I’m always in for new gaming experiences and more often than not, the freshest ones come from the indie scene. Soldak Entertainment has been part of the Indie scene even before it was called the indie scene and they have a number of small but fun games under their belt. With Drox Operative, they move away from the fantasy setting that has brought them some measure of success and embrace sci-fi in its place. Yet Soldak is not treading completely new ground. Their extensive experience with Role-Playing mechanics was brought over to build Drox Operative, along with the focus on action that their previous titles are known for. Had it not been for some mindboggling choices, it all might have worked out just fine.
Tell me why this is the land of confusion
Upon arriving in Drox Operative, it proudly announces that there is no tutorial and that it won’t force you to go through the ordinary motions associated with in-game tutorials. Instead, the game offers up new help screens through question-mark shortcuts placed at the bottom of the screen. These are set to trigger whenever something happens that you have not seen or done before. In other words it is a tutorial, and not a very good one at that.
Left to my own devices, I figured I would explore the solar system that I had spawned in and got shot the moment that I moved. With no idea of what I was doing, I was surprised that I came out on top but was little wiser about what I was doing here and why these people were shooting at me. My confusion about not knowing what to do would turn out to be a common theme throughout my time with the game.
Much of that confusion came from not quite understand the goals. You fly a ship, but what are you supposed to do with it? Alien races approach you, offering quests along the lines of “deliver this package”, “destroy an object” or “protect our planet from marauders”. Was my sole goal solving quests for others? The answer turned out to be simply “yes”.
I just called
In all honesty, my perspective on the game changed a bit when I understood that I - was - the Drox Operative in the game’s title. I’m not sure where I was supposed to read that, but it would have helped me understand my role in the game. As a Drox Operative, you have a number of ways to win the game, and all involve maintaining trade and diplomatic relationships with the other races. So while I was looking for a way to colonize my first planet to start building an empire, the game was trying to tell me that that’s not actually possible, unless I help someone else to build that empire.
Without that mechanic, the game pretty much boils down to flying up and down the galaxy, doing chores on the behalf of others and upgrading your ship with new technologies that improve your chances of survival. Your ship, referred to as “your character”, is your mobile base of operations, your tool for exacting revenge and something of an all-purpose jackknife.
Much like a character in a Role-Playing game, your ship has stats that can be raised, allowing you to install better weapons, shields and other items. You will have a hard time recognizing these items from their icons during trade sessions with the other factions as very few actually resemble anything from the real world at all unless you count unrelated objects too. A “cheap laser” looks like an old movie projector and the basic “ramjet drive” looks like a soda vending machine. Sure, by the time mankind becomes a space faring race space will look very different than it does today but the cacophony of shapes and colors in item icons and pretty much everything else in the game only add to the confusion.
Dancing in the dark
That same colorful chaos makes its way into the game’s interface. Curves, cuts and wedges in all colors of the rainbow attempt to come together in something that should help you get around in the game. There is already so much happening in the galaxy that having to struggle with an over the top interface is simply too much to ask.
And perhaps that is true for playing the rest of the game as well. The quests seem fine at first until you start seeing the same quest over and over again. Worse, completing them feels meaningless as you are doing them for someone else. The only thing that you gain is faster engines, more cargo space, better shields… but you can get all of that playing any old Action RPG and then at least there’s some story to lead you through the game.
There are many reasons to dismiss this game but there is one aspect of the game that deserves mention and puts it into a more positive light. Drox Operative is an absolutely unique game. There is nothing quite like it out there and if you are looking for that new experience, you are guaranteed to find it here.
Ship customization, while confusing, is a reason to keep playing.
You may have a hard time figuring out what you’re supposed to do.