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The 15 Best Space Games

Be pilots, pirates and space truckers.

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5. Independence War (1997)

Developer: Particle Systems
Publisher: Infogrames

Direct first-person control doesn’t normally lend itself to starship command, where from the bridge the captain of a ship would rather be barking orders at the crew members rather than pulling on a joystick or waving a mouse around. Nevertheless, many games have tried to capture the command experience and have done so poorly – Starfleet Academy springs to mind – usually just by making big ships respond more slowly to instruction than smaller ships. Needless to say it’s not been the most impressive solution.

Independence War was the first game to offer a convincing hands-on spaceship command experience in first-person without demoting the player to the role of truck driver or burdening them with micromanagement. It did this in a number of ways: first by implementing a more natural and accurate flight model, with inertia preventing pilots from attempting witless maneuvers. Secondly by overlaying the various command stations with such an abundance of tactical information and options that it required a keen eye to keep a track of ship positions and speed, as well as shield and heat management – which felt like precisely the sort of thing a ship’s captain would spend their time doing.

Thankfully some of the busywork can be automated, leaving you to focus on the accomplished and challenging combat simulation wrapped up in a complex and well presented story

Notes: Both I-War games were designed by Glyn Williams, previously responsible for the celebrated Amiga space game Warhead.

Where can I buy it: GOG only, although Steam does have the sequel.

What else should I be playing if I like this: For more capital ship combat try Starshatter: The Gathering Storm or the Battlecruiser / Universal Combat series. Otherwise we’d advise one of the Starfleet Command games or, if you can find it, Star Trek: Bridge Commander. Artemis or Quintet are the games to try if you want to actually shout at a live crew.

4. Descent (1994)

Developer: Parallax Software
Publisher: Interplay

Having been lumped in with run-and-gun first-person shooters since the time of its release (CGW magazine called it “Doom on Benzedrine in a vacuum”), Descent’s numerous innovations have often been serially overlooked before being casually tossed into the lower rankings of various Best Ever lists (38th Best FPS, in case you were wondering.) True, it didn’t have many rock star developers working on it, there were no demons from hell rampaging through it’s claustrophobic corridors and there was not one smear of blood to enrage or delight its audience. What it did have was speed, maze-like 3D levels and a range of movement in all directions that was at beautiful odds with the limited space in which to maneuverer.

Disorientation was a constant companion – for some players so too was motion sickness – but in rescuing trapped colonists otherwise doomed to die and escaping each quaking level before it was engulfed in a nuclear fireball the game paid out in full.

After more than 20 years does Descent remain an essential game in the same way that Doom is? Given that it would morph into Freespace and remain to some degree in Red Faction’s DNA, yes, yes it is. More importantly, it’s still enjoyable, more so in many ways than the game that inspired it.

Notes: Descent’s creators have set themselves up as Revival Productions and recently raised $300k in Kickstarter funding towards the game’s spiritual successor Overload.

Where can I buy it: The Descent series was removed from Steam and GOG last December due to a dispute between Parallax and Interplay. Until it returns Ebay might be your best option.

What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s been no shortage of Descent-style games recently, including Sublevel Zero, Retrovirus and NeonXSZ. The only one that’s disappointed us so far is the series planned prequel Descent: Underground, which we’ll overlook as it’s deep in Early Access.

3. Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994)

Developer: Totally Games
Publisher: Lucasarts

Contrary to popular belief the X-Wing series wasn’t a direct assault on Wing Commander. It was an attempt to transpose the systems and success of Totally Games’ first series onto what would be its second. Indeed, you don’t need to play much of either to see that there’s more of Wing Commander in Battlehawks 1942 and Their Finest Hour than there is of X-Wing or TIE Fighter in Wing Commander. Just as Star Wars’ space battles are inspired by WWII combat footage, the X-Wing series are informed almost entirely by Totally’s WWII fight games. That they all featured a mission builder, combat recorder and historical missions only serves to underline that fact.

In any case, had X-Wing been intended as Star Wars’ answer to WingCo, X-Wing 2 would surely have followed it. Instead Totally and Lucasarts opted to flip the story to the Dark Side, in so doing allowing players the opportunity to fight for the Empire for the first time while avoiding the mistake of painting everyone in it as wholly and irredeemably evil. Even though we knew we were on the wrong side, the game had us believing our hearts were in the right place even if our guns were pointing at the good guys.

As the oldest arcade simulation on this list TIE Fighter has aged rather well, partly because its 3D engine predates the murkier, fuzzier lines and textures of the 3Dfx era. Mostly though it’s because the gameplay is effectively timeless. Despite the fact that the difficulty levels are rather less consistent than in X-Wing, TIE Fighter’s improved AI, power management and ship targeting swing the recommendation firmly in TIE Fighter’s favour.

Notes: Perhaps the biggest problem with playing the early X-Wing games today is that they don’t always get on too well with modern joysticks. Indeed, it seems that the more modern and expensive the stick, the more issues present themselves.

Where can I buy it: The Steam version gets you the 1994 original release (including expansion) and the 1998 Collector Series release. To get the superior 1995 Collector’s CD edition of TIE Fighter you need to go to GOG.

What else should I be playing if I like this: X-Wing as a matter of course. X-Wing vs TIE Fighter still gets played online from time to time and its Balance of Power add-on is a worthy follow-up. Then there’s the comparatively weak X-Wing Alliance, which at least has a seat for you aboard the Millennium Falcon.

2. Elite Dangerous (2014)

Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments

Whether or not Elite 4 has depth issues, there’s certainly a widely-held belief that despite all the solar systems you can visit, the planets you can land on and endless missions up for grabs from every human outpost, there’s just not enough variation and very little impact a player can make on the game or the universe around them. Players have found ways to extend their fun of course, such as by hosting races, jumping to the rescue of stranded ships, infiltrating player groups and leading expeditions to the other side of the galaxy, but many of these player-sourced happenings have been in spite of limits put upon them as much by the scope the game offers. In that sense Elite has the least amount of “game” in this list.

But what makes Elite so compelling isn’t so much about the game as the experience. It’s the tinkering with and the taking out of a performance car for a Sunday drive, not to rack up more miles, nor to break any speed limits, but to just feel the growl of the engine and the wind comb through what’s left of your hair. To remember those carefree days arched over a BBC Micro or blinking angrily into a Lenslok and to forget for a short while that you have to make 357 people redundant in the morning. Elite is a hermetically-sealed escape capsule and it’s the best there is. Hell, you could fire the game up and just sit there on a launch pad and the sounds are enough to carry you away, so strong is your ship’s presence and so absorbing are the station surroundings.

Taking off, tearing through the station entrance a little too fast and just missing a Python, angling for the next jump, scooping fuel from a blazing sun, spinning the camera around your ship to catch its best profile, starting a fight just for the hell of it, seeing smok rise from the command console, hearing the screen crack and precious oxygen escaping into space and landing back at base with seconds to spare – these are the moments that make Elite essential. Trading, missions, mining – not so much. But it’s ok, we’re not going anywhere.

Notes: Elite’s next big update, dubbed The Engineers, is due for beta testing in May and aims to introduce a new mission system that rewards players with crafting materials as well as credits. We’ll have to wait and see whether the update has the desired effect to reinvigorate questing.

Where can I buy it: Direct from Frontier (which will give you Steam key) or via Steam (which requires a Frontier account).

What else should I be playing if I like this: In development Star Citizen and in perpetuum Eve Online are obvious recommendations for wildly different reasons. If however it’s the past you seek, Oolite and Pioneer are worthy tributes to the early Elite titles.

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