'Space Pirate Trainer' Beta: Showered In Sparks, Mesmerized By Explosions, Loaded With Weapons

The Space Pirate Trainer beta is more than just an update; it’s a transformation that produces an entirely new game, and it’s going to get you moving. Get ready to sweat!

The first time that I tried I-Illusion’s virtual reality gallery shooter, Space Pirate Trainer, it was part of Valve’s Steam VR Developer Showcase. At the time, SPT had been in development for only a few short months. The gameplay was exciting, and it was the first VR game that ever got me moving enough to make me start sweating. The experience was memorable, but the game still needed a lot of work. 

When the HTC Vive came to market in April, I-illusions launched an alpha version of SPT through Steam’s Early Access program. The alpha has enjoyed overwhelmingly positive response from the Steam Community over the last few months. Over the summer, I-Illusions spent its time refining SPT’s mechanics, graphics, weaponry, and performance. The result is an altogether new game. If you liked the game before, you’re going to love it now. If you didn’t like it before, it might be worth another look.

Arcade Gaming With A Modern Twist

I-illusions always intended for SPT to embody the spirit of classic arcade shooters, such as Asteroids or Space Invaders, for the VR generation. This game doesn’t have a deep back story, it doesn’t have dozens of levels to unlock, and you’ll never reach a fabled end boss. It does offer endless waves of increasing numbers of enemies for you to blow to oblivion, though. This is not to mention the challenge and glory of getting your name to the top of the global leaderboards. You’ll need a steady hand, reflexes as sharp as a tack, and plenty of stamina to be the best of the best.

Options Galore

Before you start playing SPT, it’s a good idea to take a look at the game options. The game features a soundtrack, but it gets repetitive. If you would rather listen to your own tunes from a streaming service (or nothing at all), you can switch the in-game music off. SPT includes some basic graphics settings that let you adjust the quality from Good to Better. You can also toggle fog effects, but at the expense of GPU performance.

If you’re rocking something powerful like a GTX 1080, you can even choose to adjust the antialiasing and supersampling rates to improve the image quality. The options menu also includes a slider to adjust the barrel angle, a choice between red and green laser sights, the choice between reflex and three-dot sights, and the ability to require the grip buttons be pressed to pull out your shield. You can even opt to disable power-ups, but why would want to do that is beyond us.

Party Mode is a new option that I-illusions added to the beta. When Party Mode is enabled, you can dictate the number of credits a player gets and specify the maximum play time, or both. It also gives you a button to clear the party high score table so you can start with a clean slate every time.

Training Before Training

SPT is an action-packed game. It starts off slow, but it quickly escalates into a demanding experience. The alpha release of the game spit you right into the action without any explanation or tutorial, but the for the beta release, I-illusions made sure to include some guidance for newcomers. The tutorial section requires you to complete a few simple tasks that will help you familiarize with the controls and mechanics. You’ll learn how to dodge incoming fire; swap your guns for the shields found on your back and block a few shots; cycle through your available weapons; and shoot your first enemy droid.

The tutorial doesn’t tell you to do this, but I would suggest taking a moment to get accustomed to the selection of weaponry that I-illusions provides for you. Each gun has distinct advantages and disadvantages, and it's best to find out which ones play to your strengths before you jump right into the fight.

The Arsenal Of A Space Pirate

Your firearm options include the semi-automatic Quarkcannon pistol, which features a laser sight to help you aim. The fact that you have to pull the trigger every time is the biggest disadvantage of the Quarkcannon.

The Pulse Laser is an automatic weapon, so it doesn’t have a trigger problem. This gun fires short laser beams in rapid succession, which can be helpful if you don’t have pinpoint accuracy. You can use the trail of projectiles to judge the adjustments that you have to make to your aim in order to hit your target. The fire rate of the Pulse Laser drops as you fire, so it’s best to use it in short bursts. You can hold the trigger down forever, but that's not as effective.

If shotguns are more your style, you’ll want to try out Shotworks, which is a new addition. This handheld rapid-fire shotgun is effective at taking out nearby enemies, but don’t expect it to clear the long distance targets. You’ll also want something a little stronger to take out the larger droids.

The Railgun is one of the favorites from the original release of SPT. This gun is strictly for the best marksmen, though, as it requires a steady hand and precision aim even to fire the shot. If you manage to lock onto your target, it’s a single shot kill for most of the droids. A skilled shooter can pop off a screen full of enemies in a matter of seconds.

The Raygun is another example of a weapon the requires steady aim. This gun fires a rigid beam of electricity at your targets, but it doesn’t do a lot of damage. You can double up the beam with your second gun for a stronger attack, but the key is to keep the beam locked on your foe for as long as possible.

If chaos is your thing, look no further than the Ion Grenade Launcher. Pull the trigger once to lob a grenade into the sky. Pull it again when you want the grenade to go boom! The grenades are effective at clearing clusters of smaller droids at once, but they aren’t great against the larger droids. Nothing rivals the Ion Grenade Launcher for the biggest explosions, though.

In addition to the firepower, space pirate trainees get equipped with shields that can block incoming fire and knock nearby enemies back with a shockwave. The shield has been part of the game since the beginning, but now you have a melee option, too. The Volton, another new addition to the game, is an electrified baton that allows you to smack droids out of the air like they’re baseballs. The Volton boasts a function called plasma link mode that latches onto a targeted droid and allows you to whip them around as if they were on the end of a rope. You can use this feature to put droids in the line of friendly fire, or draw them in for an easier kill with your gun.

Wave After Wave After Wave

The first wave of enemies you get in SPT is somewhat of a joke. There is but a single droid, and it won’t fire on you until you fire on it. In the second wave, though, the droids begin to show aggression. As the waves progress, you will be bombarded with more and more droids at a time. By the time you hit wave 10, there are 13 enemies on the screen in front of you. The droids make noise when they are about to fire, so if you pay attention to the sounds, you’ll know where the most imminent danger is coming from. Time also slows down when shots are coming your way, so you can evoke Neo from The Matrix while you play.

For every kill you make, you earn points, and you get combos by hitting additional droids within one second of making the prior kill. The more kills you can chain together, the higher your score for the wave will be. You also get bonus points for clearing the stage quickly. If you pick the right weapon for the wave, you'll reap the rewards.

It takes a modicum of skill to reach level 10, but the real challenge starts at level 15 when the Heavy Droid shows itself for the first time. These giant, triangle-shaped droids fire scattered clusters of Pulse Lasers at you. If you don’t have a shield up, it's hard to avoid the projectiles. Things only get harder from here. Once you reach Wave 20, you’ll be facing two Heavy Droids at the same time.

Feel The Power

Fortunately, SPT features a selection of powerups to help level the playing field. Powerup boxes drop from slain droids from time to time. Just shoot the boxes to activate the upgrade, which will last a finite amount of time.

Upgrades include machine gun fire, which can rapidly tear through a group of droids; the gravity field, which sucks your targets to a localized point in the sky; homing bullets, which can be rapidly scattered to enemies in all directions; a shield dome that covers you temporarily and protects you from incoming projectiles from all directions; and missiles, which are fired automatically from a turret overhead.

You will unlock the powerups frequently, and they can be stacked on top of each other. If you already have a shield up, that won’t prevent you from activating a gravity field and machine guns at the same time. You can also double down on any one type of powerup to extend its activation time.

Who Needs Slo-Mo?

If you feel like the game is getting too easy, you might want to try your luck on hardcore mode. In this variation of the game, incoming fire doesn’t slow time down. You need to have lightning quick reflexes and be diligent about paying attention to the audible cues that notify you of the incoming barrage. I wouldn’t recommend hopping into hardcore mode for your first kick at the can, but it adds a new level of intensity to the game for veterans. If you’re looking for a workout while you play VR games, SPT on hardcore mode is one of your best choices.

Global Domination

SPT is a single player game. It doesn’t offer co-operative play, and frankly its whole concept doesn’t lend itself well to live competitive multiplayer. That’s not to say that SPT isn’t a competitive game, though—it absolutely is.

The alpha version of the game included a local leaderboard to keep track of your own personal best scores, as well as a global leaderboard. The table can be sorted by all-time score, weekly best, and friends. I-illusions expanded the leaderboards in the beta to include categories for best scores from each gun and a list of the best hardcore mode scores. The game ranks your score based on the primary weapon that you relied on for the round. The global mixed leaderboards comprise the top scores for each category, including hardcore mode.

A Good Game Gets Better

Space Pirate Trainer started its Early Access life as a good game. Critics and customers gave it high praise in the early days, and the improvements and additions that I-illusions added to the beta make it even better. If you’ve been on the fence about picking this game up, now’s a great time to do it. I-illusions is offering a 25% discount on SPT in celebration of the beta launch.

 Kevin Carbotte is a contributing writer for Tom's Hardware who primarily covers VR and AR hardware. He has been writing for us for more than four years.