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Just Missing Ninjas: A Space Pirates And Zombies Analysis

Space Pirates and Zombies recently landed on Steam. Now out of beta, the question that needs to be ask is: Does blasting zombies in space get old?

Josh Bycer, Blogger

August 26, 2011

5 Min Read

From the title, MinMax Games' PC strategy title Space Pirates And Zombies - which just landed on Steam - appears to be a checklist of what gamers enjoy and SPAZ tries to combine multiple game elements together in an attempt at modernizing older game design. While there are a few issues, there is definitely a lot of potential here.

SPAZ, like older games doesn't hit you with a huge story. There's treasure in the center of the Universe, you're a pirate, put two and two together. At the start, the game will randomize the universe allowing you to choose how big or small you want it, along with the overall difficulty. Once in game, fans of the classic: Star Control 2 should feel right at home.

At the start, you'll control one ship, but will quickly get a small fleet of ships. While your fleet will follow you around, you'll only control one of the ships at a time leaving the others to the AI, but can switch between any active ships at will. Upgrades are aplenty in SPAZ; space stations can have blueprints which can be used to outfit your fleet with new equipment.

As you destroy enemy ships, they'll drop data which acts as experience along with their blueprint, once you've destroyed the same type of ship enough it will become available to be built for your fleet. Leveling up allows you to choose different areas to upgrade, such as better shields or subsystems, this in turn affects their stats and determines what equipment you can outfit your fleet with.

Each system in the galaxy has the same basic schema, the civilians and the government forces are fighting each other. As a pirate you are free to choose which side you want to support which will determine who will open fire on you in that system. Attacking ships and completing missions will determine your relations. Being liked enough will allow you to coast right into a space station where you can buy blueprints. Each system has warp gates to adjacent systems, which are operated by the government. You have two options to get by them; either blow up all the ships at the gate, or bribe the government space station to let you through.

Combat is fast and frantic, as your fleet will go up against the enemies in the sector. Ship defenses are determined by their shields, armor and hull. There is a loose rock paper scissors formula at work: beams beat shields, shields beat cannons, and cannons beat armor and hull. If one of your ships is destroyed, you can build another one as long as you have enough REZ (in-game currency). There is a decent variety of weapons available and each type of ship has a different load-out possible allowing you to design your fleet how you want it. While the randomization helps out a lot with replay-ability, it does present the problems with the game.

First is that having all equipment blueprints set randomly in the Universe, gives the player reasons to explore, but the Universe can be a fickle mistress. You may get lucky and have the blueprints you want within a few systems of the start, or you may be like me and spend hours trying to find the upgrades. While the Universe is vast (as a Universe should be) there isn't a lot to do at this point. Missions are of the "blow stuff up" variety and every system operates in the same way. There are side missions you can find that mix things up, but for the most part you'll find yourself blazing through systems to reach the ones you want. My biggest complaint though has to do with progression and that it goes against the randomization of the game.

The main point of progression in SPAZ has to do with your mother ship: the Clockwork. As the ship improves over the course of the game, you'll be able to store more resources and have a bigger fleet. Fleet size is king in the game, as smaller hulls lack the defenses needed to survive combat for long, forcing the player to use the larger ships. Unfortunately while the player is free to explore, if they want to progress, they'll need to follow a linear path through the story. After every few story missions the Clockwork will be upgraded and at this point, there are no other ways to increase your fleet size.

The problem is that this puts the player into an awkward position. Their research level will be high enough to use the components they find, but because their fleet is so small, their ships will be focused down and destroyed fast. Players who want to stick with smaller ships will be at a huge disadvantage, as each hanger can only hold one ship, regardless of size. As mentioned earlier, the smaller ships just don't have the defenses or the numbers to survive in battle against enemy fleets.

Because progression is linear, it forces the player to follow the story to stand any chance of surviving in the game. Just Cause 2 while not set in a randomize world, did find a way around the problem of story and progression. Upgrades for your weapons, vehicles and health, could be found while exploring the world and completing the actual missions don't provide any benefits other than progressing through the game. This gave the player a reason to explore and rewarded them so.

Even the big twist involving the last word in the title doesn't offset how repetitive the game gets. From the main screen, the developers are planning on adding more content which should hopefully alleviate my main problem with the game.

SPAZ reminds me of another favorite indie title: Din's Curse which also took a modern spin on older game design and succeeded. While SPAZ is not quite there yet, it does come very close to scratching that itch I got from Star Control 2.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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