Will There Ever Be A Space Game I Want To Play?

I have always wanted a space game to play. The boundless stretches, galaxies to explore, the awe-inspiring magic of flying a spaceship – the concept sings to me like a siren. And yet, as I wade gleefully into the waters to follow the source of that melody, I drown every single time. Every single time the game is a mad mess of fiddling and worrying and menus and doing taxes and buying ore and achingly annoying combat of flying in crazed circles trying to get to an angle from which I can shoot spaceships that seem always able to shoot at me. Every single time it’s a chore, not a pleasure. It’s space shopping. I flat-out don’t want space shopping.

Yesterday Graham said I should look at last November’s Rebel Galaxy [official site], because it was from some of the Torchlight team. I remind myself of the screenshots, and say to him, “Is it strategy, Graham? IS IT?” He promises me it isn’t. So, is this the space game for me?

One hour in:

Okay, this is nothing like Torchlight. Which isn’t a very good critical remark about the game, I admit, but Graham brought it up during a discussion of ARPGs. Graham cannot be trusted.

It’s a weird start. There’s no opening at all, you’re just dumped in space in a spaceship, and then told by some guy that your aunt is missing. Who you are, who she is, why you own a spaceship, what your plans were before finding out about Aunt Someone, are entirely untouched. It’s about the important business of flying from mission marker to mission marker, plot be damned.

And I’ve already seen worrying signs. Flying about is on a 2D plane, but other ships seem to be able to go up and down. That seems a bit unfair. And I’ve seen a list of purchasable commodities, certainly including ores, that I can buy from space stations. Argh. It’s going to be space shopping, isn’t it? I’ve also flown in tiresome circles around enemy ships that can always attack me. This isn’t going well so far.

Four hours in:

I’m genuinely surprised that I’m still here. I’d seen spreadsheets, been blown out of the space-sky by enemies it says shouldn’t be a problem whose ships I cannot even dent, and had so very little of what’s going on explained to me. And I’ve been really, really annoyed by how the enemies seem to have a whole other axis in their dimensions, flying out of my reach above and below. Oh, and I forgot to mention, it won’t let me use anything other than the 360 controller once the game’s started – there’s no option to switch to mouse/keyboard. You have to quit out. Madness.

But I’m still here, four hours in. I’ve completed a good few missions, some optional, some plot-critical. I’ve even realised that I’ve been flying around with thousands of Spacepounds worth of salvage on my ship that I could have sold and bought better stuff. Then I sold it, and bought better stuff, which makes it horribly apparent that there’s some degree of commitment from me here.

The music certainly isn’t hurting. Throaty rock, wailing blues guitars, and Firefly-ish cowboy twangs. I’ve had to hold myself back from booming out that you can’t take the sky from meeeeee. It’s quite the soundtrack, superbly chosen, and rather splendidly thematic to the occasions.

Five hours in:

I just renamed my ship. “Simon Westbury” it’s now called. Am I… am I enjoying this?

Seven hours in:

I’m not sure if I’m enjoying this. I was definitely into it, definitely found a groove. And that groove became significantly deeper when I found the tutorial screens hidden in the ludicrous muddle of menus, and learned how to aim broadside missiles properly. But even being able to actually play the game hasn’t changed battles I’m warned will be too difficult being easily won, and those I’m told have a threat level of “low” exploding me from seventeen different directions before I’ve realised it’s started.

I’ve wandered off the main mission track – because the game kept suggesting I do so – to beef up my ship/buy a new one before taking them on, via non-story missions. But this has pushed me into a world of busywork, zooming back and forth across this first solar system to repeat the same few actions in the hope of making some cash.

I also tried mining, and if you knew me, and my feelings about space shopping games, you’d likely have to read that again to be sure. I bought a mining laser, and even an enormously expensive extra piece of equipment that’s supposed to show me where to target space rocks for the best yields. It doesn’t do anything at all, which is really bloody annoying, and with the scant instructions I’ve no clue what I should have done, or if the game’s just broken. So I’ve lasered up rocks, which is far more frustrating than it sounds – even the sodding rocks get to operate on the Z axis, while I’m stranded in SpaceFlatland. Aiming the laser requires that they not be too far above or below you, which are positions I can only resent rather than work around. And I would say the yield from firing this laser, that overheats in literally three seconds (meaning you have to keep stopping and starting – what fun), is about 5%. 5% of the time it drops something. And when it does, it’s not all obvious for you to grab – you have to use the awful “pulse” thing, which rather than being a button press away is idiotically kept in a menu. It sends out a wave in a circle around your ship, and highlights spilled ore in the area. For a couple of seconds. Seriously – highlighted ore drops just fade off the screen in two seconds. Gee, that makes it so much fun to fly toward them to gather them, through a dense field of rocks, with a ship that keeps speeding itself up against your wishes. Argh! I have never doubted my belief that space mining is the worst way a human can spend time playing video games, and good grief has this mess affirmed that for me.

I feel like I’m talking myself out of anything I’d liked about it so far.

Eight hours in:

Okay, I’m coming back around again. I’ve given up on mining, because it’s a tortuous waste of time. Even now I’ve realised I can scan spacerocks to see if they have ore first, but for no bloody reason only if I have the mining laser pre-selected. The thing I don’t know if I need until the scanning’s done. Clever. But a successful fight against a big bunch of baddies has made me feel much better about things, and I’ve improved my broadside weapons so the fights are getting fairer. But I’m also a little under-motivated to dig any deeper. The mindless work of zipping about and getting richer is certainly attractive, but there’s a lot less immediate reward here than in the mindless work of hack-n-slashing around a dungeon.

So then:

I think this process has helped me better analyse what it is I do want from a space game. It sure as hell isn’t shopping and spreadsheets. I think what I want is the basics here, minus the trading, and with one hell of a dose of story. The narrative in Rebel Galaxy is some absolute dross about a missing aunt, a mysterious object containing an AI who’s lost her memory (FFS), and it pretends that your replies make a difference. The idea of having something like a Mass Effect plot, but where my primary roll isn’t trotting about on the ground and hiding behind waist-high walls, but flying about in my Firefly-class ship, blowing up baddies (or goodies) and looting the crap out of the universe. But with some motivation! Some reason for doing it, beyond a feeble nothingness like here, or the “freeform, open world” excuse used by so many other space shopping games.

And without a single fucking spreadsheet, thankyouverymuch. I’m putting off doing my real life taxes just fine on my own.

As for Rebel Galaxy, well, you’d do well to read Brendy’s review of it from a couple of months back, and I largely agree with his complaints (other than the music, the darned fool). Although I think the game he’d prefer would be wildly different than the one I’m after. I’m in no way interested in the ludicrous complexity and anonymity of Elite. Perhaps, maybe, one day someone will create a story-driven space game with fighty-fighty ships. But I fear if they do, they’ll fill it full of spreadsheets, because bloody hell, they always do.

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154 Comments

Top comments

  1. Bronxsta says:

    John, have you seen Everspace? It's an arcade-y space shooter from the devs of Galaxy on Fire. Was Kickstarted and should be coming out this year. No strategy, pure fast-paced action

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-mpm_47k6Q
  1. Ayslia says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever agreed more with an RPS feature. I don’t have anything else to add.

    (Except maybe that what I’d really, really like above all is a space game that was primarily about /exploring/* this wonderful universe of ours, not about shooting baddies and looting, although I’ll take shooting baddies as long as there aren’t spreadsheets and grinding.)

    (*Basically I want Space Engine with narrative and a bit more structure I guess.)

    • EvelynCBrown says:

      my co-worker’s sister-in-law makes $71 every hour on the computer . She has been fired for five months but last month her income was $16368 just working on the computer for a few hours. see page………. bit.ly/1Rmvmxz

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      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Wouldn’t No Man’s Sky come close to fitting your criteria as well?

      • Unsheep says:

        I don’t think it has much of a storyline though, which is what he is looking for. From what I have seen No Man’s Sky will be like Minecraft or Terraria in space, i.e. no real storyline at all, just multiplayer sandbox gameplay.

        • Luciferous says:

          NMS is stil a massive vague mystery, we’ve seen plenty of gameplay, but we haven’t seen much of the UI or menu system or interactions between you and the thing you’re uploading data to.

          My hype for the game had remained at a solid 80% and shows no signs of dipping, but there is still so much we don’t know.

  2. Bronxsta says:

    John, have you seen Everspace? It’s an arcade-y space shooter from the devs of Galaxy on Fire. Was Kickstarted and should be coming out this year. No strategy, pure fast-paced action

  3. Tacroy says:

    Did you ever play Freelancer? I seem to recall getting through with a minimum of space shopping. And there’s a plot with aliens in it, I’m pretty sure.

    • Suedealien says:

      Agreed. Freelancer is brilliant. Haven’t been able to play any other space game because of the fiddly numbers games, spreadsheets, etc. But Freelancer had a good story (George Takei even did some voice acting for it, I believe). Much fun and space piracy to be had.

    • kud13 says:

      Freelancer has space-shopping, I that’s your thing. But if it doesn’t you just take on multiple “kill baddies here for some credits” missions.

      Also, Freelancer has the most intuitive space-shooting i’ve ever encountered. I haven’t been able to like any of the new space sims, b/c they try to make things more complicated than Freelancer.

      The story is ok. Then it dumps you with about 30% of the galaxy mapped, and free to either do space-shopping, fly around finding Jump Holes (the “not legal” wormhole network), or just fly into nebulae and look at the pretty skyboxes. Or, fly around and land on planets/station to suck up lore like a vacuum cleaner in a punch card factory. It gets very sandbox-y, and I love it.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      The plot’s kinda fun too. I mean, it has Jennifer Hale, John Rhys-Davies and George Takei.

    • wwarnick says:

      Yeah, I loved Freelancer. It’s a shame that they had to rush it to production when Microsoft bought out the company. Their original plans were ambitious for the time. But it’s still a blast. I personally loved the story, though I wouldn’t say it was as in-depth as Mass Effect. But it gave you a sense of urgency for flying around and shooting things. And there wasn’t much fiddling. It’s a bit older, so you might have to google how to get it running. But it’s worth it.

    • Ragnar says:

      I was going to recommended Freelancer too. It’s been a decade since I’ve played it, but I remember it being lots of fun, flying around and blowing stuff up in space, with no tedium or busywork. Flying and aiming with the mouse was a surprising treat, and only took a moment to get used to.

    • Varrl says:

      The amount and detail of lore you could uncover is one of the things I enjoyed most about Freelancer (my main motivation to explore, really) and haven’t found an equivalent to in other space games. Although, to be fair, the way each sector of space was loosely based on an existing Earth nation/culture allowed them to draw on history in a way that a space game starting from scratch with their factions or aliens can’t.

      I’m afraid, with the ever-increasing focus on procedural generation, the kind of “Freelancer 2” game I’m looking for will never exist. I’m not opposed to procedural generation in something like Invisible Inc., but I’m convinced it’s the wrong move for space. I haven’t tried Elite, but I hear it’s bland and empty. Apparently No Man’s Sky is traveling the same route. Star Citizen is turning into a mess for different reasons, at least according to the internet, and I’m not really sure what the remaining Next Big Things are supposed to be. No doubt, whatever they are, they are touting their “millions of worlds!” or how great they’ll be with expensive VR/flight sticks/other periperals.

    • Mags says:

      Just adding to the chorus that Freelancer is an awesome SpaceGame, and the most fun I’ve found in one. It’s still one of my all-time favourite games, and I’d love to find another game with that feeling. Still looking, over a decade later.

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    Risingson says:

    I actually believe that you face any kind of challenge as a frustrating obstacle, for all the genres. So I don’t think you will ever find a space game you will enjoy.

    • John Walker says:

      I believe your eyes are full of bees. There, your eyes are full of bees now.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Remember when you wrote a thing about No Man’s Sky saying you basically wanted a walking simulator in space?

        It’s not other people’s fault that they have this impression.

        • dsch says:

          The problem with John Walker articles is that they are all written with the implicit, ironclad assumption that you already agree with every word from the very beginning. Which is great if you do and simply wish to be massaged in the pure John Walkerness of John Walker, but less interesting if you expect actual analysis or hope to learn anything. He hasn’t been a critic for some time now, much more a brand representing a particular intersection of handwringing liberalism and 19th century aestheticism. If he replies to either of us, you can be sure that it will be with what he will assume to be whithering put downs rather than any argument.

          • Rhodokasaurus says:

            This is the most accurate John Walker analysis possible. Good job! (Not being sarcastic)

            I wasn’t even gonna comment on this one cause I imagine he’s getting tired of me.

          • LogicalDash says:

            If he thought you already agreed with him, he wouldn’t ever need to write anything.

            So, what, you’re mad that he’s not trying to persuade you of his ideas? That seems like a pretty limiting approach. You must not read any news.

          • Dicehuge says:

            I’ve never had that impression from his writing at all. John just writes what he thinks, without the “well you may disagree with this” or “although that may not be for everyone” which I find refreshing. Those things don’t need to be spelled out, it’s implicitly obvious that people are allowed to have other opinions, John expressing his without apology isn’t the same as him saying his are the only legitimate thoughts. And even when he outright suggests his are the only legitimate opinions, good grief, have a sense of humour, why would you take that literally.

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            magogjack says:

            It would be a rather grumpy massage I imagine….

            I think John has gone full Bieber.

          • unacom says:

            There´s no problem with that. Romans built an imperium based solely on the assumption that they were right.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Here’s the problem: you use lots of words saying what you don’t want, but not much about what you actually do. You may have a really interesting idea for a game! I just don’t think it’s being communicated very well.

      • Borodin says:

        The whole trouble with you, Charlie Brown, is that you’re you

        I, for one, am very grateful that John Walker is whom he is!

    • Ragnar says:

      I would disagree. There’s a game being challenging, and then there’s difficulty and frustration. For example, I find Bayonetta and Ori challenging, while Ninja Gaiden and Super Meat Boy are just difficult.

      Now, some people thrive on that difficulty and can’t find enjoyment without it. They need a game to kick their teeth in, Dark Souls style, so that they can see and chart their self-improvement. Others, like John and myself, look to games to relax and be entertained, and don’t have the time or desire to struggle through the difficulties or overcome challenges for challenge’s sake.

      A DM friend once said that the ideal D&D campaign is designed such that the heroes always win, but always feel they did so by the skin of their teeth and always feel like they could have lost. That’s my perfect video game difficulty.

      • JonWood says:

        I love that analysis of a good D&D campaign, and I think it perfectly sums up what I’m looking for in a game, especially now I’m an old man without the time or patience to repeatedly play the same bit of a game.

        Its something I think Portal 2 did really well. Especially the later puzzles make you feel like an absolute genius for figuring them out, despite the fact the solution is usually just a case of following the sign posts liberally scattered around the map.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      All this analysis of John Walker is excellent, and important. The OP has made a good point, which is that John is terrible at games. He’s a particularly bad healer.

      • mpk says:

        I reckon that might be the first bad healer reference on RPS for about four years.

        Well done, sir.

  5. Jac says:

    Have you played Space Rangers 2 John?

    I haven’t, but my space game plight is similar to yours so curious if it may help quell the thirst a little.

    • John Walker says:

      See, a recommendation worded in this way is what got me into this mess in the first place!

      Also, sadly, Space Rangers is very much in the strategy end of things, and I’m allergic to dotted green lines around units.

      • Kala4 says:

        but SR aren`t strategy – they are complete turn based tacktics
        and a bit of awesome text-quest and a bit of tacktical strategy on plannetary conquer missions.
        Most of the time you just controll your own ship.

      • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

        Logged in to recommend Space Rangers 2. I really think you’d like it – the combat is turn based and it’s fairly possible to run away from a lot of fights. The story is ok, but the STORIES are stupendous, some of my favourite gaming memories. The prison text adventure if/when you get arrested is one of my favourite games just on its own. If that sentence doesn’t tickle your gaming glands, you’re not the John Walker I know (from reading some stuff you’ve wrote, I don’t actually know you in any capacity at all).

  6. Arglebargle says:

    Sounds awful.

    Usually JW is a great barometer for me: If he likes it, I won’t, with the vice versa. Consistency of that nature is very useful! Even with this exception.

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I enjoyed X3 (or at least, I started to 20 hours in, after I finished testing all the controls :P), but generally I’m not huge on spaceflight genre either. Some of my reasons are the same as the ones John brought up in his article: too many spreadsheets, climbing my way up a virtual economy is boring, the flight aspects are rarely satisfying, etc. However, I think that a big part of the problem is that people who enjoy sci-fi generally appreciate it for its humanity – something that is often lost when the genre is applied to games.

    Think about the last two or three sci-fi shows or movies that you watched. How much screentime was devoted to the ships and the dogfights? 10-15%? Maybe 20? And yet the majority of games in the genre are nothing but spaceflight. Devs, take note: interacting with crewmates > flying through an empty void. Being thrown around on the bridge during a firefight > steering a spaceship like a car while automated defenses pew-pew at red circles. Exploring an alien planet > scanning it from orbit. I mean, come on, this is basic stuff.

    • SomeDuder says:

      My issue with the latest batch of space-based games are that they are made with consoles in mind. And while I’m sure that the devices can offer the required performance, the thing is that the developers are making these games with a console-playing audience in mind.

      Take Rebel Galaxy. The controls are designed around a gamepad – the game was genuinly made with the XYAB buttons in mind, not a mouse and keyboard or joystick.

      Go back ~15 years. Freelancer, Starlancer, Freespace, X, these games could MURDER you IRL with their controls, but holy hell there’s actual ballistics being thrown around. You FEEL like you are controlling an actual boat in a vaccuum (Especially Freelancer, where pressing the Z-key turned off your own propulsion and let inertia carry you along, allowing for some insanely great combat). Once you know how to control the game, you feel like youre actually moving around in a 3D environment.

      Back to the current console-based spacenonense, it feels like you are moving through… well, whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like space.

      Somewhere along the line something changed the way these games are being made. We should be getting more detailed simulation of space physics as processing power increases, not this dumbed down mess. Freelancer has shown that you can have some realism (the inertia I mentioned) and still have amazing shootybang combat (This feature alone actually made combat even MORE fun! It’s NOT a bad thing! Your game will NOT turn into a Mavis edutainment piece of garbage if you allow some semblance of realism slip in!)

      But this is why we won’t see another Freespace. Or Homeworld. 3D Environments are too complicated for 14-year olds. Never mind that children today get more and more used to interacting with computers and that our comparatively neanderthal-like brains had no problems playing them all those years ago.

      Or is it that creating a Freespace, Homeworld or X takes too much goddamn resources which an independent developer just doesn’t have, so all we get are these WEIRD semi-space-things that just don’t feel like the real deal? I am keeping my eyes on the Eve Online minigame, but only if there’s a non-3D vision version as well, and maybe the Enemy Starfighter thing, but that’s too early to call. Star Citizen is a joke at this point and No Man’s Land’s space planet feature seems to be just about THAT.

      Fuck it, I’m out.

      • carewolf says:

        Well even freelancer fell in that trap a bit. The physics often end up working like WW2 fighter planes, or for heavier planes like submarines.

        Once you add star-gates and the small boxes with stary background like in the X-games, Freespace and well almost all of them.. Well they are not Space Games, but Space-themed Aquarium Games.

    • Cederic says:

      After an article deriding space shopping and spreadsheets, you explicitly reference X3?

      It’s a spreadsheet simulator built around a shopping experience with the occasional piece of space flight thrown in. A challenging strategic layer would cement its role as the definitive anti-Walker.

  8. Dog Pants says:

    It seems to me that so many of these games are based on Elite in some form. I only ever existed in Elite, never really enjoyed it. Lots of economics and navigation, not a great deal of actual things happening. So I’m in the same space-boat as John. I have enjoyed FTL and Weird Worlds though.

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    Awesomeclaw says:

    For me, what’s missing from space games is the feeling that I’m having a meaningful effect on the universe around me. The X series comes closest to this (with the cool station building and fleet mechanics), but the various idiosyncracies of games in that series, and their generally glacial pace, really put me off. I spent a huge amount of time with EVE because it had the most promise, but I never managed to find a decent group of people to play with so it kind of petered out (although I did play quite a bit). Elite looked promising but ultimately feels empty – as do Rebel Galaxy, Starpoint Gemini etc.

    • Itkovian says:

      If you’re interested in the PVP side (and really, I don’t see the point of Eve if you don’t PVP), come play with us! We’re a pretty small group based in Nullsec and we tend to play 2-3 nights a week, with scheduled times which is often attractive to those with real life commitments. I think there’s a link on my name to our website.

      That said, I don’t really see Eve as a space game in anything like the sense of the X series, Elite, Freespace or anything like that. It certainly doesn’t feel like it would scratch that itch. Obviously I think its a great game for other reasons though.

  10. Uglycat says:

    The space game you want to play is the one that you think you remembered playing when you were younger.

    I’m looking at you Elite.

    • Llewyn says:

      I’m pretty sure the space game I remember playing in the mid-80s is Frontier. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be anything I remember playing around 1993 that actually exists yet.

  11. FurryLippedSquid says:

    For goodness’ sake, John.

    Tie Fighter.

    TIE FIGHTER!

    • bhauck says:

      How did it take this long for this to be recommended? Isn’t it exactly the kind of space game described? Why is no one else bringing this up? “I don’t like space shopping” “What about all these other games with space shopping instead of an all-time classic with none of that bullshit?”

      • Unsheep says:

        Apart from us old-timers nobody seems to play these games anymore.
        The only old-ish games people are playing are Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress and Counter Strike. In other words just multiplayer FPS.

        Many of the things that younger gamers want in modern games can be found in classic games. If they could only get past the graphics downgrade and having to read a manual, they might just find what they are looking for.

      • wraithgr says:

        To be fair, he did also say he can’t actually handle 3d combat… Of course that brings us back round to the question of exactly what he does want from a space game…

    • Anonymous says:

      Ah, they joy of flying around in a flimsy piece of tin-foil box (with oversized wheels at the side, for some reason, planetary landings, I assume), desperately trying to keep the bloody AI ship alive and the dying from a single stray shot just after the “mission accomplised” message.

      Great times, though

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    teije says:

    I tried out Rebel Galaxy a couple months ago and I have to agree. The controls were fiddly, the UI sucks and the story is dreck. But the music is sure kick-ass. So that was enough to keep me in it for a few hours before I uninstalled.

  13. guy15s says:

    “The boundless stretches, galaxies to explore, the awe-inspiring magic of flying a spaceship – the concept sings to me like a siren.”

    “Every single time it’s a chore, not a pleasure. It’s space shopping. I flat-out don’t want space shopping.”

    The reason you are motivated to play space games and the very thing you hate about them are pretty closely related. A space exploration game would likely face the same problems or become a walking simulator, and a space combat game, for many of the people that are attracted to the genre, doesn’t often get that feeling of being huge and giving you that sense of being in an open, living universe. There are games out there that pull off really great balances, but if you’ve really given it the old college try and aren’t finding anything, you might just be noticing a limitation of the genre and that those great balanced games just aren’t enough for you.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Your response is born of the belief that the current trappings of the genre, have to be the ONLY trappings of the genre. I disagree.

      There exists no reason at all why space games are mired in endless spreadsheet management and shopping. None. But since this is the way its always been – and people continue to buy it – this is the way it stays.

      As far as the future of space games and avoiding these traps, I would say:

      First, if you cant get out of the ship and interact with characters forget, you’ve already failed. The genre needs to move forward and its not going to do that with you sitting in station in a cockpit, raising and lowering numbers via menus. We need characters and interactions. Think the Star Wars Cantina scene. Or Serenity and the Bar Fight early on. We need interaction.

      Second, if we cant land on planets, forget it. They’re there. People live on them. People. As in, Characters (See above). We need to be able to move seamlessly between planets and space.

      Lastly, forget trading. Trade in a far future like this would likely be handled by enormous megacorps with private, employee pilots. NOT by lone merchantmen. Smuggling is fine, as long as their is some risk not only of being caught, but of having to dump goods and get in trouble with those who hired you for the job (think Jabba). But flying round, watching numbers go up, yeah…its gotten old. Really old.

      • Roshirai says:

        “Trade in a far future like this would likely be handled by enormous megacorps with private, employee pilots.”

        This is my biggest pet peeve with any space shopping game! Any independently owned ship would likely have to survive by taking odd jobs: all the real hauling would be done by corp freighters operated by wageslaves. If those odd jobs involved hauling cargo, it’d be on behalf of clients and would likely be small and special, or illegal, or time-sensitive somehow. I bet it’d be damn rare if those gigs ever involved speculating on which types of cargo to haul from one system to another.

        I mean, a lot of the blame here can probably be laid at the feet of Elite, and by that token, the tabletop game Traveller. Has anyone ever actually played a tabletop game where players poured over trade charts together trying to determine what kinds of goods to buy to haul to wherever? It sounds like a great way to grind a game to a screeching halt.

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          Harlander says:

          I was in a game that got derailed by nitpicking over the precise profit margin of individual tons of cargo, yeah.

          The worst thing was it was meant to be a swashbuckling game of airship piracy.

      • Kamestos says:

        So… pretty much No Man’s Sky ?

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        Trade in a far future like this would likely be handled by enormous megacorps with private, employee pilots. NOT by lone merchantmen.

        It’s true that most settings don’t bother to come up with a plausible environment for such a thing, but there are an endless number of possible scenarios: politics (space-capitalism isn’t the only possible future, y’know), a frontier, the aftermath of a devastating war between corporations. It only requires a tiny bit of imagination.

        • draglikepull says:

          The intro to Rogue Galaxy does say that you’re in a lawless frontier away from the main economic core of the galaxy (or implies as much, anyway).

      • Reapy says:

        Another component to the exploration is to make the getting there part somewhat difficult. Maybe not quite kerbal space program detailed, but a few, non tedious, interesting traveling mechanics, can make the whole experience of just looking around much, much better.

  14. Wisq says:

    Regarding your concept of the ideal space game: I’m not really sure it’s internally consistent?

    You talk about blowing up enemies and looting them, but you don’t want trading. I seem to recall you also mentioned (in an article about No Man’s Sky) that you don’t want to be going around collecting resources, either, which tends to rule out crafting. So if you don’t want trading or crafting, the only role I can think of for all that loot is to be salvaged equipment that you attach to your ship. Which has fairly limited utility, since the better your ship equipment, the more combat loot you’re just throwing out because it’s not as good, and the less point there is to any of it. (You can mitigate this with an infinite procedurally-generated loot engine — but then you’ll probably end up with spreadsheets.)

    You talk about not wanting to be stuck flying around to get firing angles on ships that always seem able to fire at you. But if targetting is easy for both sides, then any given battle mostly just comes down to who has the bigger guns. If we assume that most of your gear is coming from looting, this creates a catch-22 — how do you take down a bigger ship to get its stuff? There would need to be ways to use your smarts to get some sort of tactical advantage — but when you do that too often, it stops being smart and starts being “how does the enemy still not see this coming?”

    Focusing on story is another potential problem point. If your game is focused on the narrative and not the space flight part, there’s little reason to actually set it in space and/or not just gloss over the space parts (like e.g. Mass Effect). I can’t honestly remember a focused, linear space game since the old Wing Commander days — and that’s before they went open-world with Privateer. Without the luxury of wandering the galaxy and choosing / improving your equipment, the in-mission gameplay in those was so simple that I doubt they would hold up particularly well today.

    Plus, coming up with a compelling story is a lot harder (and thus, more cost) than just setting the player free in an open universe. I think a lot of the success that goes into making these space games so expansive and awe-inspiring is in large part due to the savings on writing linear plots — the main storyline generally requires that the player go off and level themselves up sufficiently inbetween main missions such that they’re strong enough to face the next one, thus padding out the (otherwise rather short) experience.

    Honestly, if you’re looking for interesting stories in space games, you’re probably better off looking for games that don’t bother too much with the actual spaceflight part. You’ve already mentioned Mass Effect, but I might also suggest “J.U.L.I.A: Among the Stars”. It’s basically a sci-fi forensic “whodunnit” set in space. Purely a story-driven adventure game, with no combat to speak of, and certainly no trading or spreadsheets. It’s not the most challenging game, but it does provide some decent puzzles, and challenges you to put together a complete narrative based on snippets from many different sources.

    • Premium User Badge

      Awesomeclaw says:

      That JULIA thing is extremely weird, not at all what I expected when I bought it, but still pretty cool. I kind of wish they hadn’t strayed so far from the initial whodunnit stuff though.

    • Schiraman says:

      Actually I don’t think John’s wishes are that difficult to frame as a game concept – it seems to me that what he’s basically asking for is a classic RPG but set in space.

      So you play a young and idealistic spaceship, eager for adventure, who while wondering in the nebula near your home-station encounters a wounded dreadnought beset by a gang of young frigates. You learn the basics of combat while helping the oldtimer defeat its attackers, but the damage to its power core is too great for the old boy to continue once the fight is done and so it has to entrust its mission to save the space empire to you – along with a fancy new laser.

      As you follow the quest you meet and chat with many other spaceships and space-stations, sometimes solving their marital disputes or fetching items from other systems for them, and other times engaging in battle and then looting their corpses for better shields, lasers, etc. or alien artefacts to sell for profit (no trading though, just selling loot and buying new upgrades).

      The combat involves more than just circling and pewpew, and instead has a wide variety of buffs and special attacks – overcharging lasers and shields, making short hyperspace jumps to outflank enemies, tuning your lasers for a single special shot that ignores shields (but causes your lasers to overheat), going to stealth mode in order to move into a larger ship’s blind-spot, etc. etc.

      Alternatively; take FTL and replace the procedural world with a hand-crafted one and flesh out the plot and quests.

      • Premium User Badge

        shevek says:

        Infinite Space (for the Nintendo DS and thus unworthy of this forum) is basically this. It has its longueurs, but there’s nothing else exactly like it.

      • Wisq says:

        Ah, thanks. That does make a lot more sense. Sounds a bit like Mass Effect but with the RPG focus on the space part, not on the planet landing part.

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      I’m not really sure it’s internally consistent?

      There’s your problem right there. John hasn’t been internally consistent in years.

  15. FriendlyFire says:

    Keep an eye out for Enemy Starfighter, Starfighter Inc. and No Man’s Sky then. The former two are all about combat while the latter seems to focus mostly on exploration.

    There’s no telling whether they’ll actually work out, but it’s worth keeping them in mind.

  16. acoff001 says:

    I’m still really looking forward to The Mandate when it comes out, but it’s too soon to tell if the devs can pull off what they want the game to be yet.

  17. Humppakummitus says:

    As far as I’m concerned, Star Control 2 still has the most mysterious space full of adventure and danger. I’ve been looking for ages, but no-one’s even making anything like it.
    You’ll find a free version here: link to sc2.sourceforge.net

    • Shazbut says:

      Dang it, you beat me by one minute!

      Every new space game I hear about disappoints me by not looking like it was influenced by Star Control 2.

    • Premium User Badge

      Andy_Panthro says:

      I really want to like Star Control 2, but I detest the combat. Now if the combat was turn-based, then I would really appreciate it!

      • syllopsium says:

        The combat is an awful lot better once you’ve seriously upgraded your main ship; it’s actually possible to win fights at that point.

        That goes the same for all movement – it’s one of the few games where the turning circle is the size of a solar system to start with

    • Premium User Badge

      Skabooga says:

      Yeahhhhh!!!! Another vote for Star Control 2. Plus, it’s free thanks to the generosity of some of the original creators! And as much as I love randomization and procedural generation, Star Control 2 proved that a skillfully hand-crafted world is as valid a design choice as any.

    • Reapy says:

      Dropping the Starsector in here incase you guys have missed it. Still being worked on, very slowly, but really solid stuff there. Campaign is being worked on right now, combat is already pretty good.

      So, fly like star control. Combat is mech warrior like in terms of the weapon systems, think energy vs ballistic vs missile. Armor and hull damage, shields. Shields work with flux, which is like heat in mech warrior, shooting energy weapons builds it etc. You have fighters, destroyers, capitol ships all trading brilliant weapon exchanges on the map, really decent AI flying those ships too.

      So, yeah, give it a look if you haven’t seen it yet.

  18. Shazbut says:

    Star Control 2

  19. EvelynCBrown says:

    my co-worker’s sister-in-law makes $71 every hour on the computer . She has been fired for five months but last month her income was $16368 just working on the computer for a few hours. see page………. bit.ly/1Rmvmxz

  20. Fry says:

    Sigh. I tried Rebel Galaxy during the Steam sale. Was bored within 90 mins and got a refund.

    What I want a turn-based space RPG with lots of eye candy. Homeworld, but without the RTS silliness.

  21. anHorse says:

    Strike Suit Infinity?
    There’s got to be something that appeals out there.

    I’m at the other end of the problem John’s having. I dislike Elite because it doesn’t have the “ludicrous complexity” I want.
    Space games are supposed to be about a universe of possibility but they often feel like little more than three of four basic types of gameplay.

    And X, the one space series I do like (on account of it being a really good trading/business game) is dragged down by the actual space parts of it; specifically the uninvolving flying.
    So the one space game I really like is one that I like in spite of it being a space game

    • anHorse says:

      slight correction

      *”they often feel like little more *than very pretty containers for* three or four types of gameplay”

  22. Kentauroi says:

    I just want another Freespace. Forget the open world, forget trading and let mining die in a fire. Just give me a fun story told mission by mission where you are just one small pilot fighting his way through a war whose outcome doesn’t hinge solely on him.

  23. Kamestos says:

    Iron Sky Invasion !
    All arcade shooting, a crazy plot about Nazis from the moon, with successive waves that come in real-time while you try to accomplish missions for various factions.
    And there’s FMV with fake accents.

  24. The Velour Fog says:

    Exact same problem for me, I love the idea of flying about in space but hate the minutiae of upgrades and trading goods

    I think what I am looking for is Diablo meets Descent in space. Tie Fighter with fully-customisable (through RPG-style slots) ships and crew.

    Should be easy right?

    • Ragnar says:

      That kind of describes Freelancer, minus the crew. Go on missions, blow up enemy ships, upgrade your ship with new equipment, progress through the story. You even fly intuitively with the mouse.

  25. syllopsium says:

    Privateer is fun, even the second time around, provided you read the manual and realise that some of the guns are crap, and more expensive is not always better.

  26. C0llic says:

    What about good old Privateer 2 ?

    You should play that game! It had some trading, but you could mostly get by pootling around blowing up bounties or indulging in piracy, and it had a glorious FMV story (okay, more a bit crap, than glorious).

    Clive Owen starred as Lev Arris, years before he became famous!

    • C0llic says:

      As an addendum, if you truly hate Space shopping in any form, there may never be a good space action game for you. They’re treated as an analogue to the golden age of trading and piracy on the high seas, with bits of the old frontier west thrown in, so those elements always occur.

      The only games I can think of that don’t do that at all are the old ‘kill and escort mission’ wing commander games, and tie fighter/x-wing. Excluding FTL and RTS games like Homeworld.

    • unacom says:

      I love that game.

  27. Borodin says:

    Yes. I bought my first PC in 1994 just to play X-Wing and Dune 2. (It was a 486DX with 8MB of memory that I upgraded from 4MB for £100)

    I played Dune 2 over and over again and loved it, but I bought a fancy (Thrustmaster?) joystick so that I could play X-Wing properly but still never got far into the the game. I remember I used to switch from joystick for flying my X-Wing to mouse for aiming and shooting

    Years later I played a planetary trading game whose name I forget. (I remember pink, orange and black, and the surface of a planet with tunnels and monorails.) I so wanted to play it, but as soon as I found a lucrative trading route, the profits dropped as I used it. Yes, I bought and played TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance. But I always felt that the first two were by far the best, even though they were unattainable

    I still love those games but they are hard. Too hard for me. Three-dimensional travel with far too many degrees of freedom may sound exciting, but when the only view I have on the proceedings is a 24in flat screen it is easy to misjudge. Is that black dot going to turn into an insect that splats on my screen, or a Blackbird fighter that will shoot me out of the sky?

    I want to pilot something that the future can realistically provide, which would be static physics and aimed weaponry. I’d love to be able to turn and fire while I was travelling sideways, but I’m no Red Baron so I need my ship to help me to do that

    I tried Freelancer, the X Universe trading games, AI War (I have a boxed original if you want to bid!) and Nexus, but never got more than a fifth of the way through any of them

    So yes, I agree with John that I would love a game where I can pilot a spaceship and maybe shoot stuff, but without needing the skills of a kart racer in the sky

    • BadCatWillum says:

      > (I remember pink, orange and black, and the surface of a planet with tunnels and monorails.)

      Were you thinking of HardWar?

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        “There’s a war going on out there…”
        [WAR]
        “… and it ain’t easy.”
        [HARD]

        … *ahem*

  28. funky_mollusk says:

    I’ve been enjoying Wing Commander Saga quite a lot. It’s basically a new WC game. It’s a free fan-made Freespace 2 total conversion mod. (with the blessing of the Freespace devs) I highly recommend it. The quality is frankly amazing for a fan mod. The voice acting in particular is quite good. The best part though is the interface/controls. They are so smooth and intuitive I’m probably going to buy Freespace now based on that. It’s a perfect combination of ease-of-use (like freelancer) and depth of control (unlike freelancer). Now if only they can make a privateer saga I’ll be on cloud nine.

    • funky_mollusk says:

      just to be clear: it is totally free. you don’t need to have Freespace.

  29. pendergraft says:

    I picked up X Rebirth during the Steam sale, recalling that one of the major complaints levied against it at release, beyond being simply broken, was that it was dumbed down. Having been suitably befuddled by X3 Reunion many years ago, that sounded right up my back alley.

    First impression: It’s got that distinct continental European flavor of game development to it, which is never without its charm. I adore the simian creature that sits in the co-pilot seat. Unfortunately, the combat is dreadful, mostly because there’s no sense of speed. I feel like I’m a fixed turret beset by angry hornets. Why do the enemy ships get to move so fast? I’m sure there’s an engine upgrade I could buy, but…

    If someone could just point me to Freelancer 2.

  30. webwielder says:

    Escape Velocity and Escape Velocity: Override are the only ones I’ve ever liked and I’ve spent fifteen years trying to recapture that feeling. It’s possible I’m just trying to recapture the feeling of being a kid again.

  31. ImperatorPavel says:

    I personally enjoy Rebel Galaxy, but I also feel with the author is saying, as the story of the game could be much better.

    Just as a fyi, pulse scan is default key “F”, just in case you didn’t figure it out.

  32. Aur3lius says:

    Tachyon: The Fringe.

    Bruce Campbell did the voice acting.

  33. racccoon says:

    Here’s hoping No mans sky is

  34. Premium User Badge

    InfamousPotato says:

    Tom Francis’ Heat Signature is looking like the sort of game you’d like, at least in terms of gameplay. It’s a little unclear how much of a story it’ll have (I hope he decides to write something. He’s quite good at it, and Gunpoint’s dialogue was delightful).

  35. PancakeWizard says:

    I am also waiting for No Man’s Sky, John.

    • Xzi says:

      I was about to say the same. Clearly NMS has a big focus on exploration, with some combat thrown in there and very little of anything else. Which means no space shopping.

  36. JohnnyMaverik says:

    ERROR 404: THE GAME YOU ARE LOOKING FOR DOES NOT YET EXIST.

    I do hope somebody makes it soon though because I can’t wait to play it either.

    I’m going to recommend Aurora 4x because it’s exactly the opposite of what you are looking for, but it is pretty amazing.

  37. Sinner6 says:

    Thanks for the article. I registered just so I could comment on this. For many years, (since before the first Wing Commander) my “favorite” genre has been the “space game”. That is, if you go by desire and dollars spent. Most of them have had some fatal flaw, despite my attraction to the subject and willingness to forgive. Either the games are a shopping sim, 2-D…or often, just plain broken in some way. Having said that, one of the true gems of the genre, is the original Independence War. Which actually still plays and looks nice with GLide emulation (you guys remember 3DFX, right?). It’s available on GOG. IWar has a great narrative, with a wonderful mechanics and a just-complicated-enough amount of systems management. Yes, it’s possible to break the scripting on a mission or two, but it’s very worth a look, as is the sequel, which had the Firefly feel (complete with twangy western music) long before Firefly was a thing.

    My desire for space games also reaches into 4X territory, where again, despite a seeming glut of options, most are either not fun, or broken. Never did I expect to say this, but my favorite of this genre is the original “Sword of the Stars”. It’s very focused on research, shipbuilding and tactical space combat, with a very simplified take on The Economy.

    Because current and near future VR tech will work best with “cockpit games”, it looks like we will have a number of options on the table soon. We all know Elite is still laying down its very promising foundation, but hopefully some of the simpler more focused approaches like EVE Valkyrie, and Enemy StarFighter will succeed as well and capture some of what’s been missing from the genre since FreeSpace 2…that intangible “soul” that makes a game just feel like it’s firing on all cylinders.

  38. kalirion says:

    If you want an ARPG with space ships, just play Drox Operative. It’s more Din’s Curse in Space than Torchlight in Space of course. But I like to think about it like an ARPG set in someone else’s 4x Space Game. The other races are all doing the 4x stuff while your little ship meddles in their affairs.

  39. kuertee says:

    Story driven spacefighter games:
    Wing Commander 1 and/or 2? Even 3? – Story is “truly” multi-pathed based on mission results. A different cutscene plays depending on results at the end of EVERY mission – not just at the end of the game. I’ve played these.

    Tie Fighter. X-wing. X-wing Alliance. – Excellent spacefighter simulation. You’ll get frustrated at trying to follow mission objectives because of the amount of other fighters “in play”, just like in real war, I guess. It’s in my 2nd tiered recommendation due to the frustration level. But I prefer these to Wing Commander. I’ve played these games.

    Freespace 2. I-war. I heard these were the pinnacle of space games for their times. I’ve not played these.

    For “lighter” simulation (both ship management and economy) but equally fun:
    Freelancer. I’ve played this.

    For games with a heavy emphasis on the economy and grinding:
    X series. Elite series. Wing Commander: Privateer – there’s even a “free” version of Privateer (link to privateer.sourceforge.net).

    I think the reason why we have more games based on the economy, grinding and ship management these days is because its really hard to write a good story and implement it into the game – any game. You’ll need a CD-Project-Red-level writer to embed a truly engaging story into these types of games.

    Another reason is that after completing any of the story-based games, a typical fan of the games would immediately want to “keep playing”.

    • Premium User Badge

      MrPin says:

      You *have* to play Freespace 2, and John has to as well. It’s just epic, and now that we’re getting a Psychonauts 2 it’s number 1 on my list of games I’d like to see a sequel to. It even lets you die while winning the game! (you don’t have to, though)

  40. Frank says:

    Yeah, the genre has never done anything for me. I have no interest in dogfighting … nor flying at all, for that matter, unless there are some interesting realistic physics involved — that would be cool.

  41. Unsheep says:

    1. Have a look at GOG, there’s a good number of space shooters you might be interested in, like FreeSpace, Independence War, Wing Commander and X-Wing.

    2. Maybe this genre is simply not for you, most gamers have genres or sub-genres that we really like in concept, but which gets boring once we actually play them.

  42. BadCatWillum says:

    Sunless Sea, and pretend you’re in space?

  43. Morcane says:

    Even though I adore Elite (just because it’s so vast, even though it’s a black kind of vast with rocky stuff), I do get what he’s saying. It would be great to see something else being done with the setting, instead of Space Trucking Simulator #43432432.

    The article reminded me of the Mercenary series – that was set in space, but had a great deal of machinations and story behind them. It would be great to see something similar with today’s tech.

  44. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    You really should raise an error 501, “Not Implemented”, for this situation.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      This stupid joke was meant to be a reply to JohnnyMaverik. Comment system, so flaky…

  45. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    Freespace 2! FREESPACE 2! It’s from the same glorious people that made Saint’s Row and Red Faction! It’s a liniear set of missions! It’s chock-full of biblical references! It has a thriving mod community!

    • thelastpointer says:

      I was going to recommend that, too, but then I remembered he doesn’t like achingly annoying combat of flying in crazed circles trying to get to an angle from which I can shoot spaceships that seem always able to shoot at me

      • thelastpointer says:

        …which is, of course, totally stupid, because Freespace 2 is the best thing ever, but he doesn’t like dogfights, so he is totally stupid, and my comment wasn’t meant to suggest that Freespace is stupid, so I’m totally stupid, but, oh well, that’s life

  46. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    RYMDRESA might be what you seek

  47. Jim Rossignol says:

    But what is the Stalker of space games?

    • pendergraft says:

      I think the X series would be the closest to that distinctly Proto-Balto-Slavic feeling that one gets while playing games made in former Soviet blocs, where ambition often exceeds, and occasionally overcomes, the means. No end of unseen systems running things behind an iron curtain of code, what allows for unscripted events to take place without regard for the player’s input or presence. Something we in democratic countries find unsettling, if not titillating. And, of course, the English translation and voice acting are at best cringeworthy, though not completely divested of charm.

      Unfortunately, from what I’ve played, the X series is comprised entirely of Clear Skies. Hopefully the next one is a Call of Pripyat.

      • pendergraft says:

        I hope this does not come off as a recommendation, by the way. The X series is the polar opposite of what you want from a space game. That list of awful genre traits you described are X’s bread and butter.

  48. TheKruxed says:

    Starpoint Gemini 2 could potentially, maybe, somewhat fulfill such desires. Very underrated game due to some minor issues at launch, not a great story or anything but I really enjoyed just cruising around the world due to how everything looks and how it can change from being completely forgiving to completely unforgiving in a split second

  49. Don Reba says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, it won’t let me use anything other than the 360 controller once the game’s started – there’s no option to switch to mouse/keyboard. You have to quit out. Madness.

    Hey, progress. In 2012, you would have written at least a few paragraphs about this specific problem.