A Big, Brutal Universe
Time to Finish: 25-40 hrs?
Time I've Played: 12 hrs.
Number of Times Game has Chewed Me Up, Spat Me Out: 5
What I'd Pay: $20
Steam Price (1/29/12): $4 (normally $10)
I've been playing for 12 hours & I'm not even halfway through the game.
That thought kept going through my head as I wrote this review. (Well, that and how am I going to destroy a ship with a half-dozen turret cannons.) I wanted to finish the game first, but I also wanted to finish the review before the weekend sale was over. Satisfying both conditions would require a marathon run today, perhaps an all-nighter, and it would still be iffy. S.P.A.Z. is big.
It's been 12 hours and I haven't even reached the Zombies yet! Or the Mothership upgrades. Or the Huge ships. Or any of the myriad features hinted at past the Level 30 gates. My next objective is at a Lvl.25 system a stone's throw away from my current position. The only problem is, the path to it is blocked by 2 ships: one has a nuke, one has a half-dozen turrets. They've ripped my fleet to shreds to twice already, and I've just spent a half-hour gathering the resources for Round 3. The nimble shielded fighters didn't work. The bristling-with-guns method didn't work. Maybe I should just cloak all my ships and rely on the sneak attack damage to kill it before it can retaliate. There's probably a half-dozen different methods open to me and I think I could nail if I could just find the right configuration. It's been 12 hours and I'm still learning bits & pieces about the game. S.P.A.Z. is complex.
I have fond-but-vague memories of Escape Velocity: Nova, the last 2D open-galaxy space sim. I remember losing your ship, your upgrades, everything if you got destroyed. I also remember it being kind of easy. S.P.A.Z. is much more forgiving: you can rebuild your fleet 2-3 times over, with all their upgrades, and if they're completely wiped out you just restart at the local Mothership. I don't even know if you can lose the game! (Maybe if you fail to protect the Mothership...) It makes up for it by being hard. This game has chewed me up and spat me out 3 times now. "I'm so close to winning this! Build more ships!" Next thing I know, I'm out of resources. The developers set up forgiving losses so they could toss you into knockdown, dragout fights against even forces. I almost feel sorry for the number of Goons I've tossed into battle. S.P.A.Z. is brutal.
S.P.A.Z. is a top-down open-galaxy space sim where you plot a course for the Mothership to the center of a procedurally-generated galaxy. (The default galaxy size is 250 systems.) Along the way, you complete missions, make (or break) alliances, buy upgrade blueprints, reverse-engineer ships by sorting through the wreckage of said ships, and gather research to upgrade your systems. Each system has its own Level, faction standings, and tech focus. You could go from a system focused on anti-shield beam weapons where the local UTA military likes you (letting you bribe your way through the Warpgates once you've killed enough "Civilian" pirates with your armored ships) to a system where the Civilians like you (letting you trade workers for research) that focuses on anti-armor cannons (and suddenly your armored ships are getting ripped apart; back to the refitting board).
The potential upgrades are procedurally-generated as well, so your tech spec is often influenced by what cool new piece of gear you get first. (I got a high-level cloaking device early on in my game; I immediately dumped 15 points into Cloaking tech just to use it.) There's 30 hull designs in 6 size classes, each with their own strengths and mount types, and each mount can hold 2-3 different weapon types: Beam or Cannon, Tractor Beam or Cloak Detector, Missiles or Torpedoes, Turrets or Bombs. Each of those weapon types has 4 different upgrades that usually trade energy consumption for sheer power (although some of them have a few unique quirks).
And once you've outfitted your entire fleet, they go into battle simultaneously. You control 1 ship (although you can swap which ship you control at any time), while the rest are controlled by AI. The AI is decent, mainly because they also give you a Tactics screen where you can set specific behaviors for the ships or even order them to go to different locations on the map. If they get destroyed, you can rebuild them mid-battle (unless the enemy destroys your Warp Beacon), but it takes longer (and costs more) then just getting them repaired, but they're vulnerable while they warp off for repairs so you have to cover for them as they disengage and- well, I said S.P.A.Z. was complex.
It's not perfect. The AI is maddening at times, there's a few things they don't explain about the finer workings of the systems (Why would I ever want to jettison armor? Oh wait, would the extra mass slows me down during a retreat?), and the missions begin to look alike once you've visited about the 30th star system. But this is an enormous amount of content & strategy (with a touch of dark humor) for $10. I'm almost tempted not to put up this review until the sale's over; paying just $4 for this much feels criminal. And if their "Coming Soon" news ticker is any indication, they're going to add more later...