15. Star Conflict (2013)
Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Publisher: Gaijin Entertainment
There have been a few attempts to apply the World of Tanks template to space combat (the aborted Battlestar Galactica Online being an early example), but Star Conflict has probably been the most successful, which may have something to do with it coming from the same stable and vintage as War Thunder.
Although even for a “free-to-play” game it does rather like to pester players for investment and does go overboard with all the various XP and currency tiers (not unlike War Thunder), there’s a good spread of arena battles and maps as well as PvE encounters. Reminiscent of multiplayer Tachyon, the maps aren’t just empty spaces either, with sprawling industrial gantries poking out into space allowing players to dive and spin down trenches and surprise the enemy. There’s a strange floatiness to ship movement to get used that rather makes the ships feel more like toys, but it’s not entirely unpleasant and actually adds an element of Descent-like disorientation to the battles.
Star Conflict is not a game you’ll probably want to invest much money on and it’s probably the most likely in this list to fall off the end when revision time comes along, but it’s a solid attempt at mounting laser beams into a modern multiplayer arena game.
Notes: Anton Yudinstev, Gaijin’s CEO, has long expressed a desire to support VR. Given the success of War Thunder however, it’s reasonable to assume VR won’t be coming to Star Conflict for a little while.
What else should I be playing if I like this: God Factory: Wingmen’s mecha-style space brawling is a close second to Star Conflict, otherwise there’s Elite Dangerous: Arena or the Arena Commander module for Star Citizen. If you’d rather fly a more traditional MMO we’re sure Vendetta Online would be happy to receive new recruits.
14. Wing Commander 4: The Price of Freedom (1996)
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Most would agree that Privateer is the stand out Wing Commander game, but since space trading has been done better many times since, let’s throw the concluding episode of the Commander Blair saga into the mix instead – a space game that in one aspect certainly hasn’t been surpassed – nor likely ever will be.
Wing Commander gets a bad rap these days, which is entirely understandable given that it was the most expensively produced game of it’s day, with much of the budget being spooged on Hollywood talent rather than gaming industry innovation. Fast forward through the FMV however and what at the time seemed a mediocre game in comparison to its expensive storytelling, actually plays rather better than people give it credit for.
Bravely doing away with the series’ ridiculously abundant cockpit view that often revealed more of the pilot’s anatomy than any of the enemy ships, WC4’s streamlined UI was a much-needed break from the norm that undoubtedly inspired the development of many successors. The missions are surprisingly varied too, certainly in comparison to Wing Commander 3, with the stock supply of escort and assault quests interspersed with police actions, stealth and reconnaissance missions and planetary attacks – most if not all of which are now considered standard issue.
Curiously it’s the FMV that these days seems rather more dated than the action, which might have more to do with recently seeing a bemused and bearded Mark Hamill on the big screen. That said, Wing Commander 4 was precisely as excessive and spectacular as it needed to be in order to provide the required conclusion .
Notes: Costing an unprecedented $12m to produce ($19m in 2016 money), Wing Commander 4 symbolises the high point of space combat’s excess. Unfortunately most of it was lavished on the FMV spectacle rather than the actual space combat, which was highlighted succinctly in PC Zone’s 1996 review as being “so-so”. Reviewer Charlie Brooker (whatever happened to him?) even went so far as to suggest that for his next project Chris Roberts should “completely cut out the combat sections and put out a movie instead”, which he promptly did of course, to the the tune of $30m.
What else should I be playing if I like this: It goes without saying that the Wing Commander series should be savoured in sequence, especially if you’re eager to experience the full power of the game’s storyline. Don’t bother with Academy or Armada though, and you can safely disengage without having to play through Prophecy. Otherwise try Privateer 2 if you want more FMV indulgence.
13. Tachyon: The Fringe (2000)
Although mostly remembered for featuring the vocal talents of Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell, Tachyon offered a clutch of minor renovations to the space combat sim formula, all of which helped it fly under the radar of it’s contemporaries and earn quite an audience for itself while others in the genre were blindly haring off towards oblivion.
Leaving the amusing script, voice work and lob-sided ships to… er… one side, the joy of flying around the Fringe is as much in picking your own way through it’s missions and eventually choosing a side to fight for as the fighting itself. There are no career choices and there’s no open world as most would recognise one, with new systems having to be unlocked throughout the game, but there is just enough freedom to roam and pick your own pace, without any of the bloated side-questing that’s endemic today.
The “slide” feature was another cute touch. Essentially the game’s Flight Assist off button, it was more a means to strafe the enemy rather than pander to the principles of Newtonian space flight, working most effectively of all when employed during multiplayer games, which in the game’s peak would boast upwards of 100 players – the largest scale space battles available at the time. The game’s multiplayer has long since been abandoned by its publisher and has been superseded gameplay-wise in scope if not in scale. Thankfully the single-player game, neither fully open nor entirely linear, remains accessible.
Notes: While Novalogic’s online hub Novaworld is still running it mainly services the Delta Force games and Tachyon not at all. If you want to fly with other pilots fringespace.org is your best hope, although Novalogic’s server meddling often sets connection efforts into disarray.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Freelancer is probably the closest in tone and exceeds Tachyon in scope. If you want to recapture the game’s BaseWars mode, FreeAllegiance isn’t too far removed from it.
12. Hardwar (1998)
Developer: The Software Refinery
Publisher: Gremlin Interactive
Some might scoff at the idea of Hardwar qualifying as a space shooter since it’s set entirely within the nitrogen-rich atmosphere of Saturn’s largest satellite. However, on the basis that the game has all the other ingredients – a sealed cockpit, future-guns, missions and/or trading, an appreciation (however unrequited) for joysticks – and mixes them up across an environment that is every inch as hostile any interplanetary nothingness, then it surely merits inclusion on this list.
Featuring a choice of starting careers including Scavenger, Agitator and Corrupt Cop, Hardwar is set across a sprawling post-industrial open world of poverty and vice that it’s your ultimate aim to escape from. The oppressive and claustrophobic orange murkiness across the length and breadth of Titan (a welcome symptom of 90s-era draw distances) worked in tandem with the games flimsily-designed Moth craft to emphasise what a grim existence the future could be, one that was enhanced by the infrequent FMV and mocked by the aesthetic contribution of Wipeout and PWEI image collaborators The Designers Republic.
While the combat wasn’t always the best, Hardwar’s trade AI in cooperation with the ability to set up hangers as factories and shops meant that with the right prices computer-controller moths could flock to your establishment. In that respect Hardwar predated the X series, making it rather a shame that a sequel wasn’t forthcoming.
Notes: Tipping Point and Good Morning Britain presenter Ben Shephard gets strung up as “Syd” in Hardwar’s FMV story. Don’t get too excited – he’s not the greatest actor.
Where can I buy it: It’s good and old but not on GOG. Try DotEmu instead.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Water has often been a good substitute for space. For ample proof ping the likes of Subwar 2050, Archimedian Dynasty and, if you can find a copy, Sub Culture.
11. FreeAllegiance (2006)
Developer: Microsoft Research
Having sold just 29,000 copies in its first year – a sadly unremarkable figure for space games at the time – in its second Microsoft decided to shut down the Allegiance servers, bringing to an apparent end an innovative mix of space sim combat and escalating strategy which its easy to see living on today in the modern MOBA.
Allegiance was more than a simple game of zero-g team deathmatch. AI collectors – minions essentially – ferried minerals from asteroid fields to home base across a network of sectors, each haul adding to a team’s ability to invest in new ships and equipment. The assigned commander was the strategist, directing the AI miners, watching for enemy incursions, building replacement ships. It was the pilots’ job to respond, to protect the team’s precious resource fields and its fluctuating borders, and to strike at the enemy team when the opportunity presented itself. The game was multiplayer RTS and FPS in near-perfect gameplay unison. Too complex and demanding for its own good, certainly, hence why it was played by just a few thousand and subscribed to by mere hundreds.
Allegiance’s time in stasis was thankfully short-lived. In 2004 Microsoft released the game’s code under a shared-source license and a team of fans set to work recompiling the game, a process that took two years, culminating in the release of a slightly improved, wonderfully documented and entirely free Allegiance. Since played by just hundreds but subscribed to by none, development on FreeAllegiance continues despite almost total ignorance of the game’s dogged persistence.
Notes: Microsoft’s first foray into on-line gaming was a two-pronged assault on the runaway success of Everquest – Asheron’s Call to square up to it and Allegiance to hopefully give SOE a bloody nose. The former actually made a decent fist of it before being undermined by its own sequel. Allegiance however just shadowboxed around the ring until being dragged off into early retirement.
Where can I buy it: You can download the game from freeallegiance.org and there are games in progress most weekends.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Shattered Horizon is another multiplayer space shooter, albeit without spaceships, that is languishing in undeserved obscurity.