Drox Operative: 4X Gaming on a Micro Scale
So you know those giant 4X strategy games such as Master of Orion II or Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion? If you don’t, go play them right now. Seriously, I’ll wait for you to come back… We good? Alright, now as you know, games like those and others are grand strategic enterprises involving the workings of entire empires to explore the universe and make their their mark on it. In Drox Operative, however, you’re given a different perspective on the whole empire building thing…
Drox Operative takes a unique and differing approach to this kind of galactic expansion and exploitation. While there are indeed various empires vying for control of their corners of the universe (or all of it), you don’t play those guys. You play a Drox Operative, commander of a small mercenary ship who can work for or against these empires. The Drox Operatives are a powerful force in the galaxy, as empires turn to them to help with tasks they don’t have the time or wherewithal to complete themselves. This is where you come in.
Drox Operative is the latest game from Soldak, who made an action RPG that I still to this day adore dearly, Din’s Curse. Unlike other games of its type, Din’s is awesome because it has living dungeons with creatures that fight back, grow, change and eventually attack your town, as opposed to creatures that just sit there waiting for you to kill ‘em, like most ARPGs. Drox Operative takes a similar approach, but brings it up from the confines of dungeons to the openness of space.
Unlike dungeons, which have specific corridors and rooms, the systems in Drox Operative are open circular spaces with planets, anomalies, space junk, alien monsters, gates to different systems and so on. At first, I have to admit this was a bit jarring. I was used to the more focused experience of running through corridors and into rooms, finding stairs and other ways to move between floors.
With Drox Operative’s open nature, this felt a bit like a slog at first, in all honesty. Even with rampant killing of enemy monsters, flying to planets to trade (more on this in a bit) and so on, I was kind of at a loss as to how to find a way to get from one system to another at first. This got more intuitive as I learned the game, but initially, I was somewhat frustrated. Thankfully a couple of patches have already been released to help ease the new player into the game, but new players should note that there is something of a learning curve until it all clicks. Thankfully, Drox Operative provides numerous options to tweak the game.
Sadly, while the tutorial popups cover a lot, they don’t cover everything (yet). When I first loaded the game, I was frustrated that my ship would stop whenever I clicked the left mouse button to fire my main weapon. After playing around with the controls in the screen above, I found a nearly-mouseless control method that worked for me. This is part of the growing pains in a beta, I suppose. The game grows with feedback, and the players hopefully grow along with it. I have a much easier time with the game now, thankfully, and BOY is it fun, so if you’re frustrated at first, keep playing, because your patience will be rewarded.
Once you get over the initial growing pangs — which will hopefully be less of an issue as the game improves — the game gives you a TON of things to do. Even without dealing with the races, there are enemy monsters to kill and loot, space junk and derelicts to salvage, anomalies to be scanned and asteroids to mine, for example. Once you bring the empires into the mix, however, that’s when the game REALLY gets fun.
This is the relations screen, and the tutorial doesn’t fully explain this, but it’s one of the centerpieces of the game, as well as a revelation in how certain gameplay elements are handled. From this screen, you can:
- Accept and turn in quests remotely (which is AMAZING, though some still need to be done in person)
- Trade for gate locations (a REAL time saver), treaties or technology
- Accept gifts
- Alter empirical relations through rumors, sabotage
- And more!
Once you learn the intricacies of using this screen correctly, the game becomes MUCH more streamlined. At first, for example, I had NO clue that you could trade credits for gate locations (gates let you jump from one system to another easily despite its distance, for a price), so finding gates or starlanes (sort of like direct jumpgates to neighboring systems) was a slog and a half. Now, I’m bopping around all over the place, accepting quests of all sorts at a much more fluid pace. :)
Speaking of quests, so far they’ve been pretty varied. I’ve had to do everything from safely ferry a diplomat to helping terraform a planet to making a system more safe for interstellar travel, and a bunch in-between. Quests are the cheese that keep this mouse moving forward, and they help keep the gameplay focused. I mean sure, you could simply fly around systems and kill bad guys, but quests are the real spice of the game.
Where do you get quests? The other empires, of course, again either remotely or in person. Quests give nice experience and monetary bonuses, and they’re also a great way to gain favor with these empires. Any game of Drox Operative can have multiple empires (currently my game has three active empires), and you can work with or against these empires as you see fit. The empires have relations with each other (which you can help or hinder with rumors and such) as well as relations with you personally, and lots of things can affect your relations. Besides quests, you can improve relations by trading with planets, killing enemies near their forces and so on. If you don’t care to improve relations, you can actually declare war on a faction. I’ve not done this, but I can’t say I recommend it.
I don’t recommend it because you’ll need the colonized planets of these empires to not only repair and recharge your ship and its components, but to do one of the most fun things in the game, go shopping! ;) Each planet in Drox Operative has a varied selection of ship upgrades, such as engines, weapons and ancillary equipment. Your ship has certain amount of light, medium and heavy slots, and certain pieces of equipment can only fit in these specific slots. This makes shopping for upgrades a bit confusing, but one gets used to it.
Shopping for equipment has one main reason…to improve your ship’s stats. While your character has specific stats (as does your crew, which we’ll talk about in a moment), ships also have their own stats that are dictated by its equipment, such as how much energy it has or how quickly it recharges its energy reserves, how much attack and defense power, how fast it moves and so on. The stats of your ship and your crew can also affect which equipment you can purchase.
In Drox Operative, your character is your ship, and it has certain skill points such as helm, tactical, command, engineering and so on that can determine its base defensive capabilities, its hull strength and so on. Various pieces of equipment can also add to these stats, as can crewmembers, so there are a lot of stats involved. When your character levels up, you get a certain amount of points to spread out, like in most ARPGs. However, if you put enough points into the command skill, you will get a larger ship eventually. It’s an odd method of ship upgrading (versus, say, a shipyard), but I think it works in its own way.
So I’ve tried to lay down how the game works, but you’re likely wondering how it PLAYS. Well, like I said, after getting over the initial learning pangs, when the game finally clicked with me, it clicked HARD. It’s really amazing to watch these empires expand exactly how they would in other 4X games, and you just watching it happen from your cockpit as you complete their quests and curry their favor.
Many times I imagined myself as a tiny dot in a game of Master of Orion II, flying around while the empires do their thing, and trying to help them as best I can. Some 4X games model mercenaries pretty well, such as Imperium Galactica II, but it’s so cool to BE one of those mercenaries it’s just silly. While I’m flying around killing random space monsters — which is a literal blast — it’s also amazing to watch colony ships fly to new planets, cruise ships take sightseeing tours, and patrols protecting the space lanes. The galaxy feels fairly alive, but it could feel moreso with the addition of new civilian ships and such. Hopefully this will be one improvement the game sees throughout the beta.
This was a pretty lengthy preview, but I felt there was a lot to discuss, honestly. While I was a bit concerned about Drox Operative at first, due to my initial frustration/lack of information (hopefully better tutorial and help information will be added), once the game clicked, I found it to be close to the game I had in my head since first hearing about it. Being a mercenary in a dynamic, (somewhat) living universe, working with empires to help them gain a foothold on the galaxy and so on, is just a joy to play. I’m finding myself sneaking in sessions wherever I can, and scrounging forums just to talk about it when I’m not playing it.
So can I recommend Drox Operative in this early state? Now that I’ve made you aware of the initial learning bump and hopefully given you the right expectations (i.e. it might be a slight slog at first, but stick with it, it pays off), I absolutely can. If you love blowing stuff up in space, completing quests, improving your ship with various types of gear, engaging in various avenues of diplomacy and so on, then you will likely ADORE Drox Operative just as I do.
Thank you for reading my lengthy preview. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you enjoy the gallery below of all the screenshots I took. Have a great day, and thanks for visiting! :)
Edit: Since the time I wrote this, two patches have already been released which cover some of what I discussed above, FYI, and also fix a lot of other issues. Check it out. :)