I'm not the biggest fan of drones. I worry they'll be used to catch me doing crimes, like the time I ate a pizza with cutlery, or that they themselves will be participating in crimes, specifically of the war variety. The 32,000 drones under my command in Drone Swarm (opens in new tab), though? They're pretty cool.
This cosmic real-time strategy game is, at all times, all about the drones. They are the only things you control, and they are blessed with incredible versatility that's enhanced over time through upgrades. It's these drones that make it unlike any other RTS that I've played in a long time. With the absence of building, recruitment and resources, it's more of a real-time tactics game, but let's not quibble over subgenre semantics; besides, it's not like most RTT affairs either.
Quick primer: some disaster that I confess is already a foggy memory has befallen humanity, but now they have some kick ass drones at their disposal. Using this drone swarm and a single ship, you'll jump around space to look for a new home, making plenty of enemies along the way. It's got shades of Homeworld, but lacks the narrative chops and confident art direction of Relic's classic. It doesn't matter, though, because as I said before: it's all about the drones.
God, they're magic. Drone Swarm makes controlling 32,000 individually simulated space bots genuinely effortless. Where most real-time strategy is all hotkeys and APM, or at the very least frequently clicking on things to dole out orders, Drone Swarm is elegantly tactile, making you draw out the path of the drones to create attack routes or make them turn into a wall. You just sketch your plan out and then watch as your little pals rush into position.
'Swarm' suggests an angry, buzzing cloud of insects, but the drones move more like a shoal of tiny fish, performing their hypnotic ballet in space instead of the ocean. They're always adapting, though. At rest, they create a protective vortex around your vulnerable ship, which only contains a single weapon and can't move during battles, but at your order they'll arrange themselves into stalwart barriers, a serpentine hunter, a hull-battering ball or scatter like shrapnel.
It's a thrill to watch the swarm smash through a ship's armour or hit one with such force that it spins off in the other direction. This is a weapon supervillains get, not the heroes at the start of the game. But as empowering as it is to command this ship-chewing cloud of destruction, Drone Swarm's brief, puzzle-like confrontations are just as engaging because of your major vulnerabilities.
32,000 drones might sound like a lot, but once the game starts throwing more ships at you, heading towards you from all directions, you'll wish you had more. When you create a wall, those drones won't be participating in attacks or swirling around your ship, and as more of your drones become engaged or blow up, your ability to react will start to dwindle until your ship's hull becomes swiss cheese—which isn't very useful in space.
So there is one resource that you have to manage, then. And even when you haven't lost half of your drones, it can be hard to keep up with multi-directional attacks—especially if you've got the reflexes of someone frozen in the vacuum of space. Thank goodness for upgrades, then, which can augment your swarm, as well as giving it brand new abilities. Drones can be programmed to regenerate, for instance, but even more convenient is the upgrade that lets them trap enemy vessels.
See, the basic drone attack, which actually does a great deal of damage, is a bit on the slow side. Once you've drawn your path, the drones will leave the vortex and follow it, but if you've drawn the path next to a moving ship, it's probably going to be long gone by the time the drones arrive, leaving them slightly embarrassed and forced to come home with no kills. You can predict where your enemy is heading, but when you've got five other ships shooting away, you don't have the luxury of being that precise. Instead, you can create a wall right in their path, and when they get stuck, that's when you strike with everything you've got.
Physics is another endlessly helpful addition to your arsenal. You'll face ships with shields that you can't penetrate, or sporting lasers that can't be stopped by your drones, but thanks to physics you can make fools out of them all. With a high-impact cannonball attack, you can make ships spin off course, rendering their lasers useless and revealing their weak spots, giving you an opening for a regular attack. In cannonball mode, drones hurtle towards their target very quickly, so it's easier to use against ships on the move, though it doesn't do much damage. You'll want to use it only to force the enemy into a vulnerable position, smashing them into one of your sticky walls, or even causing a collision with another ship.
I'm somewhere around the half-way point in my journey to a new home, but there are already enough creative ways to use the drones that I get occasionally flustered—which is great! Fluster the heck out of me, I say. It's rarely born out of frustration, and even when the shit hits the giant space fan, I know it will just take a couple of slick moves to get back on track. Each mission is a brisk battle, some only lasting a few minutes, so the tide can turn dramatically in a matter of seconds. And if you're not able to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat, it's never going to feel like you've lost any progress.
With a campaign that you'll be able to finish up in under 10 hours and no additional modes, it is quite a slight proposition, but wouldn't it be nice to actually just finish a game? Get to the end of the campaign and you're done, letting you move onto one of the other diversions undoubtedly lurking in your library. 'Slight' is probably a bit unfair; it's lean. It cuts away at all the RTS flab, leaving behind just these brilliant drones. And I think that's all I need.
Drone Swarm is out now on Steam (opens in new tab).