2012 was a big year for the action RPG and Drox Operative warp-drived into existence at the very last minute to be part of it. Don’t allow your click-weary, loot collecting index finger to let you down because it thinks you have already had your fill of ARPG’s this year. I can assure you Drox Operative has saved the most original, alive and interesting experience till last. Forget swords and shields, magic and skeletons, Drox Operative is the first ARPG to be set in the final frontier; the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space. I don’t mean space explored as a marine blasting his way through the corridors of a spaceship or an unexplored planet. No, you’re literally a space ship and the randomly generated solar systems of Drox Operative are so alive with dynamic intergalactic drama that it simply puts the static fantasy worlds of other ARPS’s to shame.
Soldak Entertainment have a fantastic track record of releasing indie ARPG’s with a focus on providing a dynamic world for the player to quest in. Drox Operative is no different, with the scope being megamized to include a number civilizations vying for control of the randomly generated galaxy you find yourself flying around. There is essentially a fully fledged 4X strategy game being played out concurrently to your personal ARPG game by different AI factions. While these factions will contact you, asking for assistance with whatever space tasks fit in with their current goals, they will just as easily annihilate each other without any of your input whatsoever. This is what most striking about Drox Operative, especially for those who have not experienced Soldak’s past work, the way in which ships from the opposing civilizations will buzz around living their own lives; settling new planets, exploring, defending planets against weird alien ships and waging wars against each other.
Against this living, organic backdrop you eke out an existence as a titular Drox Operative. The Drox are a shadowy organisation that used to rule the entire universe or some such nonsense but now are content being singular bad-asses that work for other galactic civilizations. A game of Drox Operative will have you randomly generating a galaxy, with the choice of fiddling with a number of starting conditions, and then setting yourself loose to win by satisfying one of five victory conditions. As you would expect for an ARPG set inside a space based 4X game there is military, diplomatic and economic win conditions that have you operating as more of a background character. You will help the factions subtly (or not so subtly) to push forward a galactic political situation that favors you. Then there is the more traditional (to ARPG’s) win conditions of Fear and Legend. These see you take centre stage to either terrify or impress the other races enough to win. Once you succeed in one of the conditions you get a random loot reward and generate a new galaxy (now with harder monster to reflect the levels you’ve earned) and do it all again.
As you could probably tell from the above description of the game, Drox Operative is completely bereft of a story outside of whatever dynamic situations evolve in the galaxy around you. There’s no searching for ancient artifacts to change the fate of the universe (Well, there actually kind of is if you’re going for a Legend win but it isn’t accompanied by any cut scenes and you will have to make the dialogue up yourself) and the opposing races will only spurt sparse statements at you to let you know how they feel about your actions. I don’t think this is in any way a negative, and it gives Drox Operative a purity that I really enjoy. It’s all about making your own tales, deriving them from the random interactions of the game’s elements. Where I do feel Drox Operative could be improved is by giving these elements more personality as it’s sometimes too easy to view all the game’s parts as simple cogs and numbers rather than an interactive living galaxy. The factions don’t say much, will often repeat themselves (as do the quest formats) and the monstrous sub-races don’t communicate outside of the “bzzt” of their lasers and “whoosh” of their thrusters. All in all everything seems a bit faceless but hey, you could always use your imagination to beef the experience up.
The nuts and bolts of Drox Operative feel comfortably similar to a traditional ARPG but smartly tweaked to reflect the feeling of fighting from a spaceship. You will glide and guide rather than point and click and will largely let auto-targeting aim your weaponry instead of individually clicking on enemies. Stats and items are also similar yet different with quite an impressive amount of selection on offer as to how to build your ship. Power supply, weight, thrusters , shields and armor all have to be considered as well as a wide range of weaponry from simple missiles and lasers to, EMP’s, nuclear mines and railguns that all fire differently. As you progress in levels there is also an increasing amount of complexity to be considered in items such as ship computers, drive dissipators, escape pods, emission guidance systems, crew members and the like. The range of items keeps growing, leading to a fun amount of customization in your approach to blasting things out of space.
In a year swamped with quality Action RPG’s, Drox Operative stands out as the only one that actually attempted something new and different. It whole heartily succeeds in this ambition only failing as coming off a little soulless and without much of a personality. It amazingly makes sense as an Action RPG played as a spaceship even when you’re collecting livers dropped from other spaceships (some spaceships are actually living beings). Plus it has the added appeal of letting the player choose not to collect those livers, ignoring any quests they don’t want to do and choosing their own path to victory. Drox Operative gets 4/5 hyper-thrusters.