A busy work schedule and personal move mostly behind me, I can report that my last day at E3 I was able to demo a couple very different but entertaining titles. Dropzone applies an eSports twist on RTS-style games. Elite Dangerous: Horizons is an MMO space adventure with a new VR option. Both provide fast-paced, polished experiences.

Dropzone vision tower fight

Sparkypants Studios' Dropzone is the product of veteran designers who worked for Big Huge Games on Rise of Nations. Their challenge was to create an RTS-style game that recaptures the feeling of playing older genre titles while also repackaging the experience to appeal to a modern audience.

The game features two players competing head-to-head for their 15 min of fame. The winner of each timed match is determined by the most points scored. Dropzone is designed around sports metaphors as a means of increasing the entertainment value and engaging a larger audience.

The initial draft phase involves selecting a squad of three rigs from a roster of MOBA-style heroes. Each can be named, customized and grouped to create the perfect combination for team fighting. Loadouts include three slots for weapons, armor and utility.

Players start with a solid default kit, but can create custom loadouts to vary gameplay and rig appearance as various gear unlocks. All the gear is created with aesthetic appeal, technological value and overall design in mind. Different loadouts can be saved.

Once the draft stage is over, the game puts players right into the action. The goal is to reclaim an energy source in the form of cores. Rigs pickup and carry them to an uplink at the center of the map. Controlling the center of each map therefore becomes important to victory in this variation on capture the flag.

Kavash fight

Uploading cores, however, is not the only means of emerging victorious. Points are awarded for securing objectives, and the player with the most points wins the match. There are three major objectives that change with every map, including Eradicate, Vision and Boss Slayer. 

Destroying hives, dominating control points called vision towers, and defeating bosses not only boost one's score but specific actions like killing enemies will grow a player's XP bar. Heroes can then power up, leveling up rigs by elevating base stats and acquiring unique abilities.

As with other RTS games, player attention is an important -- if not the most important -- resource. In Dropzone, there is a lot going on, and players must decide which objective requires their immediate attention. Likewise, how upgrades are chosen and when to use them can be key to success.

Victory is not always clear cut during what amounts to regulation time. Ties are possible and result in a sudden death overtime. When over, players can view a match timeline and video to study opponent movements, gear, etc., so one can develop counters to opponent strategy or loadouts.

Matches are made in part to be an easy to watch spectator sport, and they likewise feel relatively streamlined to play despite the occasional chaos of managing multiple objectives and upgrading heroes on the fly, not to mention my general inexperience with PC games and the RTS genre in particular.

Uplink fight

The draft screen includes a selection of heroes to choose from and, although I was too distracted by the mechanics of using a keyboard/mouse combo, the process seemed relatively straight forward in general and before I knew it my heroes were tossed into the fight and the match began.

Teams begin on opposite ends of the map and each can be directed as a unit or individual heroes to the objectives chosen by the player. The challenge to start is setting the pace, as players will be either proactive or reactive depending on who gets the jump.

The good news is, there are enough objectives to allow each player to go on the offensive. That's why monitoring all objectives is so important, as any distraction can provide your opponent the upper hand. Thankfully, controls are responsive, commands precise and team management is intuitive.

Whether sending one or more heroes to different objectives, attacking enemies or upgrading abilities on the fly for immediate use in the field, battles are fluid and benefit from quick reflexes. It helps that the isometric camera appears to provide a good perspective in general, and animation is smooth.

Controls that helped me most were being able to switch between heroes quickly, and select upgrades during the match that I could then wield just as fast. The developers went easy on me, but I did get a sense for the fluid and intense action as well as the need for nimble team and objective management.

With a solid presentation that boasts detailed graphics, complex particle effects, a colorful palette and dynamic sound effects, the overall package looks to be a quality entry in the RTS market, and one that could find its own niche in the eSports catalog.

Elite Dangerous: Horizons cockpit view

Frontier Developments' Elite Dangerous: Horizons (PC Xbox One) is an MMO space adventure that features exploration, combat and trading among its gameplay elements. Through continuing updates and expansions, gameplay has been growing to broaden players' experience.

To begin, the game's Milky Way galaxy features 400 billion star systems to explore. Frontier eschews the term "procedurally generated," emphasizing that their galaxy is not a random creation but is based on a simulated Big Bang and related principles and data that formed the building blocks of our own galaxy.

From this foundation, and including recent expansions like Planetary Landings and The Engineers, the game allows players to explore the galaxy a planet at a time. Pilots can fly through space or explore planet surfaces and related settlements, space ports, wrecks, etc. (and assault enemy fortifications) with their spacecraft or surface recon vehicle.

In the process, players can engage in combat between the Federation, Empire and Alliance superpowers or proxies; discover loot; craft ship or module upgrades; barter with planet-based engineers; trade, smuggle or pirate goods; and take on missions. Story threads are planned, with modifications to the story based on player data.

Past updates introduced community goals, squadrons of four pilots that share rewards, allegiance to galactic power characters and related rewards, PVP arena action, increase in playable ships to 31, and a revolutionized mission system. Upcoming updates will enable teams of players aboard ship, avatar customization, and ship-launched fighters.

Space combat

PVP arenas allow players to earn XP to unlock weapons, modules and abilities. Combined with opportunities to mine minerals; gain rewards from hostile strongholds; trade medicine, arms or consumer goods; and unlock ship and module customization via engineers, there are many ways to build your resources and influence.

Although I didn't have time to demo the many gameplay options, I was able to try out the base controls for flight and space combat. It's worth noting that I played the PC version with a VR headset and flight stick plus throttle, though I hope my impressions provide some insight into playing with conventional means.

I started inside a kind of space station, and despite being warned about my ascent, promptly collided with the ceiling. The controls, in fact, handle well, and throttling up sent me shooting forward down a corridor and into space. Without anything nearby to crash into, I was able to freely maneuver.

Thrustmasters' HOTAS Warthog and HOTAS Warthog Flight Stick X performed very well in general. Throttling up or down, flying in any direction and firing weapons proved intuitive, responsive and fluid, and the learning curve wasn't too steep (yaw, if I remember, involved twisting the stick, which took getting used to but was appreciated).

Initially I spent time familiarizing myself with the controls. In space, with the exception of a nearby planet, it's not always easy to get your bearings, but once I was in a dogfight, controlling my craft became easier as I pursued the attack ships. As a longtime fan of Ace Combat, this aspect of the game created a favorable comparison.

Enemy craft didn't fly linear paths, especially when being pursued. So the controls were important to success and, therefore, survival. Quick turns, tight turns and even subtle course corrections all had to work with precision, and in combination with related controls and the HUD. I'm happy to report that they worked well in tandem.

Stick movement, together with throttle application, enabled me to stay on target most of the time. Playing chicken of course meant that a missed opportunity required reacquiring the target. Thanks to onscreen indicators I could approximate where enemies were behind me and how far above or below my position.

Primary and secondary weapons controlled well, and switching between targets allowed for dynamic encounters with numerous foes. In this regard accessible button placement on the stick allowed for targeted firing without compromising fluid pitch and yaw control. Hopefully controller and keyboard controls are just as accessible.

The last piece of the space combat puzzle was VR. I tried VR about 20 years ago in an Area 51-style shooter and loved it. Frontier and Thrustmasters reaffirms my faith in the tech, as dogfights felt completely immersive and thoroughly entertaining. It fulfilled the fighter-pilot fantasy that this Ace Combat fan has.

The best example of how integral VR was to gameplay and how invaluable it can be as a tool was how in the midst of dogfights I instinctively looked over my shoulders or above my head to follow the trajectory of passing attack ships and try and keep them in sight while using the flight stick to maneuver my craft in pursuit.

It helps that the VR view was smooth despite sometimes constant movement, and the presentation was always solid with detailed textures, fluid animations, dynamic particle effects, good contrast and a nice color palette. Sounds likewise were well implemented and help immerse one in the action and the atmosphere.

Elite Dangerous: Horizons, like Dropzone, proved a quality demo that provided an entertaining experience. The latter is on its way to building an audience, and the former is looking to grow both its game and its fan base. To judge by my time with both, development is on well on the way to supporting those goals.