Diablo in Space
When I was a kid I had the same dreams about space as most kids: traveling through galaxies, discovering new life and new civilizations, boldly going…you get the picture. Oddly enough, none of my dreams ever involved carefully balancing relationships between intergalactic races while trying to pull off difficult trades—all without letting anyone catch on that I’m really just out for myself. However, it appears that the team over at Soldak Entertainment had different childhood dreams—and that’s how Drox Operative was born.
Drox Operative is a rather complicated game to explain, but basically, you can boil it down to Diablo meets Civilization in space. Of course there’s a lot more to the game than that, but it’s a good starting point. Upon starting a new game I was asked to choose my race—and the sheer number of choices is baffling: there are humans, dryads, brunts and several other exotically named options available, each with its own set of bonuses. Luckily there’s a little hover-over tool tip to explain exactly what these bonuses do, but even this is a little vague and sketchy.
Sadly, this confusion carries over to the actual game. Upon choosing a ship I was thrown straight into a bleak unforgiving space—otherwise known as my home base, which included a Stash for storing items and a jump gate for quickly traveling about the sector. It all seemed fine and dandy at first glance—until I glanced at the insane UI that was surrounding the edge of the screen. There were options as far as the eye could see, and the in-game tutorial pop-ups do little but annoy—especially when I clicked on a single option only to be greeted by several, completely unrelated new ones. It was all pretty daunting.
Let’s not dwell on the clunky UI for too long, though. The main meat of this game is its exploration and diplomatic mechanics, and that’s where things start to pick up. Each map, or “Sector,” is randomly generated, making every new game an adventure. In these Sectors reside several other races who you must meet up with and decide how you wish to deal with them. Upon meeting a new race you will be offered quests and the ability to trade or negotiate. Regrettably, the quests are a little dull, extremely repetitive, and are really the only decent way of moving forward early in the game.
I met my first race as soon as I loaded up the game. They were friendly and offered a simple quest—destroying enemy ships in my case. I bet you’re thinking that’d be a piece of cake, eh? Well, you’re almost right. Moving around feels slow and arduous—and that’s before you’re surrounded by enemy ships hell-bent on destroying you. This is due to the forward thrusters being slightly too powerful to allow for quick sharp turns. After venturing out into the black mass of space a little way, I encountered my first enemy ships and combat instantly began. Well, I say instantly, but what I really mean is after I paused the game to read yet another unhelpful tooltip that had popped up, which turned out to not even be about combat. The controls are simple enough, with left/right click number combinations used for selecting skills and click/auto targeting.
I was destroying ships like I’d been asked, meeting a couple of new races, and everything was going well, but then I made a fatal error, one that no tutorial prepared me for. In the game, there are planets and anomalies that can be investigated for loot. When you investigate a planet you get loot—simple. However, upon investigating an anomaly I was instantly warped to another part of the map with no warning. (This doesn’t always happen; it’s a percentage chance.) This is where things got bad. As soon as I arrived at my new destination—confused and with no pop-up for help—I was jumped by 10 ships and destroyed. Now, this was as much my fault as the game’s, but I feel that this obviously more advanced feature should have been kept out of the first few games—or at least explained a little better.
There are two ways to play Drox Operative—one is to sit back and let the AI races duke it out forming alliances and then for you to join the strongest side. The second is to go in all guns blazing wiping out every race bar one on your path to galactic domination, and tthen simply ally yourself with the sole surviving race. I chose the latter. Being a fear-mongering war machine is actually a hell of a lot of fun, and watching their final ships burst into flames is oddly rewarding. It’s just a shame that the more peaceful option isn’t quite as fun.
I dabbled in the less offensive approach for a short while, but found the whole negotiation process arduous and uneventful. Since I swore off attacking any ships except as a last resort, I was left with only the game’s quests to complete. I found these fun and interesting at first, but after my tenth escort mission, I was ready to go nuclear on every planet in the sector just so I would have something to keep me entertained. The negotiation system is solid, however, and players who are interested in that side of the game will really enjoy the in-depth AI’s fantastic decision making. For example, in one instance I waged war on a race only to discover they were much stronger than me. When I offered them a truce, I was fleeced for everything I had just to keep them off my back—the AI tends to hold a grudge. Still, taking the diplomatic approach just wasn’t for me.
Once I’d completed the sector by joining forces with the only remaining race, I was thrust into a new sector to start the whole thing over again with tougher enemies, a different selection of races, and new loot. This offered a fresh challenge and kept things interesting as I worked my way up to becoming a galactic god. However, I do foresee it becoming a little arduous in the later levels. Luckily, there are other gameplay variants on offer to keep things interesting—such as hardcore mode (one life) and poverty mode (low income), to name a couple. Sadly, you have to start a whole new game to select these options. There’s also the ability to change starting monster levels and XP percentage gain—allowing you to change the pace of the game—before jumping in.
Finally, there’s a multiplayer component for players to delve into if they have some friends or enemies that they wish to play with. From my short experience with it, it appears to play similar to Civilization, with you controlling one team and your friend controlling another. The gameplay simply follows the same pattern as the single-player portion.
All in all, Drox Operative has enough behind it to keep fans of the genre happy for at least a few games. The negotiation and combat are solid, but if you’re planning on spending any serious time on it, then you might be better served with one of the several other options available in the market. A distinct lack of game modes and a grind-fest that would make Diablo proud add up to a short—but sweet—space adventure that will soon be forgotten.
Summary: Drox Operative has a solid base and an incredibly advanced AI at its heart. It basically ticks all the boxes for the genre, but the later level grinding will suck your soul dry, leaving all but the most hardcore of players wanting something more.
- THE GOOD: A challenging and engaging AI that will keep you on your toes.
- THE BAD: Too repetitive after the first few monster levels.
- THE UGLY: One of the most confusing tutorial systems and UIs ever invented.
Drox Operative is available on PC and Mac. Version reviewed was PC.