20. 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.
19. 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.
18. 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.
17. 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.
16. Startopia (2001)
Developer: Mucky Foot Productions
Publisher: Square Enix
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Theme Hospital is a hell of a pitch, but then Startopia is a hell of a game. You are, for your sins, the new administrator of rundown space station in desperate need of TLC and also cash. Mostly cash. The best route to wealth is by pandering to the needs of the colourful cast of alien visitors and residents, each with their own individual proclivities and needs, as well as those attributed to their species.
Food, entertainment, healthcare, you’ve got to take care of everything, and then hire the right people, aliens and robots to work for you. You start off with a puny section of the ringed station, but you can own the whole thing eventually. Each section is split into three floors, with living areas on one, the entertainment district above it, and then finally a biodome area sitting on top of it all. You can carve out a little wilderness in space, with lakes and hills for the various species to chill out near when life gets too hard or the Douglas Adams-style jokes get old (that literally never happens of course).
The real appeal — more so in 2001 than now, but it’s still a boon — was that it was a space game that didn’t task me with shooting aliens or blowing up spaceships. Instead it focused on the mundanity of life floating in orbit and street-level sci-fi.
Notes: Startopia came out in the era of Rollercoaster Tycoon, but didn’t get any follow ups. Double Fine’s Spacebase DF-9 briefly looked like it could fill the gap, but its development was infamously cut short and it launched before it had finished cooking.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There isn’t really anything like Startopia, but for a more science-focused alternative Maia might scratch an itch. It is in early access though.