10. 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.
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.
8. 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.