At a first glance, Space Pirates and Zombies (or to use the acronym, SPAZ) may seem like a straightforward sci-fi space shooter, but there is a surprising amount of depth for this relatively inexpensive indie game. The combat mechanics are slightly reminiscent of Asteroids and take some time to get used to. The WASD keys are used to steer your ship relative to where the mouse cursor is. You can’t simply move your mouse 180 degrees across the screen and expect your ship to turn around on a dime though, so it takes a bit of finesse to get a feel for things. There is a stabilizer option that will stop your ship from drifting around in space, which is an incredibly helpful tool. Depending on your ship’s load-out, the left and right mouse keys are typically used to fire primary and secondary weapons.
There are four main classes of ships that are differentiated by size. Generally speaking, a larger ship shouldn’t have too much trouble taking out a smaller ship simply because it has a stronger core. Fittings such as armor, shields, cloaks, and improved hulls can turn a weak ship into a sturdy space cruiser. It can be discouraging to be faced-off against a larger ship though – at times it can feel like you’re making no progress in taking down an enemy mothership. If you stay determined and pilot your brains out though, it feels very rewarding when you do finally manage to take down a huge enemy cruiser.
The structure of SPAZ is very open-ended; you have the freedom to travel to star systems of varying difficulty – each of which have their own missions. The earlier levels aren’t too challenging, but the strength of your opponents can quickly sky-rocket. Before you begin your space career you can decide how many stars you want in the galaxy. Going with the default number of 250, I had to pay close attention during my first few missions, but I was far from sweating bullets. However, I soon found myself way in over my head, after traveling just a few star systems down. Warp Gates that allow you to travel to new stars are guarded by enemy carriers, so it seemed safe to assume that if you can beat the guards, then you should be strong enough to fight in their star system. This is definitely not the case though; just because a mission is available doesn’t mean you are truly ready for it. It can be incredibly frustrating to find yourself in firefights with virtually no chance of winning, so you do need to pace yourself.
The currency used throughout the game is Rez. Whether you mine it from asteroids or receive it as a bonus from a mission, Rez will finance most of your conquest. It’s especially fun to loot enemy ships once they’re destroyed – you can even capture escaped crew members and make them work for you! Black market stores throughout the galaxy offer much needed upgrades, but you do need to level up and perform the proper research before certain parts can be used. SPAZ utilizes an experience based leveling system that grants you research upgrades for your ships. There are plenty of options for builds and thankfully there is an option to respec – maximizing your resources is critical.
The layout can be daunting at first, especially if you were expecting a shoot-em-up style game. There are a handful of menus to cycle through, there is a lot of information to learn about ship building, and it will take a decent amount of trial and error before you find the fleet that best fits your play style. As intimidating as it may seem, it is absolutely worth it to take your time and read all of the tool tips. If you rush into the game, you’ll likely be at a considerable disadvantage when you engage enemies.
The campaign consists of a predetermined story line along with tons of side missions. The mission types include firefights, escort missions, and treasure hunts (in which you will likely face opposition). Occasionally you’ll be involved in a battle of epic proportions involving enemy motherships, but there are times when the missions can feel very repetitive. You can break up the monotony yourself by trying out different builds for your ships, otherwise you may find yourself auto-piloting through a lot of the content. Furthermore, when you’re grinding resources and working to get that next upgrade, the gameplay can feel like a bit of a chore. It’s nowhere near as tedious or time consuming as farming in World of Warcraft, but the campaign does have its slow points.
If your fleet overpowers your enemies by too much, you can literally stay stationary and blast your enemies to oblivion with ease. However, when you find yourself paired up against an evenly matched opponent the fights can get very intense. It’s engaging to try and understand how you can dodge enemy projectiles. Most ships can’t outrun missiles or speed away from a laser barrage, but quick maneuvering and a solid battle plan can save your life. It would be amazing to see a multiplayer mode, but at the time of writing there’s nothing available in this department.
The computer AI teammates are a couple cans short of a six pack, so it’s hard to rely on them. They don’t always target the same ship as you, and their teamwork as a whole is just lacking. You can upgrade their ships to your heart’s desire, but at the end of the day the pilot is nowhere near as good as his equipment. This can be frustrating because there are times when it feels like enemy ships will gang up on you and waste you in a matter of seconds. It seems like the AI works off of an ‘aggro’ system in which nearby ships outputting high damage are targeted, but ideally we would like our teammates to attack the enemy with the lowest health.
In terms of presentation, it’s hard to believe that only two developers are responsible for creating such a sharp looking game. Everything about this game is so colorful – from the shield-destroying lasers to the vast space backdrop, SPAZ just oozes atmosphere. In the heat of a firefight, it’s hard not to get caught up in the sounds of ships exploding and pilots screaming. There’s a pleasant amount of quirky charm here as well. Playful radio banter and light hearted story dialogue should make you chuckle every once in a while. Some of the sound clips are overplayed and can get a tad repetitive after a while though. Overall, SPAZ has a great sci-fi feel with an undeniably strong personality.
As a whole, playing SPAZ can be a fulfilling experience if you understand what you’re getting yourself in to. You should check out the demo first if you’re looking for a nonstop, fast-paced space shooter because the RTS elements here slow down the pace at times. If you aren’t intimidated by a somewhat steep learning curve and can handle a challenge, then SPAZ is definitely worth checking out.
Space Pirates and Zombies is out now for PC and costs £11.39 ($17.99). To download the game, or give the demo a try, head to the official web site.