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Space Pirates and Zombies Review

By Jeff Buckland, 8/16/2011

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When was the last time you played a damn good sci-fi game that was equal parts strategy and action plus a good dose of RPG? Ten years ago? Twenty? Never? The two-man indie studio called MinMax Games noticed this, and they've been diligently working on a little game called Space Pirates and Zombies, otherwise known as SPAZ, to quench that decades-old hunger for a deep, interesting action and strategy game set in the vastness of space. And now, it's finally "officially" out on Steam - previously it was available for pre-order at the same $15 price, and you'd get access to a beta version (much the same way that Minecraft works).

I posted a preview of SPAZ last month with lots of praise, but because the game wasn't officially released (even though people were doing everything but actually buying the pre-release version), I still couldn't make a review out of it. Well now I can, and while a lot of changes have gone into v1.0, I'd still be recommending the game even without them. We get quite a few new accessiblity and convenience features, more missions, a specialist system, and more - along with some bug fixes, many addressing specific issues that I and many players had in the beta.

SPAZ takes place on a top-down 2D plane in a randomly-created galaxy (with hundreds of star systems) in each new game that's started. There's the player's mothership, and out of it a fleet of smaller fighters, frigates, and other ships can be built, and it's this micro-fleet that you'll send out to complete missions, unlock new technology, level up, and eventually get powerful enough to take on the zombies that lurk at the center of the galaxy. Yes, there's a story here that's delivered almost entirely in text, and while it's not really going to win any awards, it's generally worth actually reading through.

Every star system has two warring factions called the UTA and the Civilians, and players can choose to make friends or enemies out of either - or both. Each system has its own separate faction tracking, so the UTA might hate you in one system and love you in another. Mining asteroids and completing missions adjusts your faction and the strength of each faction in a given system, and it also nets you rewards. There's Rez, a valuable mineral used to not only buy upgrades and trade, but it's also spent when building your fleet of ships. Another reward for completing missions and blowing up enemy ships is Data, which acts as experience points used to unlock new tech and confer passive bonuses to all ships.

The other resource players need is Goons, which are the people either used as a trading resource or as crew for each ship. Well, you technically don't actually need any crew in your ships, but having people on-board will enable faster repairs once damage has been taken, so it's good to have surplus crew available for any tough fights you're planning on diving into. There are several ways to collect Goons, but mostly you'll be trading Rez for them or picking them up from the emergency capsules jettisoned from destroyed enemy ships.

All of these resources along with the blueprints players buy and loot allow them to custom-build their fleet - they choose the hull design, weapons, armor, shields, boosters, and more - and then pick the precise amount of crew left on-board to repair damage. Some freighter-type hulls are better for hauling Rez, others are better for picking up a supply of Goons, and some are better for mobile assaults, frontal assaults, ship-to-ship combat, or space station bombing runs. More expensive parts and hulls will cost more Rez, so if you're having to throw a ton of ships at a fight and keep rebuilding them mid-battle, maybe it's not the best idea to use the most high-tech parts. It's entirely up to the player how to customize a fleet and approach each fight.

What makes SPAZ interesting is that it plays out as an action game for the ship you're piloting, where the WASD keys move your ship relative to where it's pointing and the mouse allows precise aiming of weapons - and with a few other keys and advanced options, players can set focus-fire targets and fire different banks of weapons independently all in real-time. The ships not being piloted directly are controlled by AI, and you can change their AI script, immediately swap ships at any time with a keypress, or just pause the game with the spacebar at any moment and use an RTS-like interface to give the fleet direct orders.

You'll need all of your little fleet working together to take on the tougher challenges, and this is what gives the real-time combat a more tactical feel. Once you get out of the tutorial system, the fleet consists of the mostly-stationary mothership and then three pilotable ships that venture out into each system, and eventually that number grows - but it'll be quite a ways into the game before that happens. In the meantime, there are new and bigger ship designs to reverse engineer and then fly along with turrets, cannons, beams, shields, engines, reactors, bombs, mine launchers, and more to buy. Or you can prey on the weak and just take them.

My previous game in the beta clocked in at well over 40 hours by the time I got to the end-game, and with a host of new missions and a few extra elements going into v1.0, I decided it would be best to restart for this review. I'll probably be able to get to the end-game a little quicker this time now that I know how to play, but suffice it to say that if you can get into its brand of action and strategy, SPAZ is easily worth the $15 that MinMax Games are charging. Bounty Hunters and a host of new features are already in the works, and in the future, I'd love to see more atmosphere added with new ambient sounds and voice work - the current crop of stuff you hear can get a little tiresome after more than five or six hours - and maybe even multiplayer at some point.

The developers are planning to continue expanding the game in the future, but why wait? It's already great now, and I highly recommend that any serious fans of games like Master of Orion, Star Control 2, Space Rangers 2, or other space-based, genre-bending games give this one a shot. You'll fall in love all over again, just like you did back when you were a teenager with your 386-powered DOS PC back in the early 90s. And if you're still not sure, then check out the demo which gives you about the first 90 minutes of the game.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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