Have you ever wondered what would happen if you combined an ARPG (Diablo-like) with a 4X space game? Back in June of 2012, I wrote a preview of a game from Soldak Entertainment called Drox Operative that looked to me like a pretty good answer to that question. At that time, it was still in the very early beta stages (version .902). Fast forward six months or so later, and Drox Operative has now graduated from beta stage to release (version 1.0 as of the time of this article). Has Drox Operative’s mixture of action, rpg, and strategy elements come together to create a fantastic recipe for gamers? Let’s find out!
If you’ve read my preview, you should have a pretty firm grasp already on what Drox Operative is all about. I’ll be focusing more on my experiences with the game in this review, but first, I’ll provide a quick recap on the general game design below.
Drox Operative is an ARPG with some 4X elements
Though many 4X strategy elements exist in the game, Drox Operative is first and foremost an ARPG in the same vein as Diablo or Torchlight. You will control only one ship throughout the game, the Drox Operative command ship you selected when you started the character. The ship itself is portrayed as an RPG protagonist of sorts, and as you’d expect in other ARPGs, you will swap out components, often called “loot” in these types of games, as well as level up your ship.
These two mechanics – level up and loot – are used often in these types of games to provide the player with a sense of progression and excitement. Drox Operative provides ample opportunity for each as item drops are very frequent, and the level cap allows progression all the way up to level 100. Unlike most ARPGs, Drox Operative also has a very sandbox style structure to it, an idea more often associated with 4X strategy games.
Drox Operative does not have an overarching storyline, or any storyline at all, really. Also, none of your friends, enemies, or accomplishments, are remembered from sector to sector. In Drox Operative, each sector is a sandbox game consisting of multiple star systems and planets. The only thing that remains the same from sector to sector is your ship, with all its levels, items, crew, and currency.
Drox Operative’s deep faction system, diplomatic relations, and quest structure are all strongly influenced by many of the classic 4X strategy elements we are used to. Races form alliances with one another, declare war on one another, colonize planets, hunt down space monsters, transport diplomats and colonists, level up and make use of new technologies, and in general behave in a manner similar to what you’d expect in a traditional strategy game. They also have their own issues to deal with, including rebellions, locust storms, incoming comets, monster swarms, unrest, and even outbreaks of asexual reproduction (as I mentioned in my preview).
The player, as commander of a lone starship, is more of a piece on the board, rather than a side unto himself. You are the errand boy, helping them solve their seemingly endless problems as presented to you in the form of quests. Ignore any threat for too long, and you are likely to fail the quest and things will go from bad to worse for the affected race. The crux of the game is choosing whom to help by predicting who is most likely to put you in a good position to win, and then to accomplish quests for that side and perhaps reek some havoc on the other races in the game.
What’s changed since our preview
Since the time of my preview, Soldak Entertainment produced a plethora of patches. Beyond the expected bug fixes, balance tweaks, and typo corrections, many of these patches added quite a few elements to the game that were not available at the time of my preview and which are certainly worth mentioning.
In the early beta, the only victory condition was to form an alliance with all remaining races. This could be problematic for reasons I will list a bit later. Thankfully, a few other victory conditions have since been added. For the true warmongers, Fear points can now be obtained by destroying the ships and planets of enemy races. For the more adventurous among us, there are Legend points to be obtained by defeating monsters and solving problems for the different races. Earn enough of either of these points and you will win the sector. You can also win by earning a significant amount of money for the Drox Operative guild.
On the flip-side, there are also a couple of new loss conditions including economic loss, military loss, and diplomatic loss. Finally, the mysterious Drox Operative guild will now often have a bonus objective for you in each sector, which helps further direct your choices and goals for victory.
Racial ships now receive a bonus crew member and have a couple of race specific item slots in addition to the usual 3 heavy, 3 medium, and 3 light slots every ship begins with. This has helped the early game by providing an additional source of skill points, the crew member, and what typically amounts to a defensive or offensive bonus item.
Enhanced race AI across the board. The AI in general has progressed a long way from its original behavior. Whereas in the early beta versions it was relatively easy to stay out of range and destroy enemy ships with large area of effect weapons, these are no longer issues as defending ships now patrol around and pursue any potential threats. The number of quests available and the aggression of the races has also been increased.
The nature of dynamic galaxies and quests
The dynamic quest system used in Drox Operative is a brilliant idea. You are asked to deal with a case of the galactic flu present on a planet. You, however, are the Drox Operative, and you will do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Ignoring this threat to deal with matters elsewhere, you hear later that it has spread to another nearby planet. In other news, you also neglected to handle a riot on a planet and it has now become a full-scale rebellion. One situation left too long often leads into the next, even worse situation. This creates an ever present demand for your services, and you won’t often be left wanting for quests to do.
While it’s great to always have something to do, the number of quests generated using this dynamic system is excessive. Rather than having too few quests, I typically have far too many. Riots and unrest are seemingly everywhere, and it seems as though the races are too inept to figure out how to solve these problems on their own. Instead, they ask you to fly across the galaxy, typically several star systems away, to buy (with your money) some lethal or non-lethal weapons.
You then need to fly all the way back to drop them off. Should you decide to do this, you have also decided not to defend the planet one of your allies asked you to guard, nor have you gathered items for your other ally who needs a cure for the galactic flu, nor have you dealt with the monsters who have begun gathering an army in a distant star system. In essence, you have taken two steps forward and three steps back.
The quality of quests and the quest rewards are disproportionate to one another. I understand that the game is designed to have a certain element of urgency and decision making built in. Choosing which quest to do is supposed to be part of the challenge, and I willingly accept the fact that there are quests I am going to fail because I chose to do others.
Beyond the problem of too many quests I mentioned above though, the other big issue with the quests is the reward balancing. For example, as a reward for the riot quest mentioned above, you get a few hundred experience, a few hundred dollars that is little more than repayment for what you spent, and some reputation with the race. In contrast, defending a race’s planet from attack, which requires merely sitting in place near it shooting at any enemies coming by, has offered me as much as 22,000 experience for far less work. Destroying X number of enemy monster ships also carries a similar reward to the fed-ex weapon delivery request, and is generally much easier as you simply fly around blowing enemies up as part of your travel activities anyway.
Setting the quests aside for a moment, I want to mention a system I feel was really well put together, the monster leveling system. Occasionally, when space monsters destroy each other, they level themselves up in the process. Leaders appear amongst them, and soon after, a snowball of carnage begins to roll. If they are not dealt with quickly, they start creating gates to warp enemy ships in, build listening posts to gather information, and create uprisings amongst their fellow monsters. Like a snowball, the threat gets larger and larger as time wears on. These leaders will also occasionally join together under the leadership of a primary leader, a situation reminiscent of supervillains coming together under a single banner to cause chaos everywhere. This is a really great mechanic, and I hope it is explored further in the future.
Being present for a large scale battle, one where 2, 3, or even more races have all come together to trade weapon fire, is a true sight to behold. Imagine yourself flying in between all of them, dropping mines, firing lasers and blasters, and using EMP blasts to weaken your enemies ships. Allied ships and enemy ships are exploding all around you, and you glance quickly at your health bars, gauging whether to fight or to flee, and wondering if your side can win the battle without you. Does this sound exciting to you? In my opinion, it sure is, and when I happen across it, a smile begins to appear across my face.
The large scale battles I mentioned are the exception rather then the rule. Unless you happen to come across one in progress, I’ve not found a way to create these types of situations. In fact, the only way to get any assistance with destroying enemy races is to watch for a notification message that they are launching an attack somewhere. If you are close enough, you can swing over and join the fun while it lasts. Another method I’ve tried is to follow my allies ships to see if they are headed to attack someone, but often times this leads you on a wild goose chase across multiple star systems as they are serving their own agenda, not yours.
This all comes back to the general lack of control you have as a lone Drox Operative living in a galactic playground built for exploitation by the proper races. You can’t tell ships where to go and what to attack, nor can you even make suggestions to their leadership to do so. Despite being in an alliance, you are still their pawn and any efforts to strike at the heart of their enemies are often lonely, maverick endeavors.
One particularly frustrating moment had me in a 3 vs 2 alliance. Despite one of the two enemies being significantly weaker, down to just a few planets that were heavily guarded, my allies decided to keep sending colony ships and escorts through the heart of the stronger enemies empire, getting their warships and colony ships destroyed needlessly. Sadly, my ship was not equipped to take on the 12-15 defenders they had guarding their final two planets since they were so close together both defensive fleets pursued me as I approached. I instead had to tend to matters elsewhere, which allowed them to colonize and build themselves up once again.
The Loot Lottery – what you see may not be what you get
Items are too plentiful and item quality is not indicative of actual quality. As part of the classic ARPG experience, Drox Operative features frequent drops from destroyed monsters, ships, and planets. There are also several other treasure sources, like anomalies, unexplored planets, and space junk. These items consist of various qualities, including gray, green, yellow, brownish, blue, and purple. Unfortunately, an item of Artifact or Legendary quality is often less useful than an item of far lesser quality.
In Drox Operative, Artifact or Legendary status means the item comes with additional bonus traits, like +14 radar, +4 max power load, and +7% find components. It does not mean that the artifact class nuclear missile will do more damage than the gray quality nuclear missile you picked up an hour or more earlier. In fact, it may do far less damage per second. This means that item quality is often an ignorable stat, and it eliminates its use as a basis for sorting out which items to pick up and which to leave floating in space.
Unless every item is picked up and examined, you may be leaving an excellent item behind simply because of its color. This leads to a lot of downtime collecting loot, typically filling your cargo hold to max, and then having to make a run back to a friendly planet to sell items. I should also mention that these items are unidentified when picked up, meaning you will be either spending a lot of time right clicking them, one at a time, to identify them, or you will be going to the closest friendly planet and spending money to identify them all at once.
The diplomatic system, as I mentioned in the preview, can get a bit… interesting. With multiple factions all vying for control, deals are made and broken pretty regularly. The relationship chart offers a good overall view of where everyone stands, and a quick mouseover will provide more specific details. Overall, I like the relationship window and feel it works well in this type of game.
Another cool aspect Soldak has incorporated into Drox Operative is the possibility of rebel factions appearing during the course of the game. For instance, in one game my enemies, the Dryad, apparently had some issues internally and a Dryad Rebels faction spun off from them and became their own entity. These rebel factions have their own spot on the relationship window, their own color, their own avatar portraits, and even their own crew members you can find and hire.
In my experience, this level of depth in a rebellion mechanic is very hard to find, and I think Soldak did a great job incorporating it in such a significant way. The only downside is that these factions are typically very short lived, as they have little in the way of development or defense at their disposal. If you race over to help them, you might just be able to get a whole new race working for you. At least the possibility exists, while in most games it is nowhere to be found.
Did I mention that races you are friendly with are stingy, selfish, and ignorant? I mentioned earlier how races won’t join me in a well planned invasion. While frustrating, they do call the shots, so it’s a fact I’ve had to accept. What I don’t understand though, is why they won’t trade me access to warp gates they have access to when I’ve got maxed relations and an alliance with them. They still want to charge me an unlock fee before they will trade me access. Even if they have asked you to defend a planet in a system you don’t have gate access to, they still won’t trade it to you for free so you can quickly warp over and defend it.
Diplomatic options are too expensive and risky. While Drox Operative presents numerous diplomatic options, like espionage to steal technologies, rumors to increase or decrease relations, and sabotage to cause a planet some sort of problem, I’ve found them to be highly unreliable and expensive. Rumor has been useful on a few occasions to get two of my allies to become a little friendlier.
I’ve used espionage a few times to try and turn the tide on the technology race. Aside from that, I’ve found them too expensive to use. Each of these includes three pricing tiers with varying degrees of success rate evidently attached, but this percentage is hidden from me, so I don’t know if I just have exceeding bad luck or if the chances are always quite low. Considering these often cost more than I receive for several quest rewards, and often fail for me, I don’t find them particularly viable. This may just be my experience or bad luck, but I’d prefer to have some more visibility into these numbers and/or lower costs associated with them.
Before I close out my discussion on diplomacy, I have to mention the nag messages you’ll receive almost constantly at times. Attack an enemy ship, and more often than not, you’re going to see a message from your allies telling you you’ve done a good job. This is typically followed up with a message from the enemy, and his allies, telling you to cease and desist or they’re going to make things unpleasant for you. If this was the only all there were to these messages, it wouldn’t really be that much of an issue. It is somewhat annoying though as you can not even enter the relationship view without first addressing these messages.
Unfortunately, the messages are not limited to these situations. Complete a quest for a race that another race doesn’t like, and you’ll get a message from them telling you to stop. At random, my ally might want to talk to offer me 8 credits, or the equivalent of less than the selling price for one item, as a reward for my good service. A little later, one of my enemies will send me a message demanding that I break my alliance with my ally, who I have 100 relationship with, just because they asked me to. Of course I’m not going to make that deal. Yet each time I reject them, they come back a short while later to ask again. In addition, other races ask me to do the same. This happens over and over and I haven’t found a way to tell them no and never ask again as of yet.
Gameplay and Pacing
Ship progression is slow early on. Depending on your choice of race upon character creation, you are likely going to be limited to just 1 or possibly 2 weapons for a large portion of the early game. This is due to the ship slot system, which is a 3 heavy slot, 3 medium slot, 3 light slot system. Each slot holds specific types of components, with the majority of weapons requiring heavy slots.
The problem is, heavy slots are also crucial for power plants and engines in the early game, which typically leaves 1 weapon slot in that category. Medium slots can be used for some secondary weapons, but are primarily used for defensive shields, computers to increase attack and decrease defense, some armors, and supplementary power or energy generation. With 1 weapon slot, you will spend a lot of the time flying around pressing the same button near enemies. Many hours in fact. You may swap from a laser to a missile, a missile to a blaster, blaster to railgun, and railgun to bomb, but you are still using 1 weapon and pressing 1 button for a long period of time.
The only way to increase these slots is by spending skill points earned when you level up, of which you get 5 per level, to raise your command skill. This increases the size of your ship and opens additional slots. There are a few problems with this system. One is that these points are also used to increase your other skills, which you need to raise in order to use better weapons, power plants, engines, etc. Spending points in command gets you nothing until you spend enough to level up, and even then you only unlock a slot every other level and decrease your speed every level due to your ship’s new larger size.
To counteract that, you need higher thrust engines, which requires a higher helm skill, which, yes, requires you to spend skill points earned during level up. It all becomes a mess of irreversible skill point management madness, and in the end you’ll have had to put A LOT of points into your ship to even unlock a 4th heavy slot. The eventual payoff is that you have multiple weapons to fire, which is of course more fun and interactive, but the wait for this payoff can be mind numbingly painful. To circumvent this issue, you can select one of several races that start with bonus weapon slots, like the human’s who get mines or the brunt that get a special missile slot, but this is a workaround rather than a solution to a problem that should be solved in a more universal manner.
Many of these issues combined has led the game to feel overly monotonous for me. The long wait for payoff on advancement, the helpless races demanding I spend too much time for too little reward, the endless amount of items that need to be examined, sorted, and disposed of, it all contributes to it feeling too repetitive. There are of course challenge modes, that help break up the sandbox levels, but in the end most of the problems mentioned above still apply. It is also true that at higher levels, you do get to unlock some new types of items and weaponry, as well as additional slots and doomsday weapons that can devastate races and planets, but it will be up to the individual player whether or not the journey to get them is worth the effort.
Drox Operative is a game I was really excited about pre-release. I was excited because it proposed a unique twist of genres, one where I could play a significant role in changing the fate of a galaxy without all the micromanagement typically associated with a traditional strategy game. The dynamic event system, unlike event systems I’ve ever seen, offered not just rewards, but also time limits and escalating consequences. It is a really great idea, and I am happy that an independent developer took a risk and spent a significant amount of time and money developing it.
Sadly though, I have mixed feelings when it comes to Drox Operative. While it has implemented all of the mechanics I was excited about when it was first announced, it also fails to keep my attention for long periods of time due to some of its missteps. I feel like it has come close to combining two rather different genres successfully – action RPG and strategy – but there are still a few mechanics that could use some fine tuning, perhaps in a future expansion, that could significantly increase my enjoyment of the game.
Note: If you have an interest in the ARPG genre and space, there is a free demo download available from Soldak that will let you experience what the game has to offer.
Space Sector score:
- Dynamic quests create a sense of urgency and encourage decision making
- AI’s use of 4X elements make the game and races feel alive without player interaction
- Battles involving multiple races offer an exciting experience
- Rebel factions and space monster ringleaders add an interesting twist
- Handcrafted challenge sectors offer some unique challenges
- Gameplay is slow and monotonous due to early gameplay mechanics
- No ability to influence your ally’s actions, so games take longer than they should
- Diplomatic options are limited due to prohibitive costs and hidden chances
- Too many diplomatic messages offering ridiculous demands or meaningless tribute
- Loot system is misleading and involves too much micromanagement
- Quest requirements vs rewards seem to be out of balance
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