Recently, I got the chance to spend several hours on Drox Operative, Soldak Entertainment's upcoming title. Billed as an unconventional amalgamation of a space-themed 4X strategy game and an action-RPG along the lines of their earlier action-RPG title, Din's Curse, Drox Operative is a fresh and enjoyable game. While it's got some outstanding issues, Soldak are already making significant changes to the gameplay based on fan feedback, and once the existing balance problems and other oddities are sorted it, it could well become one of the more interesting games of 2012.
Action-RPG on a Galactic Scale
Drox Operative, as I've already mentioned, takes the backdrop of a 4X title and drops an action-RPG on top of it. You play as a titular operative of the Drox Guild, an apolitical mercenary organization open to the bidding of any other interstellar government. In practice, that means that while you're flying around your randomly-generated galaxy, fighting enemy marauders and performing quests for the various galactic factions of your choosing, the major powers will all be exploring, terraforming and colonizing planets, and waging warfare on each other.
This is Drox Operative's big selling point, and it really does help the game stand out from other action-RPGs. Rather than working towards one specific goal, in Drox Operative you choose who to work for and why. The open-ended, strategy-style win conditions (Military, Economic, Diplomatic, Fear, Legend) ensure that you can find success by a variety of means each game, and also mean that you can either, say, give technology you've found to the barbarous Brunt race and watch them pound the galaxy into submission, or feed information to the Shadow and watch them wage an espionage war to undermine everyone else.
Things can and usually do go sour on the way. Since you don't have direct control over any of the different species in the galaxy, it's occasionally common to end up starting out near a weaker one - start supporting one too early and you may find that it quickly becomes the losing team, making it harder to build relations up with others. This can be devastating later on if you pick the wrong side in a war, as it becomes nearly impossible to ally with the new game leader and you risk losing the game altogether.
The RPG side of the game is a bit more mundane, but still generally pretty robust. As you only control one ship (which is determined by your starting race and follows a limited upgrade path), you have a handful of stats, including Tactical (damage), Helm (defense), Structural (armor), Engineering (energy), Computers (targeting), and Command (ship model upgrades). As should be plain, these roughly correspond to Strength/Dexterity/Intelligence/etc. seen in other RPGs, so despite the names, their effects are pretty easy to figure out. Controls are similar to just about any isometric action-RPG (point and click to move around, hotbar for skills and items, etc.), with the exception of movement, which relies on thrusters and thus can be a bit swimmy by design.
Stats don't just improve your base attributes, they also determine what loot you can use. You "equip" components of varying types, usually fitting into heavy, medium and light classes. While there are no RPG-like skills to be found, the components you have can drastically change your set of abilities. Equip a shield, for instance, and now you have an added layer of protection that recharges over time, while armor plating, while more robust, needs to be repaired. Weapons range from lasers of varying types, to heat-seeking missiles, to nuclear bombs for orbital bombardment, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. Equipment overall is managed by power requirements - power generators can be used to add capacity, effectively increasing how much you can trick out your intergalactic ride.