Name: Space Pirates and Zombies 2
Developer: MinMax Games
Publisher: MinMax Games
Platform: PC (Steam and GoG)
Release: 7th of November 2017
Acquired: A copy of this game was provided from the publisher for review purposes
Space Pirates and Zombies 2 is the sequel to the 2011 game Space Pirates and Zombies (duh). I did not play the original, but based on the still active reddit community it seems like the game was well liked by its fan-base and has maintained an audience for the six years since its release. Like its predecessor, SPAZ 2 is a survival/strategy game about building spaceships, harvesting resources, fighting other pirates and containing a spreading zombie apocalypse.
The game is available to play in VR if you have a headset, but I cannot speak to the quality of that experience.
As one might expect from a game about pirates and zombies in space, the story of SPAZ 2 is pretty pulpy. I’m going to be using that word a lot so let’s be clear on what I mean. I’m using “pulpy” to refer to the tradition of pulp fiction – books, movies and games with ridiculous premises and over-the-top characters created for the purpose of entertainment. As such, characters are colorful and the dialogue is littered with jokes and coarse humor. Plot-wise, SPAZ 2 is not a great work of literature, but as a backdrop to space battles and zombie-fighting it definitely holds up. The main crew and the ship’s computer is also fully voice-acted which is a solid addition to the game’s story-telling.
In my opinion, SPAZ 2’s greatest strength lies in its emergent stories. The galaxy is filled with other starship captains and their crews and they all want a piece of the pie. Each of them has access to the same toolkit as the player and will use everything in their power to further their own interests. This systemic interaction between actors leads to the best stories of SPAZ 2. Like Tom Cromulent – an ambitious pirate who raided me early on whom I later chased down to duel to the death and eventually got turned into a zombie; or DJ Lick’n’Stick who was my trusty (if absolutely mad) sidekick and wingman for several hours before he too was turned by the zombie tide. At its strongest SPAZ 2 creates stories of revenge, friendship and tragedy through the application of relatively simple systems.
There are definitely some weak points in the integration of story and mechanics. Specifically the game’s relationship with slavery and the value of human lives is strained. A primary resource is called “goons” and is literally sacrificed to fix your ship. You are also encouraged to sell off surplus goons with the line “consider selling human lives in exchange for something of value” which really drives home how little the game thinks of these “goons.” There are also bandits in the game, to serve as mindless cannon fodder in the early game and a non-human threat in the late game. Bandits are described as “potato brained psychos” early on and it is made abundantly clear that their lives are not of value. The inclusion of a class of humans considered so far beneath yourself is very odd especially in a game that literally has zombies – the premier kind of mindless cannon fodder!
Despite its shortcomings though, SPAZ 2 is a genuinely funny pulp story about pirates and zombies in space.
SPAZ 2’s gameplay consists of two main parts: the tactical galaxy map and space battles. On the galaxy map you move around, meet other captain, gather resources and explore space. Then, when a threat emerges, you go into space battles with a minimal loading screen.
On the galaxy map, the primary systems are faction relations, resource management and missions. The world only moves when you do, so you have plenty of time to make careful decision and weigh your options. The main objective of this mode is set by your current missions which give xp and fuel your progress. These missions change over the course of the game to accommodate the story being told and range from “fight a bandit” to “create a faction”. Eventually, the macro-tactical side becomes more important as you work to contain the spread of the zombies through the entire map. The systems that drive your actions on the tactical map are interlocked and make for a lot of great interactions – a feature I think is one of SPAZ 2’s strongest aspects.
When push comes to shove you’re going to have to engage in some all out space battles. These take place in large swatches of space with direct control over your spaceship and its weapon systems. However, the battle itself usually comes down to relatively simple dichotomies: who deals more damage? Whose shields break first? Who brought the most allies?
The depth of the combat systems really lie in another sub-system: shipbuilding. SPAZ 2 allows you to put together your spaceship from components which allows for a wide variety of ships with different properties. Engines lets you boost, cores generally boost your shields, wings increase turn rate and most components also serve as weapon platforms. SPAZ 2 also introduces synergy bonuses which gives you the ability to create truly powerful ships relatively early on. Sadly, I don’t think your own custom ship is as interesting as some of the pre-built ones. Pre-built ships allow for really clear strengths and weaknesses: this ship has powerful long range weapons, but weak shields; this ship has missile defenses on the left side and short range scatterguns on the right. This creates much more interesting battles, where your tactics are clearly defined. You want one side facing the opponent, you want to be at a certain range, you want to focus on one type of attacks etc. On the other hand, custom ships tend to be jacks-of-all-trades. This means you often don’t have clearly defined strengths and weaknesses, but rather a defined power level that you hope is enough to beat your opponent. I was also a bit disappointed by the limitation to two dimensions in fighting. Of course ships are 3-dimensional, but controls are limited to a 2D plane which seems like a shame in these vast spaces.
Overall though, SPAZ 2 provides decent arcade-y space battles and an overworld filled with interlocked systems that result in personal stories.
The controls are generally intuitive and responsive, though the game sometimes struggles to indicate exactly what certain decisions will do. It is for example very difficult, in my experience, to tell which nearby ships will and won’t participate in an engagement. Sometimes even your wingman is of questionable dependence.
The constant shifting between the tactical view – which can be purely moused control – and the combat – which requires WASD and a few other keys – means that if you are a bit lazy (like me) you might be sometimes feel “agh, now I have to sit forward to reach the keyboard again,” but the transition is very smooth.
SPAZ 2 is a pretty stylish game. The space battles are colorful with glowing visual effects, giving it a very arcade-y feel and the tactical map has a clean and readable design. In some of the larger space battles my Geforce GTX 760 struggled a bit and I dropped to 25-30 fps, but this is no hindrance to the game. It’s also probably not noticeable if you have a more powerful computer. Overall, SPAZ 2’s graphics adhere to the themes of the rest of the game: colorful, vibrant and positively pulpy which also means some of the art direction is a bit garish. (Full disclosure though: I am a sucker for the orbiting neutron stars and quasars in the background)
Every time you start a new game of SPAZ 2, the galaxy is different. The basics are still the same, but the factions and captains inhabiting the area are shuffled around and their relations randomized. This means that those emergent stories – my favorite part of the storytelling – can be told in new ways and with new characters. Maybe Tom Cromulent will be a trusted ally this time.
The main plot and progression is mostly the same however, so I probably wouldn’t recommend another run unless you really enjoyed that.
In conclusion, Space Pirates and Zombies 2 to does well to deliver on its promise of emergent stories in a universe filled with wacky characters and fun space combat. With it comes an equally zany plot-line and writing, which is not always as successful. Honestly though, if pirates and zombies battling in space excites you at all, it’s definitely worth a try.
Replay value: 6/10