It’s been so long since we posted this list of the best space games on PC that the light from distant, new stars has now reached us. So, with Kerbal Space Program reaching beta, Elite: Dangerous launching and NASA getting all excited about Mars, we thought it would be a good time to update Richie Shoemaker’s original list.
Since it was written, there have been ups, like EVE’s new cadence of updates that have brought big changes to the game throughout the year, and there have been downs, like X Rebirth being properly rubbish. It’s chaotic, up there in the stars.
The one thing that remains consistent is the fact that we’re drowning in choice, from classic 4X space games to flashy new sims that simulate our entire galaxy. It’s a good time to have your head far above the clouds.
Thirty years since it first graced the BBC Micro, the Elite series returned this very month in the form of Elite: Dangerous. It’s been around for a while in alpha and beta forms, enough time to be written about thousands of times and played by countless pirates, bounty hunters, traders and explorers. So we already knew it was going to be a bit impressive.
A whole galaxy, that’s our playground. Not just any galaxy, either. The Milky Way is the setting of Elite: Dangerous, built to terrifying scale. It’s a galaxy populated with black holes, gargantuan suns, space anomalies, and space ships that flit around like tiny specks of dust on an inconceivably big table.
It’s familiar, authentically Elite, but elevated by tech that would have boggled minds in 1984, where 256 planets was massively impressive. How you carve out a life in this galaxy is much the same, though, whether you become a trader, filling your cargo hold with algae and microchips, or a mercenary, fighting in an interstellar war.
It’s great, but players are already improving it with things like chatting ship AIs that react to voice commands. And if you’re lucky enough to have an Oculus Rift, then you’re in for a treat, right up to the point where your ship spins out of control and you dive head first into a sick bag.
Buyers Guide: Elite: Dangerous is only a few days old, and you can buy it directly from the official site.
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 today is no more difficult to approach than its single-player bosom buddies X and Elite. 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.
Buyer's Guide: EVE is on sale all the blooming time and you can grab different starter bundles to give you a leg up in the cold vacuum of space. It's one of the few subscription MMOs, though you can also buy gametime with in-game currency.
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.
Buyer's Guide: It's free! Get it here.
Homeworld’s the sort of game that gets inside your head and just stays there. It came out 15 years ago, eventually spawning an expansion and an excellent sequel, and it’s a series that remains unsurpassed.
It’s one of those rare strategy games that has a great story, both tragic and hopeful, filled to the brim with tension. It’s a voyage of discovery, of learning about the past and desperately struggling to create a future. It’s beautiful and a bit sad.
Units can move in three dimensions. Tiny ships fly in formation in all directions; massive, heavily armed capital ships float around the vast mother ship; diligent resource gatherers work away to fuel a massive undertaking. Even the biggest vessels are dwarfed by the size of the 3D maps, and when the camera is zoomed out, they look alone and vulnerable. Which is exactly what they are.
It’s beautiful, too. The minimalistic UI manages to avoid getting in the way of Relic’s cinematic vision of space, and the game is accompanied by a fantastic, yet understated ambient soundtrack.
Buyer's Guide: Not as easy as some of the others to find, you might be better off waiting for Gearbox's remastered versions.
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 definitely 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.
Buyer's Guide: Get both on the cheap over at GOG.