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Double Spaced – First impressions on Space Pirates And Zombies + Starfarer [Preview]

You wait 8 years (maybe 7 – depending on whether you’re counting from 2003′s Starscape or 2004′s Space Rangers 2) for a new 2D space-combat themed action/strategy/RPG hybrid, and two come along at once! Typical, eh? As of today, the space-war hungry gaming public can put money down and try out both Minmax’s Space Pirates And Zombies and Fractal Softworks’ Starfarer, two shockingly similar games which have developed in parallel with each other, although each looks to scratch its own specific itch.

First out the gate is Starfarer, which has been available in public alpha form for almost two weeks. $10 (or regional equivalent) gets you a full preorder on the game, and immediate access to the current playable build, which, while lacking the campaign mode (the main course – we’ll be exploring that hopefully in an interview with the creator at a later date), contains a tutorial, six playable missions and access to the mission scripting language, should you wish to create your own space battles to play or share.

Starfarer seems to lean towards heavyweight, capital ship combat quite reminiscent of the Freespace series. Broadside particle cannon batteries boiling off chunks of hull, bomber wings launching torpedo raids from their carriers, rippling flak fire warding off missiles and fighters alike, and a lot of gritty space combat bombast. You alternate between directly controlling your flagship with mouse and keyboard, and popping open the time-frozen tactical map to issue basic orders to your fleet such as ‘capture this navigation buoy’ or ‘destroy that bomber wing’. Neither side has particularly impressive depth at the moment, but it is loud, satisfying and lovely to look at, and sneaks in some interesting gameplay mechanics, such as shields and energy weapons being able to overload a ships reactor if overused in conjunction.

Right now, the glue that’ll hold the whole experience together and give meaning to these spectacular-but-accessible battles is missing. It sounds like the game is going to have a freeform grand campaign eventually, letting you build up a fleet, refit hulls and take on missions for various factions in full strategy/RPG style, but the game is clearly unfinished at this point. Still, it’s fun as-is, and there’s a lot of potential here to become an absolute gem of a game. With a final price-tag set at $20, it might well be worth putting down $10 to fund further development and show your support for chunky, noisy starship combat.

In the other corner, we have the comically titled Space Pirates And Zombies. Released today via (now Gamestop-owned) Impulse, with more retail options to follow. For $15 (again, final price set at $20) you can get access to the public beta version, which is content-complete but still potentially buggy and unbalanced. Right off the bat, this one makes itself known as the lighter, brighter more arcadey of the two spaceborne titans. While having almost identical shooter/tactics layouts (right down to shockingly similar control layouts), SPAZ immediately proves itself to be a faster and potentially more casual experience, dropping you straight into the pilots seat of a fighter ship and sending you off on a series of RPG-esque quests to gather resources, fight enemies and find support to help rebuild a beleaguered factory-mothership so that you can begin your grand mission of leaving Earth on a piratical journey to the galactic core.

SPAZ is definitely more of an action-RPG than the more strategy-oriented Starfarer. In each star system, you do simple combat-oriented quests for the various factions for money and glory (there are three resources – money, crew and XP), buy new ship components at town stations, level up through combat (and spend your stat points on increasing your tech levels with regards to various ship elements) and toughen up your rag-tag pirating party in order to make the big push through a heavily defended warp gate and into the next star system. The campaign map is dynamic and randomized, with the universe containing anywhere from 100 to 300 star systems based on your choice of game length.

The ‘Zombies’ part of the title refers to a grand plague sweeping across the universe. I’ve not reached that point yet, but apparently there’s a creeping infestation of biomechanical, self-replicating monster ships that will consume everything (including your ships, turning them against you) and conquer entire star systems. Some screenshots show vast regions of the galactic map glowing red, infested with zombie ships. Presumably, you’ve got to find some way of turning the tide or finding a cure to this particular problem. I hope to give you a full review before too long, but the developers have estimated that a single campaign playthrough will take an impressive 25 hours or so at the default universe size, so it might be a while until I’ve really dug deep enough to give a full opinion.

So far though? It’s a lot of fun. There’s a constant drip-feed of new technology, level-ups, rewards and progression, keeping you in that ideal action-RPG sweet spot. I’ve only seen up to Medium size ships, but things look like they escalate towards proper capital-ship combat over time. The combat engine is definitely lighter and simpler than Starfarer. It’s closer to Starscape than anything, with early-game combat (I’d imagine things change later) often involving throwing waves of smaller craft at the enemy, with your mothership automatically spending resources to rebuild, sending out reinforcements to fill empty ship slots as you lose craft.

Right now, neither game is officially complete, although SPAZ is much closer to the finishing line than Starfarer at the moment, with a price that reflects this. Together, the two will set you back a wallet-friendly $25 if you want to preorder the pair and get access to all that’s playable now. Given how much fun I’ve had with these two in just a couple of hours each, it’s an easy recommendation to make if you’re looking for an excuse to fly around space and shoot holes in stuff with lasers.

Stay tuned for more info on these two games, including a full review of Space Pirates And Zombies, and a more in-depth preview/developer interview for Starfarer.