The original Space Pirates and Zombies is one of my very favourite indie RPGs, and it’s eaten *snickers* an unhealthy amount of my time over the years. It managed just the right blend of action-based top down shooting, strategy, micromanagement, nerdy RPG mechanics, and ridiculously over-the-top narrative and dialogue. As you can imagine, then, I’ve had my eye on SPAZ2 for a very, very long time.
SPAZ2 is a massive undertaking. Having played through the story mode, and made significant progress into my first Sandbox playthrough (think story mode with tweakable settings and conditions), I’m astonished by the simply herculean task that the chaps at MinMax Games have conquered to present this game into Early Access. To deliver such a broadened sense of scope, replayability, and interactivity without upsetting the delicate balance in the game’s combat and progression of difficulty is truly remarkable. The captain AI alone is a thing of beauty. It imparts an adaptive, though unique, set of behaviours to each of the game’s 200 other captains that inhabit the galaxy. While not particularly large, the galaxy map feels constantly alive thanks to the combination of numerous human factions, rogue pirates, and eventually zombies, all fighting for the last scraps of the galaxy’s Rez, the rare element required for space travel that’s also inextricably linked to the ancient zombie infection that keeps the galaxy in check.
I’ll confess to being totally overwhelmed when I first started playing. So much so that I actually wasn’t having much fun during the initial adjustment time from SPAZ1’s top-down 2D interface, to the shiny new 3D one. It’s not perfect, I’ll admit, but it’s very nuanced, and is a great change for the franchise—particularly given how beautiful this game now looks as a result of the switch from 2D sprites to 3D models.
Also new is the tractor beam system. Where in the previous game, you would use a menu interface to change your ship loadouts, then warp them into combat, your flagship is now an amalgam of what you manage to find or buy in your travels. These parts are hotswapped, as it were, by detaching them with the tractor beam, then using it to guide new parts into the locking intersections. Or, should the need arise, to pull the game’s random powerups towards your ship during combat. For the particularly skilled, it can be used to slam asteroids or the game’s iconic explosive barrels into the hull of an enemy’s ship at high speed. Awesome!
The introduction of clever new mechanics such as that, paired with the pruning of other, less relevant ones, refocus SPAZ2 into a more refined experience. And yet, it’s lost none of its absurd charm. The dialogue is still ridiculous, the characters are still obnoxious, and the idle radio chatter is still every bit as good as it ever was—even if we did lose the iconic “The hull has been breached and the science is leaking out!” While the game has shifted slightly to focus more on your captain’s flagship, rather than a fleet of equally-important ships, many of your favourite hulls from the first game see a return as drone ships that you bring into combat with you, even if they can no longer be customized. It’s little things like that which show an allegiance to the franchise that could have very easily been lost in the pursuit of “bigger and better”.
Really, though, SPAZ2 is just full of that sort of charm. For example, due to its Early Access state, the game doesn’t currently have voice overs for the story dialogue in the game. But rather than leave the player to read walls of text, it’s all been fed through a text-to-speech program with remarkably well-fitting voices and inflections. It brings an unusually deadpan sort of appeal to the game’s dialogue, and I do hope it stays in as an option, even after the game gets its proper VOs.
And that’s largely been my experience with SPAZ2. It’s not all more, more, more, or bigger, bigger, bigger—because it doesn’t all have to be. What it is, though, is better. Better in every regard. Sure, there are some minor interface nuisances, and the learning curve is a bit steep if you’re expecting more of SPAZ1, but it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and worth every bit of the wait up until this point. Given the rate at which it’s been patched over the last couple weeks since I started playing it, and the response to player feedback on the forums, I’m as equally anxious to see where it’s going to be in its 1.0 state as I was to play the Early Access drop—particularly once that Multiplayer button lights up on the main menu.
Despite its cult appeal, the original game still managed to slip under most people’s radars. Trust me on this one, though: if you’re a fan of a good RPG, great tactical, real-time combat, faction-based warfare, or even just a pretty explosion, you won’t want to miss SPAZ2.