Drox Operative: Invasion of the Ancients Preview

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Eschalon: Book II

Release Date:2013-10-30
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Drox Operative was an interesting little game released last year by Soldak Entertainment, the developer behind Din's Curse and Depths of Peril, two games that put a spin on the Diablo-style action-RPG by taking the random generation elements to extremes. I previewed Drox Operative some time ago and came away with the general impression that the game was still a bit rough around the edges, but was also likely Soldak's best game yet.

Of course, Drox Operative has hit its official release since then, and Soldak has been hard at work on Invasion of the Ancients, an expansion pack for Drox Operative that adds a healthy dose of freshness to the game. There are no new campaigns, storylines or even completely brand-new mechanics here - Invasion of the Ancients is an expansion in the most traditional sense, simply beefing up the original game with new content and features.

It's worth noting that like all of Soldak's titles, this expansion doesn't really adhere to a precise "release date". Invasion of the Ancients is available for purchase well before its "done", and this extended beta access allows the developer to get feedback on their games that can lead to radical changes. As such, while I don't think Invasion of the Ancients will change too much in the next few months, it's worth noting some of my concerns may also be rectified by the time that comes.

Invasion of the Ancients

The titular new element added in this expansion pack are the mysterious Ancients, old alien races long thought to be exterminated, now returned to the universe to take vengeance on the new rules of the stars. In theory, this should throw an interesting new element into the galactic relations - a faction that bypasses the diplomacy system and represents a threat to all races regardless of who they are could certainly spice things up.

As a rare random event, they will show up to stage invasions on the sector you're playing in, attacking in waves to wipe out entire solar systems. This introduces an interesting "monkey wrench" into the existing relations between races, as one particular faction you're courting might suddenly get half its empire wiped off the map if you weren't there to help protect it, forcing you to reconsider your plans for victory.

Unfortunately, if I'm to be honest, I found that this event was very uncommon and often hard to pay attention to. I didn't even see it until after I had got my ship leveled up significantly, after about a dozen separate games, and once it happened I had trouble following it. I missed the intiial announcement about the invasion, so while the game was constantly giving me news about new waves of attacks coming, I had no information on where to go to even see it. The second time I witnessed this event, things went a lot more smoothly and there were some interesting ramifications, like brand-new quests added as a result of the invasions, but I still feel the entire thing could be presented a little more coherently.

New Technology

There are also a sizable number of additions to gameplay that you may not notice at first.  One of my favorites are brand-new space stations, which take considerable time and resources to defeat and can have some interesting economic effects on the sector - don't be surprised if you can't defeat one immediately out of the gate, without first upgrading your ship. A particular race that builds an orbital defense station will suddenly become far more difficult to wage war on, while one that has a hydroponics station will receive big bonuses to its growth. Overall, the impact is relatively subtle, but still appreciated stuff that adds just a bit more variety to gameplay.

Likewise, there are a decent number of new monsters/enemies added to the game in Invasion of the Ancients, but those who have played Drox Operative also probably know that the differences between enemies tend to be minor. Ultimately these additions feel cosmetic at best, and while some of these enemies do have some unique capabilities, the tactics for fighting them remain the same as ever - fly around as quickly as you can to dodge missiles, while firing all weapons as fast as you can and chugging consumables over and over.
I also found the new items added to the game to be a bit of a mixed bag. Microchips are one of the biggest new additions, but in practice I barely noticed them. Taking a form similar to gems in Diablo and Torchlight, these are add-ons that can be inserted into items, provided they have a free slot. Some chips give very small benefits, such as mild stat boosts, but others might end up upgrading a standard piece of equipment to "legendary" tier material. However, these were so rare to come by that I never once used them, and the only time I ever bothered was with equipment that had chips already pre-installed - a bit disappointing to say the least.

Other new gear includes things like boarding parties used to attack other ships in combat (they operate a bit like persistent status effects), and swarm missiles that break off into multiple warheads to chase down enemies. While some of these are fun to play with, and they do integrate naturally into the Drox loot economy, I also didn't really find myself blown away by the additions or find myself aching to use any of them - for me, my old stand-bys of mines and viruses that I used in the base game worked just fine, and I couldn't see a compelling reason to change over.

Added Features

There are a few more features worth talking about in Invasion of the Ancients. First, there's a brand-new race called the Scavenger, who are effectively survivalists that are willing to integrate their human-like forms with every bit of technology they can find in order to stay alive - and yes, you can play as them for some different starting bonuses if you so choose.

Second, there are now persistent sectors available, which allow you to carry over some characteristics of one game into another. For instance, if the Dryad ended up dominating one game then they'll return in the next with some starting benefits. I experimented with this feature a bit, but found I actually preferred turning it off after a while, since I found games to get a little bit more formulaic with the option switched on.

The last new big feature added are Drox Guild quests. The Drox Guild was, in the base game, very passive and only really window dressing for the gameplay, but in Invasion of the Ancients they will set a number of optional requirements for compleing a sector that can result in bigger bonuses once you've one. For instance, they might order you to dominate the entire sector through force, get two races to ally with each other, and so on. These can definitely direct the way you play, if you want them to, but I often found the requests to be somewhat arbitrary and impossible to solve simply due to how the different races progressed as the game went on.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Invasion of the Ancients just as I did with the base Drox Operative game. But, I'm not sure that has a lot to do with the new content, or simply because it's been some time since I last played the game. To be sure, the new additions are nice, but it's worth repeating that this expansion is very much a traditional add-on rather than something that is going to completely overhaul the game.

I must admit, I was slightly disappointed that some existing issues from Drox Operative still existed. For example, the marriage of a 4X game and an action-RPG is still novel, but sometimes I found that I would completely missed out on certain events simply because I was busy fighting enemies at the time, and then had no good way to refer to what I'd missed. The user interface is also a little rough, still, and I find myself missing some convenience features at times, like the ability to choose to sell all information or technology to a race with a single click. These are the kinds of things an expansion could have smoothed out a bit, but such changes are nowhere to be seen in Invasion of the Ancients.

Again, as these impressions are based on a preview build, there's a very real chance that some of my issues, most notably with the somewhat underwhelming invasion feature, will be improved upon. Indeed, Soldak made major changes to Drox Operative during the time I was previewing the original game, including new victory conditions, so there's no reason to expect they won't be taking player feedback into account this time.

For those who are still playing Drox Operative and still want more of it, Invasion of the Ancients is a safe buy - and at $10 USD, it's very affordable (though, it's worth noting, half the price of the base game itself). Ultimately, Invasion of the Ancients gave me a chance to go back and put a few dozen more hours into Drox Operative and see some new things along the way, and it's hard to complain too much about that. Those who want more dramatic changes to Drox Operative, though, may want to wait and see how this expansion develops over the next few months.