Space Pirates and Zombies preview

Space Pirates and Zombies (or SPAZ, for short) is the debut title from MinMax Games, a two-man development team based in Vancouver, Canada. Brimming with retro sensibilities, SPAZ is a space shooter at heart, but one that also includes a good dose of strategy, exploration, and role-playing elements. To put it another way, it's cut from the same cloth as PC classics like Star Control 2, Elite, and Privateer.

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Each game of SPAZ begins in a procedurally generated galaxy of up to 300 solar systems. It's an interesting future in which humanity has populated the galaxy though the use of space-folding warp gates that allow ships to quickly travel great distances. The United Terran Alliance (UTA) is sort of a corporate police force in charge of policing the warp gates (which the player must breach or bribe his way through), and is always at odds with the civilian population in each system. In each system, the player can decide which faction to support, based on the missions he selects—but making one side happy typically angers the other side in equal measure. Thankfully, each solar system is isolated, so any accrued faction resentment doesn't carry over.

Players take on the role of a group of Space Pirates looking to explore the universe, expand their fleet, and make a buck or two in the process. In the beginning, players have only a single, tiny ship at their disposal as they’re taught how to fly, gather "rez" and "goons" (money and manpower, respectively), and purchase new technology from outposts. As the game progresses, better ships, weapons, and techs are unlocked, as well as additional hangers that expand the player's fleet-size and the types of vessels available.

As one would hope from a space-based shooter, the various types of spacecraft are the real stars of the show. Peeking into the Space Pirates' hangar reveals an impressive number of different hulls to unlock, each of which has hard-points that can be outfitted with a dizzying number of weapons and tools. Like many elements of SPAZ's layered gameplay, ship customization is as deep as it is easy to manage. On top of that, each ship type has its own personality that comes from its distinct look and feel, and each can be further modified with things like better shields, engines, and turrets. Whether you're purchasing a new beam-weapon or researching a better cloaking device, SPAZ does a great job at keeping the rewards coming. In such a way, SPAZ creates the same kind of loot-based motivation perfected by games like Diablo.

SPAZ also looks fantastic, from the surprisingly colorful space-scapes, explosions, and particle effects, to the impressive details of the ship models. The moody soundtrack and ambient audio queues are also fantastic, though radio chatter (while clever) can get a bit repetitive.

A nice variety of randomly generated mission-types populate each solar system. Among more standard missions like attack, defend, and escort are some more esoteric options like taking sides in a UTA vs. civilians battle, or blowing up barrels of hazardous waste. There are even some random events, like the appearance of huge, volatile comets that can be cautiously blown up for massive resource boons. Some missions are more bite-sized than others, but each activity type is a lot of fun in its own right.

It's a good thing that the core combat in SPAZ is incredibly solid. Even with a respectable assortment of missions, the sheer size of the galaxy guarantees that you'll be repeating each type of mission quite a bit throughout a single (25-30 hour) campaign. Standard shooter controls and mouse-aiming are combined with Newtonian physics and unique ship handling to create an easy to grasp system that can be tricky to perfect. Tactics used for piloting a massive capitol ship, for example, are much different than those needed in the cockpit of a nimble fighter.

But what about the titular zombies, you ask? The zombies surface as a third faction during SPAZ's late-game. Star Trek fans can think of them as the Borg. Rather than trying to destroy your fleet the same way that the UTA or civilians might, the Zombies try to infect rival ships and assimilate them into the undead collective. In gameplay terms, this means that once a zombie threat is identified, the player is best served to eliminate it as quickly as possible, with extreme prejudice. Left unchecked, the zombie hoard can easily multiply until it becomes insurmountable. It's an end-game touch that asks players to adopt a new tactical approach, and it's quite challenging and effective (and creepy).

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What makes SPAZ such a special game is that it scratches a gaming itch that few modern games do. The core ship-to-ship combat is fluid, requires some skill, and can be approached as the player sees fit. It also does a great job of rewarding player progress with new toys to play with, like new ship-types, increasingly powerful weapons, and a robust tech tree. It's also great in that it lets players progress at their own pace. Not strong enough to breach the blockade to the next warp gate? Go on a few more missions and power up your fleet.

Space Pirates and Zombies is still in beta form, but based on my experience with the game, it already feels quite polished. I have no reservations recommending that anyone looking for a solid space-based shooter with retro flair, a ton of customization options, and a lot of replay value. The SPAZ beta is currently available exclusively on Impulse for $14.99, and will give you access to all subsequent versions. The final release will retail for $19.99.

The Space Pirates and Zombies demo is also available, for those who'd like to check it out.