Drox Operative – Staff Review

It’s tempting to label Drox Operative as Din’s Curse with spaceships. The two titles share a lot on the surface, from the almost identical UI to the randomly generated worlds that develop organically. Yet Curse looked like just another dungeon crawler, and it delivered one of the smartest twists on the genre in years. Looks, after all, can be deceiving, and behind Operative‘s textbook looting and questing lies a unique and truly dynamic game world. It’s part RPG, part grand strategy, and all oh-hey-it’s-two-in-the-morning-already.

The titular operative (that would be you) is one of many, the remnants of the Drox Empire’s galaxy-spanning spy network. The Empire eventually viewed their creation as a threat and tried to destroy it, which backfired spectacularly. Though the Empire is long gone, the operatives live on as stateless mercenaries whose services remain in high demand. As other races seek to fill the power vacuum, the operatives’ only goal is to be on the winning side when the shooting stops, even if that means being the winning side. Victory can be simple military dominance or successful alliances, or you can shoot for something more creative: make a name hunting down the worst of the worst, amass enough money to be a self-contained economy, or just be a crazy bastard who’s not afraid to nuke a planet to make a point. While this is no story-driven RPG – you simply move to the next game when you win – the action that unfolds is more than capable of ginning up drama.

Technical stuff first. Operative has a lot in common with Curse, starting with the fairly traditional gameplay. Solar systems replace dungeon floors, with starlanes and wormholes serving as ‘stairs’ connecting them. Onboard weapons and subsystems are your equipment, mobs consist of hostile ships and spacefaring creatures, derelicts and space debris function like treasure chests, and so on. Mechanically it’s nothing new, but the setting is much more than a coat of paint. Space is quite lively, with the game’s civilized races expanding, settling, and fortifying new territories on their own. Uninhabited systems eventually become inhabited, and you’re usually never too far from shops, repairs, and other ‘town’ functions. Maneuvering is also atypical, as ships can’t move laterally; no stopping on a dime if you blow past your target. It seems like a small thing until inertia carries you into a minefield, so it behooves you to mind the road.

They've got me outnumbered fourteen to one.  Good, I was hoping for a fair fight.
They’ve got me outnumbered fourteen to one. Good, I was hoping for a fair fight.

For related reasons, combat is markedly different from Soldak’s last outing. You still point and click until your target dies, with adjustable hotkeys for specific weapons and items, but it’s less hack-and-slash and more 2D dogfighting. You’re often shooting on the move and taking into account range, bearing, and speed, while circling your target to evade their return fire. Strafing capital ships, dropping mines to shake pursuers, luring enemies to friendly worlds for fire support, using your own lasers as point defenses; these and other tactics are easy to pick up individually, but important to manage well in a mixed-unit firefight. Every attack draws from a self-recharging pool of energy, meaning you have to pace yourself in combat. You’ll become a fearsome solo operator over time, but you’re still just one little ship in a very big galaxy. There is always someone stronger out there, and they probably answer to someone even worse.

Speaking of building up, Operative more or less inherits Curse‘s leveling system. You kill stuff and clear quests to gain experience, then put points into stats governing various attributes; you know the routine by now, gather X number of Y items, bring Z package to so-and-so, etc. Again, the sci-fi veneer throws a few curveballs. Apart from your weapon battery, you must also have a power source sufficient to keep your subsystems running. That advanced targeting computer might bump up your damage output, but it’s little more than dead weight if it pushes your reactor over the line. Smaller ships are naturally short on room, meaning secondary weapons or even shields might have to wait until you’ve upped your Command stat for a bigger ship. Crew members can be ‘equipped’ for stat bonuses, and they will also level up over time, but you may need to pay them to keep them at their best.

The system throws a lot of information at you, and it can overwhelm and intimidate at first. Fortunately, Operative maintains Soldak’s style of encouraging players to just get in and take a stab at it. In spite of the game’s complexities, the controls are easy as pie and death is not permanent, though hardcore options exist if you’re feeling masochistic. Otherwise, should you lose your ship, you merely suffer a penalty to XP gain, which can be reduced if you recover the black box from your own wreckage. Saving happens only when you quit the game, so there’s no gaming the system to find the perfect outcome. It’s more forgiving than Curse, in that you’re not tasked with saving one particular location. Thus, you’re rarely under the gun to start with, and can take your time exploring systems and blasting random mobs until you’re ready for something harder.

Operative‘s visuals, somewhat limited by the setting, are nonetheless easy to enjoy in motion. Backgrounds are colorful and vary nicely from system to system, but not so much that they distract from the action. Ships lack for fine detail – you won’t see equipment reflected on your model – but they’re smoothly animated and blow up real good. Firefights sometimes feature dozens of participants, all shooting lasers and missiles every which way. It’s not a triple-A visual extravaganza, but it looks good in motion and even a modest gaming PC should run it all without a hiccup. Likewise, the audio doesn’t stand out on its own, though it’s certainly not bad; weapon effects are on the light side, but explosions are nice and weighty. The music works decently too, with a good rotation of sci-fi tracks and distortion guitars that crossfade as you enter and leave combat. The real problem, and I use the word ‘problem’ loosely, is you’ll be in the game long enough for the music to get repetitive.

Look, the Inquisition has ordered an Exterminatus, but we're kind of on a budget.  Can you help me out?
Look, the Inquisition has ordered an Exterminatus, but we’re kind of on a budget. Can you help me out?

So it looks and plays like a total conversion of Din’s Curse. Can it therefore be summarized as smarter-than-average dungeon crawler appended with “in space”? Is there nothing to do but fly around blasting stuff and rounding up loot to your heart’s content? Am I asking these leading questions so I can answer with an emphatic no? The answer to that last one is yes, so no, it’s not just Din’s Curse in space. Drox Operative isn’t just a cut above most loot-happy clickathons, it’s in a whole other genre: an innovative action RPG blended with the heart and soul of a 4X game. This is, without a doubt, one of the most pleasantly addictive games I’ve played in a long time.

As mentioned, the game’s civilized races expand naturally while you’re off doing your own thing. Beyond settling planets, they’ll research technology, engage in sabotage, and even declare war on each other. You’ll be merrily running errands for humans and omnivorous rock-beings when a freak wormhole shoots you across the galaxy, Star Trek: Voyager style. When you emerge, you find they’ve been at war against an insectoid hive mind the whole time, and they were winning until the bugs joined with a race of cyborgs. The next time around, nature-loving dryads might side with a race of dragon people, until an ill timed rumor torpedos the arrangement and puts them at each others’ throats. There can even be disagreements within a race, such as a sentient AI somehow rebelling against itself, forming a whole new subfaction in the process. Many games promise living environments and emergent gameplay where anything can happen; Drox Operative delivers this on a massive scale.

Once you’ve met a race, you can open up negotiations at any time to trade for information, accept and finish quests, and make more long-term arrangements. For instance, you can buy access to any jump gates they control, which allow you to warp to any system rather than search for a linked starlane. If you’re already on good terms, you can introduce races to each other and even push for peace between people at war. Your favorability rating rises and falls based on your conduct, and this means you need to be aware of how everyone’s getting along. Consistently help someone’s enemies and you’ll find one more set of guns pointed your way. If you prefer indirect action, you can engage in theft or sabotage around a populated world, or spread rumors to alter that race’s opinion of someone else. Others will actively be doing the same, creating a strong impression that life in the galaxy carries on without you.

The ever-shifting universe and diplomatic options mean that no two games will play out the same way. While you’ll always be flying around shooting at stuff, not every operative needs to be a one-ship fleet. It’s feasible to sow chaos without getting your hands dirty, playing the sneaky dirtbag that undermines a rival faction and supplies their enemies behind the scenes. Well-timed propaganda can spark riots on occupied planets, which left unchecked can turn into open rebellion. Another race might pay you to arm guerrillas or steal technology, and it’s feasible to stay relatively neutral until you see someone taking the lead. Or, if you’re in no mood to make friends, just round up a few doomsday weapons (or a lot of conventional firepower) and use fear to keep the local systems in line. In the end, success is all that matters, whether you do your own dirty work or prefer to let your allies’ dreadnaughts do the heavy lifting.

Suffer not the boss-level mob, especially if your friends want a piece of the action.
Suffer not the boss-level mob, especially if your friends want a piece of the action.

Operatives need not wade far into politics to win, and there’s plenty to enjoy in just cruising around, doing odd jobs as things unfold around you. You can actually see each race spread out in real time, sending out colony ships and ambassadors to other worlds. They may even petition you to personally deliver a colony module, and it’s fun (not to mention profitable) to help an ally claim new territory. Settled worlds can be terraformed over time, generating more resources and allowing their owners to field a larger fleet. You can avoid frontline action entirely just by running around fixing smaller issues on the home front, allowing that race to handle its own affairs in contested space. It’s not all for their benefit either, as your partners will periodically offer gifts, sell things at a discount, and declare war on anyone that looks at you funny. It may not even come to that, as belligerent races can be wiped out before you’ve even met them.

It’s certainly not a flawless execution. Fetch quests can grate the nerves, requiring specific leveled items and turning away that very item if it’s even one level short. The vendor with that particular mutagen strand, weapons cache, or water purifier may belong to a hostile faction, and apart from brokering a cease-fire there’s little choice but to wait for other shops to cycle their inventories. Some goals can be maddeningly vague, requiring you to kill an unspecified number of creatures or defend a planet until reinforcements arrive. The latter can take minutes or hours depending on how the race itself is doing. You’ll wind up with a lot of excess gear, and sorting out the best of it can be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s also a tad silly that planets will sometimes offer something their neighbor needs, but are completely incapable of delivering it; a minor quibble, but a persistent one that highlights the weaknesses of such staple elements.

Such nitpicks abound for the perceptive, and many players will likely be lost at the start. This game is not keen on telling you what to do, nor does it expect you to get it right the first time. You’ll get tied to a losing side, you’ll fail a quest or two, and it’s entirely on you to deal with it and recover. But, like Din’s Curse before it, Operative never lets you get so far behind that there’s no way to win, and figuring out how to do so is pretty much the point. Experience is never actually lost, planets can be recovered, and there will always be other quests. Once you’ve adjusted to the interface, you’ll notice the many conveniences that help you manage the chaos. High-stakes negotiations are quick and easy to resolve with the push of a button, and if a shop lacks the quest item you’re looking for, you can pay a small fee to instantly locate others. Put simply, once you’ve gotten going, it’s amazingly easy to keep going.

With variable sector sizes, ten or more races duking it out, special challenge modes, and multiplayer options, Operative‘s scope is grand indeed, and it can take a good thirty hours just to open up the 25+ level ranges. Like its more down-to-earth predecessor, comparing it to other action RPGs misses the reason that it stands out. It lacks for a core narrative, but players will come away with their epic stories and had-to-be-there moments. It plays with a dash of self-aware silliness, featuring unconventional alien races and convoluted quest plans straight out of an Ed Wood movie (i.e. mutating giant ants to handle a rat problem, only to come back later and sell weapons to deal with the ants). And yet the consequences are profound and tangible, as you break stalemates, lead assaults, or play kingmaker from the shadows. Whatever your poison, it is immensely satisfying to prove why the operatives are to be feared and respected.

Drox Operative lives up to the claim of being dynamic, a game of big ideas that’s easy to play but hardcore in spirit. It’s the kind of game where “just five more minutes” can go on for hours, enabled by the morphine drip of progress and galaxy-spanning change. It’s a customizable space opera without all that pesky dialogue. It’s you playing Torchlight‘s bigger, meaner cousin, somehow dropped into Master of Orion; the good one, not the one we don’t talk about. If there’s one thing Operative and Curse truly have in common, it’s the infusion of consequence and meaning to gameplay mechanics that usually get taken for granted.

If any of that strikes your fancy and you’re not put off by a sizable learning curve, then I don’t even need to finish this sentence. Gear up, take off, and be the best at space.

This game was played to completion with a developer-provided review copy.

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