Even though I don't play very many of them, I am delighted that "hyper complex space sims," as a genre, exist. There is a dedicated fan base out there who will definitely invest in a product like Masters of Orion, but games of this nature don't necessarily penetrate the market. The only explanation for the genre's existence is that these games are labors of love designed by people because they, themselves, wanted to play this exact game.
That brings us to Drox Operative ($19.99), and its recent expansion Invasion of the Ancients ($9.99). If I was forced to classify this game into any genre, I would reluctantly pigeonhole it into the aforementioned "hyper complex space sim," because it is complex, and it is kind of a simulation, and the game plays out in space. It does, however, combine elements from across genres. Catching a glance of the product in action might make you think it's a straight up space action game. Keep watching, and you'll think its something like an RPG. A little more, and you'll think Drox is some weird Civilization mod. If you see a game played from beginning to end, you'll realize all of these systems are working in tandem to create a strangely unique experience.
You and up to three buddies take control of the titular Drox Operatives, who soar around a randomly generated sector solving everybody's problems. Or, if you want, you can create problems for some poor schmucks out there. The story is really more of a premise. You are an operative working for the Drox Guild, a shadowy organization that dispatches agents to sectors in space to help out those factions who will benefit the guild. The real narrative is the one you create for yourselves. I don't really care about the Drox Guild, per se, but I've got fond memories of fighting a losing battle against our Dryad nemeses, only for our allies the Fringe to pour in from a wormhole and turn the tide.
Playing Drox Operative is easy. Fly around and blast enemies. That in itself is not hard. Point and click just like you would in Diablo. The complexity raises its head when you realize the game is not all about flying around the final frontier and gunning down anyone who looks like a jerk. The randomly generated galaxies of Drox Operative are living things with their own stories to tell. The clockwork-like systems in the game are obfuscated, and require a time investment to grasp. I've completed a game and I won't pretend to be a Drox expert. Reducing bandits to interstellar debris is simple. Bringing stability to a sector at war is where it gets complicated.
Before starting your journey, you have to make your ship. Pick a faction from any of the 11 in game races, determining your appearance, skill advantages, and additional equipment slots. For my first game, I chose a human ship, which comes with an extra slot for mines, bonuses to Computers and Tactical, as well as a permanent slot for a human crewmember. While the USS Porkchop enjoyed several brushes with glory, my heart bonded with my second ship, the Meat Man, and its Drakk pilot Godak. Having a dedicated slot for a hangar bay meant I would never need to sacrifice another equipment slot to have fighters wastin' fools so I didn't have to. New operatives start out with just the one crew member, but may recruit or rescue more in their journey through space. Crew members provide bonuses to your ship's stats, and can level up as well.
The game plays from the top down perspective of your ship. Though you are soaring throughout space, all ships operate on a 2d plane, dotted with planets, space junk, derelict ships, stars, etc. You can fly around sectors with either the mouse or the keyboard and use weapons via either the mouse or your numbered toolbar, like most any action RPG. Apparently the universe in which Drox Operative takes place has an excess of pirates, because you will blow up more aggressive, factionless ships than there are stars in the sky. The level of these pirates increases as you ramp up the difficulty and is largely fixed. Playing on the lowest difficulty, we were getting iced with some regularity until we leveled past the pirates, and could destroy them with relative ease. Things did get hairy when we'd stumble across huge groups of them, especially alone.
Sure, pirates plague the galaxy, but while you fly around sending nukes at unaligned ships, some races have unified their people and established some semblance of civilization. These are the factions I mentioned earlier. When you warp into a fresh game of the Drox, everybody starts off on an even playing field. Each race you meet will be neutral to you, and to each other. You can take quests from them and buy, sell, and repair at their planets. Killing pirates near their planets also increases your rating with them. If left alone, the worlds these factions start on will begin producing ships that fly around and protect the night sky. After a while, they will construct colony ships and begin inhabiting more and more planets. Each planet can produce colony ships, so the growth is exponential. Not that you have any say in this, unless you want to go to war against that particular faction and attack a colony ship, ending the lives of millions of sentient beings. (You monster.)
Each faction has their own traits. For example, the Fringe, a race of energy beings, are Aggressive and Chaotic, which means they will start wars more quickly than most other factions, and are also hard to predict. Dryads are Trustworthy, so they are more likely to stay loyal, and their ships can also regenerate. Drakk have a natural affinity for flying, giving them offense/defense bonuses, but they are all kinda jerks, so they tend to have bad relations with other factions. Keep in mind, despite your race you are still a Drox Operative. You might be a Drakk (like my main man Godak), but for the good of the galaxy your fellow Drakk might need to choke down the bitter pill of genocide. I mean, if you're trying to stabilize the sector and they keep hurling fusion missiles at the Utopian's colony ships, you've got to show them that being a bully doesn't pay. Well, it does pay. But only in nuclear warfare aimed directly at their people.
Any game of Drox Operative can be won or lost via several means. If you fail a mission from the Drox Guild, it's game over. If you cause the Guild to lose too much money, it's curtains. If you go to war with everyone, you're boned. I only ever lost by costing the Guild too many credits. When you die, they have to go to the trouble of remaking your ship and cloning your crew. You don't lose any of your equipment or items, (you do suffer a bit of durability damage) but you know that Big Brother Drox thinks a whole lot less of you.
Winning is definitely not easy, but can be achieved through a variety of means. You can win if your Operative becomes the most legendary in all the land. Killing pirates, gunning down Ancients (from the expansion), and conquering other factions puts you down in the history books. I killed a whole lot of bandits and never even got close to the Legendary victory. You can also win by getting the Drox Guild enough dosh. A diplomatic victory may be achieved if you get every (surviving) race to ally with each other and yourself. You can get a military victory by allying with one race and helping them obliterate all of the competition, Highlander style.
The expansion, Invasion of the Ancients, offers a whole new threat to your sector in terms of a new enemy. The Ancients are big ol' ships that can really lay the hammer down. We only saw one Ancient during the games we played, and while we did manage to take off a chunk of its health, it reduced our operatives to cosmic dust without any issue. The Guild ended up losing way too much cash as we threw ourselves at a superior foe, and as a result we ended up losing the game.
Are you bleeding from the eyes yet?
That's just scratching the surface of Drox Operative. I could go on about your ship's stats, how upgrades work, all of the equipment you can use, utilizing propaganda and rumors, all of the different interactable items on the maps, status effects, and on and on and on. But, this is a review. For those of you still with me, I know why you guys are still reading this.
Is this game any good?
Yes. Yes it is.
Drox Operative is complicated, and a lot of the systems in game aren't explained. Despite wandering around the galaxy like a clueless idiot (and losing several games), I still felt engaged with what was going on. Solving quests, building relationships with different factions, and eventually bringing order to a sector were all very gratifying experiences I'd have trouble finding anywhere else.
One complaint I do have is the speed of the ships. Though you can find better Ramjet Drives that increase your speed, it still seemed too slow to me. I never played to max level, so there may be some pretty sick engines out there that really make your vessel haul.
Co-op is pretty much a mandatory for me.. The sectors are fairly large and traversing the pathways takes a while. It’s important not only to have someone to chat with while you’re flying to your next objective, but if the both of you are new to Drox Operative it’s important to share information. Quests and faction relations are shared so you can be exploring an undiscovered system while your buddy hunts down an objective, and both of you receive the credit. You can play off of each others strengths by equipping different items. I was primarily a laser and fighter guy, so fighters and shields were no problem, but my buddy was super into nukes and plasma beams, ensuring planets and larger ships would go down quickly.
Working together to bring down a superior force made for a much more compelling experience and brought a lot more life to the galaxy. While I was busily spreading rumors among the Fringe, my partner was culling the hideous Dryad tide. When the political stability of the Drakk race shattered, creating a brand new faction known as the Drakk Rebels, we both FTL’d straight into the Rebel’s system and threw them a laser party. You can act as a sole operative dropped into the middle of a sector and start playing political hopscotch, but the infinite darkness of space sure is cold when you’re alone.
Drox Operative sets you into a living sci-fi universe that is your very own playground. The future of the sector is yours to shape. Assisting your allies, building relationships with the other factions, and dismantling an opponent is very satisfying. That final victory screen, though not elaborate in the least, meant my story had been told. UNSC-1177 and Meat Man brought order to a once lawless part of the universe. Maybe they weren't legends, but they ensured a new era of peace for their allies.
Despite the complexity of the whole thing, I had a great time playing Drox Operative. There's a really steep learning curve here, but it's worth it. Leveling up my ship, fighting off pirates, and conquering my enemies were all very gratifying. Drox is a very unique game, and the time I spent here is unlike any experience I've ever had.