Even as a beta release, Space Pirates and Zombies breathes fresh life into a genre that has been on death’s doorstep for years.

Developed by: MinMax Games

Price: $15 while it is still in beta $20 once it releases – or you can get it for free if you keep reading this review.

Update:  If you’re reading this now then you should know that Space Pirates and Zombies has released to version 1.0.  I recommend reading this post as a primer on the game and then heading over to my 1.0 review for further details.

Space Pirates and Zombies. Take a moment to say it out loud.  Don’t you just love the way it rolls off the tongue?  I honestly can’t remember the last time a video game had such an awesome title.  As a 2D top-down space shooter, SPAZ offers a gaming experience that is going to be rather unique for younger gamers and wholly nostalgic for anybody who played PC games in the 90s.

Part of the reason why I’m so impressed with SPAZ is that producing a game like this is an unmitigated act of courage.  Releasing a PC exclusive space shooter in this game market is a bit like investing in print journalism.  To delve into the niche of the 2D shooter when a large segment of the gaming market has never heard of titles like Star Control or Operation: Inner Space, well that takes balls of steel. The challenge with 2D space shooters is that there’s not a lot of room for expanding the gameplay.  Nine times out of ten, the concept that drives a top-down space shooter is pretty derivative: “pew-pew” everything on the screen before it “pew-pews” you.  While graphics and game engines have improved over the years, there’s always going to be somebody who thinks space shooters come down to this…

While there’s no getting around that the fact that going “pew-pew” is an integral part of SPAZ, the game also offers up solid RPG elements, a non-linear game experience and a simple yet effective in-game economy.

The story that drives SPAZ is explained through a lengthy opening cut scene.  In short, humanity discovers a very valuable element called “rez”.  Legends tell of a mother lode of rez in the galactic core.  You and your valiant crew of space pirates have to fight, bribe and swindle your way to the galactic core, one system at a time.

One of the first things to stand out about SPAZ is the scale of the game.  Every new game starts with a randomly generated galaxy.  The size of the galaxy can be scaled depending upon the length of the game that you want.  In my experience, average to bigger sizes work better as smaller galaxies increase the need for level grinding between star systems.   To give a frame of reference, I am playing an average size galaxy with 200 stars.

Within each new solar system there are a variety of tasks to be done.  Some of these missions are going to be essential to game’s story.  Other tasks are at the player’s discretion.  No matter the system, every decision that a player makes will influence their standing with the local military and civilian populations.  This brings me to one of the things that I really like about SPAZ; being a pirate doesn’t necessarily mean that you are friend to the oppressed masses.  To enjoy SPAZ, gamers need to take a Machiavellian approach to their play.  There will be times when the best course of action is to blow up a civilian space station, collect the escape pods and trade the humans inside for access past a military blockade.  Being the chump that I am, I occasionally try to take the noble route and blast my way past the corrupt military pickets.  However, the game has a nasty habit of punishing me for my virtuous play.  More on that in a moment.

There are two main forms of currency within SPAZ: rez and human slaves.  Although the pirate flagship can build new ships using rez, each ship still needs to be crewed.  These souls pressed into slavery happy volunteers are referred to as “goons”.  While ships can fly with zero goons aboard, the more crew a ship has the better it will perform.  In one particular system, I burned through all of my rez and goons as I sent wave after wave of my own ships against a high-level military blockade.  So much for my efforts to spare some civilians from being bartered like bolts of cloth.  The punishment that I mentioned earlier came in the form of spending half an hour mining rez to recover from my losses.  Of course, that got boring so I started preying upon civilian shipping.  What can I say, I’m a dick.

I’m also impressed with some of the game’s AI.  During combat engagements smaller ships tend to employ hit and run tactics against larger vessels.  In one instance, a group of small strike craft managed to take out my much bigger ship by sitting just outside of my weapons range and pelting me with missiles.  Scenarios like this necessitate a surprising level of tactical depth when designing an effective flotilla.  That said, there are moments where the game’s AI can be tragic in its stupidity.  I often I find myself micromanaging my little fleet only to save it from picking a fight with a space station or flying into the path of a battle that doesn’t concern me.  I can count at least a dozen times when one of my wingmen blundered into another wingman’s line of fire and got himself killed.

While this next issue isn’t a problem for me, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out that there is a noticeable lack of variety in the non-story missions.  Beyond the usual suspects of, “escort”, “strike”, “defend” and “find box marked X” there’s not a whole lot going on in any particular system.  Also, the rewards in reputation and rez often seem imbalanced against the requirements of a given mission.  Why spend ten minutes on a task and risk getting my ships blown up when for five minutes of mining I can collect the same amount of rez?  The thing that makes these missions worthwhile is that they are great ways to collect data aka experience points, new ship designs from salvaged vessels and…you know…escape pod slaves.

At this point, I expect some people probably want to know about the zombie part of Space Pirates and Zombies. Fortunately, there are no zombies floating about in the void, chewing on starship hulls in search of brains.  Without spoiling too much of the story, I can say that the zombies come in the form of starships that have been taken over by a biological goo of sorts.  Zombie ships aren’t much of a problem at the start of the game.  But as players edge closer to the galactic core, the zombies role in the story becomes much more pronounced.

From what I’ve seen in the beta, SPAZ is a welcome oasis in the rapidly expanding desert of PC gaming.  As an RPG, the game is wholly satisfying.  Similarly, the space combat elements are solid – though I could do with just a little bit more realism in the game’s already quite excellent Newtonian physics model.  At a fifteen dollar price point, the game is well worth the investment.  Moreover, fellow Canucks can view buying SPAZ as an opportunity to support home grown gaming as MinMax Games is a two-man operation based out of Vancouver.

A demo version of SPAZ is available for free on the Space Pirates and Zombies website.

Overall score: a very promising + 3

Update:  I’m giving away four access keys for Space Pirates and Zombies. Make sure to leave a comment on this post to get yourself included in the draw.  Details on other ways to win can be found here.