Developers: Soldak Entertainment
We're quite fond of genre mashups here at Dealspwn. But when the rules and restrictions of two rather distinct genres come smashing together, the results can be an over-encumbered tangle of features and functions that results in a bloated mess, or else the compromises made in order to provide such a synthesis come at too great a cost - leading to a final product that proves a jack of both trades, and an attractive prospect for fans of neither due to its shallow depth.
Occasionally, though, the two colliding types can form a hybrid that achieves its goal, and manages to combine the best of both into a a double-barrelled experience that delivers a delicious unity or purpose and entertainment. Much like mint-choc-chip ice cream. Or Ben and Jerry's Half Baked.
Although not quite as deeply satisfying and refreshing as the aforementioned ice creams, Drox Operative is, nonetheless, a successful spacefaring hybrid of sorts - taking the ARPG stylings of Diablo, and smashing them into the 4X strategic shenanigans exhibited in the likes of Masters of Orion and Ascendancy. It's an odd mutant child, to be sure, and quite an alienating one at first, but then you look up and realise that actually you've been playing it for nearly eight hours, and the day that turned to night has turned to day again.
After choosing your race, Galactic Civilizations-style, the game plonks you down in the middle of space - a lone wolf in a galaxy of warring factions. You see, instead of taking on the mantle of a leader of men/aliens/beasts/robots and steering your race to supremacy as you might in a 4X game, in Drox Operative you're dropped into the midst of things as something of a middle-man. By "middle-man", we actually mean "Marauding Puppet Master", because essentially your goal is to unite the races of the galaxy, whether that's through being naughty or nice.
Essentially, what we have here is a 4X game where you're playing something of a celestial demi-god, with the strategic combat chucked away in favour ARPG clicking, and with your upgradeable ship replacing your base of civilisation. You'll still explore vast expanses of space, expand your horizons and sphere of influence, exploit the hell out of everybody around and manipulate them into doing what you want, and eventually grind your way up to a ship that will allow you to exterminate those who stand in your way.
"But Matt!" I hear you exclaim. "That sounds remarkably progressive, innovative, and forward thinking. That sounds like something slightly new and fresh, something we might even want! Surely there must be a catch..?"
Well, it is a little tricky to get into. In a similar manner to Soldak Entertainment's previous works, finding your feet can be tricky at times, and those gamers who enjoy being led by the nose and carefully spoon-fed will find precious little solace in the early part of Drox Operative. The interface is something of a muddled mess, and even though there are little helpful pop-ups that give you a smattering of guidance as you glide the cursor over the buttons in question, familiarising yourself with proceeds can been a right pain in the arse.
Movement feels sluggish at first, your first cargo hold can't hold a huge amount of material, and you might find it best to get the immersion-breaking tutorial guff out of the way and blitz your way through every hint screen you can find. Then you'll come across a neighbouring race, and they'll offer you a quest, or the opportunity to trade and enter into diplomatic negotiations. At first you won't have anything to give aside from an engine and some light laser fire, but that's enough to be getting on with. After clearing out a few bandits, hunting down a pirate boss, delivering non-lethal chemicals to a nearby convoy, you'll have amassed enough credits and loot to start making a difference, not to mention begin playing the game the way that you want to.
Your ship's components are separated into three main categories: red, yellow,and green - indicating heavy, medium, and light upgrades. The balance of your ship is a key part of the early game, when space in your hold is at a premium. As well as offensive and defensive capabilities, you'll have to consider power consumption, and the wages of any crew members you might have acquired. Once familiar with the main UI, things become much easier. With clicks determining motion, numbers firing off your array of weapons, and a long list of hotkeys bringing up various helpful screens positively brimming with data, it's easy to sink into once you're over that first hurdle.
The quests are fairly familiar at their core - fetch this, protect that, destroy them, you get the idea - but by far the best thing about Drox Operative is its persistent game universe. Soldak have done an excellent job when it comes to crafting an environment that feels real separate to the player, so that whatever you do, the galaxy around you will continue in some fashion. So it is that the unheralded request for help from a Shadow colony leads to virulent fatalities on the planet from disease,a ll because you didn't help. As it happens, this sets their racial development back, and leaves them prone to annihilation, all because you couldn't be bothered to help. As much as action determines and shapes the environment around you in this game, so too does inaction.
This could cause something of an aneurysm when one considers the occasionally overwhelming level of freedom and choice available to the player in the game. When you encounter a new race, for example, a sub-menu, bristling with buttons, pops up and asks you whether you want to get quests, make a trade, declare war, engage in diplomacy, espionage, sabotage etc. and it's all a bit much at the start. You're one ship, and you can't possibly be expected to do everything. Instead, it's about making decisions, and then dealing with the consequences. A feature I almost completely missed on my first and second playthroughs was the emergence of rebel factions. Clearly disgruntled at the weak and wavering leadership exhibited by their primary leaders, a bunch of Lithosoids turned their backs on the establishment and carved out their own little niche, complete with a new little spot on the relations sub-screen and their own little racial avatar. Needless to say, the enemy AI is superb, particularly when it comes to the 4X aspects of the game. Even without you, the computer-led races will bitch and moan and fight and squabble, making alliances, waging wars, and looking out for number one.
It's just shame that progression is so slow. Skill point management becomes something of a mess, and the loot balancing is nowhere near as rewarding as it should be. The heavy weapons are by far the best and the most fun to use, but your heavy slots are also crucial for power generation and the high-output engines you'll need as your ship grows in size. Pouring points into your command skill (which unlocks new ships) will only do so much. Indeed, much of the game is spent perennially grinding in the hopes of larger payoff. That's no real problem, so long as you get the balance right, but with no narrative payoffs, and loot proving rather incidental unless you've got a good enough ship (which takes aaaaaages), no way to influence your allies directly, and no direct way to instigate large battles, you'd better love the grind.
Interestingly, though, and this is coming from someone who's not exactly the most keen loot grinder, Drox Operative throws so much stuff at you for you to do, and the environmental AI is so well constructed, that it never feels too much like a chore. It's not perfect by any means, and the price point may prove slightly offputting in a world where you can get Galaxy on Fire 2 HD and Warpgate HD for around a fiver, but Drox Operative is also enormous, enthralling and, at times, evolutionary.
- Dynamic quests and continuous galaxy deliver a sense of urgency to proceedings
- Let's you become a galactic puppet master
- The ARPG/4X hybrid approach works well...
- ...But needs refining
- Progression pacing can be painfully slow
- Loot system unbalanced and often frustratingly fiddly
The Short Version: Drox Operative is an innovative little mash-up between a spacefaring ARPG and the diplomatic stylings of a classic 4X title. You'll need to really love a bit of grinding, but the cracking AI and impressive galaxy-building add up to another game that'll suck you in thoroughly and steal all of your time. Addictive galactic puppet mastery indeed.