An ever-present ask of RTS games is that the player suspend their disbelief long enough to accept that not a single soldier will ever stop following orders. From classic Dune II, all the way up to this year’s Iron Harvest, I’m yet to see a single unit balk at whatever war crime I’ve just right-clicked them into committing, instead happily whistling as they dutifully bayonet sheep or set fire to thatched-roof orphanages. This could well be read as the genre’s surviving commentary on itself; A mindless swarm of murderbots is an obedient swarm of murderbots, after all. That’s the mechanical premise of Drone Swarm, anyway. It’s a game that saw the bee-shooting plasmid from Bioshock and was like: Yes, that, but more of it, and also in space.
It’s also a game that’s probably more interesting and stuffed full of screenshot-worthy physics wizardry than it is an instant RTS classic, but it is so interesting, novel, and yes, actually pretty stunning to see in motion that it doesn’t take long to separate itself from the pack. It’s not the deepest, all told. You’ll grasp the basics in about five minutes. The frantic, rapid encounters are often far more kinetically demanding than they are strategically taxing – you’ll tire out your clickin’ fingers long before your thinkin’ head. But, in swapping out the rigidity of a tower defence for far more fluid, reactive skirmishes, Drone Swarm manages to kick off with a gripping sense of momentum that doesn’t really let up until the end of its eight-hour journey through the stars.
If I say that the story and set-up remind me of Relic’s 1999 classic Homeworld, but not as gripping, I’d hope that would come across as a compliment, because Homeworld is, after all, Homeworld. Drone Swarm is quite exposition heavy, while Homeworld seemed content to let its atmosphere breathe, and was better for it. Still, it’s a satisfying sci-fi tale with a solid structure that only occasionally hampers the game’s rapid-fire pace of progress. To summarise: Someone spilled something on the earth and now it’s broken, go find a new one.
You can achieve most everything you need to in Drone Swarm with the Q,W,E, and R keys, plus your mouse. The keys select a drone type, then you use the mouse to tell the drones what to do. The most basic form of this is pathing your defence and attack drones. Attack drones damage anything they touch, and defence drones create shield barriers. So, if your mothership – The Argo – is being flanked by enemy fighters, you draw defensive walls to block incoming shots, then draw paths through your foes’ flight paths for your attack drones to follow.
Victory varies missions to mission – survive x minutes, destroy everything, protect a friendly etc – and Defeat usually comes in one of two ways – you lose the Argo, or you run out of Drones. As the story progresses, so does complexity, and you start encountering a few ship types that can decimate your drone count if you’re not careful. It’s not a one-sided arms race, of course, as you’ll also be steadily upgrading the Argo along the way with new systems. Mine fields, backup shields, self-repair units, and an actual goshdarn DRONE SHOTGUN all stop you falling too far behind your increasingly advanced alien foes.
With the proviso that, as I said up top, Drone Swarm is interesting enough to make up for most of its shortcomings, I do have a few major issues with the way progression is handled. Although you earn experience to spend on upgrades, everything feels more or less on-rails until around 70% of the way through. You’ve got infinite upgrade slots, so the only choice is which ones to purchase when you have a point. Even then, it’s often a choice between two upgrades at max. You do have to make choices about which systems to equip the Argo with, however. Again, it takes about 60-70% of the game for there to be much real choice here. It’s here a difficulty adjusted NG+ mode would have done wonders – or maybe some sort of roguelike survival mode – because the last third of Drone Swarm is easily the most interesting and rich in the amount of systems it introduces.
There’s also some uniformity in enemy design that makes it difficult to differentiate which space-bastard does what, and so who you should take out first. A lot of new ships – and therefore new challenges – get introduced throughout, and some stages feel like very specific target-prioritisation puzzles.
Altogether, Drone Swarm is a game for folks who have played around a lot in the tactics and RTS genres and are more excited about seeing something new than in playing another staple, even if that hypothetical alternative may provide a more satisfying package. The phrase ‘you won’t be disappointed’ gets used a lot in reviews, as if any game worth playing should blind the audience to its faults. You probably will be disappointed with some areas of Drone Swarm for not living up to their potential, but you’ll be disappointed because of all the facets of its genuinely fascinating premise it manages to pull off brilliantly. It’s not quite there, but s’warmer than it is colder.