SPAZ preview: fun in a vacuum

It took a few hours for Space Pirates and Zombies (SPAZ) to click with me, but I remember the exact moment it did—when I began work with it, instead of against it. I had run out of rez (the game's currency) completely, and didn't have enough to rebuild any of my ships. I was at a dead end, and I was tired of losing. I liked the game's feel, the 2D graphics and the nerdy humor, but after a few hours of rummaging about, I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong in this indie space opera.

So I reloaded a saved game file from an hour earlier and tried to take things slower. SPAZ, which releases on Steam and elsewhere next week with an appealing $15 price tag, isn't a score grind like most of the genre. It controls somewhat like a complex version of Geometry Wars or Asteroids, but it's built into a large, persistent RPG, with quests, leveling, and a number of upgradable, customizable ships. I was playing it as a straight action game, plowing through the stars and trying to advance the story missions as quickly as possible. I was wrong. This time I began to explore, searching out side quests and collecting resources. I even started to play with the game's faction system, which allowed me to side with the Civilian faction in one sector and turn to fight alongside the militaristic United Terran Alliance (UTA) in the next. I leveled up, upgraded my squadron, and went back to the fight that had previously humiliated me.

This time, I approached the battle differently, too. The portals that allow ships to jump between the game's randomized galaxies are called warp gates, and they need to be cleared of UTA enemies before use. The first time I tried to take down the guards at this specific gate, the high-level opponents blew me apart over and over again, and no matter how many times I rebuilt my ships and jumped back in, they kicked me right back out. This time, not only was I higher level, but I had learned how to use my lasers and missiles together to destroy even the toughest foes I had encountered. Destroying a ship means weakening its shields, maneuvering to the correct side, and damaging the innards until it explodes—spewing resources into the abyss. And that's what I did. My new ship was slow, but had powerful lasers that could weaken shields, and the ability to launch two missiles that could tear holes in the enemy's hull. I had upgraded the shields of not just my ship, but the two AI-controlled craft that assisted me in battles, making the fight that previously spanked me across the galaxy a cakewalk.

I could have bribed the guards with goons (manpower, launched in escape pods from destroyed craft), but I wasn't talking to the UTA scum in that star system, so it didn't feel like the right time for diplomacy. No, I just blew them apart, unlocked the next area, and repeated the process of doing side-missions and upgrading my ships. It became a little repetitive, but in the hours I spent with SPAZ I never felt bored—on the contrary, I felt compelled to continue exploring, growing in power, and expanding my piratey influence throughout the galaxy.

In many ways, SPAZ reminds me of a board game. There's a steep learning curve, it's easy to get frustrated, but once everything was in place and I knew what to do, I found myself not just enjoying my time, but looking forward to wiping the board clean and starting again. There are some things I'd like to see changed and improved, including fixing some bugs that caused the game to crash and the ability to re-spec skills—especially since new players might mistakenly put a bunch of points into a stat they don't care about. Either way, my interest is thoroughly piqued, and I'm excited to see what the much later hours of the game bring, and to find out what happens if I leave the zombies, the game's third faction that shows up after more than a dozen hours, unchecked. Will they take over the galaxy? I don't know, but I want to get back in my giant ship and find out.