Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Yargh! Space Pirates And Zombies (SPAZ) Preview

Developer: MinMax Games

UPDATE: Check out my review of SPAZ v1.0 here.

Shiver me timbers me harties! Two of the most popular concepts in movies are pirates and zombies. Pirates of the Carribean combined both of these to great effect so why wouldn't it work in a computer game? MinMax Games combined them with the realm of space and have they found the booty or have they been working on a wild goose chase?

Space Pirates And Zombies (SPAZ) is a top down 2D shooter in a similar mould to Starscape from 2003, offering space faring combat with multiple ships and factions, a uniquely generated universe featuring over a hundred star systems and a RPG elements. Created using the Torque engine, it is currently in a beta stage and requires a purchase, at a discount, to access the beta and those beta players will receive all updates as well as the full game upon its release. A demo is available here.

Disclaimer: The following review is based upon game build 0.9.001.Initial beta release state.


The Story

When man discovered the ability to travel between the stars, many explorers founded new star systems and colonies in the name of mankind. In doing so these explorers endangered humanity by introducing them to new atmospheres, cultures and their associated diseases and viruses. The UTA, a galactic defense force, moves to blockade all jumpgates and protect humanity from the perils that this vicious expansion could land them in. Earth is a toxic backwater planet and you want to leave the Solar System for the first time since the blockades were introduced in an attempt to find the treasure of the universe, a large supply of high quality 'Rez' (resources) which is located in the Galactic Core.

The narrative explains your situation eloquently and makes you feel like you're in something more than a mindless fly here, shoot this, rinse and repeat type game. The story and gameplay remind me of the model used in Freelancer. The similarity comes from the system whereby the story will give you certain objectives to complete but until then, you can fly around in a non-linear fashion, doing whatever you please until you get bored and decide to progress the story some more. Certain aspects of the game can only be unlocked by progressing the story much like Freelancer, providing access to different technologies, ships and enemies to fight against.

Gameplay

Using a simple WASD system to control your ships thrusters, the mouse to change which direction your ship is pointing and the mouse buttons to fire your guns gives SPAZ's control system two thumbs up for simplicity. There are multiple menus available to help direct the AI controlled ships you have at your disposal and all of these are rather simple and self explanatory to use. The AI does a decent job of following orders but does suffer from some quirks and issues that I will mention further along in this review.

The Star Map is your friend. Plenty of star systems to explore
The game uses 'Rez' as its resource system with which you can purchase blueprints (new technologies) and build your ships with and is readily available to pick up via destroying enemy ships, mining asteroids or found in certain world events such as a passing Comet.

Goons are the games second resource. They are menial workers which can be used as a bargaining tool at space stations to improve your relationship with that faction in that system or trade for resources or data (experience) or to bribe the warp gate guards to allow you free access to an adjoining system without the need to fight. They are also put to good use aboard your ships, providing you with a better rate of hull repair and allows you to fight off any unwelcome visitors (Scurvy Dogs!) that might try to board you and scuttle your ship.

Research provides benefits which are randomised for each replay, although the global benefits at the maximum tech level are the same and as the galaxy is completely randomised each time, the locations of any blueprints to unlock technology are also randomised, leading to certain desired technologies being difficult to locate. One caveat here is the respec system: There is none. You make a mistake with your research, you cannotremove points and correct it.

Ship building is easy. Ships come in five sizes: Tiny, Small, Medium, Large and Huge. Each hull has different numbers and sizes of slots with a different mix of hull strength, manueverability and cargo space. Creating a killer space ship with laser beams of death or a boat packed with multiple missles is a sub-30 second process and allows you to explore a plethora of different designs easily. New ship types require blueprints to create and these are obtained by destroying that ship type. After destroying a certain number of that ship, you will acquire the blueprints for it and be able to produce it for your own plundering desires.

So much fun can be had simply customising your ships. Plenty of options here
Ships have shields which regenerate over time, then a layer of armour of various grades which protects the hull to some degree, allowing more and more damage to seep through as it is damaged, and a final hull which usually does not last long once the shields have been peeled back and armour layers ventilated. The system works well and the mechanic is enjoyable, suggesting that the player should mix and match weapon types to strip down enemy ships as fast as possible.

The AI is okay in most cases, however if they were a human player you'd probably section them for suicidal tendancies. They will do a good job of supporting you and can use their weapons quite well despite having energy management issues but they just do not understand the subtle nuances of weapon control that seem like common sense to us. Load up an AI controlled Volley with 6 missles and rather than sitting back, launching a bundle of homing missles at a target, it will do an Alien impression and become a facehugger, allowing anyone to open up its shields and tear at its hull.

Everything in SPAZ is geared to be a pickup and play system. The systems and GUI's are very handy and helpful, giving them a small learning curve and allowing you to immerse yourself into the world very quickly.
Graphics 

Now Indie titles are not usually known for their graphics. Simple 2D design built around gameplay and being different, using a unique artstyle that most mainstream companies shy away from because they do that mass market thing. SPAZ is an exception to this rule.

I play SPAZ on a 47" LCD HDTV at 1920x1080 and all graphics options turned on. Whilst it may not win any awards for throwing DirectX 11 Tesselation at us, it does a fine job of looking pretty whilst remaining functional and feeling great.

Sound 

The sound is quite a satisfying aspect of SPAZ. Your ears are filled with a multitude of space age noises ranging from the satisfying zap of laser beam and the 'thunk' of your missles reloading to the pounding of explosions as large ships die and some background intercom chatter.

I love the intercom chatter. Like a nod to the Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto's radio system, intercom chatter comes over your speakers sporadically and provides another immersive feeling to the game as well as some lighthearted humour. There are some very memorable lines in there. My only gripes here are that sometimes the battle noises cloud some of the voice chatter which can be awful when you hear the start or end of your favourite line and the lack of content here, the lines becoming repetitive quite quickly.

The future is made of many pretty colours
Conclusion

Space Pirates and Zombies is a game which takes you back to the years of simple 2D space combat with a modern twist. Gameplay improvements and enhancements made, graphics brought up to good modern standards and engaging sound make this a must have for those who enjoy this genre.

That being said, the game is not without its flaws. Incredibly difficult story missions not in keeping with the difficulty level of the game, AI with suicidal tendances and a few various balance issues and bugs can keep SPAZ from being as entertaining as it could be.

SPAZ is currently in beta and access is only granted if you pre-order the game for $15 USD. This entitles you to play the beta version, any updates that come along for the game and access to the full game once it is released. It may not sound like a great idea paying for a beta game but in my opinion, it is worth the $15 price tag in its current state, certainly more polished and less buggy than recent releases (I'm looking at you Fallout: New Vegas!)

One point I feel that I should note here; The SPAZ Forums are not only a great resource of information about the game, but the Developers of MinMax Games are actively participating in the discussion with players. This bodes very well for future patches and the eventual official release.

Below, I have included some footage of gameplay which I have recorded. It is some end-game stuff which some may consider to be spoily. Personally, I just thought it showed SPAZ off in a good light, giving you a good insight into how it looks and what you can expect to be doing later on.

ElcomeSoft Score:  8.0/10 (Preliminary)