The best space games on PC

10. Freelancer (2003)

Developer: Digital Anvil
Publisher: Microsoft

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.


9. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (2012)

Developer: Ironclad Games
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment

Ironclad Games’ RTS pinches the scale of 4X game and pits massive armadas against each other in orbital laser light shows. All the diplomatic, trade and research systems borrowed from 4Xs prop up the constant war, funding and upgrading increasingly diverse fleets. At first you’ll just be throwing light attack ships at planets you want to gobble up, but eventually you’ll be surrounding worlds and enemy fleets with capital ships the size of small moons and a whole host of support vessels, carriers, tiny fighters and bombers.

Sins’ smartest trick is the use of restrictive lanes to connect worlds. It forces fleets to travel down predetermined paths, appearing in specific places. Even in space, then, there’s terrain, with the lanes’ entrances and exits acting as choke points around which weapons platforms can be constructed and fleets positioned.

The Rebellion standalone adds the additional wrinkle of new playable rebel factions and their accompanying victory conditions, but also powerful Titan-class ships and overhauled vanilla factions. Oh, and it’s quite bit prettier!

Notes: Rebellion got some new DLC in 2016, four years after it launched, introducing some criminal-themed stuff like smuggling specialisation along with automated militias who raid nearby worlds and can be used to protect your own.

Where can I buy it: Grab it on Steam, GOG and the Humble Store. There’s an Ultimate Edition, too, with all Rebellion’s DLC.

What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s a fantastic Star Wars mod for Rebellion, but if you want the official thing, give Star Wars: Empire at War a try.

8. X3: Albion Prelude (2012)

Developer: Egosoft
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.

Where can I buy it: You could get the X3: Terran War double pack on GOG, but Terran Conflict is an unnecessary distraction. Just get Albion Prelude on Steam instead.

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.


7. Distant Worlds Universe (2014)

Developer: Code Force
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.

Distant Worlds Universe collects Code Force and Matrix Games’ complex space 4X game and its DLC in one package, and it was our strategy game of the year back in 2014. The accolade is still well deserved. It’s a sprawling behemoth of a game set in a universe that gets along with or without you. Trade companies do business all across the universe, empires rise and fall, sectors transform from tourist traps into warzones.

Rather than presenting empire building as a series of paths, it’s a pure sandbox absent all but player-defined goals. If that sounds daunting, it is! But that that’s OK because Distant Worlds also boasts an unparalleled automation system that breaks the game up into manageable chunks. If war isn’t your cup of Earl Grey, you can leave all martial matters up to the extremely competent AI. The same goes for every system. If you really want to ease into things, or if you just fancy exploring space, you can give up control of everything apart from a single ship. Effectively you take a break from being Emperor to become a simple spaceship captain. From that perspective you can just watch the universe evolve around you. When that gets old, you can start switching off the automation of other systems one by one until you find your limit.

Notes: Distant Worlds is entirely moddable, but the 99-page modding guide that comes with the game is a little intimidating.

Where can I buy it: It’s available on Steam, GOG and the official website.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Go back to the start and play Master of Orion, the game for which the term ‘4X’ was coined.


6. Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts

The Mass Effects are Captain Kirk simulators, basically. You’re not Sulu, blowing Klingons out of space, or Chekov, piloting a ship, you’re the boss. And being the boss largely means telling people what to do and snogging. Commander Shepard’s second mission remains their best — it’s a planet-hopping Argonautica and suicide mission with some of BioWare’s best-realised characters.

While the line separating the good guys and the bad guys seemed clear in the original Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 blurs the lines and foists deals with the devilish Illusive Man upon Shepard. That awkward alliance nets Shepard a new version of the Normandy, and introduces a sci-fi trope that’s a personal favourite of mine: a smart-talking AI. EDI and Joker’s helm banter might have bordered on the Whedonesque a bit, but I can’t imagine the ship without it.

No Mass Effect is an island, though. The middle game might be the best, but the first lays all the groundwork. And don’t listen to the naysayers, the final game drops the ball a bit during the closing act — in contrast to Mass Effect 2’s exceptional one — but it’s otherwise a cracking end to the trilogy.

Notes: Dating advice? Garrus. Garrus every time.

Where can I buy it: Pick it up on Origin and Steam or get the Mass Effect Collection with all the games excluding Andromeda, which isn’t very good anyway.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Mass Effect wouldn’t exist without Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which saw BioWare bid farewell to Dungeons & Dragons and head into space for the first time.


  1. LexW1 says:

    It’s pretty strange that I-War 2 isn’t on this list, given some of the stuff that is, and I just can’t get behind Elite: Dangerous as even a good game, let alone the “third best” space game on PC. I see the justification you’re going for but as someone who also played Elite since the BBC Micro, and who was one of the first backers for E:D, E:D is nothing but a massive disappointment that makes me wish the older, more fun-oriented, less tedium/grinding-oriented, less sim-ish Elites had been the evolutionary path Elite followed, instead of become a very a bad MMO and a slightly questionable space sim (albeit a very visually and sonically polished one). It’s a bad game, in the end.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I was surprised to see the first I-War instead of I-War 2, which is the much more polished version of the concept. Best flight/fight mechanics of any cockpit-level space game ever.

      I wish Elite Dangerous had used the full 6DOF and high-speed flight mechanics in I-War 2. It’s the only space cockpit game where I felt like I was flying *fast*, which you’d think would be a requirement for a spaceship.

      My one complaint about the game was how linear the story and missions are, but that’s the same in other space games of the era like Tie Fighter and Freespace 2.

      • Targaff says:

        I just assumed that the inclusion of Independence War included the second game by reference, with the first getting the nod for the list because it was, as stated, “the first” to do what it does. it doesn’t really matter, anyhow – both games are great for much the same reasons.

        • Sin Vega says:

          I’d definitely rate the second one as higher, if only because the first has that godawful mandatory training course before you’re allowed to play.

    • Shacklestein says:

      For those who loved the old Elite and who’d like the same thing only more, Oolite might fit the bill nicely. The base game initially looks and feels like Elite-with-fancier-graphics (unless you turn on wire frame mode). Looking closer, there are loads of stuff going on under the hood with AI behaviour and system politics/economy.

      Throw in the hundreds and hundreds of mods available, and you can pretty much customize the game to be exactly what you want it to be. And last time I checked, the forum was still the friendliest this side of Riedquat.

    • Janichsan says:

      …the older, more fun-oriented, less tedium/grinding-oriented, less sim-ish Elites …

      You are either joking or your memory of the old Elite games is less precise as you think: for one, compared to Frontier: Elite II and First Encounters, ED plays like a arcade shooter. Secondly, the old games were (even) far more grind-oriented and repetitive than ED. In the old games, it took you ages of repeating the ever same cycle of trade runs to get enough money to upgrade your ship and/or buy a better ship. ED on the other hand drowns you in money, allowing you to make a hundreds of thousands, if not millions of credits within less than an hour – even without exploits.

  2. Solidstate89 says:

    This reminds me that I need to go back and play Sins of a Solar Empire since it got that performance patch last year allowing to use more memory and optimizing a few things. Love the game to bits but I was never able to actually finish a full game as the fleet battles became so large that the framerate would slow down to a single digit crawl.

    • Megatron says:

      There’s also a terrific Star Trek mod, Star Trek Armada 3, taking after the ancient Activision RTS game series. It’s the best Star Trek fleet combat game bar none, and also benefited from the performance patch you described. The latest version has just today slipped into Beta so I’m looking forward to seeing the new stuff and changes.

  3. TychoCelchuuu says:

    I’d stick House of the Dying Sun and Allegiance to the list somewhere. House of the Dying Sun is the main true successor to stuff like TIE Fighter and Freespace. Its dogfighting combat is expertly tuned and super intense.

    Allegiance is one of the most innovative games of all time and is the only game aside from Freespace 2 that has truly made me feel like I’m flying as part of a fleet of ships. That’s the sort of experience that makes for some of the best space game fun ever: not just a dogfight, but a full-on battle.

    Mass Effect 2 is fun but I don’t really think of it as a space game. It’s sci-fi, sure, but it all takes place on the ground, basically!

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Yeah, including Mass Effect 2 is kinda silly, might as well include Duke Nukem 3D and Wolfenstein since you have a entire levels of both on the Moon.
      HoTDS is awesome, it’s a pity that there has been no follow-up.

      • Fraser Brown says:

        You have a spaceship and you travel through space. It’s a space game.

        • TychoCelchuuu says:

          I mean yes you technically travel through space in what is potentially the most anemic splaceflight mechanic ever implemented in an interactive medium. It feels more like a joke than anything. A much better replacement would be Star Control II, I think. It’s got all the “travel around the galaxy, meet interesting alien races, land on planets” stuff that Mass Effect 2 has, but your spaceship is much more integral to the whole thing (you use it to fight, you upgrade and customize it, etc.), you actually feel like you’re exploring space (there are a zillion planets, the fuel mechanic actually means something rather than just wasting your time), the game is clearly not interesting in being a Gears of War clone, etc.

          • Sin Vega says:

            Gears of War clone

            I mean… come on

          • Eightball says:

            Well yeah, if the game had bayonets like Gears it would’ve been better.

          • ashleys_ears says:

            Agreed. ME2 isn’t a “space game,” it’s a game that happens to involve traveling through space. You might as well be sailing a ship over the ocean or journeying across the countryside in a horse-drawn buggy for all the difference it would make. The fact that you’re in space has no gameplay bearing at all. Your ship is just a hub world you use to travel from one environment to another. You never fly the thing. Hell, even the “upgrading the ship” stuff only manifests by changing which scripted cutscene(s) you get during the final mission.

  4. Turkey says:

    Space Games
    I always wanted you to go
    Play some Space Gaaaames (Intergalactic Christ…?)

    • PanFaceSpoonFeet says:

      You got me with intergalactic Christ. Aka Space Jesus.

    • Sin Vega says:

      I can never hear that song now without thinking of the Brass Eye interview where they had no idea how utterly they’d just self-owned

  5. RuySan says:

    No Master of Orion 2? (while Stellaris is there?)
    No Space Rangers 2? (while Rebel Galaxy is there?)

    Tell me it was just a mistake

    • Gothnak says:

      Master Of Orion 2 missing when Stellaris & Sins of a Solar Empire & Distant Suns are there? It must be a joke…

      I did expect it to pop up at number 1, but nowhere at all.

      I think i’ve spent more time playing MOO2 than all of the other space sims put together, Stellaris was completely soulless for me.

    • Neutrino says:

      No MoO, no Homeworld, and no Elite.

      Worst list ever.

    • TheOx129 says:

      I agree on Space Rangers, but I’m going to open the can of worms here and say I agree with MoO2’s omission. It’s incredibly influential and a good game, but at the same time, I think it’s sort of…boring, I guess? Like, I think MoO2 took one too many cues from Civilization and, as a result, the game can feel too much like Civ 2 with a science fiction paint job, complete with fiddly micromanagement after your empire reaches a certain size.

      For my money, both 1 and 3 were more interesting in terms of design, yet 2 was held up as this gold standard, so for years we basically had this constant cycle of space 4X devs trying to capture the “magic” of MoO2 yet seemingly always falling short. Frankly, I’m glad that with games like Distant Worlds and Stellaris, it seems like developers have finally broken with the MoO2 obsession and are actively trying to do new things with the space 4X once more – even if their reach sometimes exceeds their grasp.

  6. Nauallis says:

    Homeworld 1&2! It’s set almost entirely in space! 3-D RTS, maps that have true tactical verticality, some are mostly empty, some are full of debris, but nothing is based on capturing some grounder shmuck’s base of landlubbering immobility (although there are some space stations and asteroid bases). Gameplay is dynamic, the player’s fleet has continuity from mission to mission, and it’s an RTS where thoughtful use of resources is usually more effective than steamrolling. The skyboxes are huge and beautiful and hint at an ancient galaxy of lost lore and precursor megastructures. Grumble grumble grumble.

    Also, no MoOII, bah humbug.

    • Admiral666 says:

      I was flabbergasted to see that Homeworld did not feature, especially so now that Remastered has brought it back to life.

    • Kurtismayfield says:

      Considering that the only point of these ranking articles seems to be stimulating debates in forums, omitting Homeworld may be a feature…not a bug.

    • abomb76 says:

      I was equally dismayed to see Homeworld not make the list…then I wondered if the authors were too young to have experienced it.

      Flying a fighter over the decks of a capital ship in 3D glory was amazing when it first came out!

  7. Camilitus says:

    ermmm… none of these games you can play happily for years. Maybe KSP…. but seriously leaving out EVE online does overlook its impressive single shard nature (shout out to Wicked Creek!) and thus it multi lingual multi cultural multi time zone nature, its longevity as a viable concern, mass battles, national press coverage, 15 odd years of updates, rich story and history (both player and lore), its birth of Valkyrie (VR) and Dust (Playstation), the latter which integrated (sorta) with EVE and what has to be one of the biggest gaming spaces ever conceived. But leaving all that aside and more, none of the titles above offered customers to have their player names carved into granite to last long after the human has expired. It also has the best community made propaganda and songs. I think it was also once Iceland’s leading single source of foreign currency!

    • Sound says:

      Failing to place Eve in the better half of the list is a real mistake. It easily deserves on this list.

  8. slamelov says:

    I-War 1 (Independence War), I-War 2 (Edge of Chaos) and Frontier First Encounters (Elite 3) should be in first 3 positions, choose the order. And Elite Dangerous the 4th.

  9. Wolfman says:

    Number (2)1 should be Nexus the Jupiter Incident. A forgotten classic that is just aching for a more modern remake.

    • nitric22 says:

      Oh man, I wonder by what means I own this. Is it a physical disc tucked away somewhere? Is it some digital download on an obscure site that I can’t remember? I simply don’t know. It has been misplaced, yet I would love very much to have another go at Nexus.

      • Nauallis says:

        It’s on GoG, if you don’t locate it elsewhere.

      • Frog says:

        I really enjoyed that one too. They tried to go at it on kickstarter for a followup, didn’t make it.

    • Solidstate89 says:

      God I loved that game. Really the first strategy/3D space game I played that had full x, y and z plane maneuvers. And the maps were huge too. Totally underrated as far as great space games are concerned.

  10. nitric22 says:

    Bridge Commander, Sins, Mass Effect, and Tachyon all get my vote! Deserving of a place is Battlezone.

  11. Arioch_RN says:

    The next big release for Elite Dangerous is the Engineers beta update in May? Am I living two years in the future or something?

    • AthanSpod says:

      Indeed, 3.0 beta 2 is already on the ED test servers. When will it be live though? No-one yet knows, and I’d hope FDev take their time with these huge changes to both Engineering and the whole Crime & Punishment system.

    • DiscordCabbage says:

      It seems like they just copied the text from the last time they did the Best Space Games article.

  12. Ghostwise says:

    Guys, Hardwar seems gone from Dot.Emu (though it could be a geoblocking shenanigan).

  13. Premium User Badge

    Gassalasca says:

    When I saw the article, I was absolutely sure EVE Online would be #1, and it’s not even on the list. 0.o

  14. Laurentius says:

    Like I don’t get it. There are tons of old games, there is no stake in constructing such list, there will be no wining party or anything, games that are consdiered classic will remain view as such. So for the love of god, if you are gonna make Freespace2 a number one space game, at least give Starlancer a fair shake. Your little addeneum clearly implies that you didn’t.
    Starlancer does so much things better then Freespace, like gigantic difference is mission briefings, Freespce is full of boring menus, Starlancer has excellent briefings, you feel like a pilot and not someone browsing interent.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Starlancer for what I have tried is very rough around the edges like all the Chris Roberts spacesims. Wing Commander IV is indeed his best work (and I suspect it’s because he didn’t follow it as closely as other games he worked on) and still doesn’t come close to Freespace and Tie Fighter.

      • Laurentius says:

        What are these rough edges then? Story? Mission design? Flying model? Ships and weapons? Almosteverything Freespace does, Starlancer does equally well or better.

        It’s clear to me Starlancer has not receive a fair shake up here as well because what is always omitted when this game comes up is that whole campaing can be played on co-op which is a unheard feature in these games.
        Not too mention that Freespace is full of rough edges.

        • Det. Bullock says:

          OK, from the little I could try of the game:
          There is an overreliance on mid-mission cutscenes that break the flow of the gameplay.
          Energy controls use that stupid analog triangle system that sucked in Wing Comamnder Prophecy and sucks here too, using simple button commands like in Freespace and the Xwing/Tie Fighter games is much easier when under fire.
          Story feels a lot like the classic Roberts military fantasy with ace pilots that save the day, much less interesting than the cosmic horror story and the “cog in the machine” feel of the Freespace series.
          The mission design is difficult to judge having played only a few missions but it has a lot of that Wing Commander feel which is not a good thing in my book since it tends to get repetitive really fast.

      • milligna says:

        As if Chris Roberts had anything to do with Starlancer but taking credit.

        • Det. Bullock says:

          Roberts’ fingerprints can be seen all over it though, the guy might not have much to do with it but it’s clear they were following his way of doing things.

    • PancakeWizard says:

      Starlancer is impossible to buy though, so it would seem a little unfair to give a billing if no one can play it.

  15. Ben King says:

    I think had I played Freespace 2 in high school i could have loved all of it’s elaborate keyboard controls and slick piloting options, but the low level keyboard ninja skills needed to re-route all shield power to the rear while barrel rolling my bomber in an evasive manuver before whipping around to re-jigger my shields and fire the correct weapon grouping was just too much for me as a sad boring grown-up. Looking forward to the completion of Outer Wilds though as I got quite a kick out of their demo’s fun but lightly technical zero-g piloting and landing shindigs.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Doesn’t Freespace 2 support HOTAS controllers? It’s been a long time since I played it, but I think I remember this coming out during that period when it was assumed hardcore players would be using a joystick with many buttons, if not a full HOTAS rig. Makes all that quick energy management and weapon selection much more intuitive, once you build in the muscle memory.

      • Det. Bullock says:

        Freespace 1&2 (both retail and modded) only supports one gaming peripheral with stick, throttle and rudder out of the box, if you have a HOTAS you will need to use something to create a virtual peripheral to make everything work (well, the most expensive ones and some of the cheap ones usually come bundled with such a software).

    • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

      I played it again a few months back, it’s quite competent if you have a multibutton mouse. Fills in pretty well for a proper joystick.

  16. Det. Bullock says:

    I just wish the list criteria weren’t so loose, I would definitively have omitted all the strategy games, since those are strong titles in their own genre.

  17. FriendlyFire says:

    Strongly disagree that Freelancer can’t benefit from some HDifying! This isn’t vanilla Freelancer, it’s a Star Wars total conversion called Freeworlds: Tides of War, but you won’t get this sort of visual prowess from the base game (or any other mod). Bit disappointed we weren’t included.

  18. Eightball says:

    Each of FTL‘s procedural adventure casts you adrift in space with a single goal: outrun the Federation and bring their secret plans to your Rebel allies.

    Minor correction, since I’ve been playing FTL recently: you play as a Fed officer and are trying to outrun the Rebels, to bring their plans to the Federation.

    I would’ve liked to see some Homeworld on the list but otherwise not bad.

    • AlexW says:

      I’d definitely like to see Homeworld on the list. Its sound design is still gorgeous, and the atmosphere it creates is incredible; it features a fair few entities that feel truly alien rather than just humans in rubber suits; and its theme of space as a desert rather than an ocean, and its allusions to Jewish lore, still feels fresh today. Plus, there’s something darkly delightful about being the bogeyman of the enemy empire, everything they’ve feared for thousands of years suddenly erupted forth into an unstoppable fleet of reverse-engineering masterminds.

      Homeworld: Cataclysm is also worth a mention as a stunningly good horror game, and a far superior sequel to Homeworld 2.

  19. Det. Bullock says:

    A few corrections regarding Tie Fighter and the X-wing series: only X-wing alliance had a mission builder (or to be more precise, an official one, there are some fanmade ones available), the film room was missing from X-wing vs Tie Fighter and the historical missions were omitted from X-wing Alliance in favour of simple demo scenarios for the basic mission builder (though you could replay campaign mission from the same menu).
    The difficulty curve in Tie Fighter was much better calibrated than in X-wing which had some missions that were stupidly difficult very early on, it has also difficulty levels and most of all *the game tells you if you failed a mission* (in X-wing there was no objective feedback for mission failure). If anything X-wing was incredibly inconsistent, I remember having some very easy mission and then a mission that had me stumped for almost a year, you could also lose all the rank points of you got blasted in the wrong place at the wrong time or the eject system got damage while in Tie Fighter there was a back-up feature built-in for the save to avoid that (you can disable it in the options if you want the full masochistic hardcore experience).

    Reagarding the joysticks I would contend that the more expensive ones are the ones that have a better possibility to work as at the time the games came out there were only two categories of sticks: two button ones and stuff full of buttons that came with a mapping software to configure it properly, the latter part being true for basically all expensive sticks as long as you take the time to use its software and create a profile for the game you should be fine and nowadays there are a lof of thir party solutions for models that don’t have one. The only real issue is that only Alliance has rudder support. The throttle in XW and TF is always in 1/3 steps (even in the windows version, it can be done in the dos versions with external utilities), with analog throttle only being introduced in X-wing vs Tie Fighter and X-wing Alliance.

    • juan_h says:

      The problem with using the joystick throttle to control your ship’s speed in Tie Fighter is that the keyboard controls are much more practical. It’s faster and less distracting to hit either the “match speed” or “full speed” button on the keyboard than it is to fiddle with the throttle lever on my flight-stick trying to do the same thing.

      • Det. Bullock says:

        Yeah, I never used the throttle either until I got a HOTAS (in that case it’s a boon, even in 1/3 steps) but some people feel the need to configure it somehow even if reaching for that wheel/slider/whatever at the base of the stick is nothing but a way to distract you from the keyboard.

  20. rochrist says:

    Star Traders: Frontiers from the Trese Brothers should be on there somewhere. The Trese Bros invariably deliver FAR more than your money’s worth and they’re living up to that reputation with ST:F. Absurdly deep sandbox in which you can live out virtually any SF fantasy.

    • Megatron says:

      Hmm. Curious. This had better not be a ‘made in 1995’ spreadsheet special…

      Ohhhhh, noooooo, it most certainly isn’t! This looks fab! Thanks for the recommendation!

    • spleendamage says:

      I play a lot of Star Traders: Frontiers lately and the Trese Bros are impressively engaged developers. But, it is still in Early Access.

    • hijuisuis says:

      This does look excellent, thank you. I’ve wish listed until it comes out of EA.

  21. specialsymbol says:

    Seriously, you ditched Privateer? Space trading has been done better? Where? When?

    Games are not about graphics or size, they are about fun, atmosphere (no pun intended) and style. Which game delivers this more than Privateer? Privateer should and could have been Number 2 – at least.

    Also, Descent instead of Descent 2 – well, I can understand this, somehow. But Descent 2 is clearly the better game.

    And last: seriously, have you even played Albion Prelude? X³ – Terran Conflict is much more beautiful. The story is better, it’s at least more positive. Granted, there is more fighting in Albion Prelude. It’s quicker, it’s more accessible. You get rich quicker and the missions are easier. But, in the end, it’s basically the same as Terran Conflict, just less beautiful – and less demanding.

    • Premium User Badge

      subdog says:

      Privateer is the best space game.

      • blue92 says:

        Wom won won
        *Shield down*
        Clank clank clank

        I can still hear the coming into orbit and taking off music!

        • 1Derby says:

          Clank. Clank. Clank.
          This post made me happy.

          “Yeah! You’re Nailed!”

    • juan_h says:

      I used to love Privateer. I loved flying to new planets and stations for the first time. I loved upgrading my ship. I loved the ambient music on stations and planets. But Privateer has not aged well at all. The combat is terrible. The sprite-based graphics make it hard to tell how close an enemy ship really is or which way it’s really facing, so that you can’t properly lead your target without one of the advanced “shoot here, dummy” targeting systems. And, while the game lets you trade, the trading is largely pointless. It’s easier to earn money by running missions from the mission computer or one of the guilds. To make matters worse, there’s nothing to do with your money but upgrade your ship. The story missions are all combat-centric, making the dedicated merchant vessel largely pointless.

    • syllopsium says:

      Privateer is still decent, but the fact that getting out of the first galaxy is high risk, weapon effectiveness is not related to cost (highest but one gun is the best), and that trading deals are cancelled if you don’t go direct to the target system are a little annoying.

  22. Brian Rubin says:

    Having Freespace 2 at the top of the list means this list can be taken semi-seriously, but Bridge Commander instead of Klingon Academy? Elite better than TIE Fighter?! It’s a laudable attempt, but there are still issues here. Thanks for mentioning some wonderful space games, though.

  23. Landiss says:

    I forgive you everything wrong on the list, because you got the number one good.

  24. gou says:

    stop putting screenshots above their respective titles

    • spacedyemeerkat says:

      Agreed, it needs to stop.

      At least put it after the game title, if not at the end of each segment.

      • basszje says:

        +1 I never can tell which image belongs to what part. Unless that’s your goal.

    • hijuisuis says:

      Yep, agreed, somehow I can still never tell without scrolling up and down a few times. Very illogical.

  25. juan_h says:

    The Freespace series is one of my great gaming regrets. I loved Privateer and I especially loved Tie Fighter, but I never played Freespace or Freespace 2 back when they were the exciting new thing. I bought both games from GOG a few years ago, but I have yet to play either apart from a brief flirtation with the tutorial in Freespace 1. I’m not sure why. It may be that my PC is hooked up to the TV in my living room these days. I have learned from bitter experience (revisiting Privateer and Tie Fighter, naturally) that it’s harder and much less comfortable to play a game with a flight-stick while sitting on a couch or on the floor than it is while sitting at a desk. I’m not sure if they can be played (either well or at all) with mouse and keyboard and I don’t care to find out. I just don’t feel like an ace space-pilot without a joystick.

  26. Chaz says:

    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.

    Err… something tells me that this entire feature has been recycled in a quick cut and paste job. The Engineers update came out in May 2016.

  27. monsieur_cronkypont says:

    House of the Dying Sun is definitely in my top 3 space games of all time. I would argue it’s better than Freespace 2, since it has built on that game’s legacy, and then stripped and polished until it’s much more streamlined, intense, and satisfying. Strongest argument: try going back to Freespace 2 after finishing HotDS! I did… It feels like dodgem cars in space.

  28. Gothnak says:

    1. MOO2
    2. Privateer
    3. Original Elite on my BBC B (I got a free copy of the new one and completely bounced off it)
    4. X-Wing & Tie Fighter
    5. FTL

    Eve should be there somewhere i expect, but not played it myself, i hate other people too much :).

  29. Nucleus says:

    I’m pretty sure that Steam has Tie Fighter 95 nowadays too, not just 94 and 98.

  30. edwardoka says:

    Hardwar was an excellent game (despite the combat AI) and it is a travesty both that the game didn’t exert more influence on game design and that the Software Refinery went under.

    I genuinely think that 1998 may actually have been the best year for PC games.

    Also, no love for Homeworld or AI War? Boo! Boo I say!

    • Blake Casimir says:

      And no mention about the cool IDM soundtrack featuring Autechre (when they hadn’t become highly esoteric sound sculpturers and were actually making… music.)

  31. Gothnak says:

    Oh, can we all at least agree on the worst space game ever made?

    Frontier: Elite 2.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      There is Privateer 2 too, I never played Frontier but I know for sure that Privateer 2: The Darkening is one of the worst games I ever played and one of the few I’d consider *really* bad.

      • juan_h says:

        It was better than the first Privateer in several respects, but the space combat really suffered because of the terrible AI for the enemy pilots, all of whom tended to fly directly at your ship at all times. It was more like a game of bumper cars than a proper space-dogfight. I’m not sure if the fact that collisions did so little damage helped or hurt.

    • edwardoka says:

      Sacrilege! Frontier: Elite 2 might not have made this list but it deserved to. (Although its immediate sequel FFE made the galaxy seem more alive by adding a time-based storyline, it lacked the austere flat-shaded charm of the original.)

      Prepare yourself, sir, as this can only resolved one way. We must space-joust to the death!

      • RuySan says:

        I might be misremembering, but wasn’t the problem with Frontier the fact that the Amiga 500 was just too underpowered to run it properly, or was it something else?

        • edwardoka says:

          Considering the scope of the game, it running at all on Amiga is nothing short of amazing. A procgen galaxy with Newtonian physics and planetary landing in 400k of assembly.

          I never noticed the framerate being an issue at the time on my stock A600 (unless I was being chased off a planet by the police and happened to look backwards).

          While FFE on PC looked better at the time of release than FE2 on 68k Amiga did, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well.

          Oh, the cracks in the gameplay are glaring (oh, how convenient that these pirates know exactly where I am, 40AUs out) and combat devolves into literal space jousting, but many of the criticisms leveled at FE2 can also be leveled at E:D (yes, NPC commanders who apparently only exist in a bubble around your ship, I’m talking about you.)

          For its time, it surpassed everything else that had come before. For sheer scale of ambition I think it has yet to be surpassed.


  32. zauberkraut says:

    Empire! by Firebird

    Also, Psi 5 Trading Company by Accolade

    link to

  33. Doc DarkStar says:

    I was expecting to see Captain Blood on the list, few games have left such a strong impression on me.

    • Premium User Badge

      john_silence says:

      Captain Blood conveyed a profound sense of the mystery and loneliness of space. CGA graphics helped. Its nonchalant, fatalistic cool helped too.

      Out There managed that peculiar sense of impenetrability and cosmic indifference very well.

  34. Eightball says:

    I forgot to plug Sword of the Stars (1 of course) in my earlier comment! There’s an alternative universe where SOTS became sort of like Total War In Space, instead of never releasing a second game.

    • bacon seeker says:

      They did release a second game, and a dungeon crawler… the problem was, the second game was half baked.

  35. monsieur_cronkypont says:

    Fraser – Overload is the modern remake of Descent, by the original team. It’s more Descent than Descent:Underground! Can you please add this to the list of “like games” below Descent? It also has a free playable demo on Steam, which I’ve spent a few hours with and it’s pretty good. Only problem is, it’s so much like the original Descent, it feels like it’s not bringing anything new.

    • monsieur_cronkypont says:

      Oh god – please ignore the post above. That will teach me to read articles in patchy, non-linear fashion.

  36. geldonyetich says:

    There’s an awful lot of nostalgia in this list, such as putting Tachyon: The Fringe on it at all, but I’ll forgive ya because you put Freespace 2 at #1. Maybe I, too, am overly nostalgic.

  37. Darth Gangrel says:

    Anachronox is a great and funny game which deals with space and time in a kind of mindfuck-ish way. I love the writing and characterization and the game oozes charm. The soundtrack is great, the dialogue is very good and surprisingly funny even from no-name NPC’s.

    The combat was very enjoyable and if jrpg’s generally have the same combat, then I might stop avoiding them like the plague (except for the ones with the oversized doe eyes for girls, don’t like that art style).

  38. gabrielonuris says:

    Have anyone here played a game called Precursors? I think it is a russian title, I don’t know…

    It was my first ever space “sim”, and maybe the closest I could get from landing on planets (before Elite Dangerous and Evochron).

    Every planet has its own art style, soundtrack and quests to interact with, even with completely different NPCs.

    Imagine if Mass Effect was in first person and you actually could fly your own ship; hell, imagine if STALKER and Mass Effect had a baby game: it’s Precursors.

  39. bacon seeker says:

    You missed Homeworld, Homeworld 2, Homeworld Catacylsm, and Sword of the Stars… you put Mass Effect 2 ahead of those??? But I applaud you for getting Distant Worlds on there at least.

  40. mpk says:

    So is this a completely new list, or just a reworking of the previous edition. I see that you’ve cunningly hidden the first version from sight.

    Anyway: you’ve done this twice, and EVE Online has been missing both times. I’m sorry, but that’s the final straw. I’m afraid you’ll just have to leave. It’s over between us.


  41. gorte says:

    The one game on the list I was missing is Starsector. Sure, it’s technically not a release version yet, but it’s been really damn good for years now. It’s basically a combination of Mount & Blade campaign map with Star Control 2 combat and plays wonderfully.

  42. perablenta says:

    Freespace 2 singleplayer campaign… o man… played it over 10,12 more like 15 times since I first played the game almost 20 years ago. I still consider it the most well made, fun and immersive story and gameplay I ever played on PC. It’s simply the game that made me fall in love with space games.

  43. Rituro says:

    As a suggestion for “games like FTL”, Convoy is of a similar bent, except you’ve crashed on a planet and need to get a convoy of ragtag vehicles together to repair yourself.

  44. danimalkingdom says:

    it’s = “it is”
    its = “this thing’s”

    Sorry, great piece but the grammar was driving me nuts all the way through.

    *ducks back out of sight*

    • Person of Interest says:

      This is also my main takeaway from reading the article.

    • ashleys_ears says:

      Also, it was clearly written over a year and a half ago and just copied and pasted for a filler article today. The Engineers update to Elite: Dangerous, the one it claims is about to enter beta in May? It dropped May 26th… of 2016.

      No wonder Endless Space 2 didn’t make the list.

  45. Rainshine says:

    I own a large chunk of this list, and many similar games that aren’t on here. Ignoring my distaste for the ME series, Freelancer never made any of my lists. Maybe my expectations were too high or something, but I was bitterly disappointed playing the base game. Felt so stale and linear when it came to gameplay — fly to point a, shoot the guys there. If you ever play again, you’ll do the exact same thing. I guess I wanted more RPG.
    I’ve bought X-X3, and I think I still have the CD for X3. It’s been a series I really want to play and enjoy, but after climbing that learning curve for a couple hours, I always fall off and quit.

  46. Mezelf says:

    I’m honestly shocked No Man’s Sky isn’t on this list.
    Not because I think it should be, but because this website had several of its writers defending and praising it.

    • syllopsium says:

      I tend to think it should be on the list, it’s certainly better than some of the games.

      I’m about 20 hours in and generally loving it. It’s one of the very few games to seem genuinely alien and threatening (at least at first, after a bit of resource gathering things are easier). The language learning is excellent, and it’s useful to see trading and missions.

      Of course it also has an abysmal flight model that seems to make combat impossible, the fact small trading pods in the middle of nowhere allow large items magically to be converted to money seems horribly unrealistic, and the star map/tracking of missions is sub-standard..

  47. jozinho says:

    Hello RPS, Descent is back on GOG as of recently! Update that link so the good readers of RPS can enjoy a game whose novelty still impresses more than 20 years later.
    link to
    link to
    link to

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Also: the first two games can work with more or less every control scheme and peripherals you can throw at them thanks to sourceports, with widescreen resolutions too which is always nice.

  48. TheAngriestHobo says:

    This list doesn’t contain Endless Space 2 and is therefore objectively wrong.

    • ashleys_ears says:

      This article was written almost two years ago and just copied, pasted and presented as new today.

    • RuySan says:

      Yes, i found it weird because the game seemed much more well received around these parts than Stellaris.

      But Master or Orion 2 is also missing, so i don’t know…

      • kuertee says:

        I can accept not having MOO2 in the list. If you’re a Moo2 fan, you should have tried more recent games of the genre by now and have found them better than Moo2. Sure Moo2 defined the genre which qualifies it for a “of all time” list.

  49. syllopsium says:

    OOlite should probably be on the list, it’s remarkably accomplished. Original Elite has not aged well, unfortunately, although I fancy trying ArcElite at some point.

    One of the worst space games is DOS Elite, if I remember correctly the second fancy one rather than the first. The second one has no sound effects unless you own a CM32-L, and at least one of them makes it almost impossible to find the space station when jumping into a system.

    I’m presuming Freelancer and Freespace are not worth playing unmodded. I have both, not played yet..

    Still intend to play Tie Fighter more, it’s so smooth with wonderful sound. I made the effort to get it working on a retro gaming box, it truly is a pain in the arse to configure.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Mods in Freespace are mostly there for compatibility/resolution, added content and some shiny things, the gameplay stays the same (and it’s top notch, it’s basically a further improvement on Tie Fighter, if small). The original games had somewhat limited resolution choices, the first one in particular was very limited in fact one of the oldest (and best polished) mods for Freespace 2 is the port of the original Freespace campaign to the new engine (both retail an open) for exactly this reason.
      I hope you have a keyboard with Tie Fighter, with that game you need either a keyboard or a carefully programmed HOTAS, you could probably configure a gamepad but you are gonna need to reach for the keyboard.

      • syllopsium says:

        Shiny is usually good, if it’s sympathetic to the game (i.e. not like Morrowind mods which look nice but ruin the intended atmosphere).

        For Tie Fighter I’m running it on a proper retro PC, pentium II 300MHz, with both a Soundblaster AWE64 and a Roland Sound Canvas attached via a MIDI card. Joystick is an analogue affair connected to the Soundblaster, but not quite as advanced as some of the proper flights sticks of the day.

        Privateer sounds and plays well too, although the mission difficulty and necessary grinding can be a little annoying.

        • Det. Bullock says:

          In my time I had a Pentium II with a soundblaster 16, but After the first couple of years I had it I always used USB joysticks, I was able to finish Tie Fighter only after buying the windows version imported (because it wasn’t available in Italy due to the collapse of the local distributor for Lucasarts games) because the dos prompt after a while refused to run my old CD (which made my old 486 crash on Installation), thankfully there’s dosbox today.

          • syllopsium says:

            If it helps, Tie Fighter is an absolute git to get working. There’s a bug whereby if you use a SoundBlaster to play MIDI, sound, and run a joystick there are occasional pauses in action (every 10s or so). To fix it a second sound card is required..

          • Det. Bullock says:

            Ha, no, the problem was a “stack overflow” error when trying to run the thing, it was random at the start but after a while it happened every time I tried to run it.
            In any case, I don’t have the space for a dedicated retrogame machine (I still have my old PC cabinet with everything still in it somewhere in a box but everything else has been either re-used for the PC I had after it or broke down ages ago) and I don’t feel the need for one, basically all the old games I need and then some work with my Windows 7 PC.

          • syllopsium says:

            Stack overflow normally means either ‘this PC is faster than the designers anticipated’, a memory issue, or not sticking STACKS=9,256 (or better) in CONFIG.SYS (i.e. an actual stack overflow).

            You’re right, practically all Windows games run fine on more recent versions, DOSBox is on the whole very good, and there’s a whole load of modern engine implementations (eDuke32, Exult, nuvie…) offering advantages in play over the original.

  50. mitthrawnuruodo says:

    Elite : Tedious is #3?! Really? Its an insult to space sims of yore, including the previous games of Elite / Frontier series.

    • kuertee says:

      Ummm…no it doesn’t insult Elite / Frontier series. It pays “homage” to it…ummm…in the name. For Elite Dangerous to be ranked third doesn’t insult Elite classic. But for Elite Dangerous to have “Elite” in its name, you may argue, insults Elite classic. See the difference? :P

      And I suggest you record yourself playing an Elite classic session and release it on YouTube. Then let’s compare its tediousness with Elite Dangerous’ tediousness. I guarantee that you will find both tedious but in different ways.