The best space games on PC

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.

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.

Numbers 16-20
Numbers 15-11
Numbers 10-6
Numbers 5-2
The Best Space Game
The Complete List

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.

172 Comments

  1. Cederic says:

    Surely Elite must be on the list. It spawned a genre, set new standards in graphics, demonstrated the value and viability of procedurally generated universes and still has world class combat.

    Despite the people posting critiques of it here, I did like Privateer 2; my favourite of the WingCoAlikes. I had a lot of fun in that game.

    Missing out Eve feels distinctly bewildering. I didn’t even enjoy it but the game has a massive dedicated and long lasting player base and is one of the greatest story generators of any computer game in existence (maybe even second on the list, behind Dwarf Fortress).

    But the biggest scandal? How can anybody that played Tie Fighter in the 90s ever put that anywhere below #1 on the list? Close to perfection.

  2. trollusk says:

    Um… no one else seems to have pointed out that this is virtually a verbatim copy of an article from 2016.

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • corinoco says:

      No, I pointed it out too – I’m doing it now, you just posted before I did.

      Elite Dangerous – The Engineers due out in May? Yes, I suppose so – May 2016 for memory.

      The endlessly divisive but endlessly relaxing go-for-a-walk-in-the-universe ‘No Mans Sky’ is very notably absent.

      Maybe I’m getting old, but I remember when it were all good journalism ’round ‘ere.

      • kuertee says:

        Agreed about you getting old. Because I, too, am old and remember when the articles were less subjective and more objective.

        I have railed against: (1) an author not knowing what genre to call “Alien Swarm”…and no one in the comments suggested “3d top-down shooter”…before I did, (2) “Best games EVER” (i.e. of all time) title with the caveat that the list contained only games they enjoyed which disqualifies the list from having “EVER” because, you know, what would the kids know of impact of Star Control 2 to the gaming industry. (3) I can’t remember my last complaint – but it was about the article being too subjective as well. It’s really RPS’ editor’s job to identify these sorts of things.

        Anyway, I’m going to add my rant about ES2 not being in the list in a separate post because its not relevant to this general rant.

    • Shiloh says:

      Bizarrely, that link now points to this article, and not the one from 2016 that this has obviously been archered from. I mean, they could at least have updated the Elite Dangerous write up – the “Beyond” update for 2018 is now in full swing, with enhanced planetary colours, new crime & punishment mechanics and reworked engineering in, and much more planned for the rest of the year.

      Less of this sort of thing RPS!

    • xoversoulx says:

      I wish a Thargoid swarm upon whoever wrote the piece on Elite.

  3. nogglebeak says:

    Everspace is hands down the best space game on PC. Pretty awful list in general.

  4. Freaky says:

    Children of a Dead Earth deserves a mention. A space game that follows the science to its logical conclusion and sees if an interesting game pops out the other end.

    The result is something like a mash-up of Kerbal Space Program, Homeworld, and an advanced physics degree. Which you flunked. Repeatedly.

  5. xoversoulx says:

    It probably doesn’t belong on any “Greatest Space Game of All Time” list, but Stars in Shadow is a newcomer to 4X. That’s it made by two people is amazing. Check it out if you like MOO.

    Pretty strange that Homeworld and Sword of the Stars are missing.

    Ah Freelancer. Those were the days. What a game.

  6. ZippyLemon says:

    Is X-Wing Alliance really the weakest in the series? As the last one to release, I always assumed it had to be the most accomplished game in the series. I have very fond memories of playing through the story when I was younger, and the variety of functions you could perform with your ships, and how this fed into mission variety, was really cool.

    Is it really worse than what came before?

    Is this kind of like someone stubbornly recommending a band’s earlier work even when the newer stuff is much more interesting to modern listeners?

    • Det. Bullock says:

      X-wing Alliance suffered greatly from some trends of the time like the ditching of the 2d cockpits in favour of 3D cockpits that were crude enough to need an overlay interface instead of diegetic instruments, this and other things made it lose a lot of charm compared to TF and XW, there was a similar problem with XvT.
      It doesn’t help that both Alliance and XvT require a joystick to run, that pissed a lot of people off and I don’t blame them.

      In the end Tie Fighter is really the best game of the series even though I mostly play XvT because of the quick combat scenarios and slightly Alliance-like flight physics, but as a complete game XWA loses (not by much mind you) compared to TF.

  7. obowersa says:

    To throw a game out there, although not one I would necessarily put on this list ( as with others I’m surprised at the lack of Nexus or Homeworld .)

    Hegemony: Legions of Iron. I get it wasn’t the best of space games but something about it really hooked me. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone who’s tempted to pick it up, the moment when you realise that there is so much more to the world than the initial conflict lets on just blew my mind. The sense of scale was wonderful.

    Yes it had it’s faults. Some horrible escort missions, a bit of a crazy UI, managing things at scale was painful, the approach to taking over a planet literally being kill everyone from orbit was a tiny bit odd.

    Despite that though I still kind of love it. Outside of it’s scale I think the espionage system was pretty unique in it’s implementation.

    Well worth a play with if you’re able to.

  8. Eyegore says:

    Some of the games on that list weren’t that good on their release while others, like MOO2- which defined 4x games for which the rest followed and pretty much mirrored with variations, is missing.
    Then we are now including RPGs like Mass Effect here that too leaves many titles out–like the sci-fi mix of Wizardary VIII to name just one but in the early days Rescue on Fractalus was very popular pre-PC…like on the TRS-80

    • kuertee says:

      I think the list only requires the game to have “outer space” represented in them.

      HOWEVER, was “Descent” really a space game? Or was it a hovercraft action game? The title of the game says it all, I think.

      What about the Mechwarior games? The mechs travel from system to system. I think these games can make this mashed-up genre.

  9. trashbat says:

    Subnautica’s a pretty good space game, I reckon.

    • PancakeWizard says:

      Stop it.

      • kuertee says:

        Subnautica’s a valid entry in this mashed-up genre. I mean Descent was played mostly (if not all the time) in caves. (I never finished Descent, so some of its later levels may have been set in outer space.)

        Descent wasn’t really a space game until Descent: FreeSpace which they already have in the list.

      • trashbat says:

        It’s got spaceships, aliens, it’s in the future. You fly a submarine about the place, which might as well be the sky or space instead of the sea. It’s pretty much No Man’s Sky but underwater and not rubbish.

    • bacon seeker says:

      Hey, it’s got 3-D movement. No less valid than Mass Effect anyway.

  10. kud13 says:

    My favorite “space” game was a little shareware gem called “Solar Winds”. It’s an arcadey top-down shooter where you are a mercenary pilot program uncovering a government conspiracy.

    It had basic ship management, a potentially huge (mostly empty) galaxy map, pretty intense fighting (when it happened), a interesting (though sometimes cryptic) story and I played it to death. Oh, and amazing music.

    Out of the games on this particular list, my favorite is easily Freelancer.

  11. PancakeWizard says:

    Everyone always goes for TIE Fighter, but X-wing vs. TIE Fighter: Balance of Power creams it, IMO. You have an entire Imperial campaign in a better engine AND a parallel Rebel one, so where’s the contest?

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Presentation and story, mostly.
      XvT was awfully barebones in that regard, they seemingly could not have all the custom lines (the ones that aren’t canned stuff like “report on primary target”) in the missions spoken by a couple of actors even though they had fully voiced CG cutscenes. The few times there were spoken not-procedural lines during missions was for the ones ported from Tie Fighter, mostly in the training scenarios.
      Also many missions are visibly designed with multiplayer in mind, it’s not uncommon to fail campaign missions on medium or hard because the altered balance of the AI between your wingmen and the enemy makes yours incredibly stupid (XWA had still a bit of this but since it was a single player campaign the problem only persists at hard difficulty).
      Of course it’s still the game I play most because it has single player deathmatch (for when I want just to blast stuff for ten minutes or so) and the improved physics, graphics (with a dll wrapper can be made to look really clean an high res) and analog throttle support are worthwhile, but it falls short in a lot of things that overall make it less memorable.

      • PancakeWizard says:

        That sounds like you’re taking about XvT vanilla, not the Balance of Power campaign, tbh.

        • Det. Bullock says:

          No, I replayed recently the entire Campaign (both Empire and Rebel) and it’s visibly designed for co-op multiplayer, you often have to drop down the difficulty to easy otherwise your wingmen either get killed instantly or fail to be as efficient as they should.
          One of the most straightforward examples is the final mission against the SSD in the rebel campaign: on medium the only way for it to work is for the AI B-wings to drop all their rockets onto it as soon as they can which they almost never do, in single player the only way to complete it reliably is to drop the difficulty to easy so that you can take out the shield generators (which is not allowed on medium) to trigger the Corellian Corvette hypering in and kamikaze the bridge.
          And yes, most of the dialogues in the campaign are subtitles-only, only the CG cutscenes between missions are voiced.

  12. quasiotter says:

    I would vote for Mirrormoon EP—it’s beautiful and mysterious, it’s not really clear to me what I’m doing, but that’s what I’d expect to being out exploring different unknown planets! The discovery process is wonderful.

    Sadly, most of these games don’t interest me, because I prefer space in a more cosmic horror or surreal vibe, since I don’t care for simulation/RPG/management in my games. I appreciate the time taken to create this, though!

  13. kuertee says:

    For the authors, Just a FYI. It’s likely you guys didn’t notice Endless Space 2’s innovations.

    Game systems that Stellaris contain but Distant Worlds doesn’t: in-empire factions and species traits manipulation. There may be several others but they are minor gameplay mechanics.

    ES2, however, ALSO has factions and species manipulation. But ES2 contains these other game systems: (1) the free market, (2) supply chains – break it, and your empire loses income from those systems not connected to your capital, and more importantly, (3) galactic team objectives separate from alliances – i.e. in some systems, depending on the objective for the narrative, your chosen team overrides your alliances.

    Those are very big game systems that have no form in Stellaris or Distant Worlds. Stellaris and Distant Worlds play out the same way. Not so with ES2.

    That list doesn’t even include: ES2’s narrative for each species and how species have actual gameplay differences that are outside of traits and world-type preferences.

    In regards to UI, what about ES2’s galactic zoom. Strategic zoom has been around for decades, of course. But I’ve not seen ES2’s implementation of it in other space 4x games.

    In ES2, each stage of the galactic zoom offers both information and control specific and relevant to that zoom. E.g. trade data and trade controls don’t exist in the planet view. Nor does planet information and controls exist in the diplomatic zoom. Etc.

    Basically, Stellaris and Distant Worlds play out similarly. Endless Space 2’s innovations set it apart and above, I think.

    Anyway, end rant. I just thought to list out the games’ differences and highlight ES2’s features in case your space 4x player missed the innovations that Amplitude added to the genre.

    Note: I enjoy equally Distant Worlds, Endless Space 2 and Stellaris. DW and Stellaris “scratch a similar itch”. Endless Space 2 “scratches a totally different itch”.

    • bacon seeker says:

      Definitely agree with Endless Space 2 scratching a different itch, although I do think Distant Worlds had its own kind of free market. Stellaris and Distant Words are much more about epic scale, while Endless Space 2 tries to be more intimate and story driven. Normally that would be my thing, but the restrictive star lanes sort of ruined it for me…I did quite like Endless Legend though.

  14. Avus says:

    Let’s guess when will Star Citizens in this list? Or will it ever be in the list?

  15. hijuisuis says:

    Seconded. Mirrormoon EP has a special kind of magic – a true atmospheric space explorer.

    The only other game which comes close to this was X BTC (the first one). Something about flying and trading my way through that story was just inescapably awesome.

    • and its man says:

      and thirded.
      Mirrormoon EP is new-age magic. Gotta love the 10-minutes-long travels, and the joy (and confusion) of navigating with a 3D star map.

  16. PancakeWizard says:

    Honourable mentions (eg. RPS please look at these at some point):

    * The Spacials: Galactology
    * Halcyon 6: Lightspeed Edition

  17. Keeper075 says:

    I find this list’s lack of ‘Star Control 2’ disturbing.

  18. kuertee says:

    Agree with @keeper075 in regards to Star Control 2. I don’t think RPS writers’ experience stretch back that far.

    And as for my other rants with RPS lists being too subjective, I have a solution and it won’t require any sort of rework.

    I suggest they change their list titles from “best PC games” to “PC games we best enjoyed”. It’s awkward English but at least it’s more appropriate.

  19. and its man says:

    Commander Blood & Big Bug Bang
    Out There Ω
    The Long Journey Home
    Star Controls
    Mirrormoon EP
    Universe Sandbox 2
    Cargo Commander

    Seriously.

    Cheers for Startopia

    • and its man says:

      SPACEPLAN
      Captain Forever Remix
      Bik: A Space Adventure
      Cosmochoria
      Jettomero: Hero of the Universe

      seriously seriously.

  20. ZakG says:

    ‘Someone’ is just trolling NMS and Hello Games aren’t they?

    Use a screen shot from NMS and leave it out of the list? Still a pretty poor list overall as many have pointed out, super subjective and rather blinkered in some key area’s (no Moo or Original Elite for example). 5/10

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Trouble is that Original Elite wasn’t that different from the latest one since its purpose was literally grinding ranks and nothing else only with worst everything (being the first attemp at something like this and all), by that metric they should have put the first Wing Commander instead of IV because it came first and some people still hate the FMV WC games as a betrayal of the first two (yep, it happens).
      I’m sincerely baffled by the inclusion of 4x games in the list too since most of these games are strong enough in reputation (haven’t played any of them) to compete in a generic 4x list.
      The inclusion of Mass Effect is also supremely puzzling since it’s basically a third person cover shooter with some rpg elements and again, it’s a game with enough merit and reputation to make it to the first places of a list of shooters instead of cramming it together with the likes of Tie Fighter and Descent and this without me getting pedantic about how TF and Descent are compeltely different games, one being derived from flight simulators and the other from first person shooters that only converge somewhat because you are driving a spaceship.

  21. Relani says:

    Escape Velocity: Nova. Amazing game!

  22. EvanWaters says:

    Honestly, what I really want to see and still haven’t found is a space exploration game that focuses on the exploration and interaction and puts the economic part as far in the background as is possible. I get why this is a thing, there’s an appeal to it, I’ve played plenty of space traders, and it’s easier to procedurally generate resources and their value than cultures and unique events and so on. But it kinda takes away some of the wonder of outer space to reduce everything to its market value.

    Honestly Mass Effect 2 lost me a bit with how far it leaned into the “dark and gritty” side of things, and how they made it more a shooter than an RPG- the original was kinda messy in its kind of integration, but it had a charm to it that the more refined sequel lacks. Exploration now being reduced to looking for resources with a scanner may be quicker than bouncing around a map with a weirdly programmed vehicle, but the latter was kinda fun.

  23. Jean_Aimar says:

    Privateer 2 : The Darkening = best space game ever !!! No need any discussion, space battle, various missions types, ship tunning, and a great story played by a f.cking cast included Clive Owen, Mathilda May, Jürgen Prochnow, John Hurt, Christopher Walken, Brian Blessed, best space game ever, it’s my last word.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Also: endless casual encounters you couldn’t get away from because you couldn’t jump while enemies were present even if they were extremely far away (it one took me an hour to be able to get away), grating interface sounds with useless animations, mediocre sound mixing in the cutscenes that made dialogues difficult to understand, etc. And in general it’s a very broken game, even with all the fanmade fixes applied. Sincerely I greatly prefer the first Privateer (note that I played both games recently so no nostalgia filter here) even if that isn’t a perfect game.

  24. TheBeret says:

    Chalk me up as another one surprised at no Star Control 2 in the list- not even as a recommended alternative to Mass Effect. C’mon guys- Mass Effect was basically a reboot of Star Control 2. To forget that, is almost embarrassing.