By Quintin Smith on May 27th, 2011 at 5:06 pm.
I’m happy to say that space shooter S.P.A.Z. (the official abbreviation, not mine) encourages the oldest form of games journalism procrastination. I meant to start writing this three hours ago, but instead chose refresh myself and play the game for “just another few minutes”. If you’re a fan of the space shooter genre (top-down, high-tension battles with plenty of RPG persistency), there’s your capsule review. The game’s currently in a beta that you can access just by pre-ordering for £9, a la Minecraft. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t write a little more, because it wasn’t guilt that finally stopped me playing. It was the latest in a long series of ragequits.
While this is a good game and well worth your attention (and when it emerges from the beta, it might even be a great one), oh my Lord is it irritating. You know the phrase one step forward, two steps back? Well, progressing unsteadily through S.P.A.Z.’s unstable star systems is kind of like trying to tapdance up a staircase.
Here’s how S.P.A.Z. works: Your NPC mothership has a small number of hangar slots. Each of these hanger slots can support a ship, one of which you’ll be taking direct control of and controlling with the mouse, WSAD and a couple of hotkeys, while the others will support you via AI (often showing more competency than your feeble fingers will manage) and even follow orders you issue from a tactical screen. Within this framework you attempt missions, take on the government emplacements that block jumpgates and generally do anything and everything you can to scrape together more advanced tech, and minerals and crewmembers (who are plucked from the vaccuum of space after a battle and subsequently shot out of your airlock if they refuse to cooperate).
At the early stage of the game that I’m still at after some six hours, combat is a slick, tense affair that sees ships pinwheeling around one another at the very edge of control. On the one hand, fights seem to end a touch too quickly, but the game also often manages a perfect state of balance wherein you’re watching two panicked ships racing to wreck one another with absolutely everything hanging in the balance. It’s plenty fun, but I’m looking forward to the larger-scale, slower, more nuanced combat that I can see on the horizon when I finally get access to (and start fighting) bigger ships with more equipment slots.
I really am trying to get there, but that’s trickier than just running a series of missions. Rather than concerning itself with modern conceits like steady player progression, S.P.A.Z. is perfectly happy to let you wander into fights where your ships will dash themselves against superior forces, losing you a tidy stack of minerals and a eye-watering number of crew in far less time than it takes for your ships to make an emergency jump out.
Seeing as crew determine the effectiveness of your ships to quite a serious extent, failing a mission doesn’t just mean you’ve lost resources. It also means you’d probably be better off going and doing some missions that are a couple of rungs back down the ladder.
Developers Minmax say they made S.P.A.Z. because nobody was making the kinds of game they wanted to play anymore, which is obviously admirable. I think a lot of modern PC gamers would cheer at any dev trying to breathe life into the frozen body of the space shooter genre, which has been hurtling through the void of our collective memories for the better part of a decade.
What’s important to understand, though, is that S.P.A.Z. isn’t simply resuscitating a genre. It’s also following quite an old-fashioned and miserly approach to learning curves and content. You can sink a good two hours into S.P.A.Z. and have shit all to show for it except a grudge against any number of identikit “Civilian” and military NPC factions. Ordinarily an indie action RPG that takes twenty five hours to complete might just be seen as value for money. Here, there isn’t quite enough variety, and the game can often seen slow.
Which isn’t to say the entire game is spent rubbing your face against a wall. You’ll have good hours too- the thrill of overcoming a terrifyingly large force by the skin of your teeth and then hoovering up all the minerals, “data” (exp), crewmembers and ship schematics is hugely rewarding, though even here there’s a catch. All of this loot vanishes after about sixty seconds, meaning you’ll have plenty of occasions where you’ll race towards a beautiful cache of space-debry only for all of it, even the experience points, to quite literally explode in your face. Seeing as the combat’s a hectic, wild thing that you won’t be getting better at, when this happens you’ll have genuinely wasted your time. I don’t necessarily have anything against unfair games, but cruelty and tedium are two very different things and S.P.A.Z. offers them both.
Ack, look at all that whinging! This is what happens when you write about a game directly following a ragequit. Don’t take my negativity too seriously. If you’re in the market for a game like this, have a play of the demo yourself. There really is a great deal here to like.