15. Independence War (1997)
Developer: Particle Systems
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, also on this list. Artemis or Quintet are the games to try if you want to actually shout at a live crew.
14. Star Trek: Bridge Commander (2002)
Developer: Totally Games
Forget Star Trek: Bridge Crew, if you really fancy sitting in the captain’s chair in one of Starfleet’s finest cruisers then Star Trek: Bridge Commander should be your first port of call. Essentially, you’re watching an episode of Star Trek play out from the bridge, doling out orders and occasionally hanging out with Data. And if you’re more of a Deep Space Nine fan, then don’t worry, you’ll be up to your eyeballs in Cardassians in no time.
You can play it as a captain sim, where you hang back and sip Raktajino while your bridge officers do what they’d be paid to do if the Federation had currency and material wealth, which is doesn’t, unless you’re watching one of the episodes where it absolutely does. You tell your crew what to do, and then the AI takes over while you watch it all unfold on the viewscreen. It’s a Star Trek game at its most authentic, though the tactical view is the more sensible approach.
Changing modes switches to an external view where you’ve got direct control over the USS Dauntless and, later, the USS Sovereign, but while it’s arguably more engaging, the power of the captain’s chair is great. Inevitably I keep going back and just yelling at my Tactical Officer. It’s how all the greats did it.
Notes: Shouting on screen over and over again achieves nothing but it feels really good.
Where can I buy it: It’s no longer sold anywhere but you should be able to find it through other means.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you want a briefer VR romp, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, but if you’re going to play with friends, you might as just well bite the bullet and play Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator.
13. Descent (1994)
Developer: Parallax Software
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. 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 manoeuvre.
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.
12. 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.
11. Stellaris (2016)
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
After years of simulating the politics, economics and wars of history, Paradox decided to head off into the stars with their grand strategy/4X hybrid, Stellaris. Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4 had been pumping out weird stories and slices of historical drama for a few years, and more than anything else that’s what Stellaris brought to 4X’s sector of space.
You can spend hours creating your brand new alien species, right down to their government type and how good they are at making babies, but new technology and special events can transform them into something completely different. In my very first game, my race of happy-go-lucky dinosaur scientists splintered into two distinct groups, one of which had been cybernetically augmented. The augmented dinosaurs were oppressed by the others until they revolted and plunged the empire into a war. Eventually, the augmented rebels were squashed and the splinter group was wiped out entirely. All because, a century before, people started getting into wearable tech.
To get a taste of what it’s like to run a massive star empire, check out how Brendan’s utopian race of multicultural turtles got on. It’ll be a good time to jump in soon, too, as Stellaris is getting a pretty big overhaul in the upcoming free 2.0 update, due out on February 22.
Notes: Stellaris has a lively modding community and some impressive overhauls. The best of the bunch is Star Trek: New Horizons, a lavishly detailed Star Trek mod that piles on species-specific features like the Tal Shiar intelligence agency and Klingon civil wars.
Where can I buy it: You can get it on Steam and the Humble Store, and consider picking up the Utopia expansion, which fleshes out the late game, and Synthetic Dawn if you fancy playing as a robot empire.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s an abundance of space 4X games these days, including another one on this list. Galactic Civilizations 3 is another great one, especially if you play it with the Crusade expansion.