There’s a whole lot of space out there. An infinity of it. And there are a whole lot of space games to fill it. (Well, not really, as it’s infinity and they’re comprised of indefinitely-large data, and even if they were physical they’re finite – but it’s a metaphor, y’know?)
And they’ve been around for ever. Elite, one of the first and best space exploration games, was released in 1984. For a generation, games like X-Wing versus Tie-Fighter, Starcraft and the Mark Hamill vehicle Wing Commander carried fans along happily.
They slumped – heavily – in the 2000s and there were questions back then whether space games would ever be big again – but the indie revolution has shot them back into orbit. We’ve picked out our favourite ten of the current class – tell us what we’ve missed in the comments.
1. Kerbal Space Program
Like your headteacher dressed up as Kanye, the Kerbal Space Program is the most subtly educational game around. Despite its cutesy, Rabbid-like characters, the Kerbal Space Program is a hardcore physics simulator where you get to explore the galaxy – if you can even get a single rocket ship off the ground. (I’ve never managed it).
You have to build that rocket from parts supplied by a sort-of-NASA, so that it can keep a Kerbal alive for the stressful voyage up into space. It’s okay, because you get multiple goes and there are lots of willing Kerbals.
Once up in orbit, you need to take account of gravity, other obstacles and your craft’s speed if you want to get any of your lovable Kerbals back to their planet safely – or even worse if you want to land them on the Mun.
2. Eve Online
I remember my first trip into the space MMO Eve, way back in its public beta in 2003. I remember skipping the tutorial and getting lost amongst the stars, spending three days in a starter spaceship chasing down a friend who was mining stars nearby. Even then it was beautiful, complex and weird.
It’s changed a lot since those days. The universe of Eve has been through high-pressure evolution with developer CCP barely keeping control of it as powerful factions run by smart people conquered sections of its space, betrayed each other and regularly sparked wars that destroyed thousands of dollars worth of in-game spaceships.
Despite its age, Eve still manages to look stunning. Regular upgrades by CCP and a loyal community have managed to keep player numbers at around 25-35,000 players logged in on any given day. And if you’re looking for a social, intelligent game that might absorb 90% of your free time for the next ten years, you should look no further.
(Oh, and if you have a VR headset, you should probably try Eve: Valkyrie, the VR-only fighter pilot spin-off.)
3. Fractured Space
Choosing between Born Ready’s space games is a hard call. Strike Suit Zero is widely acknowledged to be a solid space action adventure, where you play – but then pseudo-MOBA Fractured Space is like playing Battlestar: Galactica with your mates.
In Fractured Space you take control of a single capital ship fighting in true 3D space that’s packed full of asteroids. Despite its 3D setting, it’s nearest to World of Tanks or World of Warships in its small 5v5 teams and objective-based combat. Taking one of the specialized ships out results in small DOTA-style skirmishes which results in intense shooter-style combat.
However, we’ve more included Fractured Space in this list because it’s so damn shiny. Flying between the stars you see gorgeous drifting nebula and giant space stations. This is what all space games should look like,
4. Homeworld Remastered
The 15-year old Homeworld series has a fair claim to be the best real-time strategy games set in space (though see Battlefleet Gothic: Armada below for a modern 2D alternative) and it was a joy when Gearbox Software bought the rights and re-released it early last year.
Your mothership, the Pride of Higara, contains not only the capability to build all sorts of other ships, but also the remnants of your nearly-extinct race. Most missions in its long campaign have you attempting to mine resources and use them to build ships to defend your mothership. As the campaign goes on, you gather a fleet around your flagship.
The best point is that true 3D combat though, allowing you to utilise bomber squadrons to target frigate’s weak top armour or hide your craft behind gas clouds. Superb music, unparalleled visuals and a revamped UI make Homeworld Remastered a joy to experience.
5. Galactic Civilizations III
Master of Orion was the first game to move Civilizations 4X empire-building gameplay to the space stage – but it was Galactic Civilizations that perfected it. The first two games were ecstatically received and, whilst the third one launched much more anonymously it has quietly picked up plaudits for its moreish, horribly varied gameplay.
In the campaign, humanity has cowered on Earth for ten years, watching the Drengin Empire exterminate or subjugate the free races of the galaxy. Now an errant Terran fleet has returned from a pocket universe and hopes to liberate humanity first and the galaxy second.
In the much-more played skirmish and multiplayer modes, you start with a single planet and a handful of spacecraft. The alien races you fight and treat with are charming and quirky, and their empires fit their personalities. The amount of tech to research, the types of structures you can build in space and on the ground, the variety of stars and anomalies to explore… this is a mammoth game designed to last you for a long time.
6. Mass Effect 2
Commander Shepard’s last foray into space might have had a poorly-received ending, but Bioware’s twisty space trilogy certainly made for a compelling five year arc. Taking the part of humanity’s military representative on the galactic stage, players fought, talked and plotted their way through the galaxy’s last days, travelling between the stars in their spaceship the SSV Normandy.
Mass Effect 2 followed a resurrected Commander Shepard as he or she sought to find more information on the insectoid Collectors. Soon, you realise that you need to destroy the enemy’s base, but that you need a specialised team to take it down. The entire game is like the Dirty Dozen, as you recruit a bunch of psychopaths, murderers, and technological wizards, then win their loyalty to weld them into a team that can do this impossible suicide mission.
Another edition, Mass Effect: Andromeda is due out in 2017.
7. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada
We couldn’t talk about space without shoehorning in a bit of the grim darkness of the far future. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is a fleet management game set in the 41st Millenium.
In the long singleplayer campaign, you take the side of the Empire, who are the ‘goodies’, as far as an ethnic cleansing empire run by an army of fascist supermen can be good. You’ve got to defend several areas of space against the fleets of Chaos (a sadistic, demon-worshipping version of said fascist supermen), the Orks (space Orcs with a British yob attitude to enjoying a punch-up) and the Eldar (uptight space Elves who always think they’re right.)
The battles (both single- and multi-player) are tough and tactically-rich where you have to manage your special abilities and your fleet, whilst keeping them alive for later battles. The campaign lets you slowly upgrade and expand your fleet as you start dealing with more and more enemies. And there are some horrible twists in the storyline.
You can read the PC Gamer review over here.
8. Elite: Dangerous
It’s hard to believe that the long-awaited sequel to the first open universe space game (1984’s Elite) has actually been out since 2014. In Elite Dangerous you explore a huge persistent galaxy, trading between space stations, taking out space bandits, mining asteroids, and finding new star systems as you travel. You can also land on planets, and explore them in ground vehicles.
Though it never produces battles on the scale of Eve Online, Elite features first-person combat, where you fly a range of 30+ ships ranging from the tiny Sidewinder fighter to the giant Imperial Cutter and Federal Corvette. And, again, it’s a beautiful universe to explore, especially in VR.
9. FTL: Faster Than Light
2012’s FTL was one of the most influential and strange space games released. Essentially, a rogue-like Star Trek simulator, you take the role of a starship captain attempting to reach your fleet and take down the enemy’s flagship.
En route though, you have to jump through different areas and sectors. In each of these, you might face a battle or a choose-your-own-adventure style dialogue. Battles are complex things, with guns and missiles going off, robots attacking, assault parties teleporting across, fires spreading and hulls being breached.
On top of that it features some great miniature quests written by Tom Jubert, which can unlock a whole raft of hidden spaceships and crew layouts for you to use your next run.
10. Freespace 2
By putting this in, we have ensured that there will be at least one comment asking ‘Where’s Freelancer.’ Much as we’d love to put Chris Taylor’s last great space game in, it’s simply not available for sale anywhere, so we’re going for the older (and arguably superior) Freespace 2 instead.
In the campaign, players take the role of a human pilot fighting against a mysterious alien race, the Shivans. You perform reconnaissance, escort transports, and battle other starfighters from inside your fighter’s cockpit, in huge pitched battles involving capital ships, fighters, and missiles galore. Unlike Kerbals, it’s not 100% accurate space physics, so it feels more like a dogfighting simulator.
It’s notable that because Volition released the source code for the game way back in 2002, players have created the FreeSpace 2 Source Code Project, which has added features, upgrades, mods and graphical updates for the past 14 years.
11. No Man’s Sky
We know, we know — No Man’s Sky has been widely criticized since its release, but that’s mainly because most people thought they would be getting a different kind of title to what emerged from Hello Games’ labs. If you’re wanting an all-out shooter fest in the style of Destiny then don’t go there.
However, if a heavy sense of atmosphere, the feeling of being lost in the depths of space and discovering new plants rank high on your agenda, then No Man’s Sky delivers in spades. Its procedurally generated planets mean you never know what you’re going to encounter as you dock your spacecraft on a new planet for the first time.
Curious, mis-shapen (and highly dangerous) creatures threaten and fascinate in equal measure, but a need to constantly hunt down resources to replenish health and fuel supplies means you can never linger for too long. Park Star Trek, part Interstellar, No Man’s Sky still offers a fantastic space travel experience — just not an action-packed one.