5. FTL: Faster than Light (2012)
Developer: Subset Games
Publisher: Subset Games
Subset Games’ roguelike-like darling deconstructs spaceship sims and presents managing a vessel as a series of disasters and crises. 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. In between you are scouts, pirates, people needing help and horrible space parasites. You can’t turn back, though, because the Federation is always nipping at your heels.
In real-time fights against other ships, you’ll see your crew slain, your ship boarded by droids, hulls ripped open, explosives teleported in and allies psionically controlled. But you’ll be able to do all of that to your enemies as well. And along the way you’ll find new or rescue new crew members, get access to the fanciest of future tech, and hopefully get tough enough to take on the final Federation boss.
Even seemingly blessed runs can end in catastrophe, but each failed becomes another brilliant sci-fi story. The journey of the Ham Sandwich, for instance, ended particularly tragically. After a run in with a pirate, the ship looked to be done for, with a fires and breaches in multiple rooms and just about every system offline. The engine fire was the worst of the problems and if it wasn’t taken care of, the whole ship would be doomed. My engineer tirelessly fought the fire, even as the oxygen was sucked out of the room through a tear in the hull. With his final breath he managed to put out the fire, the doors could be unsealed, and the rest of the crew repaired the hole. Unfortunately, an encounter with a solar flare one jump later finished the Ham Sandwich off.
Notes: Subset is following up FTL with a kaiju vs mech tactics game, Into the Breach, and it looks like quite the thing.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Out There is FTL’s closest relative. A weird cousin, maybe. There’s no combat, with more emphasis put on the survival elements and meeting unusual aliens and weird monolithic structures floating in space.
4. Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994)
Developer: Totally Games
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.
3. Elite Dangerous (2014)
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments
Whether or not Elite Dangerous 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.
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.
2. Kerbal Space Program (2015)
Publisher: Private Division
It could be argued that Kerbal Space Program, especially when played by me, doesn’t belong on this list, because it’s a game about trying but, most of the time, failing to get into space. Sometimes it’s a game about smashing into the ground. Botched attempts and hopeless failures litter the path to success, but it’s those disastrous experiments that often prove to be the most fun.
That might not be the KSP everybody recognises, though. I’m sure it feels great to successful get the Kerbals on and off the Mun without breaking a sweat, but I’m happy just to see them drifting around in space. I don’t even see my many misadventures as failures anymore because that implies that I’ve not done what I set out to do, which is to draw a blank on everything I know about physics and just muck around with some cool rockets.
Notes: KSP developer Squad got snatched up by Take-Two last year and now falls under its indie publishing label, Private Division. AAA indie publishers are so normal now that I’ve stopped acknowledging their absurdity.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Space Engineers allows you to go wild in space, letting you build whatever weird-looking ship or space station your mind conjures up. It’s a more playful but less realistic sandbox.