I have long admired Soldak Entertainment’s approach to game development. We expect our RPGs to act a certain way, and even though we praise the games that make us feel like we’re living in a different world, it’s very rare that these worlds actually evolve around us. RPGs tend to be a scripted playground that will always respond to us a certain way every time. Take action RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight, both beautifully made games with elements of randomness. Some of the maps will always be the same, bosses will always appear in the same place and behave the same ways, and the world itself only “evolves” as you progress through the story. Sure there’s randomness in loot drops, but the monsters aren’t actively attacking the town and the town won’t burn down if you don’t get to it in time.
Soldak Entertainment thinks we can do better. We can play games that take place in universes that really will evolve around us, worlds that are dynamic and will change in response to what we do, but will also change if we sit and do NOTHING.
Drox Operative is the latest game from Soldak Entertainment to take that approach. An action RPG like their previous offerings (Kivi’s Underworld and Din’s Curse), Drox Operative seeks to change things by putting us in the cockpit of a spaceship. In space. In the future.
At first glance, the game seems to be about what you’d expect from an action RPG. There are inventory slots to outfit your ship with weapons systems and generators instead of different swords and armor. Your ship has a maximum amount of power it can disperse between all its equipment instead of encumbrance. You shoot lasers and missiles instead of launching fireballs and lightning bolts. Your foes are other spaceships instead of goblins and trolls. You visit planets instead of towns, and you use jump gates that take you across galaxies instead of magic portals.
But it doesn’t take very long to realize something very different is going on here. There aren’t NPCs running up to you offering quests. Some of the ships attack you, some don’t. In fact some of them are attacking each other. You don’t have any clear instructions on what to do.
You see, you are a Drox Operative. And in this universe, that means you are free to behave in whatever way you deem best. Want to win the game by subduing everybody? Start shooting everybody you see, just don’t look for any safe havens at their planets later. Want to try to get everybody to just get along? Sure, start doing some favors. But helping one race might anger another if the two are at war. Want to fly around and extort as much money and gear as possible? Sure, go for it. But you better keep an eye on the progress of the various races in play to make sure one doesn’t grow too powerful.
The genius of Drox Operative is that you could turn the game on, sit completely still, fend off anything hostile that comes into your path, and the universe would change around you in dramatic ways. Just because you’re not paying attention to one far off corner of the galaxy doesn’t mean that something isn’t happening there. Rest assured: it is.
This can make the first several hours trying to play Drox Operative quite bewildering. The tutorial, frankly, isn’t terrific. It gives you the basic idea of how to navigate menus and what various buttons do, but it doesn’t successfully explain the core concepts of how to really PLAY the game. And maybe that’s because there’s so much freedom here that there’s absolutely no single, correct way to play this game and enjoy it. A tutorial might, in the long run, limit what you think the possibilities are.
Once I got over the hurdle that the “winning” and “losing” parameters really just exist to put ending conditions on the randomly generated galaxy you’re dropped into, I learned to let go and really PLAY. I made friends with the humans in one play and helped defend them against various alien hordes. When the end condition was met I generated a new world and jumped right into that, this time promising to gain as much money and gear as I could to improve my ship. I “lost”, but enjoyed myself and walked away with some new stuff for next time.
And then I did it again.
We say we want games that really give us the freedom to do what we want. We even call these games “sandboxes.” But Drox Operative is far more of a sandbox than even the highest budget games like Skyrim. While Skyrim gives you a beautiful, detailed universe to explore, the world of Skyrim exists only for you to play in. It reacts only to you. Drox Operative reacts to you, but it also reacts to ITSELF.
Drox Operative proves a tough game to score because numerical scores don’t really tell the whole story of Soldak Entertainment’s wonderful accomplishment here. The graphics aren’t great, something that is really becoming a hallmark of Soldak products. The sound is a little clunky. The lore is pretty solid, but the stories in this game are what you make for yourself. The controls are a little wonky at first while you get used to the physics involved, and sometimes it’s hard to remember what icons do what, especially in the early going. Finally, the game absolutely does not hold your hand whatsoever, meaning the barrier for entry is probably going to be a little steep. The approachability is actually exacerbated by the fact that the game takes place in space. Although mechanically a lot of things work like their counterparts in fantasy-based RPGs, it takes a little bit of time to figure it all out.
But if you’re willing to stick with it, you’ll be very richly rewarded. Drox Operative is something entirely different from its peers among whom I’d count Diablo, Torchlight, Path of Exile, and Titan Quest. It’s something familiar and it’s something bewilderingly new. It’s the type of game that pushes my buttons as a game reviewer and just a gamer period. But it’s also something that isn’t going to be for everybody and I have to score it accordingly because that’s how our scale works. The best advice I can give is to try the demo and stick with it, even after that initial period of frustration that I can almost guarantee you will have. Push through it. When you get to the other side, you might notice the sun is coming up as you’ve lost another night exploring a strange new galaxy that is nothing like ours, and not even like the last one you just played in.