Space games have experienced a rebirth over the past few years, particularly space sims, but as many in the comments pointed out, you don’t need to be sitting in a cockpit to enjoy the stars. This updated list broadens our search for the best space games on PC, throwing strategy games, roguelikes and at least one RPG into the mix.
Read on to see what the top picks are.
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Words by Richie Shoemaker and Fraser Brown.
If you feel like cheating, you can skip ahead to different sections of the list with these handy links below.
Is your favourite game missing from the list, and are you now racing towards the comment section? Good – but remember that “No game X?” doesn’t help anyone, while a considered explanation of why X is great is useful to everyone.
20. Wing Commander 4: The Price of Freedom (1996)
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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.
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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.
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Where can I buy it: As well as Steam you can buy the game digitally through the Novaworld Store.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where can I buy it: Direct from Frontier (which will give you Steam key) or via Steam (which requires a Frontier account).
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.
1. Freespace 2 (1999)
Was it Freespace 2 that almost killed the space combat genre? Some like to think it was the game’s commercial failure that did the damage, that in selling just 30,000 copies in six months the lifeless wreck Interplay floated in space was left as a warning to others; that there was no interest in space combat games any more and that if anyone persisted in making one, their sales would suffer the same fate.
If it ever was a wreck, we now know that Freespace 2 wasn’t left unoccupied for very long, and that the message in the static was soon changed to offer a place of refuge, a rallying point for gamers uninterested in a New World Order of terrorist takedowns.
It’s inaccurate to laud Descent as the Doom of space shooters. Freespace 2 however does bear comparisons with a celebrated FPS, namely Half-Life 2. It’s not simply that Freespace 2 is a highly accomplished sequel to what was arguably the finest game in its genre, but that it has over the years become the source of so much creativity. There may never be an equivalent built with FS2_Open that will go on to enjoy the same status as Dear Esther, Garry’s Mod or Portal, but for genre fans Diaspora, The Babylon Project, Blue Planet and Wing Commander Saga have been some of the brightest releases in what has, until the last couple of years, been a veritable dark age.
The thing is, as with Half-Life, standard issue Freespace 2 remains largely unchallenged. Considering it was barely a year in development and many of Volition’s ideas for ground attacks and super weapons went unrealised, it offers a number of improvements on the original game, notably a 3D engine able to handle space battle on an unprecedented scale, both in terms of the number of vessels on screen and their size. Prior to Freespace 2 capital ships were largely treated as static backgrounds, but now they were part of the foreground, one that fizzed and crackled with explosive energy like never before. Although the online SquadWar portion of the game never really took off, the multiplayer code was solid and smooth – little wonder that it, along with the 3D engine, has provided the foundation for so many development efforts since.
Of course Freespace wasn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. Wingmen were nameless and expendable and there isn’t the connection with AI buddies that one experienced in other space shooters, but what the Freespace games did better than any other was put the player in the midst of a series of epic battles, fighting against the odds versus a relentless and unknowable foe. The spectacular weapons, the frenetic and desperate movement that remains a perfect marriage of UI and controller and graphics that were so in advance of everything 17 years ago that, even unmodded today, the game can maintain the fantasy. Even in this new space age, one of procedurally-generated universes and forceless feedback joysticks, Freespace 2 stands as a titan of the genre. The Galactica among Battlestars. The game that has lead the genre home.
Notes: There’s been talk of a Freespace 3 for some years. Derek Smart once threatened to acquire the license, before news that Stomby Bot (Heavy Gear reboot chaps) might have picked it up instead. Today the license is back with Interplay, although there’s no evidence that that old publisher is using it to do more than tally up old games sales.
Where can I buy it: There are lingering issues with getting the game to run in Steam so get the GOG version. Be sure to augment your purchase with the freely available FS_Open immediately after acquisition.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Arriving a bit too late to provide meaningful backup, Starlancer is the Iceman to Freespace’s Maverick. A highly competent fighter on its own, but a bit too conceited and thus not nearly as likable. Wing Commander: Prophecy is probably worth a spin in lieu of Starlancer’s digital unavailability.
Here’s the complete list in order:
1. Freespace 2
2. Kerbal Space Program
3. Elite: Dangerous
4. Star Wars: TIE Fighter
6. Mass Effect 2
7. Distant Worlds Universe
8. X3: Albion Prelude
9. Sins of a Solar Empire
12. Rebel Galaxy
14. Star Trek Bridge Commander
15. Independence War
17. Evochron Legacy
19. Tachyon: The Fringe
20. Wing Commander 4
Freespace 2 keeps the keeps its coveted #1 spot, but now we’ve got a physics sandbox, a roguelike, and RPG, an RTS and a 4X game all in the top 10.
Did we miss something? No, we didn’t. If your favourite game isn’t on the list, that’s because it’s at number 21. Write your own entry for it, explaining why your game is great, and put it in the comments. That way we can all learn about new space games to play.
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