. As character gains levels, he gets “attribute points” to increase various aspects of the ship, like computers, or structure, or engineering, or whatever. Alternatively, he can spend points on getting a bigger ship, which is generally tougher and can carry more equipment.
A player’s starting ship, in addition to bonus slots, can carry three pieces each of heavy, medium, and light equipment. Heavy slots generally are your main power source and primary weapon and engines. Mediums carry shields, armor, and special equipment. Light is for crew members, which add bonus attributes and abilities to your ship. It’s a good system that I can’t really do justice to in explaining in one paragraph. There is a ridiculous variety in the equipment options, with many weapon types, “medium” and “light” engines, and a host of other things. I don’t even know how a handful of developers can pack so much variety in a game, but your ship can go from an aircraft carrier (with half a dozen support fighters and interceptors) to a sluggish warship to fast mine-layer in a matter of minutes, depending on what kind of ship you want to be. Over time, your ship can become a massive vessel; or not, as smaller ships generally move faster and better defense, although small ships are vulnerable to being obliterated by a lucky shot (death is an inconvenience, your clone and cloned ship come back in your starting system). It just depends on what you want.
The universe in motion
Ship selected, Drox Operative then generates a sector of space, filled with a collection of stars connected via transit lanes and warp gates, for players to explore. Each sector has a (random) number of races to interact with and the race of the player’s ship has no bearing on diplomacy in the game. Then comes the quests, and this is where the real time system really shines.
For example, a player might take a quest in Drox Operative (ten can be held at once) to protect a planet from an incoming meteor. Naturally, the clock is ticking, and by the time the meteor is reached, the planet might already be destroyed by another race, or by random space monsters…or the race on the planet might declare war on the player. Real time even happens while you’re trading, but thankfully players can press pause (“P”, you’ll hit it often) to be able to read through all the stuff for sale on a given planet and interact with a paused game.
Failing quests in Drox Operative is no big deal, at any time there could be a dozen or more quests available. Succeeding usually generates a reward in credits and improved relations with the race. Again, there is huge variety in the quests; transporting a diplomat, for example, will also improve relations between other races, while transporting weapons to enemy gorillas will cause planets to go into revolt, disrupting supply. It’s a subtle system, and a player that pays attention can manipulate the empires into wars they cannot win, or alliances that are self-destructive…even as the player achieves his goals.
Winning a system is somewhat open ended in Drox Operative. A player can win militarily (allied to the sole surviving race), diplomatically (allied to an alliance of multiple races), economically, or through fear (slaughtering racial ships and planets), or as a legend (slaughtering monsters and rescuing people). The last two, regrettably, work against each other. If a race declares war on you, you can lose legend points fighting their ships…bit of a shame, really, as legend is the only way to win that doesn’t necessarily involve manipulating the other races. The incredibly robust diplomatic system means you can avoid war if you pay attention; it’s amazing just how much you can do in terms of negotiation, rumors, espionage, propaganda, above and beyond quests.
Even space is rough around the edges
As an indie game, I have to cut Drox Operative some slack for not having a team of developers working for a year or more. In that vein, there a few minor bugs here and there, and some balance issues. The bugs are easily worked around or avoided. The balance issues are mostly addressed through the amazing design of the game. As you win (and it’s quite possible, sometimes even your best move, to lose) a system, you move on to the next system, and you can set the difficulty for the next game in several ways to give a more fair challenge. Players ready for some original and good game ideas, and don’t mind the lack of “big game A title” refinements should definitely give Drox Operative a look.