10. Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut (2014)
Developer: Born Ready Games
Publisher: Born Ready Games
Catch Strike Suit Zero at the right angle and you’d swear you were playing something with Homeworld in the title. The earthy tribal drums that wash over you, the ships displaying that unmistakable momentarily-confused shimmy in the midst of every turn, and behind them those vapour trails, like nexus ribbons attached to troops of celestial gymnasts. Born Ready knew what they were tapping into. It works too – Strike Suit offers a fitting tribute to one of the most aesthetic and pleasing sci-fi games around. A shame there was never a space combat spin-off to compliment it, eh readers?
Unfortunately it was the Strike Suit that seemed to let the side down. The build-up is exquisite; spectacular background battles that can rival Freespace’s, movement that is just the right side of imprecise, and then when it’s time to transform, instead of the Death Blossom effect you hope for and expect, it’s like being thrown into the driver’s seat of an old truck from a passing sports car. The transition is so abrupt that you become wary of using it – which is of course the point. You learn to adapt, to anticipate the key changes and the metamorphasis becomes part of the music of the game.
Notes: It was no surprise to learn that Homeworld composer, Paul Ruskay, was drafted in to score Strike Suit Zero, before being carefully returned to the Deserts of Kharak.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Born Ready Games have become Edge Case Games and are working on bigger spaceships in the form of the early access space MOBA Fractured Space.
9. Rebel Galaxy (2015)
Developer: Double Damage Games
Publisher: Double Damage Games
A 3D space is often the very best type of space, but in a realm where there is no right way up or sense of direction beyond a here, some there and a whole bunch of everywhere, a little simplification can do wonders.
Rebel Galaxy is undoubtedly a bit of a grind and suffers from repetition, but there probably hasn’t been a space adventure quite as accessible in years. Its flat-packed 2.5D universe rarely feels small and is the perfect foil to the current craze for procedurally-generated mega-billion star universes. Similarly the Firefly-inspired characters are a world away from the military-industrial factioneering of most space games. But perhaps the very best thing about the game is that in a genre that generally insists you arch yourself over your controller of choice to master the vagaries of space travel, here you’re encouraged to lean back with nothing more than your favourite console-style controller in your lap.
Rebel Galaxy is often compared to Freelancer and with it’s embracing of modern controls and disdain for the traditional joysticks, not to mention it’s wild west inspired trappings and front-loaded campaign, it’s easy to spot the similarities. The combat system however, with it’s broadsides and shield facings, borrows more from the Star Trek canon. It’s not the most challenging way to take out a few spaceships, but it’s perfectly aligned with the rest of the game.
Notes: It takes a while before you spot the fingerprints, but the hands of the creators of the Torchlight games are all over Rebel Galaxy. Unlike the cold, sterile universes of other games, Rebel Galaxy is worn and rugged, vibrant and familiar. A kind of Sid Meier’s Space Pirates!, if you will.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you prefer a less hands-on-joystick approach to space adventuring, Starpoint Gemini 2 and Drox Operative are excellent RPG-style games. Meanwhile, if it’s the less earnest approach you yearn for, Zigfrak and Galak-Z are quirky alternatives.
8. Evochron Legacy (2016)
Developer: StarWraith 3D Games
Publisher: StarWraith 3D Games
Mr StarWraith (aka Shawn Bower) seems to approach space game development in a rather similar manner to how Team 17 treat Worms; not so much developing sequels as iterating on the same essential formula, thus with each new release its predecessors become increasingly unnecessary.
Where the Arvoch series is Bower’s take on the more linear mission-focused space game, Evochron is it’s open world equivalent, a familiar mix of inconsequential quests, trading, mining, bounty-hunting and exploration. There’s actually an absurd amount to stuff to find and do and although much of it is obscured by a user interface that seems more interested in frustrating players as helping them, it’s one that you can’t help but grow attached to.
It’s the combat where the game shines brightest. The ships may lack the presence of Elite’s, but the HUD, various power systems and flight modeling is arguably the best around, especially for those coming more from the direction of military flight sims as opposed to arcade-orientated space ones
Notes: The tutorial takes more than three hours to plough through. Don’t start it late at night or you’ll fall asleep at the keyboard.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you prefer a more linear mission-based game, StarWraith’s own Arvoch Conflict is a little more focused.
7. Freelancer (2003)
Developer: Digital Anvil
If there’s one title in this list that likely wouldn’t be improved by an HD release it’s Freelancer. Given that Chris Roberts’ last full game has been widely unavailable for much of its 13-year existence, any kind of re-release would of course be very welcome, but in light of how much fan effort has gone into maintaining and improving it since, v1.0 would do just fine, thank you very much.
The original Freelancer was a very good game; a slick and accessible successor to Wing Commander: Privateer and the sequel to Starlancer that offered just the right blend of storytelling and open-world adventuring, but sadly with a campaign that was unable to fill the space that had been created for it. With many promised features left by the wayside – a full economy and the capacity to host thousands of players simultaneously – it was hardly the great white hope it was initially hyped up to be. That it was considered one of the last great space games prior to the current stellar resurgence is as much to do with there being very little else around at the time to compete with it. That it remains one of the great space games now is to a large degree down to the mods that continue to be developed; in particular the Crossfire and Discovery mods, between the two of which Freelancer has been augmented and expanded beyond all recognition and can today claim to offer the depth of content and many of the features that was denied it prior to its first release.
Notes: If you have a copy of Freelancer you owe it yourself to install either Crossfire or Discovery. Both offer a vast range of enhancements that are too exhaustive to list here, but essentially Crossfire is more geared towards single-player and Discovery is more for the online Freelancer.
Where can I buy it: Used copies are available for around £10.
What else should I be playing if I like this: DarkStar One? Nah, only joking. Chris Robert’s mega-funded Star Citizen is obviously worth serious consideration, but it’s nowhere near complete and probably only worth keeping an eye on for now.
6. X3: Albion Prelude (2012)
Publisher: Deep Silver
Although it started out as a rather humourless and unhurried take on Elite, the X series has over the course of 15 years or so carved out an impressive niche for itself, thanks almost entirely to systems that allow players to automate the resourcing, manufacture and distribution of goods in the manner of proper intergalactic entrepreneurs, rather than have them doing the space equivalent of steering a Transit van stuffed with cheap vodka across the English Channel. Little wonder then that the series has become the go-to game for space captains who’d rather explore a capitalist frontier than venture beyond anything physical.
Egosoft would no doubt argue that there’s been more to its games than first-person Industry Giant in space, pointing to the series’ motto and the prominence of fighting ahead of thinking. The truth though is that that it took a few attempts for the German developer to properly nail combat; it being pretty woeful in the original game and decidedly second-rate in X2 when compared to the then fresh-faced Freelancer. The X3 games seemed to nail it though; each release offering a more evolved OS-styled control set-up that managed to avoid falling into the FPS mouse trap while complimenting the complexities of the trading simulation underpinning the game.
Some might protest that Albion Prelude went a step too far, with just too much slow-burning intricacy and not enough explanation, but in setting the X universe at war with itself ahead of the slate-cleaning Rebirth, it offered players the best opportunity in the long-running series to make good profit at the expense of others.
Notes: Even though the X games have always supported them and joysticks are firmly back in vogue, the mouse remains our weapon of choice. It’s just better for business.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The usual rule of X games is to enter via the most recent. Unfortunately that’s X Rebirth, which rather threw the baby out with the bathwater in attempting to streamline the series. Until X4 comes along, consider immersing yourself in the industrial depths of Eve Online instead.