Space! Pirates! Training! What could be more fun than that? Well, Space Pirate Trainer, but of course.
We're not really sure where the pirates come into the equation, though. But the lack of swashbuckling, pieces o' eight, barrels of grog and peg legs doesn't really matter when things kick off. Because Space Pirate Trainer is an exhilarating virtual reality space-based shooter.
A VR experience that's not for the slow-footed
The game's premise is simple enough: you're on a platform somewhere in the cosmos, with two pistols and waves of angry flying droids to shoot down before they kill you.
The in-game design is excellent, with a score counter near your feet which shows you your real-time score, plus a mini-radar system which shows incoming enemies and their location relative to you.
To make things interesting you can switch one of your guns for a small hand-held shield that's capable of deflecting shots back at the hostile bots. If you're really crazy, you can opt to switch both guns for shields and try your luck at blowing up the droids with their own bullets. Switching between shields and pistols can be achieved by simply reaching behind your back with a VR controller in hand.
The guns have a variety of firing modes that can be switched on the fly, including changing between pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher and more. Each mode has its own perks, but these have to be weighed-up alongside the accompanying downsides.
The grenade launcher, for example, is great for taking out enemy robots when they're bunched up together, but it also explodes in a massive cloud of colour and presents a problem with being able to see where the robots are and when they're about to shoot next.
More powerful settings overheat or run out of ammo to prevent you from firing constantly too. So the best way to stay alive is to balance accuracy with perfect timing. That's the key to success in this game if you want to make your way successfully through the waves of baddies and climb up the leaderboard.
Three strikes and you're out
You need to learn which signs indicate danger. With just three lives that don't replenish, you're always teetering on the brink of failure. So you need to not only be a good shot - but good at dodging, too
When the bots shoot at you there's a brief moment of slow-motion, giving you time to move out of the way - but you can't dodge if you're not paying attention. There's a distinct noise as a bot charges up before it fires, so you can see which bots are about to fire by the light glowing in their digital eyes.
The problem comes with identifying which is the biggest threat and from where they're shooting. The more waves you make it through, the more bots there are to deal with, and the more angles you need to be spinning through. We found we'd be shooting at one bunch of bots and see them shooting at us, only to dodge right into the line of fire of another droid that was firing at the same time from a different direction. There are differing enemy types too, with red bots being harder to shoot down, for example.
Practice is the key. Clearly, some of the other players who've enjoyed Space Pirate Trainer have mastered this art as there are some insane scores on the leaderboard and plenty of high-scoring videos on YouTube.
After a short period of play, you soon learn what tactics work for you. We found when playing on a smooth floor that we could easily slide across, which helped with dodging incoming enemy fire. We also opted for a shotgun in one hand (which looks more like a firework launcher) and a laser pistol in the other, which allowed for a combination of explosive impact and quick trigger work for accurate shooting.
The shield is also a surprising amount of fun to play with, especially when you start to get tired, as you inevitably will with the amount of movement this game requires. Instead of dodging you're suddenly just trying to deflect the shots as they come in. Of course, you still have to move to get the shield in the right place to dodge attacks from differing directions, but it adds a dynamic to keep the interest going.
Line of sight shooting
Learning to shoot is important too. The guns are designed with a sight on them, though we found the action came too thick and fast to actually aim down the sights properly. Instead, you need to lead the target and shoot where the droids are going to be - a bit like clay pigeon shooting. This takes time to learn as the action is so quick to start with that you're concentrating on staying alive, not just taking down baddies.
We found the tracking in the game to be excellent, with our shots going where we aimed. If we were hit it was because we failed to dodge at the right moment or in the right direction, it wasn't a failure of the game mechanics - which is essential for a VR game such as this. Amusingly you can even shoot yourself in the face and lose a life.
We found accurate shooting helped in more ways than one. Constantly squeezing the trigger to fire off bursts soon tires your index fingers out - so hitting targets with as few shots as possible allows you to keep playing for longer.
As the waves progress you'll also find various power-ups dropping that need to be shot to be activated. These include time-limited faster firing guns and a dome shield that covers the play area and stops you having to worry about enemy fire until it degrades.
The quicker you despatch the attacking bots and the further you make it through the waves, the higher your score becomes. High scores are saved for the world to see and you can compare with friends to see how they're doing too.
Is there enough to stay interested?
On the surface, Space Pirate Trainer offers a smashing source of fun, frolics and fantastic gameplay - but there's a question over whether there's enough to keep you coming back for more. This is the one place where the game falls down.
Wave-based shooters often have this issue, of course. Although the gunplay is great fun and the different weapons, pickups and gameplay styles make it interesting, there's a lack of much else beyond that to keep you coming back to it in future.
It's a shame there's no co-op mode, as we can imagine standing on the platform blasting droids with friends would be amazing. There are different leaderboards depending on which gun mode you prefer, however, so you might be able to master the tricky ones and gain notoriety for being the best shot with that weapon.
That said, the developer (I-illusions Studio) told us there are some big updates in the works, so there might be some new additions in the near future which will keep fans playing.
We were warned by the game's developers that Space Pirate Trainer is a room-scale VR experience right to its core. They weren't kidding! It's a physically challenging and demanding game that you'll need plenty of play space for the utmost entertainment.
As wave-based shooters go, Space Pirate Trainer is a great example of what a VR experience should be like: immersive, enjoyable and easy to pick up. There's so much to enjoy here in terms of game design, mechanics and gunplay. Its downside, however, is that repetition is an unavoidable part and parcel of a game such as this.
At just the current price point, Space Pirate Trainer is a VR bargain that's well worth picking up. Even if it's not about pirates in the classic sense, we're sure you won't be disappointed with how much fun it is to play.