The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve always been enthralled by video games, and I spent the better part of my childhood in arcades lining up quarters on the glass screens of shooters like Space Invaders, Galaga and Phoenix to mark my place in line. Some 30 years later, wave shooters are one of the most prevalent VR game genres. Now one of the earliest and most recognized – Space Pirate Trainer (SPT) – has just made its debut as a full-release game after being in early access for well over a year.
At its heart, SPT is very similar to the aforementioned arcade games: fast, frantic and frenetic. The swarm-like, increasingly difficult waves of enemies remind me of a virtual reality Geometry Wars, but with distinct levels and populated with droids and drones instead of shapes.
The concept is simple: grab a gun (or shield, but more on that later) in each hand and blast as many droids as you can out of the air as fast as possible. Your pistols have a variety of fire modes – single-shot, pulse, beam, scattershot, rail, grenades and so on – that can be switched on the fly. Reach over your shoulder and you can swap out your gun for the most interesting – and in my opinion the most challenging yet also most fulfilling – weapons in Space Pirate Trainer: the volton, an energized baton that can transform into a shield, a melee weapon, a lasso and a mobile battery.
In shield mode, the volton will deflect incoming projectiles, and if you get lucky you might just strike a few drones on the return trip. You only get hit if a laser tags you directly where the sensors detect your HMD (although that didn’t stop me from spinning and worming my arms around incoming fire), and while you can just hold the shield up over your face in the early stages making it an easy-yet-blurry cakewalk, the powered buckler is relatively small, so you have to keep an eye out in later levels as projectiles will be coming in quickly and often from 180-degrees and sometimes from above. You can emit a larger force field which will float in front of you and divert approaching lasers , but it’s a quick burst and takes a while to replenish, so you’ll have to be efficient when you use it.
Not only can you pull in droids with the energy lasso and slam them to the ground or bash them with your shield, you can also use the volton to power various environmental weapon placements like a tesla coil and large laser turret that is absolutely devastating to large groups of enemies. Like I said, it’s one of the most interesting, creative and unique weapons in a game that otherwise features pretty standard sci-fi shooter variants.
There are also various power-ups you can activate through rapid combo kills such as hexagonal shield walls, quickfire super lasers and even your own helper drone that will float over you and take out incoming droids. There are also a variety of cosmetic weapon and environment skins you can unlock over time, but they don’t change the look that much, and you still feel like you’re in the same space port where you began.
When a shot comes close to hitting you, slow motion kicks in. Space Pirate Trainer features one of the best representations of Matrix or Max Payne-style bullet time I’ve experienced in VR, and I found myself staring right at an incoming laser pulse just before contorting my spine to gracefully spin out of the way of impending disaster. It all feels very fluid, and it made me feel like a superhero dancing my way through deadly raindrops.
Enemy droids range from tiny swarmers, darting laser hurlers, beam-shooting snipers and heavy rocket-firing menaces. Like any good arcade shooter, there are a few mini-bosses and even a huge motherbot thrown in for good measure. Overall though, the designs aren’t that varied, different or overly interesting. The real focus here is on the action, not the diversity.
Given the chaotic visuals in SPT with vast numbers of swarming, undulating drones on some levels, I appreciated the audible cues the droids made when they were about to fire. Once I got accustom to it, I quickly spun my head around to catch a glimpse of incoming fire. And the upbeat EDM soundtrack is a perfect complement to the futuristic, frantic action.
Overall, Space Pirate Trainer is a lot of fun and addictive, and features great mechanics, but it’s also a bit vanilla and predictable. It’s done well, but with myriad VR wave shooters to choose from now, it doesn’t stand out as novel or overly exciting. What it is, though, is a solid, energetic VR wave shooter that continued to challenge me and made me come back to try and get my initials emblazoned on the various leaderboards. Just like my old arcade days, I found myself saying “Let me try just one more time to get my initials on the board.”
Space Pirate Trainer finally released on PSVR in late November, 2018 after hitting PC VR headsets for the first time over two years ago. In terms of content the PSVR version appears to be identical and the developers did a great job of porting over the entire experience. Since the PSVR uses just one single front-facing camera, the ideal gameplay experience is to always face forward, which fits Space Pirate Trainer very well. The PS Move controllers work great for a simple game like this and I never noticed any controller tracking issues. Since I have a background of playing the game on Rift and Vive, I wanted to side step and duck and move around a lot more than the PSVR tracking allowed. The camera can only see a cone in front of itself and if I ducked too low to dodge or sidestepped too far it couldn’t see me anymore. Once I got used to that limitation, it wasn’t much of an issue. The end result is a game that feels true to its PC VR roots in spite of the limiting tracking space afforded on Sony’s headset. Still highly recommended, but at this stage of the industry it’s a hard sell over other more robust and fully-featured shooters. (PSVR verdict written by Games Editor David Jagneaux.)