Wot I Think: Drox Operative

By Adam Smith on December 21st, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

Twas the day before week’s end, when all throughout space,
Dark troubles were stirring, a deadly arms race!
The void filled with beacons, transmissions and prayers,
In hopes a Drox Operative soon would be there.

I’ve been exploring space sectors in Soldak’s latest ARPG. Here’s wot I think.

Being cut from the same cloth as previous Soldak titles – Din’s Curse and Depths of Peril – Drox Operative is not a typical action roleplaying game. Rather than rolling the player down a lane like a gradually accelerating, spike-accruing bowling ball smashing through increasingly robust collections of pins, Drox plants them in the middle of a playfield filled with packs of enemies, spacefaring civilisations and the occasional dimensional pocket or other surprise.

I found it incredibly confusing at first, perhaps because I had the comparison to Space Rangers 2 in the back of my mind. Although there are similarities between the two, Drox is definitely an ARPG rather than whatever the hell Space Rangers is. A spaceship biographer drifting around a dynamic galaxy? No, that’s not quite right. A Russian spaceship biographer drifting around a dynamic galaxy. That’s what space Rangers 2 is.

Back to Drox though, which is certainly an ARPG but also has the ‘living’ world aspect of both Space Rangers and Soldak’s earlier games. The player is the titular operative, sent into randomised space sectors to bring about peace, profit or peril, depending on his/her mood and the specifics of the situation. I spent much of last night acting as a devious weapons broker in a brewing battle between the Shadow and humankind. There are no humans left in that sector now (sorry) but I’m swimming in credits and allied with the Shadow, who are destined to dominate everybody thanks to all the tech I’ve discovered in far-flung, hazardous zones and flogged to them at crazy-cheap prices.

If you care to, and if the politics and positions of the races are suitable, it’s possible to create diplomatic victories by uniting the separate civilisations. Some are more bloodthirsty than others though and even the most mild-mannered become aggressive when their backs are to the wall.

Or, if you’re more of the lone hero type, take quests, travel through jumpgates, trade, destroy legendary spacebastards and marauding fleets, and be a do-gooder or renegade with no affiliation other than the essential one to the Drox Operatives themselves. They are the organisation that kitted you out and sent you out into the messy melting pot between stars, so you do owe them something and they’ll upgrade your crew and ship when you level up, so all’s fair. Plus, earn enough money in a sector and they’ll allow you to move on, ticking it off the infinite list of ‘things to do’.

The confusion that blinkered my first impressions arose as soon as I thrusted away from my starting location and found myself beset by a squadron of enemy ships. Who were they and would destroying them change the balance of the sector? Even worse, would they destroy my feeble little ship? The answer to both questions was a firm ‘no’. Unless ships or spacebeasts belong to a civilisation, they can be zapped happily into pieces, just like wandering bands of goblins or skeletons. They’re mostly easy prey, at first, and soon you’ll be leading them toward populated planets and THEN smiting them, enjoying the reputation boost that follows.

Confusion continues when contact is made with the various sentient species in a sector. There are so many possibilities. Should you engage in propaganda, sabotage and espionage? Undertake the quests they are offering? Soon, updates are pinging onto the bottom of the screen, informing you of developments that appear to be urgent and necessary. Civil unrest on a nearby planet requires delivery of non-lethal weapons, or the botanical Dryad may want to colonise the large desert planet you drifted past a few minutes ago. What to do?

The answer is not to worry too much. Things will happen with or without your involvement and it’s best not to divide your attention between all the galactic goings-on. If you want to help the treefolk spread, chat to them and they’ll tell you what they need and you can become a coloniser for a while. If you’d rather nip their expansionist plans in the bud, make sure they don’t get hold of the necessary equipment by cutting off supplies.

As soon as I had decided on a mission and a long-term goal, influenced by the win and lose states that the game details and tracks, I quickly learned to enjoy my time in each sector. As a wise book once said: Don’t Panic.

For a player like me, who likes to believe the world carries on even when I’m not looking, Soldak’s take on the ARPG is by far the most interesting I’ve encountered and Drox Operative, while I find it more abstract than Din and Depths, offers more possibilities. The less immediate nature of the space combat isn’t as well suited to the pointing, clicking and number key punching that has become an oddly acceptable shorthand for axe swinging and spell casting. However, each sector has so much to offer in terms of sly politicking and heroic salvation. The game just requires that you meet it half way with a healthy dollop of imaginative interpretation.

Of the ARPGs I’ve spent more than a couple of hours with this year, it breaks down as follows:

Diablo III – 15 hours or so. During the first five, I was happily collecting loot and dropping bells on zombies or punching them so hard that all their skin fell off and turned into a puddle. The rest was a grim-faced journey of the same that left me wondering if I ever actually enjoyed Diablo II as much as I thought I did.

Torchlight 2 – around five hours. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it but because that was enough time to convince me I’d enjoy playing it with a friend when free time was available.

Drox Operative – almost 30 hours. And I’m just getting started. The first couple of hours were disappointing as I struggled to find a connection. What is a Drox Operative anyway and what is it supposed to do, I definitely didn’t shout at the screen. Why are there so many types of ship and what is it all about? Should I be doing that thing, is that where the fun starts?

Silly me. A Drox Operative is, quite simply, a person with a badass spaceship who does whatever seems like a good idea at the time, with backing from a shadowy collective who provide upgrades and new ships when they see results. The operative might spend his/her time solving problems, creating problems, ignoring problems, but what’s essential is to use the space you’re given as a personal playground. Soldak provides a canvas, not blank but bristling with intent, and the spaceship, lasers and nuclear missiles are your brushes.

At first, it’s a little vague and clumsy, like a drunk politician, but once you allow your eyes to adjust, the bar that fills when a planet is explored might just become an image of forests coming into view, and diplomatic dealings with an aggressor, bombarding a friendly planet from orbit, could become a tale for the ages. While it doesn’t have the flashy, immediate appeal of a conventional Pinata-popper like Diablo, Drox Operative provides the greater gift of a world in which the action part of ARPG has consequences, as does inaction.

It’s the advancement of the genre that so many people have given up on searching for and Soldak have been providing it for years.

Drox Operative is available now for $19.99 on Windows and Mac. Maybe you’d like to try the demo?

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34 Comments »

  1. The Random One says:

    I don’t like ARPG’s, but my interest has been piqued.

    Wait, I mean… I’m in a space of interest? No, that sucks. I would like to vacuum info about- no. I’ll operate my computer to download- nah, pushing it. I’ll get the drox on- no, too easy.

    I got nothin’.

    • Twitchity says:

      I was always a bit nebulas on what a “Drox Operative” was, but it looks like this is going to be a star. Din’s Curse was a lot meteor than your average ARPG, and I think they really have their finger on the pulsar of what the market wants.

      • Skhalt says:

        Sir! You just claimed all the puns at once! Madness!

        • The Random One says:

          That’s why I had none!

          • VeronicaWadlington says:

            my roomate’s mother-in-law makes $67/hr on the laptop. She has been out of work for 9 months but last month her check was $17251 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on this site..Read More

        • LintMan says:

          It’s the pun singularity! Truly the end times are upon us, just as the Mayans predicted!

  2. webwielder says:

    Just tell me whether it’s like Escape Velocity and I’ll be on my way.

    • Caveat53 says:

      This is basically my question. I’ve been wanting a remake of EV nova for a while. Is this game like a spiritual succesor of sorts?

    • SominiTheCommenter says:

      Dat Main Theme…

    • AlexHeartnet says:

      No. It’s almost nothing like Escape Velocity despite having the same basic theme.

      Like the article said, it has much more in common with Diablo and Space Rangers 2.

    • AlexHeartnet says:

      Nope. Nothing like Escape Velocity at all – almost the only thing the two games have in common is having the same theme.

    • frightlever says:

      Ah yes, Escape Velocity… the game so good nobody mentioned it at all until this year for some reason.

      If Escape Velocity (Nova) intrigues you then play the demo. Then forget about it forever. Macs have real games now. Or perhaps you like to wrangle a bunch of easy exploits around nonsense.

    • Premium User Badge

      Vergilius says:

      You might want to check this project out. You are not the only one out there who misses the 2d-glory of Escape Velocity. Unfortunately, it’s still in alpha.

      http://code.google.com/p/naev/

  3. MythArcana says:

    One of the finest games I’ve played in quite a while, and through the development process via beta patches, it was an honor to help squash a couple bugs. Bravo and hobble up to the register for some action!

  4. Blackcompany says:

    This sheds some light on the fun but intimdating demo. I enjoyed it & really should give it more of a go. I just kept looking to the game for direction, a la more typical arpg games. This one lets you make your own.

  5. Mr_Hands says:

    After my fun but sometimes bewildering time with Din’s Curse, Drox Operative was a no-brainer pre-order for me. I didn’t expect Soldak to get everything 100% right, but I did figure they’d produce a universe that felt alive. Having played the beta during its further development, I’m absolutely pleased with Drox Operative. Glad to see it got a kind nod on here. Once you get into the thick of politicking, it really is quite excellent.

  6. derbefrier says:

    sounds fun and it has co-op! ARPGs are always best shared with a few friends. I will give the demo a go when I get off work.

  7. RegisteredUser says:

    I kinda liked the initial idea for Depths of Peril and the other one (I actually even bought them).
    But I realized far too quickly that after saving “the same town” 2-3 times, you really didn’t feel that special doing it.
    Since, well, there was just another clone-town coming up anyhow. All you did was level around a bit.
    This also was what put me off of Torchlight 1.

    Going by the descriptions here however, I am hoping that Drox is “larger”, more ambitious and has more of a “point” to it. If so, I’d love to check it out.
    I would have thought Starfarer is the more recent thing to compare it to, though?

    There was not enough said about how combat works here, and this is definitely always something that makes or breaks a game for me.

    • frightlever says:

      I never took to Depths of Peril until I understood that everything I was doing was actually holding back the real game. After that, just whoosh.

    • figvam says:

      Starfarer is from a different genre as far as I see – it’s a space combat simulator for the most part. It doesn’t have any meaningful campaign in its current state, you are playing just in a single star system sandbox. But it’s still an alpha, and there are hints about the things to come – interstellar travel, hired officers, character progression, gaining levels and skills. I get a strong Star Control vibe from it.

      I wonder why Starfarer isn’t yet mentioned by RPS. It’s a very addictive and beautiful game even in its current alpha state. Is there any way to attract the RPS gods’ attention to a game?

  8. Premium User Badge

    Gemberkoekje says:

    So, and I think this is the question on everybody’s lips right now, how does it compare to The War Z?

  9. James Allen says:

    Here’s me playing for 45 minutes (with critical commentary) if you’d like to see some of the gameplay.

    • Bluefox says:

      Thank you, James. I always like your video reviews. This might have pushed me to purchase it for myself for Christmas!

  10. Gorf says:

    I’m sold. Even with my ridiculously long list of games i have’nt played yet.
    And on top of that I’m not even gonna bother with the demo first……..coz thats just how I roll.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Strand says:

    This is my game of the year, followed closely by Cargo Commander. I’m not saying it’s for everyone but, interface quirks aside, it certainly pushes all of my buttons.

    The good ones. Not the one that gives me olfactory hallucinations and makes me think I’m smelling fish oil spread on peanut-butter toast .

  12. MadTinkerer says:

    I want this game, but I really want to wait for a Steam release.

    • Craig Stern says:

      It’s a crapshoot whether any game ever gets onto Steam. My advice: just buy it.

    • Moonshine Fox says:

      If you buy it now, you can request a Steam key from the developer once it’s released on Steam anyway, so there’s really not much reason to wait.

  13. mwoody says:

    Y’know what I like about RPS? That the link above the fold went to Soldak’s site, and not a search on RPS for “drox operative.”

    • The Random One says:

      Sometimes it goes to a RPS review or announcement post, so I reckon this particular time is just so they’ll catch you off guard!

  14. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    Hmm. I found the diplomatic elements were completely at odds with the ARPG mechanics. Maybe it’s just me but I need time to analyse and think about strategic relationships, but while doing so the game just races past.

    • Moonshine Fox says:

      You can run the game at “Slow” or “Slower” pacing which reduces the speed of everything going on with the meta game. Empires make money slower, build ships slower, change relations slower. It gives you more time to react.

      On the other side of the coin is of course the people who like frantic chaos, and there’s the higher pacings perfect.

  15. Kolimako says:

    This copy of Dark Orbit and Abyss Online