Space Pirate Trainer's beta update turns it into a more strategic VR shoot-'em-up

— 4:06 PM on September 14, 2016

Space Pirate Trainer's early-access release, like many fun games, has a simple premise. Put on the HTC Vive, pick up its controllers, and you're standing in the shoes of a star-blazing outlaw who's perched on a landing pad high above a moody urban landscape. Waves of flying killer droids are coming for you.

All that stands between you and becoming a cloud of space dust are a pair of multi-purpose pistols that double as energy shields. Good luck, and earn as many points as you can by blowing stuff up. Take three hits from the opposing force, though, and you're done for.

When I first picked up Space Pirate Trainer, its potential as a great VR title was immediately evident. The fact that you're on an open platform only gets more fun with a larger play area for the Vive, since that extra space means you have more room to jump, duck, and dodge—and make no mistake, you will be moving around a lot with this title. The twin pistols offer some fun alternate-fire modes that require the player to think about the amount of energy they have on hand instead of holding down the trigger. Each wave of drones represents a real challenge, too: whatever force is sending them against you in Space Pirate Trainer really wants you dead after the first few. I've gotta admit that I eventually got bored of the game, though. Its weapons all felt rather samey after many replays, and I honestly wasn't good enough to make a whole lot of progress past the first few waves of attackers.

These are my guns. There are many like them, but this pair is mine.

Space Pirate Trainer's just-released beta takes that potential and fleshes it out. The most noticeable change is a pair of new weapons that give players fresh tools for dealing with enemy attacks. A shotgun and a remote-detonated grenade launcher give players a couple new ways of dealing with drones at closer ranges and in more formations. Those new weapons require more strategic thinking than the single-shot, automatic laser burst, continuous laser, and charged shot modes of your twin pistols might have in the past, and figuring out the weapon you need in the heat of battle demands quick reflexes, too. Those new challenges give SPT's beta a feeling of enduring freshness that the first Early Access release didn't create.

The fresh thinking in SPT's beta doesn't end with things that go pew-pew, either. Flip a Vive controller over your shoulder and bring it back, and the energy shield from the game's initial release greets you with a new design and a fancy deployment animation that forces you to think ahead a bit. The shield used to come out fully deployed, but the new animation adds a half-second or so where the player remains vulnerable to attacks. If you want to shift from an offensive to defensive approach in the beta, there's a real cost to doing so. Choose carefully.

Those hand-wielded shields aren't purely defensive in the SPT beta, though. Swipe to the right on the Vive trackpad, and the shield turns into a spiky club-lightsaber-tractor-beam fusion that can be used to grab drones at range and bring them in close for death by blunt force.

That tractor beam can also turn the club into a kind of drone-mace, too. Grab a drone with the beam, and you can swing your victim back into the battlefield or use it to deflect incoming fire. This mode of attack doesn't feel particularly precise to me right now, but I get the sense that it might be quite deadly with practice. All the more reason to suit up as a space pirate time and time again.

Blowing up a remote-control grenade while I'm safe and sound behind the shield power-up

Survive a wave of drones in this beta, and the game might reward you with one of a variety of new power-ups. You might get a machine-gun mode for your pistols, a gravity vortex that traps drones in a particular spot for easy dispatching, a shield dome that allows you to blast away with impunity, and homing missiles that do exactly what they say on the tin. These power-ups offer pretty sweet advantages, but there is one minor downside to the weapon-specific power-ups, at least: you'd best be sure that you want that particular upgrade for the ten seconds or so that they last, because there's no switching away once they're in action.

This game still exposes some of the limits of current-gen VR headsets. If an enemy drone gets too far away, for example, it turns into an indistinct blob that's frustratingly difficult to target, since your laser sights are only visible out to a certain distance. Forget reading any scores or other text associated with a drone at long distances, too. Unless you really tighten up the head straps, it's possible to end up with the Vive in a less-than-ideal position on your face, as well, since dropping to the floor and jumping from side to side can cause the Vive's bulk to shift rather easily. These minor issues don't take away from what's otherwise an exhilarating experience, though.

Space Pirate Trainer is $11.24 on Steam right now, and that deal lasts until Thursday at 4 PM Pacific. If you somehow own a Vive and don't already have a copy of this game, it's a no-brainer to pick it up for that price. Few developers have grokked what it means to make a good VR title as well as Space Pirate Trainer's have, and this is one game that really feels like it wouldn't be possible in any other medium. I'm now excited to revisit it every time I strap on the Vive. Even at its $14.99 regular price, Space Pirate Trainer is essential for any Vive owner's library.

The author wrote this review using a copy of Space Pirate Trainer purchased for his personal account on Steam.

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