Dropzone is a new early access title that boasts a real-time strategy (RTS) control scheme with a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game system. Common RTS controls and clear objectives mean that players can jump right into the fray with little instruction needed, but that doesn't mean the gameplay is shallow. Multiple paths to victory, both mech opponents and alien adversaries, and a vast array of different loadouts for each unit means that victory is an ever-changing target, and striving for it is never a dull chore.
This isn't a shock, considering that indie developer Sparkypants Studios boasts some incredibly impressive and experienced talent. With over 100 cumulative years of game-making experience under their belts, Sparkypants members have worked on strategy and RPG titles such as Alpha Centauri, Civilization II, Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (to name only a few!) That's impressive pedigree, and Dropzone shines with polish because of it.
Even in it's early access phase, where the gameplay options are limited to PvAI, PvP, and 2Pv2P (2 teams of 2), Dropzone offers fun and fulfilling 15 minute rounds that are worth the time, win or lose (and we lost a lot!)
Dropzone will be available on Steam early access February 15th.
The game takes place in a technologically advanced future, where alien bugs harbor cores that are needed for human survival. Players command units of 3 mercenary pilots outfitted with powerful mechs to kill said bugs, and grab their cores before the other player's units get them. All in the name of the almighty space dollar, as it should be!
There's a nice overarching narrative in Dropzone, but it serves as set building, not a driving force. That's perfectly okay, because the snazzy graphics and enjoyable mechanics are the driving force behind most successful MOBA's, and Dropzone knows it.
Unlike traditional MOBA's that feature player vs. player combat as a main goal, Dropzone opts for the format of Master X Master (also check out our preview of MXM.) Instead of base or enemy unit destruction, players' primary goal is to defeat "hives" of enemy bug-aliens, each of which have three levels. Once a hive is defeated, there's a regrowth cooldown before it returns as a stronger hive. After three regrowths, that's it for that particular hive, meaning that there's a limited number of cores available per each map. That's a hard point to reach, however, as the time limit of 15 minutes a match means you'll get close to snatching all the cores, but generally be just shy of doing so.
It's not enough to just snatch the cores, however, as they must be uploaded through a teleportation pad in the center of the map to get the victory points for them. There's a period when a mech that's delivering a core for upload is unable to attack or utilize skills, meaning that it's a dangerous state to be in. After the first few minutes of a round, players will be colliding at the teleportation pad, and since only one core can be uploaded at a time, battles always ensue.
Combat between units is entertaining and challenging, as most mechs can move just fast enough to outrun your range, so flanking enemies is important if you're aiming for the kill. This means that most skirmishes result in one player retreating to their starting pads, where units are healed rapidly. If a unit is lost, there's a cooldown period before they respawn back at your pads. There're also XP bonuses for things like double kills, should one of your mechs deliver the death blow to two enemy units in a row. While collecting cores is the main method to gain victory points, each round also has three goals listed at the bottom left of the UI. These are different benchmarks that give the indicated number of bonus points to whichever player reaches them first. The goals vary, and may include killing a number of alpha bug-aliens (strong units pumped out by hives in their later stages), claiming all of the lookout points on the map (which give you a view of nearby enemy movements, and are controlled by placing units on them for a certain amount of time), or defeating a certain number of bosses. These goals can literally win you the game when time runs low, as they can offer a dump of multiple points all at once.
The bosses referred to are massive alien units that occupy certain areas of the map, and are easily the most challenging enemies. They grant nice XP bonuses, but tangling with them is a real risk, as respawning your downed mechs takes precious time, and cores are more critical to winning the round. Still, they provide a nice change, and are more interesting and viable in the 2 player vs. 2 player team rounds.
Dropzone sports keyboard and mouse controls that will be familiar to most contemporary RTS fans, and are pretty easy to grasp for those who aren't. The number 1 through 4 keys are used to select units (4 being the "select all" option,) and QWER are used to trigger a unit's special abilities. These abilities are reflective of your chosen loadouts, which are unique for each unit under your command.
To unlock the abilities during a round, you'll need to wrack up XP by duking it out with bugs; once you have enough, you'll get an upgrade, which you can bestow upon the unit of your choice. Once a unit has been upgraded four times (to level five), it's ultimate special attack is unlocked. These are pretty powerful, and the urge is to overpower one unit to unlock it, but there's a cost in doing so. The more disparate your units' levels are, the longer the respawn time needed for destroyed units to return to play will be. This can be a real hindrance when the match timer starts to count down to zero, and you're so close to nabbing that winning core.
Like classic RTS games, a minimap in the lower right of the screen can be clicked to show far off areas of the map, albeit with a fog of war that hides enemies (unless you control a nearby lookout point). Orders to your units can also be stacked by holding the SHIFT key, which it's critical to utilize in order to make sure no mechs are hanging idle when they should be wracking up points or XP.
Even though the pre-release play group was relatively small, the wait time for games was short and reasonable. When you're matched against enemies, be they AI or live players, you get to choose your three units and loadouts; your opponent's unit choices are shown as you select yours, too, making it possible for players to strategically load up differently depending on their enemy's group.
There are five classes for pilots, aka units: Gunner, Mechanic, Tank, and Summoner. The Gunner is the main balanced run and gun unit, the Mechanic is a heal unit, the Tank is–duh–the tank, and the Summoner is an offensive unit that can launch auto-attacking turrets. Each class also has five or so different pilots to choose from, each of which offer different abilities for loadouts. Also, play time and meeting certain game benchmarks grant crates, which give new loadout skills when opened. Crates can also be purchased, but indications thus far seem to show that they're balanced enough not to amount to a pay-to-win scenario. There's also a crafting function that lets players work towards parts with specific desired effects.
In addition to the main core-hunting game types, there are also planned daily challenges and co-op game modes down the road, which will round out the experience. Still, we couldn't tear ourselves away from the PvP map long enough to even contemplate what those future game modes might be. Even the games against the AI, which offer either an Easy, Normal, or Hard challenge with increasing rewards for each level, are fun and quite challenging. These games against the computer are also useful to study, as the computer tends to use efficiency to win, effectively providing tips that can help you in the PvP modes.
graphics and sound
The graphics are pretty, and gave us Starcraft flashbacks. They're sort of like the splendid memories you have of what Total Annihilation looked like back in the day, as opposed to what it actually looks like when you see it now. The pilot, portrait, and loading screen artworks offer a nice mix of digital painted images, and bold comic-style illustrations, all of which fit the feel and motif of the game's future-set premise.
The sounds are solid, too, and Sparkypants Studios has steadily been adding more, which is welcome. The soundtrack is not necessarily memorable, but neither is it grating, which is perfect for a game where you'll spent a few minutes in lobbies between matches.
All in all, the whole package sits on a good engine with a large amount of challenge, meaning that it won't get old anytime soon. With new modes coming, Dropzone promises to be a breath of fresh air in the MOBA scene, something that the genre is lacking amidst the legions of DOTA and League of Legends clones.
If mechs, RTS control-schemes, and challenging gameplay sounds intriguing, and you've got a MOBA itch to scratch, definitely give Dropzone from Sparkypants Studios a try. You won't be disappointed, (especially if you play us–but we'll get better, damn it!)