Have Thrusters, Will…Thrust

Giant Bomb East forced me into a galactic pogrom against Humanity.

My weekend was filled with the crew discussing galactic empires (though not Galactic Civilizations), a conversation that also dominated the week’s podcast. Listening to that, watching that, it started to sound real good. Alex had a similar reaction once he had a steaming plate of machinations placed in front of him–I haven’t fallen into the Civ hole as badly as he has, but I do have 250-ish hours in 5 alone.

However, I didn’t want to drop cash on a full-priced new game, mostly because I’ve largely regretted the purchases of that nature I’ve made in the last couple of months. Dark Souls III was a good call, and it was fun to feel part of the zeitgeist. But then that zeitgeist turned immediately to people finding ways to hand out soft bans to unsuspecting players, which was enough to stack with my DS fatigue (I burned towards the endgames in already-owned 1 and 2 in the leadup to 3) and move me off it for a bit.

Enter Drox Operative. I’d tried the demo of the game a couple of years ago, and am in general a big fan of Soldak’s work. Din’s Curse and Kivi’s Underworld were two of the very few games I could run on the Macbook I used during grad school, so I sunk many hours into them (this is also a big element of my loyalty to Dungeons and Dragons Online, despite my wife and everyone else I’ve ever managed to talk into trying the game hating it). The free availability of their demos and lower prices were also clutch in sucking me in as a thoroughly impoverished graduate student who needed whiskey and gin because they were cheaper than heating his house. With the exception of Kivi’s Underworld, which is a somewhat odd deviation more akin to a Skylanders game, Soldak makes big sandbox action rpgs with a bunch of procedurally-generated interactions. You have different groups and folks spawn quests, and you have a ton of control over how the world is shaped. Going beyond a Diablo-style difficulty setting, Soldak lets you actually pick the level the monsters around you “start” at, so you can create a higher challenge for a twinked character or prep for a LAN party by setting the difficulty to 11.

The randomness also applies to character creation in most of their games, where you have a number of character classes to choose from and each contains three skill trees. There’s usually a “hybrid” option, which lets you select one tree from two different classes–so you could make a furious barbarian with a mastery of fire magic, or a heal-spamming summoner. The tradeoff with the hybrid options is that you’re getting a total of 2 trees, rather than the 3 you get with a base class, and that cuts into some of the passives you pick up with your character. You work a bit harder and have fewer places to drop your points, but it supports off-the-wall and focused builds alike. That’s especially true because you can usually bank points to buy higher-level powers quickly…if you don’t mind playing four or five levels with nothing but your left click attack, you can pick up a massive summon that probably eats up all of your mana but also eats everything on the next several floors of the dungeon. I love that sort of thing.

Drox Operative doesn’t have that sort of thing, which is why it didn’t really stick when I first played it. It does posses a lot of the world-creation and difficulty-setting elements, and the factions. However, it’s a spaceship game.  But also an action rpg. You fly around as a sort of maverick captain, interacting with ten or so full species (and about an equal number of “creep” style factions). You can make friends, make enemies, crush colonies, and run fetch quests. Your ship has a number of equipment slots and there’s a wealth of different things to throw in them; the slots are also tiered, with each slot getting somewhat exclusive access to a few concepts but other ones existing across the tiers. That means you sometimes have to decide between adding a big projectile-casting railgun to your ship and keeping the thick bulkhead’s worth of hp that currently occupy its slot. The species modify the appearance of your ship and your general proficiencies, start with different free goodies (Shadows get stealth off the bat, for instance), and fundamentally alter how your stats are weighted and applied. A particularly warlike species might increase the damage multiplier from each point of your “strength” stat, while the sentient AI gets more use out of the “intelligence” one. All the stats end up being important, though, as I’ve learned since realizing my low Computers score was the reason I kept missing the Human ships I was trying to scour from the planet.

The lack of emphasis on class-building initially threw me off, but the greater focus on different empires (and the bigger maps that come from not having discrete dungeons) perfectly satisfied the hankering that was drawing me to things like Stellaris. Plus, I love new “things.” When I realized that increasing the Command stand actually transforms your ship into bigger and more elaborate vessels–which are distinct for each species–a specific gland in my body began producing bountiful froth.

When I was planning this post, I was going to use the population boom on a certain planet as an example. You periodically see “baby booms” on planets, where their population grows significantly (which, I think, feeds into the defensive strength and productivity of the planet). I saw one that was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200% and thought “That’s not a baby boom, folks. That’s some sort of interdimensional invasion.”

Between that play session and when I started typing out the post, though, another planet in the Dryad empire had a growth of two thousand percent. They specifically don’t call these immigration growths, or credit them to the arrival of a colony ship. Somehow the Dryad started boning down so hard that every member of the population produced numerous kids who–I guess–then immediately produced numerous kids who produced kids. In the span of a weekend. A really sweaty, planty weekend.

I don’t think that’s a specific quality of the Dryad species. I like not knowing that! One of the most entertaining things about procedural games, for me, is letting a story tell itself. In the case of Soldak’s stuff, there are so many factions tossed into the morass that you get crazy heroes and villains right off the bat. I like knowing very little about each race, because it means each game (and I imagine I’ll squeeze four or five out, at the very least) lets me come in as a specific individual who learns at his own pace. The character I’m running now, who I think will see his way to a game win (either Diplomatic or Military), is a Drakk–the violent dragon-men of the spaceways. One of the first things I did was completely exterminate my own empire because they were warring with the Cortex. That means that the only Drakk in the universe, or at least the part we dwell in, are on my ship.

Then we went to war with the Cortex because we were both allied with the Dryad, but the Dryad also allied with the Talon. The Talon are a sort of midpoint between the Geth of Mass Effect and that series’s Reapers. They were created by the Dryad, but broke off to become their own feral race–and they’re all sentient spaceships. But I figured if the Dryad could forgive and forget, I could too, so I allied up with them. I figured we could use their help wiping out the Humans–Humans are REAL dicks in Drox Operative. Plus, the Talon are trustworthy, and the image of sentient trustworthy spaceships made me think too much of Moya to feel good about killing them…which is probably intended by the name. However, the Cortex have a trait that implies that they can’t ever forgive anyone they go to war with. That means I couldn’t get them to make nice with the Talons, and had to go to war with the Cortex to try and save the Talons. The Dryads didn’t want to follow me into that war, because they’re also trustworthy. Also, I’d spent the early part of the game building the Cortex empire up as their primary ally.

Seriously. Who could hate her?

This meant that I went to war with the Cortex, but they still wiped the Talons off the map. Several galactic years later, after a long time trying, the Cortex eventually decided we could be cool again–the intervening years were spent helping the Dryad and trying to chip away at the Humans. At this point the Dryad and Cortex are allied with good ole Droxy, but I’ve had to stamp out three rebellions between their empires (rebellions involve a splinter group of the species forming its own empire, which you can ally with and support in order to overthrow the primary empire). I’ve also run around doing a bunch of fetch quests, but the ultimate goal is to get enough military strength to push the Humans down to a manageable size. Despite fighting a war on literally two fronts–their empire spans the gap between the Cortex and the Dryad–the Humans are expanding still, and it’s very resource intensive to cleanse a system of their presence. By the time I manage it, they usually sneak a few colony ships through to the last place I cleared, creating a whole Whack-a-Mole scenario.

It’s great! Wedding some of the empire-management of a 4X game with something like Diablo gameplay (with a bit of a bullet hell shooter mixed in) means that I never have to sweat the alliance-building too much. Plus, jumping into a new system usually puts you right in the midst of a massive battle, as a bunch of neutral ships spawn around the gates and shoot each other and you. Winding through that mess in my frankly massive battleship, high-level fighters spewing from my decks to tear apart ships four times their size, is hitting exactly the pleasure center I’d found engorged by all the more involved space sims being looked at.

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