(PC Review) Drox Operative

Developer: Soldak Entertainment
Publisher: Soldak Entertainment
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-N/A (No limit)
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
P4 1.5 GHz / Athlon 1.7 GHz, 256MB RAM, GeForce 2 (or equivalent), 200MB HD

In Drox Operative, the latest open-world action-RPG by Depth of Peril and Din’s Curse developer Soldak, you face off against the many dangers of deep space in pursuit of the greatest of glories: your victory. But how you achieve your intergalactic triumph depends on just what kind of mercenary you want to be—an intriguer, a privateer, or a one-ship empire-destroyer. Regardless of whether you take the cloak-and-dagger approach or prefer a more overt route, Drox Operative offers plenty for fans of the genre.

Unlike most role-playing games, or most games in general for that matter, Drox Operative isn’t about going on an epic quest to save an empire, unite disparate allies, or free an oppressed people. Instead, it’s about doing whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want. As a fabled Operative, you are an elite gun-for-hire being courted by multiple factions as they vie for galactic supremacy. Each of the dozen primary races and their altered offshoots has their own traits and agendas, ranging from the forceful ogre-like Brunt to the energy-based chaotic Fringe. A web of alliances, non-aggression pacts, and mutual protection pacts emerge throughout play and shift the balance of power as factions rise and fall, all while you support insurrections, steal technology, and spread destabilizing rumors in order to topple those whom you deem unworthy of rule.

If all of this sounds exciting, it’s because it is. I’ve played few games like Drox Operative—only Armada for the Dreamcast and Solar Winds and Space Rangers for PC come to mind—with its mixture of loot-dropping addictiveness and skill-based combat. With movement mapped to WASD and attacks to the numerical keypad, I was controlling my little ship as if I was at the helm, dropping mines, swooping in to launch unguided projectiles, and desperately trying to outrun homing missiles as my flak cannons auto-fired away. While the game can be played with a more traditional control scheme—clicking on a location to move—I found the hands-on approach to offer not only a great arcade-style experience, but one that is quite unique. And despite not looking like one in the screenshots, Drox Operative is definitely an action-RPG. Amongst the debris, tattered treaties, and bribes are piles of graded loot, a leveling system, a skill tree, and swarms of monsters to grind.

Each randomly generated sector offers several ways of winning. After choosing which of the 10 races’ ships you wish to pilot and setting the starting monster level, the pace (the faster it is, the more experience earned), the size of the sector, and difficulty level, you are thrown into the wilds to go about achieving whichever end you desire. Victory can be attained by successfully meeting criteria from one of five routes: Military, Diplomatic, Economic, Fear, and Legend. The handful of choices runs the gamut of play styles, making any approach a viable option for success, whether it’s all-out warfare, money hoarding, conniving, or questing. All of this is malleable, though, and adjustments can be made as the situation changes—maybe you’re so effective at combat you’ll forego niceties and opt to crush everyone and everything. This sort of in-flux approach is a key component to Drox Operative because, as with other Soldak titles, everything takes place in a dynamic world.

The systems that comprise each sector will pass between hands several times during play.  As you make your way through each, accepting quests and battling squads of marauding NPCs (re: monsters/fodder), a news box will continually update with the latest galactic happenings. This will keep you up to speed on new alliances, invasions, thefts, and everything in-between. It can be easy to miss some info because so much goes on, but it’s important to keep up to date as there’s nothing quite like arriving at a fledgling colony with a shipment of super fertilizer only to find it’s already been wiped off the planet. Then again, you’re sometimes the one doing the wiping. As you complete quests, destroy enemies near a claimed planet or ships, and trade, your relationship improves with the faction involved. This is fairly easy going in the beginning, when everyone is happy to see an Operative in the area, but can eventually become problematic as your dealings come to light. Travel between systems is done via Starlanes, Wormholes, and Jump Gates, and navigation can become especially tricky for those down-on-their-luck mercenaries who lack the credits (or activated gate) to take the local system-skipping Jump Gate to warp safely around enemy-controlled systems. Factions can even control and sale gates. Fortunately, deteriorating relations can be repaired, though often only after you’ve had a few close calls, barely making it away in an escape pod before respawning back in your home system—or sans the pod and left to work off an experience debt as a clone.

Such nerve-wracking moments are often the result of run-ins with monsters, given how leveling tends to make your ship strong enough to withstand a few hard scrapes once you really dive into the machinations of empire-building. Systems aren’t just filled with ships but all sorts of wonders, such as anomalies to investigate, derelict ships to loot, ancient stations to replenish shields, mines to evade, and massive planets that can suck you into their gravity wells and slow you down at the worst times. There are even the occasional solar storms that can drain shields and batter the final layer of metal that lies between your precious circuitry and the harsh environs of space. As you survive and thrive in your sturdy ship, you really come to appreciate the little workhorses, even if many of them do look a bit silly.

Instead of controlling a mighty warrior, an anemic necromancer, or a roguish rogue, your one and only avatar is a spaceship; you don’t even get a portrait. Each ship type has different traits, which are a combination of stat boosts and race-specific bonuses (e.g., extra item slots); however, despite the many options, the difference between each isn’t drastic. Each ship has four component slots (heavy, medium, light, and race-specific), as well as cargo bays to hold loot. A Power Load serves as a check against kitting out ships with nothing but powerful weapons and engine add-ons, with most items requiring a certain amount of power to use effectively. To put it in more traditional terms, the components are the weapons, armor, and items, and the Power Load the weight. Your first ship has a limited amount of component slots, with the race-specific ones being determined by whatever bonuses that ship type allows. What goes into those slots varies greatly in name and stats but generally breaks down into a handful of category types: lasers, mines, shields, metal plating, circuitry, projectiles, escape pods, and crew. Cargo Bay slots can be fitted with additional bays that hold extra items, which serve the functions of pouches in more traditional role-playing games. As with ship types, the various weapons, armor, and gear appear to offer more variety than they actually do, and for all of the weird names and lists of stats, the actual gameplay doesn’t vary greatly between loadouts. Still, all of the items make for an involved balancing act between power and gear, and ensuring that your ship is optimized for combat and performance becomes a constant struggle.

Ships level as experience is gained, but they don’t always change. Experience points are allocated to six different areas: Tactical, Helm, Structural, Engineering, Computers, and Command. Crew slotted into the Light Component category also level up during play, but the process is automatic. Each area offers ways to not only increase speed and energy (for weapons) and shield regeneration, but also general upgrades that allow for more powerful gear to be equipped. The only way to get a new ship is by allocating points to Command, which builds towards a threshold that once reached causes Drox High Command to upgrade your current ship to the next class. New ships aren’t always the best choice, though, as their additional component slots and ship-type stat bonus are offset by a defense penalty and an increased weight. This shift in stats might seem unimportant, but ignoring some of the upgrade categories can lead you to be unable to properly maneuver the larger craft due to the right parts being too advanced to equip.  Of course, sacrifices should be expected if you’re looking to fit a new Budget Nuclear Power Plant IV for an increased Power Load or a Cheap Supercomputer I for defense and attack boosts. The system can take some time to get used to, and the divvying up of points between skill and ship upgrades can make progression sluggish, but it allows for you to experiment with everything between speedy mine-layers to slow juggernauts bristling with Ram Accelerators, Cheap Nuclear Missile IVs, and Superior Fighter Bay Is.

Ensuring that your ship is up to snuff becomes even more important whenever relationships break down and the end game approaches. In my experience, it was pretty common for one faction to break away fairly early on, which leaves you with the choice of trying to align with them or work with the remaining races to bring them down. I admit that I had no problem cozying up to the dominant faction by liberally bribing them and taking on whatever quests they had on offer, whether that was dropping off crates of weapons to put down civil unrest on a new colony or stealing technology from a rival. Bribing can be a bit too easy at times, with most factions always near bankruptcy and my 5,000 credits being more than enough to sway the hesitant. I say bribing, but the credits were technically a monetary offer sent in addition to my pact and alliance overtures—but we both know what it was. It didn’t always work, but it was a pretty reliable way for me to work up the chain of pacts. Relationships aren’t just built on cash and chores but also on how well you’ve protected a faction’s colonies and ships, how you’ve treated their friends and enemies, how their demands and trade offers have been handled (ignored or rejected), if you’ve spied on them, what rumors have been spread about you, as well as a nebulous Other category. There is even a natural decline, with built-up goodwill slowly eroding over time without direct involvement. That said, building up a positive rapport can also lead to extra benefits, such as the odd gift of credits and the option to repair gear and heal crew at friendly colonies.

The AI isn’t always consistent when it attempts to negotiate with you. While not bad by any means, I did notice some strange behavior that goes beyond the computer simply being eager to win over the mighty Operative. Factions that I was at war with would randomly send threatening messages for me to break off a fruitful alliance with nothing extra on offer to sway me, while others would gift me 30 credits right after I had gifted them what little they had in their meager coffers. Diplomacy is notoriously difficult for AI to handle properly, as evidenced by the years of erratic behavior in the Total War games, so I’m not entirely surprised that some strange behavior cropped up now and then. While diplomatic interactions might not be refined, they get the job done—and, truth be told, are handled better than in most other titles just by virtue of the fact that diplomacy actually functions.

What I really like about Drox Operative are the small touches. For instance, quests do not have to be accepted in order to be completed. Hitting ‘R’ to bring up the Relationship screen and seeing the green exclamation marks indicating solved quests was a small thrill because it meant an influx of experience, cash, and relationship bonuses for something I didn’t even set out to do. A list of the sector’s open quests is also available by hovering over the sector name in the top-right corner, and in a keen display of economy, the color of the system’s name indicates which factions are in control or fighting for it. Non-usable items destined for a colony also detail in their descriptor pop-up which colonies, if any, require them for you to solve a quest. How nice is that? Information is also handily displayed through the use of large fonts, charts, and icons, which, while a bit garish at times, convey a lot of information with surprisingly little searching and squinting. The program was also rock solid: whether playing in full screen or window mode (which autopauses once you move the cursor outside the window), or even alt-tabbing, there was not a single crash. In fact, the only thing I wasn’t crazy about were the sound effects and music, which can be abrasive. Save for the odd ill-targeted foe or tendency for monsters to focus their attention on you—though they do fight amongst themselves and the other factions—I found a lot to like during my time as an Operative.

Cooperative multiplayer play is also offered, but I was unable to find active servers in time for this review. There are options to search for Internet games in East and West US, Europe, and Other, but none were available. Hosted local and Internet play is also supported.

Drox Operative is a fantastic action-RPG that manages to do a lot with a little. The customization options might not provide as varied an experience per ship as they would initially appear to, but the open system allows for multiple play styles to be utilized as you rip across a dynamically evolving galaxy. The action-oriented control options make this a more hands-on title than most others in the genre, and as a result, it’s both unique and highly engaging. A few rough spots aside, PC gamers should do themselves a favor and try out Soldak’s latest; it’s definitely worth checking out.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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