Get Your Guns Out: 'Space Pirate Trainer' 1.0 Is Here (Hands On)

Update, 10/12/2017, 11:20am PT: I-illisions updated Space Pirate Trainer one more time before the launch, but after we tested the game. Corrections made to reflect changes.

Grab your guns and get ready for battle. This is the moment we’ve been training for—Space Pirate Trainer 1.0 is here!

Space Pirate Trainer holds a special place in our heart. It was one of the first VR FPS game we ever experienced, and to this day it remains our  go-to game when we want to blow off some steam or break a sweat. The gameplay is repetitive, but the difficulty and the leaderboards constantly pull us back for more.

SPT has come a long way since our first experience with the game at Valve’s Steam VR Developer Showcase in January 2016. At the time, there wasn’t much to SPT, but the core gameplay was there. You could equip a variety of weapons in one or both of your hands, you could swap either gun for a shield to protect yourself from incoming projectiles, and the game encouraged you to take advantage of the room-scale tracking space to dodge, duck, and dive you way to victory. Getting a meaningful score in the game required focus, accuracy, agility, and stamina.

Space Pirate Trainer garnered so much attention in the early days of consumer VR that HTC and Valve used it to promote the Vive system and SteamVR platform. In April 2016, when HTC released the Vive, I-illusions released an alpha build of Space Pirate Trainer through Steam’s Early Access program, and it quickly became one of the most popular titles on the platform.

Last September, I-illusions released the Space Pirate Trainer Beta, which completely overhauled the entire experience, and in December the developer brought the game to the Oculus platform with Touch support. The beta version of the game featured new enemies, including a huge triangular Heavy Droid that fires clusters of laser pulses at you; new weapons, including the electrified Voltron baton; and power-ups that could alter your firepower or increase your defenses, which you could use to gain an advantage over your foes.

Today, I-illusions released Space Pirate Trainer 1.0, and the difference between the latest version and the beta is as staggering as the difference between the alpha and the beta. Once again, the developer transformed Space Pirate Trainer into an entirely new game.

So, What’s New?

The core of the game is the same as it has always been. You get two pistols that have a variety of firing options, and you must stand your ground against relentless waves of enemy droids that fly around and shoot at you.

In the beta version of the game, you had six guns to choose from, including the Quark Cannon, Pulse Laser, Shotworks, Railgun, Raygun, and Ion Grenades. You could also reach behind your back to pull out the shield to block incoming fire, or use the Voltron to latch onto enemies and drag them towards you or bat shots and enemies out of the air as they fly past.

In SPT 1.0, you get the same selection of weapons, though with adjusted power rates. I-illusions also added three stations with powerful weapons that you can activate with the Voltron’s lasso beam, which includes a turret station, a giant Raygun, and a station that electrocutes anything that gets near it.

Space Pirate Trainer 1.0 also includes a larger selection of power up modules. The beta release included a domed force field, homing missiles, heat seeking bullets, automatic Quark Cannons, and gravity fields. Version 1.0 includes four new special powers, including a drone companion, Shield Walls, super powered Pulse Lasers, and amped up Rayguns.

New Enemies, Too!

I-illusions didn’t dial up the power of your arsenal to face the same barrage of enemy droids. The developer added the new weapons and power-ups because there’s a whole new crop of droid models to contend with.

The game still includes the small white and red droids, as well as the medium sized white droids that fire clusters of pulse lasers at you and it also still includes the large triangular Heavy Droids. In addition to these four models, you’ll now face droids that launch homing rockets, armored Hex Droids that are vulnerable only when they are about to shoot, and clusters of tiny droids that dive at you when they attack.

There’s A Boss Fight?!?!

The alpha version of Space Pirate Trainer was a great bit of fun, but it didn’t offer much in the way of enemy variety. Each progressive wave would feature a new flight pattern, but the enemies didn’t get harder as you progressed. I-illusions changed that for the beta version, with the inclusion of the heavy droid at level 15 and a fight against two of them at level 25.

The Heavy Droids added a significant challenge to the game, but they pale in comparison to the new challengers you’ll face in SPT1.0. At level 15, you will still encounter a Heavy Droid, but you must kill two Hex Droids at level 12, which are harder to deal with than a single Heavy Droid.

Level 20 is where things start to get difficult. At this stage, the first boss rolls in, and it’s not easy to deal with. Don’t even try to be superman and tough it out. You will need to use the shield if you want any hope for survival. The boss droid fires a giant Raygun blast that you won’t be able to avoid by jumping, ducking, or running. Following the level 20 boss fight, you’ll encounter a handful of somewhat challenging waves of droids, but the real fight begins at level 25 when the mothership rolls in.

The mothership is truly something to behold. It is large and intimidating, and it features several sections that you must dismantle. The mothership fight lasts several waves, and you must fight the regular barrage of enemies while the gigantic machine terrorizes you from a distance. We’ve yet to succeed at taking out the mothership, and the developer told us that it’s not even the hardest fight. Dirk Van Weldon, the founder of I-illusions, said that once you finish the mothership fight, the “real deal” begins. You’ll encounter a wave with eight Hex Droids, and if you have superhuman reflexes, you may get to the next boss fight, which features two of the level 20 bosses at once.

Difficulty Levels

You won’t find a difficulty toggle in the options for Space Pirate Trainer, but there are multiple difficulty levels nonetheless. The beta version of the game included Classic mode and Hardcore mode. In Classic mode, time slows down when enemies fire at you, which gives you a bit of time to react and figure out where shots are coming from. Hardcore mode eschews the slow-motion feature, which means you must be fast on your feet and always on high alert. If your reaction time is poor, you won’t fare well in Hardcore mode.

In Space Pirate Trainer 1.0, you can still choose between Classic (no known as Arcade) and Hardcore mode, but you also get two others. Explorer mode cuts your score in half but allows you to regenerate health between waves, and Old School mode lets you play the 50 waves from the beta (sans boss fights) with the new arsenal at your disposal.

Performance Improvements

We had every intention of providing performance analysis of Space Pirate Trainer 1.0, but alas, that plan came to a crashing halt (literally). I-illusions told us that SPT 1.0 is built on a new version of Core Unity so that it can support the Windows Mixed Reality platform. Unfortunately, the new version of Core Unity appears to be incompatible with Nvidia’s Fcat VR performance analysis tool. When Fcat VR is running, Space Pirate Trainer crashes upon launch. We’ve notified Nvidia of the issue, but the company has not yet suggested a solution.

Though we were unable to record objective performance data, we can make a subjective comment about the performance of the game. And we can unequivocally say that SPT 1.0 runs much better than the beta did. The developer clearly put time into refining the graphics performance of the game. In the beta, it was common to see stuttering after blowing up a large group of droids with Ion Grenades, for example, but that never happened on SPT 1.0.

It’s not a scientific comparison, but we feel confident in saying that SPT 1.0 is optimized well, or at least better than previous versions of the game.

To The Top Of The Leaderboards!

I-illusions gave a select group of journalists and developer friends access to SPT 1.0 a week in advance and set forth a small challenge. “If you've got access to VR, this week will be the week with a very limited leaderboard! I'll have a gift for the top Space Pirate,” read the email from the developer.

Naturally, we took the challenge seriously. With only a handful of people playing this build of the game, we could surely get ourselves to the number one spot. After all, how many other people play Space Pirate Trainer several times a week? We were ready for the challenge—or so we thought.

In the beta version of SPT, we hold a relatively high spot on the leaderboards at somewhere in the top 150 to 200 range. Our highest score ever was just shy of 100,000 points, and on average, we crank out 60k+. Scores like that tend to inflate your ego, but Space Pirate Trainer 1.0 deflated ours quickly. It took us more than an hour of retries to get past the first boss fight. Eventually, we overcame the challenge, but that was a humbling experience.

The new version of SPT forced us to change our playstyle. We never used to use the shield, but that’s not possible anymore. Adopting the shield into our playstyle seems to have improved our overall performance.

Some aspects of SPT 1.0 make the game harder than the beta. However, the scores climb higher in the new release. To achieve a 100,000-point score in the beta required a feat of superhuman agility and focus. Reaching 100,000+ in SPT 1.0 simply required motivation and determination. Perhaps it was the thought of being at the top of the leaderboard that gave us the fire we needed to push just that much harder.

In the end, we were unable to reach the top spot on the leaderboard. We were always a few thousand points behind the top slot. We did, however, manage to occupy the number one position of the Hardcore mode with a scarcely believable 89,100 points. We challenge you to knock us off our throne!

What Does It All Add Up To?

I-illusions clearly put a lot of work into refining the core experience and producing meaningful additions to Space Pirate Trainer. The new power-ups are a welcome feature, and the new enemies make the game even more exciting to play. Space Pirate Trainer 1.0 offers a surprisingly well-balanced experience that is easy to pick up, but exceedingly hard to master. It brings back memories of old-school arcade shoot-em-up games, in which you fight impossibly large foes and every move you make must be calculated and meaningful.

Space Pirate Trainer 1.0 is an excellent game and a ton of fun. If you don’t like wave shooters, you may want to skip this one, but we suggest you give it a try. I-illusions pioneered the VR wave shooter, and we'd say it pretty much nailed the concept.

 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.