Space. The final frontier right? Well not so much in the gaming world. In fact the big, black nothing with a few rocks thrown in has been a constant source of inspiration for the gaming community since the get go. Just look at the long line of intense shooters that started with Space Invaders, went through Asteroids and came out as Zarch in the late eighties. Yet this constant mining of materials from the heavens above is far from exhausted, nor does it belie the quality of the genre.
For now, even at this moment we sit in constant anticipation for two games to be unleashed. The first is No Man’s Sky, a title that has been making waves any time it comes up. The trailers we’ve seen hint at an unbridled amount of freedom in a space simulator that offers the player seamless transitions from on foot planetary exploration through to flight, and on to in-space dog fights. Said to be a near infinite experience the truth is 2015 just can’t come soon enough.
The second game we’re looking forward to may not have the same grand brush strokes and tag lines as No Man’s Sky but we’re betting it will be stronger in the smaller details. That’s because Star Citizen is the new title from Chris Roberts aka king of space simulators. This man has been making games just like this since 1990 (see below) and is one of a select few that could legitimately be called Godfathers of an entire gaming genre.
Star Citizen is set to continue Robert’s previous work in creating big, believable universes where the player forges their destiny using combat and their trading skills to climb to the top of the pile. Expect micro-management levels of detail to work seamlessly into a world of exploration and exploitation. The fact that this is going to include massive multiplayer elements and a perpetual universe in the form of updates just makes it more enticing.
This much sudden quality got us thinking about our own relationship with space. Whether it’s defending Earth from evil overlords, building new worlds on newly discovered planets or just setting ourselves up as pirates hungry for loot we’ve been given a lot of good experiences up there. So here, in chronological order, is a few of our favourites that you may want to try, or revisit, while waiting for No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen to appear from deep space.
Let’s start at the beginning. Of course not the very beginning but where things really got serious and really… took off… sorry. We mentioned Chris Roberts above who is working on what may end up to be his magnum opus in the form of Star Citizen. However we are quite sure that no matter how well received that is he’ll always be known for his cult series Wing Commander. The series spawned a heap of sequels and spin offs, nearly all of which are great, but as much as Wing Commander: Privateer is a masterpiece if we can only pick one it has to be the original Wing Commander from 1990. Still, you can consider this an endorsement of the whole series.
Wing Commander is the beginning of the fight between humanity and a feline warrior race called the Kilthari. The battle includes a host of missions but what was especially interesting about them was you couldn’t “lose”, at least in any traditional way. Instead losing a battle effected the story and created lasting consequences that could see the player seriously hampered in future battles. This created a real immersive atmosphere that was brought on further by an interesting plot and some good character work.
Of course it doesn’t look very impressive now but the graphics were top notch at the time. The false 3D that used several pre rendered images of the terrains and other ships did a perfectly adequate job of creating a world that felt open in all dimensions. That said the series greatly improved on its mechanics in latter episodes but you can see here where it all began. Later episodes included full acted FMV’s including the like of Malcolm McDowell and Mark Hamill but there’s something charming about the sprite based characters in this game. Of course it’s dated but for nostalgias sake, or a sense of history, this is still well worth a look.
Moving swiftly along we land in 1999 with the sequel to 1998’s Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War, FreeSpace 2. Labelled by many as the king of dogfights this intense shooter may not have all the facets as some of its contemporaries like Freelancer 2 but in terms of the high age of joystick play this was almost certainly its last great tryst.
FreeSpace 2 is based almost entirely in outer space and its strength lies in you and your ship becoming one. As you travel around from mission to mission you’ll learn every trick in the book to stay alive. Since this game is linear a lot of work was put into making the missions interesting. Though dog fights are a central part of this games appeal you’re never made to feel that you’re just constantly moving from pointless battle to battle. Still, if that is your thing then there’s plenty to love.
Take for example the ginormous capital ships that you’ll often see battling each other with huge laser blasts and bombardments. There’s also the nebulae element which can affect your pilot and your ship in adverse ways, adding extra nail biting tension to any big fights.
For those primarily interested in the story but not necessarily that skilled there was also a get out clause that if you failed a mission five times you could skip it without any detriments. It’s one of the first games I remember allowing that option and I’m sure for many it was a most welcome relief.
A real masterpiece by Volition this game gathered a host of favourable reviews at the time but what makes it extra special is that it is still getting new content. Not by the developers themselves but since they released the source codes online it means that moders and hobbyists have had a reason to keep tapping away at this game releasing new content like missions and ships. That makes this a game that is still getting DLC fifteen years later.
Lylat Wars/ Star Fox 64
When looking at major space sims PCs seem to get the majority of the picks. While the great beyond has inspired many a console based game, the space epic just wasn’t well represented on consoles. Of course this was mainly down to their weaker capabilities but still it seems a little unfair. Yet while the great space sims like Wing Commander may have been PC exclusives the console developers did make some pretty good goes of things considering their limitations. Case in point is Star Fox 64.
While this is more of a scrolling shooter than a space sim it gets extra points for sheer enjoyment and scope. First off this is a hella fun. In terms of carnage things get pretty heated pretty quickly. The rush of taking out wave after wave of bad guys while keeping your own ship intact is challenging and engaging. Nowhere is this felt more than in the open map pit fights where you and your crew must duke it out with nemesis Wolf O’Donnell, using all your skills to turn the tide of battle while having another fighter on your tail.
Combat situations like that are made even better by the sense it gives you of being in a team. Yes Fox McCloud may be the star of the show but he’s nothing in this game without his trusty sidekicks. These characters are fleshed out by sometimes witty but always charming in flight banter that goes on as you progress through certain missions.
This title had innovative level design, great voice acting, a clever method of progression and a great multiplayer. Even if it is missing other genre set pieces like trading and exploration it still deserves at least a mention in any ones top space game just for its purely enjoyable gameplay. Now available on 3DS with upgraded graphics there’s even more of an incentive to give it a go.
Galactic Civilization II
And so, from a relatively simplistic and streamlined experience to a gargantuan workhouse that demands almost as much from the player as it gives back. Considered an absolute classic by fans of 4X games Galactic Civilization II stormed onto the scene in 2006 and showed many other developers how it’s done. If you consider yourself a fan of turned based strategy games then you owe it to yourself to play this. Challenging? Yes, but always rewarding. There is literally a mind boggling array of options in this game which put it head and shoulders above its own predecessor as well as any of its contemporaries.
In the solo campaign the player can take control of a fully space assimilated humanity as they attempt to gain dominance in the universe community and prevent certain disastrous consequences set in motion by an ancient alien civil war. In the open game version you can take control of any of the ten races (or create a new one). These races have their own inherent strengths but even these can be tweaked and customised.
The whole point of Galactic Civilization II is its response to the individual player’s needs. In a turn a participant can build factories on his world, build fighter ships, expand their technology, create trade routes and set up a colonisation project for the next hospitable planet. The fact that the game is interested in diplomacy as well as development is just one of its many strengths compared to the others on this list.
Yes the amount of micro management can seem bewildering to a new player but then all you need to remember is every button on screen, every slide bar and every plus or minus is an extra level of control for the player. You can decide how your ships are built, how your economy works. You can even change your governing policy over the years from an imperial one to a democracy or even a galactic federation.
Though this may be the slowest game on this list it is a perfect example of what makes space games so compelling; their sheer size and potential. Words don’t really do this in depth masterpiece justice, try it and see.
The big daddy in recent years, this series from BioWare didn’t just reclaim their space RPG crown after the excellent Star Wars KOTR but it re introduced many gamers to the idea of the space opera, an epic that had nearly the whole community enthralled.
For the few that don’t know, the Mass Effect series follows Commander Shepherd and his/her motley crew as they travel around a sparsely populated universe solving the riddle of a deep space race known as the Reapers.
While the last in the series is a contentious issue the first two are undisputed classics. For the sake of importance of computer game history we’ll be talking about the first in the series but really this is a game in three parts, rather than three distinct titles.
The gameplay is an intuitive and simple mix of Gears of War combat, team management and some RPG elements. On the harder levels the battles can be fierce but for those who want to take it easy the battles can be notched down to enjoyable jaunts. Either way the battles are fun and get an added boost by the amount of teamwork you must use with your AI controlled team. There’s nothing better than using your biotechs abilities to float enemies into the air while you and your other assistant take them out.
You barely get to touch the controls of a spaceship but in Mass Effect they still play a central part. Not only do you use them as your main system of transport but your own ship works as a hub where you can outfit, and most importantly, interact with your characters.
Mass Effects greatest power is in immersion. Immersion in the plot, which is compelling, and immersion in your interactions with others. By half way through the first game you are no longer aware that you’re talking to an AI and a bunch of pixels but you feel emotionally drawn in with their plights, their joys and their pains. Anyone who fails to be moved by many of Mass Effects dramatic and emotional moments is dead inside, fact.
Really there is just too much to choose from. Of course we’ve missed out your favourite space game. The truth is that researching this article we were reminded of the sheer quality out there for games using space as its main mechanical and narrative source. Perhaps R-Type should have been here, Star Wars: TIE Fighter as well. Hell, we could feasibly include Super Mario Galaxy on this list. Like the stars in the sky it could go on for ever. Just consider this a random handful out of a great pick ’n’ mix.
Let us know your thoughts. What is the best space game you’ve ever played? How are you feeling about the buzz around No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen?