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.
Once you're in combat, things are a bit less interesting. The hack and slash simplicity shows here, and due to an entirely flat playing field, unlike the true 3D space of many space sims, tactics are generally limited. Although battles can get very chaotic, usually they're just wars of attrition - low-level enemy ships are cannon fodder, but go up against named enemies (who will actually organize armies, stage attacks on other planets, etc.), and you will have more trouble, but even then it's usually just a matter of whittling down the enemy with hit-and-run techniques.
As I've hinted above, Drox Operative, while having a unique and interesting feature set, is currently let down by the state of balance, AI problems and a lack of long-term goals. Most notably, fighting wars between races is a slow and arduous affair - often it's your only option to win, and yet the ships of other races are far, far more powerful than your own, which means that your role in the conflict tends to be limited. This is realistic, but it feels arbitrary that you can destroy hundreds upon hundreds of raiders but even a single ship owned by a race will be almost unbeatable. Before the advent of multiple win conditions in version 0.908, this also meant that conquest was the only option - admittedly, being able to win via diplomacy or economics does a lot to improve this problem, but it's still there if you do decide to go the "nukes for everyone" route, and the Fear and Legend conditions are a bit of a mixed bag of "do a lot of stuff" which seem more like backup victories than anything else.
The AI problems don't help this - during warfare, factions are remarkably slow to respond, and have a habit of sending 3-4 ships to take a planet while another 50 stay behind to defend the same galaxy. This means that wars that could be over in five or ten minutes real-time drag on for literally hours and hours. They also tend to be very erratic in their early expansion efforts. Even if you nurture a specific race from the very beginning, if they make poor choices on what planets to colonize or simply start in a galaxy with stronger enemies to contend with, there's nothing you can do to help them - resulting in it being far more preferable to simply avoid getting involved with anyone until there's a clear winner to suck up to.
In fact, overall, the 4X elements feel a bit pushed to the background. While more complexity opens as you level up and play multiple games (later on I actually saw rebel factions break off into whole new races for instance), and it's neat to see your actions actually change what quests are available (sabotage a planet discreetly, and they'll later ask you to fix the damage done), the ways you have to interact with other races can feel limited. Although some options, like spreading propaganda, can be plainly felt as planets descend into civil warfare, overall it's not always clear why a given race is successful when others aren't, and that's a problem when so much depends upon manipulating everyone in your favor.
Overall, Drox Operative is shaping up to be a very interesting and compelling game. Although similar ideas have been attempted recently, such as in S.P.A.Z. last year, Drox Operative is a slightly simpler and more accessible game that puts less emphasis on the strategy side and more on the RPG side. The game is still in a rough state, but as most of the problems are related to game balance, these are the sorts of things I'm fairly confident will be worked out before the game is released, especially given the proactive changes Soldak have been making via regular updates.
Drox Operative is currently in beta, and can even be played now for pre-order customers. At a $20 value (currently 25% off), Soldak's unique title offers a lot of gameplay for the money. While normally I don't recommend purchases in previews, given that the game is available right now to those who pre-order, and there's no firm release date at the moment, I'm willing to make an exception this time, and say that Drox Operative, despite the issues, is worth a look if its hybrid gameplay sounds appealing to you. The simpler play mechanics might turn off the hardcore 4X fans, but for more RPG-oriented players, Drox Operative is set to hit its mark.