For more than a generation the Earth’s space game scanning network barely registered a blip as it swept the heavens for signs of code-based life. Eve expansions and the odd new entry into the X series aside, a gaming frontier that once bustled with X-Wings, TIE Fighters and Right On Wing Commanders was for a decade almost totally devoid of traffic.
No longer. The tactical display is alight with all manner of space game contacts; rusty classics relaunched from the GOG.com launch pad, a rag-tag fleet of indie bucaneers harrassing gaming’s core worlds, while at the edge of our scopes some of the most celebrated space commanders to have ever taken to the stars are assembling new fleets in preparation for an almighty assault. For space gaming fans the future hasn’t been this bright since the old Captain Kirk died.
In celebration of the coming starmageddon we thought it a splendid idea to gather together the very best examples of space games that you should be playing now and keeping an eye on into the future. Alas, there are some timeless classics that we’ve had to pass over, games such as Homeworld, Freelancer and TIE Fighter - that are only available via illegitimate rais into the dark corners of the internet. Perhaps their obvious omission from the roster will spur their corporate owners into facilitating some kind of digital re-release. It doesn’t seem quite right to not have them prepped for launch. Thankfully though, what is out there more than fills the void.
Eve has been the preeminent space game for so long that you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the only space game in existence. Unquestionably it’s the most interesting, partly down to the fact that its half a million online inhabitants play on the same mega-server rather than having to endure the severed realities offered by it’s many fantasy contemporaries.
Combined with the manner in which players join together to form fleets that number in the thousands and alliances in the tens of thousands; all laying siege to entire regions for months on end, supported by an extensive supply chain of miners, traders, researchers and manufacturers, means that in terms of scale and substance there really isn’t anything else much like it. In all honesty nor does there seem anything else likely to usurp it anytime soon.
The game is not without its downsides. It has a bad rap for being bastard-hard to get into, but with recent updates to the user interface, graphics and the near-constant streamlining of some of the game’s more obscure systems, the Eve of 2013 is no more difficult to approach than it’s single-player bosom buddy, X. Much more of a concern for the newcomer is how difficult it can be to succeed, especially if your aim is to carve out a small empire for yourself within a few weeks. Be warned, if you enter New Eden with the wrong attitude (or without the means to back it up), you will not enjoy yourself for very long.
Don’t fly what you can’t afford to lose is a common mantra, and it’s one that should be applied far beyond the contents of any hangar bay. Having piles of in-game cash is nice, but trust and time are far bigger commodities, and if you lack the latter, be heartened that Eve is almost as enjoyable to observe as it is to actually play.
In the space of a twelve month period we Earthlings refer to as 1993, not only did seminal space games like X-Wing, Master of Orion, Star Trek: Judgement Rites and Wing Commander: Privateer appear (and Wing Commander III a few months later), there was also a third entry in the mighty Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, which, as its name suggested, was a slight but significant departure from the classic space trading original.
Twenty years on a fourth Elite is nearing completion, Elite: Dangerous, which promises a back-to-basic approach in terms of arcade flight, but that will build on the almost absurd scale enjoyed in the Frontier follow-ups, with potentially billions of procedurally-generated systems in which players can not only fight and trade, but through economic blockades and piracy change the allegiance and fortunes of their pretend populations.
Aside from existing at all, what’s most exciting (not to mention a little uncertain) is how the single and multiplayer sides of Elite: Dangerous will be integrated, with players able to switch between any number of user-defined galaxies, from the traditional solo adventure, friends-only co-op to no-holds-barred shards resembling the full-PvP realms of traditional MMOs.
Being a game of dueling and dogfighting, as opposed to Eve’s fleet-scale engagement, Elite: Dangerous promises a wealth of intriguing innovations, such as damage modeling where a ship that is spilling cargo containers will still be able to function. Also combatants will have to be aware of two things that might give their position and intentions away to pursuers; directional thrusters that will signal an imminent attempt at evasive action, and a build-up of hull temperature that will come from all that twisting and turning. Distant ships on the way to Raxxla will be able to hone in heat signatures - hopefully via the best scanner that any game has ever implemented.
2003’s Freelancer was a technically ambitious space trade and combat sim that proved that the genre could still wing it in an era when joysticks had largely become obsolete. It was a fitting swansong for it’s creator Chris Roberts, who after ten years obscured in the mire of Hollywood production is making a return to games development with the similarly-ambitious and space-obsessed Star Citizen.
Building on the fan-assisted longevity of Freelancer, not to mention Roberts’ prior Wing Commander experience, Star Citizen will weave a familiar tale of a future united Earth empire fighting to establish itself in a galaxy far from empty, with the hook being that players have to earn their way to gaining citizenship, or instead find ways to thrive outside on the margins of mankind’s crumbling borders.
Through a combination of a mission-based solo campaign and persistent world multiplayer, the plan is to evolve and expand the Star Citizen world to add new systems, markets, missions and technologies on a regular basis, rather than have to work through bi-annual expansions and constant reiteration of features. Star Citizen’s universe might not start out the biggest, perhaps just 60 solar systems or so, but Roberts is hoping that the core gameplay will launch fully-formed.
One of the game’s most interesting features is to allow players the ability to govern how and where the universe expands, with pilots able to plot entry to new regions and sell the coordinates to the highest bidder. If that’s not intriguing enough, players will also be able to design new ships for inclusion in the game.
There will be a microtransaction element to Star Citizen, although Mr. Roberts has gone on record as saying that there’ll be no grind and no “pay to win” elements. We’ll have to see whether that’s the case, but given his track record we’re prepared to give the king of space sims the benefit of the doubt.
While The Ur-Quan Masters isn’t the oldest game in this stellar round-up, Star Control II, from which UQM takes everything bar the name, just about is; having been released a year ahead of the game that follows it in this list. Other than seniority, the other aspect in which it outranks the others is value: UQM is free, possibly the greatest free game you’ll ever have the chance to play.
Played from a top-down perspective, UQM is a hitchhiker's’ fight for the galaxy game of exploration, diplomacy, role-playing and combat. You play the commander of a lost research mission sent to re-establish contact with Earth. However, upon reaching the Sol system you soon discover the third planet has been conquered by the unpleasant Ur-Quan. Without the means to free the planet’s inhabitants or oppose its oppressors, your quest is then to head out to distant worlds and find the resources, allies and clues to help overcome the three-eyed tentacle-beasts that hold humanity in bondage.
While UQM’s flight model isn’t much more evolved than a game of Asteroids, the extensive galaxy, populated by hundreds of planets, stars and moons - all of which can be scanned, visited and plundered - make for a deeply involving game. Truth be told, constantly having to land on planets and collect materials to trade can get a little tedious, but discovering ancient secrets and conversing with the game’s 18 unique and often hilarious races (20 if you separate the Zoq from the Fot and Pik) more than makes up for having to constantly take in so many identikit planets. If meeting the cowardly Captain Fwiffo doesn’t make you immediately fall in love with the game then you’re probably dead inside.
Fans have been arguing since last century over which of the Master of Orion games is the better of the series and they only seem to agree that the third most definately isn’t it, which makes the widely-available double pack featuring the first two MOOs something of an essential and stress-free purchase.
Released in 1993, Master of Orion was the first game to earn the genre label 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and... eXfoliate?), essentially taking the concepts of Sid Meier’s classic turn-based Civilization and applying it across a galaxy of planets rather than one, so that instead of various flavours of human settlers and terrestrial biomes, players were given a wide range of planet types and races to control and conquer, such as the Silicoids; able to thrive in the most hostile of environments, albeit at a glacial reproductive rate.
While the driving force behind Master of Orion and every 4X game since has been technological advancement and colonialism, Master of Orion was the first game of it’s type to really nail diplomacy and offer a route to victory in which some measure of galactic peace could be achieved. The sequel went even further, with customisable races and a possibly political victory that required you to be elected as the Supreme Leader of the galaxy, which isn’t a career option many games have offered since.
What is undeniable is that MOO I and II are important historical references, as seminal an influence on turn-based space conquest as the first two Doom games were establishing and defining the FPS. Unlike Doom however, MOO has cast such a long monolith-shaped shadow over the entire space game genre that many would argue that the Orion games have yet to be eclipsed. Given it’s placing in this list, it’s a view we have some affinity with.