Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A spanner in the works - Drox Operative

NOTICE: This review used a copy of the game that includes the Invasion of the Ancients expansion, your experience with the base game many vary.

Soldak Entertainment, who's previous games I've covered here and here has made something of a name for themselves over the years, by taking action RPGs along the lines of Diablo or Torchlight, and turning them on their head, Depths of Peril had you managing a covenant of barbarians to take control of a town through war and diplomacy against other covenants. Din's Curse pitted you against a living dungeon full of dangers that grew worse if left unchecked. Now, we have Drox Operative. Bringing it's own twist to the formula, starting with the fact that you're in space.

Drox Operative sees you as the captain of a starship flying under the banner of a Drox Operative Guild. Your job is to cruise a galaxy full of warring alien races as a sort of mercenary-for-hire, handling their problems and fighting their battles for a fee. Your ultimate goals are to make as much money as possible, expand the power of the Drox guild and perhaps most importantly, make sure that whatever happens between these warring empires, you're on the winning side.
In space, no one can hear you loot.
One of the first differences in Drox operative is when making a character. You're given a decently sized list of races to pick from. as well as a handful of options for extra challenges like hardcore mode. Unfortunately The only difference between races is some stat bonuses, as well as extra equipment slots for things like shields or missiles. Picking your race, while still important isn't as big a choice as picking a class in similar games.

Interestingly, Drox Operative does not have skill trees. Instead abilities are decided by your current equipment. This allows for a lot of flexibility since you can use whatever you like, assuming you can purchase it from a vendor or find it off a random enemy. There's a decent number of options to play with, including missiles, lasers and mine droppers. You can even install multiples of the same thing and their stats will add up. Want a lot of shields? Just install extra shield components. The only other restrictions you have are your power load, which you can get things like power plants to improve, and your component slots, which are divided into slight, medium and heavy components, and you can unlock more of these by raising your command stat.

Speaking of, while the game has no skills it does still have stats that you can increase on level up. since this isn't a typical RPG, the usual strength and dexterity has been replaced with more fitting things like helm and computers. Each one gives a bonus to something like attack damage or defense, but are mainly used for equipment requirements, such as higher tactical allowing for better weapons. Interestingly,  the way equipment and stat requirements work means that rather than focusing on one or two stats like in most RPGs, here you'll want to spread your points out somewhat to make sure none of your equipment lags too far behind everything else.

Equipment gives your ship a lot of flexibility. Want to use a certain ability? Just equip something that grants it.
Once you've picked a race you'll be put into the middle of a randomly generated sector of space, and this is where the game get's unusual. The basic idea behind this game is that each sector is home to several different alien races. These races will be researching technology, colonizing plants, and fighting amongst each other. You're job in all of this can best be summed up as "spanner in the works", the aliens in each sector will offer you quests that can range from fighting off neutral space monsters or delivering supplies, to helping attack other races. you can even engage in diplomacy with these races to give them things like technologies and information on planets you've found. Your can even spread rumors or propaganda to mess with the races relations between each other. While you don't have much of a personal stake in what's going on, you've got a lot of options on how to influence things.

This leads up to Your goal in the game which is kind of complicated. you basically have three options: Ally yourself with one or more races and help them take over the sector, raise a certain amount of money for the Drox guild, mostly gained by completing quests, or raise your fear rating enough to please the Drox, mostly through fighting. There's actually a good bit of strategy to the game as working towards those win conditions means having to consider who you work for and what information you trade off.
The diplomacy screen from Depths of Peril makes it's return.
The game also has lose conditions, it mostly boils down to not being allies with the winning side when a sector is taken over, or somehow managing to make everyone hate you. The most interesting though is economic loss, which will cost you a sector if you loose the guild too much money. Most of that money is lost by getting killed (Clones are expensive!) so there's a larger incentive than normal to avoid dying. Fortunately, if you do achieve(?) a losing condition, you are given a grace period of about 10 minuets to fix things. So if a race took over the sector when you were just one or two reputation points away from becoming allies with them, you've still got a chance to fix that and make it a win.

While the game uses a similar engine to Soldak's previous works. The graphics actually look a bit better this time. ships recognizably look like ships, planets like planets, and the background includes plenty of distant galaxies and nebulae  to keep things interesting. It's still not a visually impressive game, but but it's a step forward at least.

The game's music is also decent, it's energetic and helps to set the tone of fighting out in space, and helps keep the game from getting too quiet. It's also seems a little larger than in previous Soldak games, with each race having their own music theme. Sound meanwhile is pretty effective, everything sounds like you'd expect, with plenty of explosions and buzzing sounds for lasers, along with a simple engine sound for ships in flight. One major improvement over previous games is some new warning sounds to let you know when you've lost shields or are running low on health, add in the usual sounds for notices and successful or failed quests. Overall, the game does a good job of getting your attention and making sure you don't miss anything important.
Races like the hive here, populate each sector of space.
Oveall, this is a big, complex game, and to be honest that's a bit of a problem. There's a lot of information to track to the point of being a bit too much in places. the win and lose conditions I detailed above are complex enough that there's separate win and lose condition screens you can check to see how your doing. Your ship actually has three health bars: Shield, armor and hull. and they don't all use the same healing items. On top of that you have an energy bar, and even the most basic of attacks uses up some energy, add in a harsh galaxy where too many deaths will trigger an economic loss and you've got a game that can be somewhat hard to get into.

However, if you can come to grips with how the game works and get past those rough early stages, you've got what's easily Soldak's best game as of this writing. A highly replayable action RPG, set in a living, changing galaxy that's radically different from anything else on the market. Worth a look if you already played and liked Depths of Peril or Din's Curse. Though if you're new to Soldak's games I might suggest starting with one of those first, as they're a bit easier to get into while still showing off some unique ideas.

Drox Operative was developed and published by Soldak Entertainment. It is available on Steam, GoG, Desura and Gamersgate. It's homepage, which includes a demo and direct purchase option is available here.

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