Now before I delve deep into Dropzone I wish to point out that this article is not a feature on the now 32-year-old Defender clone on the Atari 8 bits and Commodore 64 computers. No, what I am referring to is a brand new RTS game with multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) influences that I played at PAX West 2016 in the main expo hall.
Dropzone is a free-to-play RTS title that is currently in closed beta for Windows PC that does away with resource gathering and base building an instead focuses on the combat engagements that normally occur sporadically within a typical player v player match-up.
Dropzone does this by limiting the duration of a match to 15 minutes and forcing the player to take control of locations on the map as well as take trophies in the form of cores to the centre of the map. By doing these things players earn a point and the player with the highest number of points at the end of the 15 minute long bout wins.
MOBA elements come in three tranches: map layout, hero characters and level increases. Maps do have a standard layout that is unmoving and within it are three strategic locations. There is the core drop-off point that is at the centre of the map mentioned above, then there are the strategic control points that units must occupy for a period to claim them, and finally there are the alien spawn points.
The spawn points are similar to the jungle areas in MOBAs where unaligned creatures attack anything and everything that crosses their path. Once these spawn areas are destroyed cores are left behind, which the player can then instruct their units to drop into the core collection area.
The units the player controls are mechs, or 'rigs' that have various specialisations. One can be offensive and attack at range, the other can be a tank that can absorb damage and the other can heal while keeping out of the firing line. All rigs can be modified and adjusted to match the player's play style and all can be controlled either individually or as a group.
The pilots in these rigs have various abilities that can be levelled up as the player achieves key objectives during a match. Similar to a MOBA, pilots can have their level maxed out and this will grant them all of their abilities that can turn the tide of battle quite comprehensively. What is interesting though is that not all of the pilots will have their levels maxed during a bout, so it places the onus on the player to decide how to distribute their advancement during a match as it is technically a finite resource the player needs to manage, as timing of their deployment is crucial.
Visually Dropzone is really impressive even with the closed beta status it is currently in. The lighting and particle effects are stunning as they are convincing. The explosions ripple across the map, leading to the sensation that a significant amount of destruction is being meted out during engagements. This is especially true when players attack one another and the destructive force of their rigs can be felt.
Death, as in most MOBA games, is not permanent as units are redeployed at a base area that is only accessible by the player and not any opposing team. There is a timer for the respawn though, so it's not advisable to sacrifice a unit unless, of course, there is a point to be gained by doing so.
My time with Dropzone had me drawing on all of my experiences with both RTS and MOBA games, especially Dawn of War and DOTA 2, only rather than slowly building to a crescendo as those other games do, Dropzone's sole concern is the crescendo! This is why it's only 15 minutes per match.
I actually found that initially off-putting as I like to probe my opponents' defences before going in for the kill, but I couldn't do that here. Instead I had to use the tactics I would employ at the end of a match. I eventually found this to be quite liberating and only towards then end did I start to understand the need to spread my units out to get easy points and kills before converging and taking on key installations against the other player in a carefully coordinated manner.
It is this that gives Dropzone its strength and has me wanting to play it more. Even in defeat I would learn from my mistakes and change strategies and rig layouts to optimise my style of play - something often promised by other games of similar ilk but rarely delivered on. Dropzone is granular enough to make this work and for that it should be applauded.