Dropzone is a competitive RTS for the modern era

Dropzone, which enters Early Access today, was one of my favorite games at PAX West last year. It isn't a traditional RTS—there's no base building or unit production—but it's also far from being a MOBA despite the genre's clear influences. Dropzone still feels more like StarCraft 2 than Dota 2, with intimate 1v1 matches and a balance of micro and macro that leans more heavily on the latter than MOBAs do. Developer Sparkypants Studios has maintained a classic RTS feel, while also embracing modern design trends.

Matches are a guaranteed 15 minutes long, meaning you know what to expect every time you queue up. Instead of controlling a large army or a single hero, Dropzone gives you three customizable mechs, each of which can be directly controlled with activatable abilities and level ups. You use your mechs to clear out neutral objectives on a mirrored map, disrupt your opponent doing the same, and ultimately collect purple cores that both players can turn in for points at a shared uplink in the center of the map. Whoever has the most points at the end of 15 minutes wins.

Unlike traditional RTSes, the macro isn’t in base production and build order, but has been shifted onto how you choose to spend each of your units' time around the map. Similar to playing as The Lost Vikings in Heroes of the Storm, you can keep all three units grouped, but become significantly more effective when you learn to split them up and cover multiple objectives at once. Meanwhile, each mech requires all the micro of a MOBA hero by using abilities and kiting during fights, so you can't leave them alone for too long. 

The learning curve for Dropzone feels pretty steep. I rarely split my units up while learning to play, but could see how effective it was when I did. New with the Early Access launch is a PvE Infestation mode which lets you and up to three others defend against waves of AI aliens together. I'm extremely happy to see this added, as it provides a much less stressful place to get comfortable with the controls, and a way to play and learn with friends that doesn't involve getting stomped by more experienced players.

Strategy has also been partially shifted outside of the actual matches, where you choose your team and outfit them with different gear. For its Early Access launch, Dropzone has four different classes—Gunner, Mechanic, Tank, and Summoner—each currently with three unique pilots, and all of those can be altered with class-specific abilities and stat boosting gear. Matches begin with a pilot draft phase, giving you a chance to pick and counterpick your team to combat your opponent’s choices.

Additionally, the gear you outfit your mechs with will be released and rotated in seasons, meaning Sparkypants could change the pacing and meta of the game whenever it wants to. Sparkypants also told me it's playing with the idea of a card game style sideboard for your loadouts before matches, letting you further adjust to your opponent's choices. The studio is also working on a 'draft' style mode similar to Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone's Arena, where you'd get an assortment of gear that you have to make the best of, then compete against others. 

There's no doubt in my mind that the skill cap and strategy variance within Dropzone could be sky high, but I'm worried a bit by the uniformity of its theming. While the pilots themselves each have unique stylings and personalities, they're all still piloting mech robots and attacking other mech robots. There isn't a ton of room for players to express themselves, and that could make Dropzone come off as generic despite all the interesting design decisions under the hood. 

Dropzone borrows ideas from lots of different games and genres, but frames them all around that RTS core. MOBA characters put into sports-like timed matches, outfitted with card game inspired customization and game modes. Despite all that, going head-to-head with another player in a battle of micro still feels like more like an RTS than anything else, especially when you aren't reliant on a team of four other people for your success. And Sparkypants's enthusiasm for early tournament modes and varying the competitive scene could help the game find its audience.

Dropzone will be free-to-play at launch, but just went into Early Access with a $20 Squad Edition that unlocks all current pilots and gear, as well as the pilots and gear for an upcoming fifth class. There's also a $40 Commander Edition, which includes all future pilots and the next 120 pieces of gear added.