Summary Judgement: There’s no doubt that Space Pirates and Zombies was great in beta, but the 1.0 release is nothing short of sensational.

Developed by: MinMax Games

Release date: August 15, 2011

Over the weekend, the good folks at MinMax Games were kind enough to forward me a review copy of SPAZ 1.0. Despite my best efforts to stop playing and start writing, I couldn’t bring myself to put the game down.

It’s no secret that I was a fan of SPAZ when it was in beta. You can read my beta review here. In fact, I highly recommend you read my beta review before continuing with this piece. I’ll be using this post to discuss improvements and additions to the game, rather than hashing it all out again from word one. For the benefit of those who don’t want to click back to my old review, here’s the short version.

Space Pirates and Zombies is a 2D top-down RPG/shooter in the fashion of Star Control or Operation Inner Space. Within its world, the most valuable thing in the galaxy is an element called Rez. Rez is so valuable that humanity expanded through the galaxy in search of it. That colonial boom spawned the creation of the United Terran Alliance. The UTA locked down most of the galaxy to prevent the uncontrolled spread of diseases from one planet to another. The plan worked for a while, but then the UTA got fat, bloated and corrupt. The player’s goal in SPAZ is to get a fleet of fully customizable pirate ships from Earth to the galactic core in search of a much-fabled mother lode of Rez. While travelling through the procedurally generated galaxy players can expect a variety of main quests, side missions, random events, as well as a constant struggle to balance their relationships with the civilian and UTA presence in each system. Make sure to check your moral compass at the door because at some point you will likely find yourself trading captured escape pods to bribe a UTA blockade or to buy a bigger gun for your ship. Yes, that’s right, the other big currency in the game is people.

There’s the basic sketch. Let’s talk about the differences between the pre-release beta and the 1.0 versions of SPAZ.

One of the first things I noticed in beta SPAZ was a lack of variety in the missions. Moreover, the risk/reward potential never seemed balanced. The data (experience points) and Rez benefits for completing a mission were a pittance. Although the post-battle salvage was usually decent, part of me never wanted to risk losing ships and crews for potential swag. Instead, I mined Rez from asteroids and scavenged data and crew (called goons in-game) from the aftermath of Civilian-UTA battles. Thus, there was a bit of a grind to the game. The 1.0 release fixes this problem. First and foremost, the Rez and data rewards for completing a mission finally feel balanced. There’s also greater depth and variety in the missions. I’ve discovered a few randomly generated quests that begin in one system only to continue in others. It’s a small touch but one that has added a depth that was absent in beta.

Also new to 1.0 is a faction’s relative strength within a system. In the beta, a given mission would only impact a player’s standing with a faction. Now, completing a mission will affect the power of a faction within the system. I learned the hard way that when the UTA’s strength rates 3 out of 3, and I’m fighting against them, they are going to have a lot more ships to throw at me than usual. The game tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen.

Small changes like that have had a huge impact on the overall game play. The reduced need to level grind encourages greater exploration of the galaxy. Also, I’m no longer hoarding all my goons for fear that I might have to grind for an hour to get them back. Bad news for the goons as I’m going to be bartering them much more often. At the same time, the game has maintained its difficulty curve such that I still get my ass handed to me from time to time. Unlike in the beta, such a setback doesn’t leave me sobbing while singing “Danny Boy” as I mourn my empty stockpile of goons and Rez.

It’s also worth mentioning that the release version adds a new twist to the goon system. From time to time ships will drop “specialist” goons. Depending on their rarity and type, these specialists will provide some significant buffs to all the ships in a player’s fleet. Specialists will also level up on their own to unlock greater abilities. The specialist I have in play right now boosts my missile range allowing for some fun standoff battles against fixed installations. I should also clarify that I would have never dreamed of attacking a space station in beta. Now, blowing up a station is a challenge rather than a suicide mission.

Version 1.0 also sees a huge improvement on the wingman AI. In an all out dogfight, wingmen are particularly deadly. Yet, the control scheme still remains a little too simple for my taste, especially when I’m trying to besiege a large installation or set up hit and run attacks. In those situations, wingmen tend to die before they have done anything useful. A “protect my target” or “form up/break and attack” mechanic could easily address this short fall.

There’s also a number of other new features that appeared between the beta’s various iterations and the release build. The fleet window now allows for multiple variants on the same ship. With that improvement I’m much more inclined to experiment and design mission specific load-outs. I also like the ability to re-spec the tech tree when the need arises. Though re-specing produces a data debt that prevents further leveling until it is paid off, it really adds to the open-ended quality of the game. If a given side-mission requires stealth over weapons of mass destruction, it’s easy enough to re-spec bomb skills into cloaking devices without losing too much time.

MinMax Games has done a fantastic job taking SPAZ from beta to launch. The game feels robust while maintaining a nice streamlined interface. There’s incredible depth for players who want to explore, but good pacing for people who want to get from point A to point B without a huge grind. Even the script writing within the game stands out as clever while flirting with the fourth wall. I know it’s only August but I’m willing to put it out there that SPAZ is atop my very short list for game of the year.

Overall Score: +4.5

Make sure to check out spacepiratesandzombies.com for more details on the game.  SPAZ is currently available on Steam, Impulse, Direct2Drive and a bunch of other places.