Everyone loves a good space game, but sometimes it can feel like there are more space games to play than there are stars in the sky. Fortunately, we're here to help with our list of all the best space games you can play on PC. Whether you're a budding space cruiser captain, a wannabe space conqueror or an intrepid space-faring explorer, there's a space game here for you.
This is an updated version of our best space games list for 2020, and we've added and removed eight games in the process. We said goodbye to a lot of the classics (read: ejected out the airlock), and focused more on bringing this best space games list bang up to date. There are still a couple of good oldies in there, but we've mainly gone for games we'd recommend you play today.
We've also kept our definition of "space game" fairly traditional this time round. While you'll find plenty of hybrid games in our best space games list, from RPGs and strategy games to roguelikes and more, you'll find most of them involve hurtling across the universe in a ship of some description, rather than, say, settling on the surface of a new planet and starting a new life for yourself. That means no Surviving Mars or Astroneer, for example.
We've also discounted games like Destiny 2 and Alien: Isolation, mostly because while they're set in space to some degree, you never actually get to go to space. Disagree? Then tell us about it in the comments below along with what you think deserves a place in the list, and maybe you’ll convince others – and us – to give it a go.
Best space games
There are loads of brilliant space games to be found on PC, but we've selected 20 of the best below. We've also split our best space games list across multiple pages for ease of navigation, and you'll find the page links at the bottom of each page. Alternatively, if you're looking for a completely different kind of game, then check out our list of the best PC games to play right now. Onwards!
- Mass Effect 2
- Galactic Civilizations II: Endless Universe
- Star Wars: TIE Fighter
- Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
- Star Traders: Frontiers
- Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
- Sins Of A Solar Empire
- X3: Albion Prelude
- EVE Online
- Homeworld Remastered
- Distant Worlds Universe
- Outer Wilds
- FTL: Faster Than Light
- No Man's Sky
- Elite Dangerous
- Kerbal Space Program
- Freespace 2
20. Mass Effect 2
The Mass Effects are Captain Kirk simulators. 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 ours: a smart-talking AI. EDI and Joker’s helm banter might have bordered on the Whedonesque a bit, but we 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, but otherwise it’s a cracking end to the trilogy.
What else should I be playing: 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.
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. 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 as Doom? 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.
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, and we're big fans of Overload and Blast-Axis, too.
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.
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 remains one of the great space games now is largely down to the mods that continue to be developed for it, in particular the Crossfire and Discovery mods. Between the two of these, 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.
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.
17. Galactic Civilizations II: Endless Universe
Galactic Civilizations II isn't the most inventive space strategy game on the planet (pardon the pun), but Stardock's intergalactic conquer-'em-up isn't so much about unexpected story twists as it is about just creating a really good, solid 4X game. You guide a space-faring race across the stars and stake your claim on the rest of the galaxy, job done.
What sets Galactic Civilizations II apart, though, is its crafty AI. Not only does it offer a meaty challenge to your space-faring exploits, but its attempts at deploying tailored, counter-strategies makes it feel all the more personal each time you play. It is getting on a bit now, but the Endless Universe / Ultimate Edition release shows Galactic Civilizations at its best, bundling in both expansions (Dark Avatar and Twilight of the Arnor) and giving you the option to destroy entire solar systems.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you liked this, then you'll probably like its sequel, Galactic Civilizations III.
16. Star Wars: TIE Fighter
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.
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.
15. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is that rare space sim that manages to capture the thrill and wonder of exploring a star system without wildly over-promising on what to expect. It may only be set in a single region of space with 40-odd star systems to peruse, but within those limited confines is a game packed with dogfights, bounty hunts, underhand deals and fraught delivery runs. Action is the name of the game here, and Double Damage Games makes you get you're able to get your hands dirty at every possible opportunity.
Thanks to Outlaw's clever targeting system and auto-pursuit system, dogfights are brilliant fun. The auto-pursuit system in particular is a stroke of genius, as a single press of a button will tether your ship to the tail of your target. No matter how much they twist and turn and try and double back, you can get on with the important business of shooting them down without worrying about frantically spinning out of control and getting disorientated. You can turn it off if you prefer to go old-school with your space fights, but leaving it on makes every skirmish feel like a nail-biting battle of wits rather than chance pot-shots into the void.
Rebel Galaxy Outlaw also manages that rare feat of giving us a character we actually care about, and a story that gives a place and purpose in this vast region of the unknown. A lot of it covers familiar ground, but it makes a refreshing change from your No Man's Sky and Elite Dangerous types. Lovingly crafted and always stunningly pretty to look at, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw always has us coming back for more.
Where can I buy it: Epic
What else should I be playing if I like this: Double Damage Games' original Rebel Galaxy from 2015 was previously on this list (and is technically a sequel to 2019's Outlaw), but if it's more dogfights you're after, then check out EVE: Valkyrie (which you can now play without a VR headset).
14. Star Traders: Frontiers
Space captains are better served than ever for 2D Elite-ish games, but Star Traders: Frontiers is by far the best out there. Create your captain, pick a ship, and fill it with a crew of pilots, navigators, swordsmen, and whatever niche experts suit your needs. Getting on your feet can be hard, but once you've got a little money and the favour of some political figures, the galaxy is yours to adventure in.
Your ship and crew define you more than in any space RPG, as you can refit and reorganise them as you see fit. Spies aid in rooting out information. Military officers can perk up morale during its turn based ship fights. Explorers are adept at defending against alien attacks when you're searching a planet for that criminal a local noble wants taken in. Almost everything you do in Frontiers can affect the economy, status, and political relations of local characters, planets, and factions, whether you want to dig into its multi-threaded story jobs or not. And you'll inevitably end up doing more than you planned for when opportunity knocks. Your unarmed spy ship might make a great smuggler. Your ship-disabling pirates might create perfect opportunities to start taking on bounty hunter jobs. Or you might just stumble across some exotic goods, and find yourself waylaid in a chain of unexpected events on your way to find a black market to sell them at.
Also you can hire a sniper who wears pink thigh high boots in space. What's not to love?
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Space Rangers 2 makes up for its older, rougher edges with variety and sheer ambition, and keep an eye on the same devs' Cyber Knights: Flashpoint, which recently made over four times its target on Kickstarter.
13. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
If you’re happy to trade off realism for sheer spectacle when it comes to space battles, then Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 (the definitive Warhammer 40,000 navy ‘em up) is going to be your happy place, because that’s the principle Games Workshop’s superbly OTT sci-fi property has always been defined by.
Despite all the cinematic 3D camera stylings, its battles play out on a resolutely 2D playing field, so it’s essentially a sea battle game with bombastic, giga-scale space stylings. And in fact, it pushes a lot of the same buttons in terms of play feel as a Total War game - you build up fleets on a campaign layer, then position them on a tactical map and shove them into the enemy to start knocking lumps out of each other.
Conflict in BFGA2 feels huge: hundreds of individual turrets batter away at each other, while fighters zip around like clouds of dust, and massive ships explode gloriously with a groaning sound like a whale reading its credit card bill.
You can play as 12 of the major 40k factions in BFGA2’s skirmish mode, while four get their own campaigns: the Imperium, with their city-sized cathedral-battleships, the very hungry caterpillars of the Tyranids, with their gnashing, gribbly space whales, angry blood boys Chaos, with their floating assemblies of spikes (in the game’s DLC), and my perennial favourites, the miserable robot skeletons known as the Necrons, who lumber about in weird, ancient egyptian death croissants.
The strategic game sometimes feels a little light, but not so much that it feels stripped down, and there’s an impressive level of storytelling and lore involved, when it didn’t necessarily have to be. The big draw, however you choose to play, and whatever you choose to play as, is that you’re guaranteed one hell of a light show.
What else should I be playing if I like this: For more epic space battles (in proper 3D space, to boot), try Homeworld Remastered.
12. Sins Of A Solar Empire
Ironclad Games’ RTS pinches the scale of a 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!
11. X3: Albion Prelude
Although it started out as a rather humourless and unhurried take on Elite, the X series has carved out an impressive niche for itself over the course of 15 years or so, becoming 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 the Albion Prelude expansion went a step too far, with too much slow-burning intricacy and not enough explanation, but by 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.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The usual rule of X games is to enter via the most recent, which is currently X4: Foundations. You may also want to consider immersing yourself in the industrial depths of Eve Online instead.
10. EVE Online
For all its infamous high stakes drama and ruthless corporate betrayals, there's room for a lot more in EVE than most people think. The enormously complex player economy is ultimately about loads of random players all doing their own thing, after all.
More so than perhaps any other game, EVE is about interacting with others, but that too can be done as you see fit. The jostling alliances of hundreds-strong players make the headlines, but exist alongside countless small groups of friends, pairs, even the occasional solo player making their space life by trade, manufacture, murder, or just quietly shooting endless disposable NPC ships for an hour or two after work to unwind. It's a demanding game for sure, but getting to know even a small corner of it feels satisfying. Seeing familiar names and knowing what they're up to, who they're friends with, and what things you can achieve together is one of the promises that few MMOs deliver on.
It takes some patience and a lot of initiative, and the ability to sigh and shrug some things off. But if you're not enjoying what you're doing in EVE, you can just do something else. Get talking to someone, for heaven's sake. There are opportunities everywhere if you're willing to make the effort.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Few games can challenge EVE, but Albion Online and Black Desert Online are worth considering. For single player, try the detailed economy of X4: Foundations, or the more established (and modded) X3: Albion Prelude. Finally, Astrox Imperium is explicitly designed to be EVE without the other players.
9. Homeworld Remastered
The original Homeworld is one of the all-time great space RTS games, but trying to get it running on a modern PC is a bit of a nightmare - if only because it hasn't been available to buy for the better part of a decade. Thankfully, Gearbox's 2015 remaster brought it bang up to date. Bundling remastered editions of both Homeworld and Homeworld 2 and a special Steam multiplayer mode, this is the definitive way to play one of the best space games of all time.
A lot of Homeworld's accomplishments may seem like old-hat now. Moving multiple units in 3D space? Yawn. A choice between total annihilation and desperate survival? Been there, done that. And yet, the thrill of Homeworld's epic space battles remains just as strong as it did back in the olden days of 1999. Add in modern dynamic lighting, hi-res textures and a remastered score, and it really is quite the homecoming.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If it's more grand space opera battles you're after, then head to Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2, which you'll find elsewhere on this list.
8. Distant Worlds Universe
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.
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.
7. Outer Wilds
The solar system of Outer Wilds may only take a few minutes to cross in your rickety old space ship, but the mysteries of its six planets and accompanying moons, comets and satellites will keep you guessing for hours and hours. Our game of the year in 2019, Outer Wilds is a clever space detective game with a Groundhog Day twist. The sun goes supernova every 22 minutes, you see, but thanks to a strange encounter with an ancient alien artefact, your wide-eyed explorer manages to escape being turned into space dust by getting stuck in an infinite time loop. The only way to break it is to solve the mystery of the space-faring Nomai, whose architecture, technology and discoveries shape each and every planet you'll eventually touch down on.
The planets themselves are marvels of design and engineering. From Brittle Hollow, which has a black hole tearing it apart from the inside, to The Hourglass Twins, which are linked by an epic column of sand that gradually drowns one and reveals the secrets of the other with every passing second, the world that Mobius Digital have created here really captures your imagination. It's exactly the kind of mad science fiction you've always dreamed about in games, and each one feels like a distinct ecosystem with its own rules and systems.
You're free to explore them at your own pace, too. Driven by hints and secrets you gather by translating ancient Nomai scrolls and texts they've left behind (but never giant 'go here next' icons), Outer Wilds' greatest achievement is simply letting you follow whatever trail of Nomai-shaped breadcrumbs you please as you work to solve this galaxy-wide mystery. Brilliantly written and beautifully crafted, Outer Wilds is a truly stellar stuff.
Where can I buy it: Epic
What else should I be playing if I like this: No Man's Sky captures some of the awe and mystery of what Outer Wilds does, but otherwise it's a pretty singular game. If it's a chewy mystery you're after, try Observation by the Stories Untold devs, No Code, or Tacoma by Fullbright, the folks wot made Gone Home.
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 II and Europa Universalis IV 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 our very first game, our 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.
Since then, Stellaris has gone from strength to strength, with Paradox adding a steady stream of new expansions, species and story packs. Its next expansion, Federations, is due in March 2020, too, making it a great time to jump in if you haven't already.
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 III is another great one, especially if you play it with the Crusade expansion.
5. FTL: Faster Than Light
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. Along the way, you’ll also find 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 failure 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. Our 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.
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. No Man's Sky
It's been a bumpy old ride for No Man's Sky since it launched in 2016, but after a steady stream of free updates, patches and a lot of jiggery-pokery behind the scenes, Hello Games' epic, procedurally-generated space exploration game has finally become everything we hoped and dreamed it would be. Ever since its big Next update in July 2018, No Man's Sky has gone from strength to strength, adding a proper multiplayer experience, full VR support, aquatic biomes, and even more beasts, flora, fauna and customisation options. Heck, you can even fly around in sentient, living, breathing space ships now, and if that doesn't shout 'best space game' material, we don't know what does.
It is, without doubt, one of the greatest comeback stories of recent years, and it's been heartening to watch it evolve over the years into what it is now. At its heart, No Man's Sky is still a crafting-based survival 'em up that sees you journeying toward the centre of the universe and gradually upgrading your ship so you can jump farther and farther distances, but it's also about flying to and from stunning looking planets and staring slack-jawed at all the mad creatures you'll find therein.
You no longer have to make the journey alone, either, as up to 32 players can now join a single server, and you'll see other players appear onscreen when they're nearby. Its VR support is also first rate, making it one of the best VR games you can play on PC right now, and it's also one of the best games to play in ultrawide mode, too.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Elite Dangerous scratches a very similar itch to No Man's Sky, but if planetary exploration is more your thing, then you'll probably have an excellent time getting to grips with the colourful and lovely-looking survival exploits of Astroneer.
3. Elite Dangerous
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 smoke 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 all right, we're not going anywhere.
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
It could be argued that Kerbal Space Program doesn’t belong on this list, because it’s a game about trying but (mostly) 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 Kerbal Space Program everybody recognises, though. We're sure it feels great to successfully get the Kerbals on and off the Mun without breaking a sweat, but we're just happy to see them drifting around in space. We don’t even see our many misadventures as failures anymore because that implies that we haven't done what we set out to do, which is to draw a blank on everything we know about physics and just muck around with some cool rockets.
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
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 take-downs.
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. Wing men 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 un-modded 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.
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 likeable. Wing Commander: Prophecy is probably worth a spin in lieu of Starlancer's lack of digital availability.
Cut the warp-drive, you've finally made it to the end. What a ride that was. Whether you beamed in from page one or stuck with us through our entire run-down of all the best space games on PC, your interstellar word crew of Fraser Brown, Katharine Castle, Richie Shoemaker, Sin Vega and Nate Crowley thank you for coming on this journey with us.
In our 2020 update, we gave it a bit of a spring clean, ejecting some of the older games from the previous list that hadn't aged well out of the airlock (Wing Commander 4, Tachyon: The Fringe, HardWar, Evochron Legacy, Startopia, Independence War, Star Trek Bridge Commander and Rebel Galaxy), and recruiting some of the fresher-looking faces that we've enjoyed over the past couple of years (No Man's Sky, Outer Wilds, Homeworld Remastered, EVE Online, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2, Star Traders: Frontiers, Galactic Civilizations II and Rebel Galaxy Outlaw).
Do you think we missed something? As always, consider writing an impassioned celebration of the game you love that isn't here - you might convince others to give it a go.