Space * Pirates * And * ZombiesESRB:
Platform: PC Games
Category: Real Time Strategy, RPG, Shooter, Space Sims
It's nice to see someone trying for a genre considered long dead by many. The 2d space-RPG once had many classic games under its belt, from Star Control to Solar Winds, but, with the advent of 3d, it largely died out. In time, even 3d space games, like Wing Commander or Freelancer, went this way too. So it is a good thing to see SPAZ, by MinMax games. It's by no means perfect, but it is fun for genre fans when you get used to it, and the controls help too.
The basic plot is nothing special, although early in the game, there are hints that the titular zombies are the fault of one of your crew. Essentially, it's the far future, mankind spread out, got into a bunch of resource wars, united under a government called the UTA, and then fragmented again. In the middle of this time honoured story, there's you, the unnamed pilot and tactical officer for The Clockwork, a pirate ship looking to reach the core of the galaxy, and what is claimed to be the biggest motherlode of Rez (the game's uber-resource) in existence. The problem? The UTA have locked down most of the warp-gates in the galaxy, and it's your job to punch through, by hook or by crook.
Gameplay wise, you have pretty standard 2d space controls (WSAD, and you keep moving in the direction you last thrust in), although new players may be a bit confused when they find that the left and right side thrusters are relative to your facing. As noted in our preview article, there's a fairly lengthy tutorial, and the game really depends upon you grinding side-missions and “Interventions”, where you can get new ship types, to succeed. Of course, if you don't do sidequests, you're pretty hosed, because the difficulty curve becomes much more steep, and you rapidly encounter ships way above your capabilities. Slow and steady wins the race here.
There are lots of ship types, and each has their own specialties, although all can be customised. The Dart, your first fighter obtained in the tutorial, is pretty zippy, but has paper thin armour and no missiles, while the Tug, my current personal favourite, has two missile bays, a beam turret, and two tractor beams for picking up crew, research, and Rez, your three main resources. Of course, these are only two ships out of something like 30, and the larger ones, while slower, are just as important to victory as your smaller, nippier craft, having more weapons to play with, and better armour and cargo space. Although my personal advice is to avoid using pulse guns for attacking anything except big ships, because they still can't aim for toffee when you're controlling them.
Similarly to the story, the graphics and game sounds aren't amazing, and the voiceovers are... not bad, not good, but... interesting. For example, a north englishman doing dramatic voiceovers is pretty unique, and I'm personally quite taken with it. The depth, really, lies in the game-play, and there's actually a surprising amount to do. Firstly, the universe is generated algorhythmically (that's game-dev speak for “sorta random, but not quite”), and you can customise the size of said galaxy. There's research (a tiny bit bloated, in my opinion, but it still works), a tactical screen where you can assign targets (or, like me, ignore, because if you're piloting, you don't need to assign targets, right?), a galaxy map where you can plan your next move (and see what you're up against, warp-gate wise), a system map for moving between missions, and a simple faction loyalty system (Civilians, and UTA, and rarely, if ever, will your actions in one system affect another). The missions, similarly pseudo-random, are basically variations on “find this/shoot this/lead this to that”, and all lead to some form of quick risk reward calculation, “Do I want to annoy the UTA, and thus lose the option to bribe my way through gates, or give power to the people?” being the most common type.
But the biggest surprise, at least to those not aware of how the “Good Old Days” worked, is that this game was developed by two, count that, two people. It's a labour of love, pure and simple, and, for the price, you've got a game with a fair (if scattershot) story, okay graphics and sound, and gameplay that, if you're into the genre or don't mind the sometimes slow pace, may well suck you in. A valiant first effort from MinMax, and worth at least a try. Especially considering that, like many indie devs, they're adding more content post release.
UPDATE: MinMax, a little while back, contacted me with an endgame save, asking me to change my score. Because they asked politely, and because I was genuinely curious about the endgame, I gave it a go. Yes, the titular zombies appear, and suddenly everyone except the zombies like you, because you're the biggest, best hope. Yes, two new sizes of ships appear, you can build bases, and the importance of your crew becomes ever more clear. But it is, as I mentioned, a bit hackneyed, story wise, and the change from factionalism to "SAVE US, SPACE GOD!" seems to be a little *too* sudden. Does it detract from the game? It's actually really hard to say.
On the one hand, certain mechanics are just gone, POOF! It's easier to get around, your goal radically changes, and upgrades are now a lot easier to get (You can, after all, buy them everywhere now). But it's replaced by having to deal with zombie incursions, which is essentially a fight you can't retreat from, against ships that, on the one hand, have no shields, but, on the other, can take over your own craft if your own shields fail, and hurl their own zombified crew at you, along with lasers and missiles and bullets, to drain your shields for the eventual takeover.
At first, it's quite tough, because the enemy is relentless, there are a lot of them, and it's one big endurance battle, each time, before a boss fight. But, soon enough, you work out that AP weapons are your mode of choice, learn how to keep an eye on your ships and self-destruct them when necessary, and it once again becomes a bit grindy. Which isn't for everyone.
Overall, I'm not actually saying the game is bad. It's not bad, but it's not "OMGZORS SUPER EXCELLENT!" either. It needs a bit of balancing work (Even the devs admit this... Hammer sound familiar to forumites... hrm?), it can get a little grindy at times (which lowers my interest in *any* game), and the story isn't exactly Tolstoy or Alan Moore. It's a fair game, one that 2d shooter fans, 2d space RPG fans, and people who just fondly remember Solar Winds or Star Control should at least try. It's not buggy, as far as I can tell, and has some interest. But it's not an amazing breath of the gods, and the score reflects this.