Made by a two-person team, Space Pirates and Zombies is very obviously a labor of love. I mean, look at the new game screen:
|How can you not find that heartwarming?|
It does for mainstream space sims what Terraria did for Minecraft: It distills the gameplay down to the elemental, focuses on combat, and does it all in an accessible 2D retro style. I played it way back in 2011. I liked it and got a couple of days of fun out of it, but it suffered from the same restrictive approach to character progress as Freelancer, which eventually turned me off the game. I suppose I should get my long-overdue Freelancer rant out first:
In Freelancer, the mechanics are a slave to the plot, which I think is an ass-backwards approach to things in a sandbox. Each area of the game has a hard level cap. If you hit it, you can’t level up again until you do a story mission. Worse, ships require licenses to fly, and licenses are level restricted. (You can be a pirate if you want, but apparently driving without the proper license is a taboo you just won’t break.) So maybe you saved up enough money to get that awesome fighter ship, but you can’t fly it until you level up and you can’t level up until you do the story mission. And the story mission is (of course) very combat-focused.
The story mission would be a pain in the ass, making me wish I could use that shiny new fighter I wasn’t allowed to fly. Once I beat the story mission it’s time to go back to trading, so I don’t need the fighter anymore. And by the time I get to the next one of these damned story bottlenecks the fighter will be obsolete and I’ll be looking forward to the next fighter I’m not allowed to use yet.
To rub salt in the wound, it doesn’t even bank your XP for later. If you do anything XP-worthy while you’re at the cap, those points are lost. So the game is actively punishing you for trying to do anything sandbox-y in the ostensibly sandbox world. Sure, I suppose I could do more trading to earn more money, but what would I spend the money on? All the good stuff is locked away behind the level gate, and after the level gate I’ll be able to make money twice as fast in the next zone. There’s no reason to revisit old sectors and I’m not allowed to explore future ones. The only freedom you have is the freedom to waste your own time.
I suppose the genius designer behind this mess figured they were “improving” the game when they created this system that made most of the game space irrelevant, made a lot of the ships pointless, and made sure that every player had the exact same experience with the exact same difficulty. It’s like the mechanics of Freelancer were designed by someone who hates games like Freelancer. I can only hope this person is off somewhere designing linear corridor shooters and will leave future sandbox games alone.
EDIT: It’s been years since I saw the game, and apparently I’ve forgotten some stuff about the leveling.
Anyway. Back to SPAZ.
SPAZ isn’t quite as bad as Freelancer, but progression is still overly restrictive and needlessly lashed to a story that isn’t nearly funny or interesting enough to be at the center of things like this. The best upgrades are the upgrades to your ship size, and those are story driven. The second-best upgrades are unlocking ship designs and subsystems, and those are unlocked by random drops and random shops. This turns out to be fairly grind-y. That “hydra” ship design might look pretty interesting when you first see it, but you’ll need to kill a ton of them before you can make your own Hydra, and by that point the novelty will have worn off.
There’s a skill point system, but you don’t have much freedom in how you spend your points. If the shops are only selling beam weapons, then putting points into missiles is a waste. And you don’t want to spend your points ahead of time, since you don’t want to find the ultimate torpedo launcher at a shop and realize you’ll need to spend the next three levels upgrading that skill before you’re allowed to equip it. So your skill point allocation is going to be reactionary, and trying to min-max will only increase your risk that you won’t have the skills to match the equipment available to you.
I found myself constantly running into arbitrary caps. I’m not allowed to carry more than X minerals. I can’t have more than X crew. I can’t have more than X ships of Y size. And the only way to raise any of those levels are by doing story missions. In SPAZ, you can never have more power than the designer intended. You’re never allowed to get ahead, you’re only allowed to make some blunder that will make you fall behind.
Note that I’m not talking about making the game “easier”. You can turn the game difficulty down if you want, but making the game easy isn’t the same as earning the power to crush your foes. I spent days with the game, and I never once had the feeling that I was empowered or that any of my hard work was making me stronger. I never felt like there was any strategy to spending my skill points.
It’s not a bad game. I liked it a lot more than Freelancer, anyway. But I eventually lost interest when I realized that while I was surrounded by a vast galaxy of systems, I was ultimately stuck in the box the game designer had created for me.
I recommend the game even if you’re like me and you hate the story-bottleneck approach to character progression. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and it’s completely unique.
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