What are the best space games on PC? That’s a toughie. Developers have been churning out space adventures since the ‘70s, and with everyone getting excited about Mars, and with Kickstarter and crowdfunding allowing studios to strike out alone, we’re currently enjoying a bit of a space renaissance.
Looking for a specific galaxy far, far away? Peruse the best Star Wars games on PC.
There are loads of new space games on the way too - with titles like Star Citizen, Elite: Dangerous - Horizons and Stellaris creeping towards release, we’ve got a lot to look forward to. But before we get all excited about the future, let’s take a look at the best space games on PC that you can play right now, from old classics to fancy, new triple-A titles.
Updated 4/11/15: We've added a number of new entries, as well as given everything a spit and polish.
30 years since it first graced the BBC Micro, the Elite series returned 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. Frontier are prepping bouncing moon buggies for planetary exploration in the cresting Elite: Dangerous - Horizons update. 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.
Star Trek Online
In movies and online, Star Trek has come a long way in a comparatively short space of time, though arguably it’s the initially troubled MMOG that’s had the longest journey. Ravaged a little upon release for effectively being a bad fit, the game has ended up filling its replica uniform rather well, even if remains non-regulation for the most part.
It’s helpful to think of Star Trek Online, not as a game that manages to capture the spirit of the Roddenberry-enforced universe, with its pioneering forays into the unknown, tactical one-on-one battles and meeting with curious aliens with an abiding love for human history, but as being part of an online fan convention. Players display their affiliations for TOS, TNG or DS9, indulge their series knowledge and take part in various games on the side, namely via structured away team missions and battles in space. Being a game funded by microtransactions, you can also buy loads of tat, but the point is that Star Trek Online is not so much a sim for gamers who like Star Trek, but a hang-out for Star Trek fans who like to game.
And there's a lot of game to like, from the way in which you develop your character and bridge officers, to playing through regular episode missions. It's akin to riding an open-topped shuttle around every nook of Trek lore and history.
Where the game excels is during open team space battles, in which small groups of player ships combine to bring down NPC vessels. With a need to manage shields and power levels, consider speed and positioning, veteran fans of the Starfleet Command games will find much to engage, especially when part of a well-drilled team of frontline and support vessels tearing up the galaxy.
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 after 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.
Kerbal Space Program
The first order of doing anything in space is of course to get there. Unfortunately most games in this otherwise splendid list make the rather wild assumption that rocket science isn’t all that important and skip to the business of spreading violence, free market capitalism and all manner of other human diseases to all corners of various galaxies. Thankfully the space program to which the Kerbals fatefully apply is rather more grounded in reality, in the sense that the aim of the game is to avoid crashing into the stuff - ground and reality both.
Kerbal Space Program is ostensibly about trial and error, first in building a vessel capable of getting its payload off the ground, which is relatively easy, second by actually getting the damn thing launched and steered into some kind of orbit. You soon realise that getting past the Karman Line is one thing, while delivering your payload safely to its destination quite another. Thankfully, because your gurning passengers seem quite happy to be sacrificed for the greater good of the basic understanding of astrophysics, the trial and error is every bit as involved and entertaining as any fleeting success.
And there’s plenty of success to aim for: reaching the Mun (nee Moon), deploying a modular space station and mining on distant planets are all attainable, albeit after a great deal of crushing but entertaining failure, made bearable thanks to a combination of hard science unpinning a soft and cute interior. As well as being a bloody good space game, KSP may well be the most entertaining community-enriched sandbox since Minecraft.
Galactic Civilizations III
Galactic Civilizations III feels instantly familiar. It’s one of the latest in a long tradition of 4X space games inspired by Masters of Orion, and is a sequel to one of the most popular ones. Indeed, GalCiv II used to hold this spot in our list. It’s been usurped by its younger sibling though, and for good reason.
Not so much an overhaul of the previous game, GalCiv III is more of a refinement, removing a lot of the bloat and making it easier to manage an empire without sacrificing depth. The economy screen, for instance, has been simplified into a sphere where you can change the priority between wealth, manufacturing and research for both the empire and individual planets.
There’s just more to do, as well, from an abundance of random events to new resources and buildings that give dictators more control over their burgeoning space empires. There’s a greater emphasis places on the ideologies of the races, as well. As you make decisions, you set your people down a specific path (but you can change your mind, if you want) that provides unlockable bonuses from extra colony ships to stat improvements.
On the surface, it feels a lot like its predecessor, but under the hood countless changes have been made, making the game feel surprisingly fresh, while still being comfortingly familiar if you’re a series veteran.
The Ur-Quan Masters
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, and possibly the greatest free game you’ll ever find.
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.
Homeworld Remastered Collection
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, an excellent sequel, and most recently the Remastered Edition, 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.
It’s more beautiful thanks to Gearbox’s remastering efforts, too. Now the game looks like it does in our memories, even those clouded by nostalgia, with its beautifully detailed ships and its gargantuan space backdrops. And thanks to its minimalist UI, none of that beauty is obscured.
Watching the game in action is like viewing an epic ballet. 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.
Homeworld was a great, must-play game before the remastering, and this version demands your attention even more.
Master of Orion 1 + 2
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 - at least until Wargaming finish their reboot with the help of some "key members" of the original team.
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.
If you’re one of those old school types who believes space sims should only be played with controllers that include a throttle and hat switch, there’s really only game you need concern yourself with... Two if you’ve not played it’s only-marginally inferior predecessor.
Wing Commander may have set the standard for frenetic 3D space action, but it was Freespace 2 that refined and perfected the fine art of dogfighting in space: perfect controls and interface combined with fast and detailed visuals (that have no place in the modern age, impressive though they were) and a series of linear missions that in terms of pace, objective and scale were some of the best ever devised for any any action game. Hardened veterans who’ve dispatched more Shivans than they could ever count will never forget the thrill of going up against capital ships, bringing down waves of torpedos and protecting their very capable wingmen in the frenetic fight for humanity’s survival. What do you mean it wasn’t real? You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there.
Sadly for joystick-wielding space fans Freespace 2 heralded the end of an era. Poor initial sales brought on a ten-year barren patch for space combat games. Thankfully, the release of Freespace 2’s source code in 2002 gave the game a new lease of life that thanks to the continued efforts of fan coders continues to thrive in projects such as Battlestar Galactica mod Diaspora, FreeSpace Port and Wing Commander Saga, all of which come highly recommended - that last one especially.
Mass Effect 2
Admittedly there’s not much fizzing and fwooshing of spaceships to be enjoyed in Mass Effect and while there’s plenty of empire-building and political back-biting kicking off at every level, there’s not a great deal of policy-making you get to have a hand in. Master of Orion this most certainly isn’t, although a 4X game in the Mass Effect universe would be an interesting proposition.
The Mass Effect series merits inclusion here for two reasons. One is the obvious strength of the story and the characters, a story that sprouted strong in the first game and blossomed throughout its middle act to such a degree that the conclusion was always going to wilt a little bit. Secondly, that in spite of a complete lack of direct spaceship control, you felt not just part of a crew, but in command of a functioning ship with an ability to explore a universe, albeit quite a narrow and restricted one compared to some of the space-faring adventures many of us were brought up with.
Parallels have been drawn - not least by Bioware themselves - between the Mass Effect trilogy and the classic exploration series Starflight (which, by the way, you’re welcome to include in ME’s place), which was notable in the late 1980s for being one of the very first space exploration games and is notable today for not having been bettered in that regard since. In terms of storyline, with all that ancient technology end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it gubbins, Mass Effect’s storyline is remarkably close to Starflight’s. Indeed Starflight could almost be seen as the 70s original to Mass Effect’s BSG-style gritty reimagining, only without the risible Galactica 80 spin-off series to besmirch it’s reputation.
FTL: Faster Than Light
It’s a curious thing that among the entire spectrum of space sims released over the last 30 years, from the fastest arcade shooter to the most sprawling space sims, the mundane business of managing a ship‘s crew has barely been considered as necessary part of the mix. The designers of such games would rather it seems focus on the motion of the planets and various spaceships flitting between them, assuming - perhaps rightly - that the oft-red shirted technicians should be left to their engineering devices, and should they fall in the line of duty, others will step into the breach with hydro-spanners at the ready.
While FTL features rudimentary ship combat mechanics, it is in no sense a space simulation. Ship movement is essentially a series of hops across a gameboard, with each stop drawing an encounter, usually an opportunity to take on supplies either from a passing trader or - more often than not - after a quick battle against pirate ships.
The hook to FTL is crew assignment, balancing power levels between weapons, shields and engines (and, just as importantly, doors and surveillance cameras) and upgrading ship systems by spending experience points. Assigning crew to the right station at the right time is key, not only to augment the weapons, engines and effect evasive maneuvers, but to fix the damage and fight the fires that inevitably break out as combat encounters become increasingly fraught, especially after enemy forces board your vessel and start shooting the place up. Meanwhile, outside, the shadow of a pursuing enemy lengthens across the map. You have to keep moving and improving, otherwise it’s just one mistake and everyone dies. In FTL there are no second chances. It’s crew or be killed.
Distant Worlds: Universe
Another 4X game to add to the list, but really, Distant Worlds is whatever you want it to be. An exploration game where you have one vessel that's part of a massive empire, and you spend the whole time just flitting around the galaxy. A trade game, where one eye is always on your bank account, while the other is hungrily looking at aliens, searching for good deals and diplomatic opportunities. A game where you are the master of everything, sticking your finger in every conceivable pie, from military matters to colonisation.
It's huge; mind-bogglingly, overwhelmingly massive. An entire galaxy is simulated from private traders going about their business, to pirates getting up to no good. It’s the most ambitious 4X space game that you’re ever likely to find.
At its core, it’s a tool for creating your own galaxies to play in. Players can curate the game to such a degree that one game could bear no resemblance to the next. Everything from the age of the galaxy to the aggression of pirates can be dictated before a game even begins.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter Special Edition
LucasArts might be gone, and one could argue that it died long before it officially shut down, but we’ll always have reminders of what once was, with brilliant games like Totally Studio’s phenomenal Star Wars: TIE Fighter, the villainous sequel to X-Wing.
Its predecessor was great, there’s no doubt about it, but TIE Fighter let you play as an Imperial, and the Devil is always more fun. It was also, across the board, an improvement over X-Wing, from its graphics - now very dated, admittedly - to a targeting upgrade that allowed pilots to focus on specific parts of an enemy capital ship or station.
This isn’t some arcade space shooter like its modern, not-quite-successor, the Rogue Squadron series. This is a space sim first, which comes with greater complexity but also greater control. For instance, if you’re being peppered with laser fire from a pesky X-Wing and your ship’s been damaged, then you assign the order in which systems are repaired.
Being an oldie, expect a wee bit of fiddling to get the best experience. Thankfully, our Rob’s written a beginner’s guide to X-Wing and TIE Fighter, which should save you from some potential problems.
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is a game that successfully manages to combine the very best of 3D real-time strategy - albeit without a single-player campaign - with the kind of empire building offered only by the very finest 4X titles.
Played across a user-defined network of stars, players begin forging an empire around the gravity wells of planets with shipyards, research outposts, extractors and defence system, then assembling fleets combining frigates, corvettes, cruisers and capital ships to map and eventually conquer neighboring systems.
In earlier versions of Sins, conquest was largely achieved in the time-honoured RTS fashion of dragging a huge box around every single damn ship you owned and directing them towards the enemy systems so as to allow sheer force of numbers to win the day. However, with the introduction of diplomatic victories in a previous expansion and research and occupation victories as part of 2012’s Rebellion standalone - not to mention new Death Star-like titan ships as a much-needed counter to the ultra-defensive starbases structures - the stalemates that would often cause games to peter out can be pursued as potentially winning strategies.
There are no alien worlds to conquer or empires to establish, just a basic lunar module on a landing pad, yet by virtue of it’s stark realism and unforgiving lunar landscape, Lunar Flight is easily the most intimidating game in this list. That’s not just down to the fact it’s a simulation of a kind we see all-too infrequently these days, but because there’s a very palpable sense of dread that comes from sitting in a cockpit that will repeatedly become your tomb. The music and background radio chatter acts as a constant reminder that it’s just you in a rocket-powered shopping trolley, countless thousands of miles away from home.
Controlling the lander is an exercise in self-control and fine-tuning as you work to get a feel for the low gravity, train yourself to keep an eye on the various gauges, and counter each minute application of thrust with another. Dozens of deaths later, you may complete your first safe waypoint landing, followed by attempting a mission or two to carry a payload back to where you started, by which time you will have stalled your panic and hopefully upgraded one or two aspects of your painfully fragile vessel.
Lunar Flight isn’t without a sense of fun. One update included Mars as a new location to constantly crash and burn, while another added multiplayer deathmatch, the landers able to launch deadly rocket salvoes. It goes without saying that it’s possibly the most challenging and bizarre space combat experience you can have.