In what could be seen as a significant departure from its demonstrated strengths, Soldak Entertainment has turned its creative talents to a top down 2-D space game. At first glance, this might be viewed as a massive gamble, as the company was on a sure fire winner with either it's Depths of Peril or Din's Curse franchises, both of which have now made it on to the largest digital distribution platforms available. But after some extended exposure to Drox Operative, I can assure long time fans that Soldak's dedication to addictive and re-playable games shines through in the newest offering just as strongly as in previous games. It's signature style of emergent and surprising gameplay is well and truly present; every game has the potential to pan out in a vastly different format to the last. Ultimately, in Soldak's games, the overarching plot plays second fiddle to the experience that the player creates for themselves. Drox Operative stays very true to the formula that lead programmer Steven Peeler has found worked well for him in the past.
Interestingly, Drox Operative does not go out of its way to paint the player character as a hero. As a member of an ancient and secretive order, the Drox Operative is free to choose their path in this game to a much higher degree of freedom than in any other Soldak game to date. It has much more of a sandbox feel to it, and this has the effect of both giving the dynamic galaxy around the player a life of its own, as well as instilling a sense of inevitability to a lot of events that happen around that galaxy. The lone Drox Operative definitely feels like a player in the grand scheme of things, but not in the way that the hero of Din's Curse did. The actions of the Drox Operative will tend to be more subtle, frequently mischievous, and often even futile. Therefore, the learning curve and overall complexity of the game is probably the most pronounced of all the games we have seen from Soldak so far. This works in favour of and against the game at the same time.
The Drox Operative is the player. You can choose between a great variety of races, each which their own ship models and statistics that have their own inherent strengths and weaknesses. The game creation system works in almost the exact same way that it did in Din's Curse. Using options and sliders, the player sets parameters to create a randomly generated galaxy which is populated with various alien races that all vie for control of the galaxy in their own right, or in massive pan-galactic alliances. After that it's really up to the player as far as how the game progresses. There are quests, specific to each race in the populated galaxy. Some examples might be to clear an area of barbaric creatures, to help colonise, or terraform a planet, or to attack an enemy's fleet. Each quest completed can earn various rewards such as credits, reputation with the faction that issued the quest, and special points that count towards different victory conditions. The player can choose more of a lone wolf type of approach where they do a lot of exploring and loot collecting, they can be a mercenary by playing off the races against one another for profit, or they could hunt bounty on dangerous mutated beasts that roam the systems of the galaxy. Basically, the player character plays from galaxy to galaxy (each a separate game), levelling up and grinding loot. There is a level cap of 100, and it will take a great deal of time to get to it.
There are multiple paths to victory but sadly a few of them are mutually exclusive. By earning credit toward a Fear Victory, you have to accomplish tasks that are counter productive to say, a Legend Victory. The targets for Legend, Fear and Economic Victories seem to be ridiculously high, so for the most part I tend to win by Military or Diplomatic Victory, even if I intended to play for something else. It's really not that big a deal however. The rewards might be slightly better for some victory types over others, but at the end of the day, you'll end up playing game after game with the same character anyway. Basically, the player needs to decide in advance which kind of victory to shoot at, and role play from that point.
The scope of the game is so vast that it's difficult for me to touch all of the areas in just a few short paragraphs. A lot of the fun in these types of games is about exploration and discovery. There are absolutely tons of weapons, armours, shields and gadgets to deck your ship out with, and each falls into either a heavy, medium or light category. The amount of each type that can be equipped at once is governed by both the overall number of slots available (by ship type) and also by the amount of power that the ship can generate (power plants themselves take up slots too). As you level, it's always a bit of a juggling act as you try to fit everything that you want onto your ship, balancing variables such as attack, defence, manoeuvrability, cargo space and component capacity. I always tend to feel that I'm slightly behind the progression of the similarly levelled space creatures around me. This means I need to choose games that are below my level - making levelling take a fair chunk of time. Perhaps I've just been unlucky finding loot, or perhaps this is a deliberate design decision, but either way, a careful and thoughtful playstyle will pay dividends even though a crash and burn style is also valid and fun (if less efficient). Discovering optimal builds for each race and hunting for equipment will take a great deal of time and experimentation; players that enjoy this will love the game. A shared container lets you trade loot between characters and peer-to peer co-operative multiplayer allows players to trade gear with others.
Controlling the player ship takes a bit of getting used to. The controls are quite unique, and although there are a couple of different set-ups to choose from, I have found that for me, using the W key to toggle thrust and the mouse to control ship rotation is the best. I use the numbers to hot-key weapons and have even set up macros on my programmable keyboard buttons for specific barrage types. An example might be when you want to EMP a bunch of enemies and then specifically focus fire lasers on one enemy. All of the bindings are configurable in any case, so with a bit of work and perseverance, the player can get a working set up before too long.
So what's there not to like? Well, depending on the type of player that you are, the pacing of the game may seem extremely slow. The galaxies are huge (even the smaller ones) and the relationships between the various alien races can be quite complicated. It's easy to become fixated on your character's progression at the expense of keeping an eye on the diplomatic balance in the sector. Once a race gets past a certain tipping point, they seem to steam roll to domination and if the player isn't allied with them when that happens then it counts as a loss for that game. For the character, not such a big deal, but it can leave you feeling quite unfulfilled after what could have been a game that lasted for over a week in real time (some of my games have gone this long!). There's sometimes a feeling of helplessness as the races gain in power that the player can do little to affect the course of the outcome. As the game wears on, and more and more planets are colonised, the impact of the player's actions count for less and less. If you have a favourite race, then you're best getting right in at the start and helping them out. Races seem to very rarely come from behind and claim dominance.
The graphics and artwork are not going to be everyone's cup of tea (Soldak's games have been harshly judged by folk in the past for not being cutting edge in this department), but personally I think that they do the job well. The explosions in particular are really well done! Ship designs are both quite unique and attractive. For what is for all intents and purposes a 2-D top down game, all the ships are presented as 3-D models. I'm not sure whether I like that decision from an aesthetic point of view but it's obviously been done to save hundreds of hours of drawing sprites (which for a small development team is quite forgivable).
Even though it's not my favourite Soldak release so far (both Depths of Peril and Din's Curse are superior games, in my opinion, for their focus and intensity) I'm giving credit to Drox Operative for diverging from the safe path and trying something that hasn't really been attempted before. It's a little bit of Elite, with some Space Rangers, mixed with Galactic Civilizations, and a dash of Asteroids. The scope of the game is just massive. A full game on a huge galaxy setting might just take weeks to complete. There's plenty for the player to do, and they're not forced to play in any particular fashion. Even winning the sector is more for bragging rights than anything else, since a loss simply provides the opportunity to start afresh with a new sector set up minus the victory loot chest. A lot of the game's mechanics are hidden from the player, and a lot is going on that the player will never know about.
I often feel frustrated in Drox Operative; limited by what one ship can do in a massive galaxy. In Din's Curse I made things happen – I saved towns and was the hero. In Drox Operative the galaxy would go on with or without me. I can only hope to make a good bunch of credits and find some sweet loot to upgrade my ship amongst the chaos. Luke Skywalker would see his destiny some-place else, but Han Solo would feel right at home as a Drox Operative.
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