SPAZing-out on SPAZABH

Alright, hey, hello! So, today, we’re going to be talking about Space Pirates and Zombies and Bounty Hunters (Basically mercenaries). I picked it up because the recent pop-culture obsession with zombies has afforded me the excuse to include any number of unrelated titles in my blog. Ultimately, I’m looking for good horror games to write about, but it’s not in the cards at the moment. Perhaps, I’ll have to step back in time and review some older games. SPAZ (or SPAZAB) came out in 2011, so we’re not that up-to-date. Oops. Oh well.

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SPAZ is a game that the creators put together because it was the type of game they wanted to play, as the intro screen is pleased to tell you every time you start it up. I have to admit that I haven’t played many games like it recently. The story is interesting to a point and the world it takes place in is pretty well fleshed-out. Suffice it to say, you’re on the edge of the galaxy and you want to be in the middle of it, because that’s where all the money is. The various star systems you visit are connected by warp-gates, which are guarded by the local UTA authorities. So far, so standard. However, the entire known universe has fallen due to a civil war of sorts over the frankly abundant resource pockets that dot the systems, so all the stars are disconnected. The only connected authority is the mercenary faction, whose presence can be felt almost everywhere in the entire… everywhere. It makes you wonder why they haven’t just taken everything over. Maybe it’s an allegory for capitalism, and they just don’t want to have to deal with all the administration bullshit. Each star is divided between the local UTA forces and the civilian rebels. Every star. To the point where it gets almost unbelievable, but we’re flying around in space fighting zombies, so who’s to say what’s believable any more. That’s the story, for the most part. The main characters are pretty likeable and, to be honest, they’re the only things that are going to pull you through past the five-hour mark. With that in mind, let’s move on to the rest of SPAZ.

It’s full of good ideas, but, despite pumping over 17 hours into the games, I don’t feel like it executes well on any of them. The story, for instance, is communicated almost entirely through dialogue and the odd thematic combat sequence. The dialogue itself only really serves to describe the reasons for the current fight OR send you on a galactic-scale fetch quest. Whee.

On the surface, it’s a top-down flight-combat, fleet-control game, but, once you peel all the layers away, it becomes clear that SPAZ is a resource management game. All of your missions and scenarios give you some combination of rez (the game’s currency), goons (the people you need to fly your ships), data (essentially exp for levelling systems) and reputation. Reputation is confined to a specific star-system, (unless we’re talking about the merc faction) and really only affects who will sell you what parts and what missions are available at a given star, so there’s no real weight to blowing up an entire civilian space station. Missions change over time in a star system. They’ll only be available for a certain number of “jumps,” then they’ll disappear. However, most systems only have 4 or 5 available mission-planets at most and most missions are available for around 7 jumps, so there aren’t any difficult decisions to make. Most of the time, factions will only provide you with missions if you haven’t been shooting them up lately, but, at the same time, that means that if you want to increase your reputation with them, then you’ll have to either start shooting at the other faction for a while or fly into their home base and hand over some goons or money. Of course, if you want to shoot at another faction, then you can’t just get your “fleet” to jump them. You have to use the one ship that you can control at a time to whittle down the shield of an allied vessel. There’s no ambush command. Even if you select and direct your entire fleet to attack, they’ll just sort of waltz with it until you’ve destroyed enough of its shield to show that you’re really serious. This can take up to a minute depending on shield strength, which really makes you wonder what they thought was going on during that time.

Though, even for a resource management game, there’s really nothing at stake. Goons and rez are easy to acquire. You just have to do a few missions and you’re golden. It doesn’t even cost rez to make jumps. Hell, you actually get rez and goons from making jumps. I’m sure this was designed to make it so that you’re never just stuck anywhere, but that also takes away the only conceivable use for actual mining (driving over space rocks in your buggy and getting a bit of rez), because mining is so laughably inefficient that it’s not worth the time. If you really want to make rez, then the best way is to do challenges for the mercs.

After playing through the game, it became clearer and clearer that the mercs were just tacked on, if their shoe-horning onto the title-screen didn’t already make that obvious. The game seems to want you to explore the galaxy, but if you destroy ships or do missions within a sector near a merc planet, then you’ll gain bounty. So, this adds a clock to every action you take. That, or you can go back to a mercenary planet and play their little combat-challenge mini-games.  These provide you with rez and rezpect, which cancels out bounty. However, for me, a big portion of the urge to explore was driven by the idea of finding new planets with new tech to buy or absorb through destroying it (You reverse-engineer spaceship designs by destroying them and collecting their black boxes). The merc mini-games kind of destroyed that aspect of the game for me. I mean, why would I bother testing out new ship designs or feel any sense of risk if I can just play the mini-game for free over and over again and make money at the same time? I think these challenges were added in to give you an easy way to make money and reduce bounty, as well as let you try out ship designs and tactics, but I lost too much of the potential of the game through them. However, the end of each challenge circuit gives you a special crew member.

Special crew members provide you with bonuses when they’re active on your crew. They also level up as your gain data while using them. Pretty straight-forward levelling system that nets you useful bonuses. However, you can only use a couple of them at a time and their bonuses are huge. I feel like more crew members with smaller bonuses would have provided more flexibility and customization. Also, how on earth is one crew member making that big a difference? Aside from the fighters, you main ship is bloody huge!

Ship on Ship Action

Ostensibly, the ships themselves provide plenty of opportunities for customization. There a many different types of weapons that play around with the mechanics the games uses quite effectively. There are scanners that you can mount on your ship that let you see the many cloaked units you’ll encounter. Otherwise, you have to find cloaked units by using a variant warmer-colder and spinning around in space shooting lasers everywhere. There are also tractor beams for picking stuff up more easily (a blessing, because the ships control like butter on a theoretical ice frying pan) and mods that buff other portions of your ship. However, you spend so much of the game out-numbered and out-gunned that you need almost every available port bristling with weapons to take out your enemies before they destroy you. At worst, it’s the illusion of choice. At best, it’s a mechanic that only becomes useful once your whole fleet is kitted out with enough large-sized vessels to accidentally have a port free.

Speaking of horrible controls, the game-play near the beginning of the game is a lot of fun. The smaller ships are fast and maneuverable and the enemies are, as well, so it’s a seek and destroy sort of game. However (and I’m saying that a lot today), the larger ships control like something you peeled off the bottom of a jet-engine that recently crashed at a junior go-kart derby. This makes chasing down the little buggers, which still get thrown at you late-game, by the way, all the more frustrating. The commands you can give to your wing-men are varied and sometimes clever. You can order them to eject their hulls so that they can get a boost of speed to escape, but you’re missing a few really crucial commands for the late-game. One of those, as I mentioned earlier, is the attack-I-don’t-care-if-they-like-us command. The ability to set patrol routes wouldn’t go amiss, either. The one that really irks me, though, is the inability to tell them to stay still and fire in one direction. Isn’t that a staple of micro-management games?

The inability to give a “hold” command doesn’t sound too important, until you consider the later enemies. One time, I was fighting a giant space station that had all three of my ships outclassed in terms or defense and fire-power. It literally regenerated health faster than I could damage it. So, I destroyed its escort, warped back to base and rolled out Base-Crackers. They had as many guns and output-mods as I could put on a ship without sacrificing its ability to hold people. The only challenge at this point was to sit out of range of the station’s guns and chip away at its health. My guns out-ranged theirs, but I needed them all focus-firing in order to make it take damage that didn’t heal instantly. My pilots must have been depressed because of all the bleak, empty space, however, because they all flew within the reach of the station’s weapons to take shots at it. So, I backed them up, one at a time, and went back to my ship. They just kept flying right in to get fried. There wasn’t much I could do, except cycle through them one at a time in the most aggravating, tiresome way possible. Finally, it died and took my ships with it, because they wouldn’t move out of the blast-wave and refused to take my commands as anything but suggestions. Oh well, I managed to save the ship I was controlling directly, any ways.

Penetrate

The galaxy you play in is pretty disorganized. It’s randomly generated, after all. That means that if you want to get all of the available ship upgrades, then you’ve got to fight your way through the lower-level areas that spawn all around the edge of the galaxy as potential starting-areas. Unfortunately, this also raises your bounty level, so you’ve got to either do challenges or bribe the mercs. Either way, you’re spending time freeing up the ability to explore. It’s like a pro-active Facebook energy system with a nifty wrapper. When you find a system with an upgrade you want, you’ve got to raise your reputation with the faction that controls it in that star system by doing missions for them or giving them goons. Giving away too many goons means you’ll have to do missions to get more, so you’re doing missions either way. If there aren’t any available missions, you can try the non-faction missions, which usually mean fighting that faction any ways, or faff about until the requisite number of jump-cycles has passed. Then, you’ll need money, but the lower-level areas aren’t going to furnish you with enough cash to go about your daily business once you’re at the point where you’ve broken the tech-level-barrier to the other lower-level sections, so you’ll have to go back and do high-level missions or more merc levels. Whee.

Do you see what I mean by good ideas poorly executed? Every portion of the game seems to get into the way of every other portion. The core game play is fun, even if the AI is predictable and lifeless. The music and voice transmissions that add life and character to the environment get repeated so many times that you want to find and blow up the transmitter. The missions quickly get repetitive, except when you run into the odd one that’s nail-snappingly difficult. If this game was shorter, it would be a lot more fun, but the massive randomly-generated galaxy demands exploration and time. Like I said, I poured 17 hours into the game. The first 5 hours, I thoroughly enjoyed. The next 5 gave me pause as I have all the ship designs ruined for me by merc missions and I got the haunting realization that earning rezpect was going to become a staple of game play. The last 5 hours were somewhat enlivened by the introduction of the zombies, FINALLY. I wish they had shown up earlier; it wasn’t going to take that long for me to grasp how to play the bloody game. They bring their own infection mechanic with them and make the marine ship-to-ship combat more interesting, but I was very low on interest by that point. The last two hours were a refresher for this review.

This game is cheap and it has good ideas. If you’re not too interested in finishing it, you might enjoy just tooling around the galaxy and exploring. Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the first five hours and that’s decent value for your money. Maybe you’ll even enjoy the things that I hated. Hell, I’m sure that a different play-style might make the controls and AI mechanics more serviceable. It’s not done, either. They’re still up-dating it. It did get released without the Bounty Hunters, after all. If an edition that major made it onto the up-date list, then maybe they’ll fix some of the problems I had here. They’ve really got to sit back and think about how all of their mechanics are interacting, though, because it’s a right mess in some areas. Also, record more audio tracks. Please…

-Transmission terminated under the authority of the UTA-

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