[Now updated with some titles I meant to include in the first place but forgot because it was late when I wrote this and I was tired and WHARGGGHHH. Or something.]
Space, they say, is big. Really big. There’s a whole universe of infinite possibilities out there, and being boring old humans we’re (mostly) stuck on this planet, unable to explore the great black beyond. We can, of course, observe it and take exciting pictures and footage, such as what we’ve seen from the recent Venus transit. But for the everyday person, exploration of space is the stuff of pure science fiction.
Video games are a great way to immerse yourself in that sense of exploring the great unknown. Plenty of games are set in space, obviously, but it’s a smaller subset that actively deals with exploration and discovery rather than simply blowing shit up. Star Trek as opposed to Star Wars, if you will, though I’m aware that’s a gross oversimplification of and a great injustice to both series. But never mind.
Here are some of my favourite space games.
Star Control II
What a fantastic game this is, well deserving of its classic status. Star Control II casts the player in the role of a human captain returning to Earth after a long stint on a faroff colony only to discover that our homeworld has been captured and enslaved by the evil Ur-Quan. Thus begins a galaxy-spanning adventure of diplomacy, combat and collecting lots of minerals.
Star Control II is one of those games that blends lots of different play styles together to create a distinctive whole. You have Asteroids-style combat incorporating ideas from one-on-one fighting games — each ship has its own “special moves” and is well-matched against certain other vessels. You have space exploration — the game tells you very little about where to find things, and God help you if you don’t note down the offhand mentions of alien species that some characters make. You have resource management in the form of keeping an eye on your ship’s crew, fuel and cargo space. You have RPG-style upgrading as you turn your ship into an unstoppable behemoth and recruit various escort vessels to accompany you. And you have adventure-game style dialogue trees as you make contact with the weird and wonderful races of the galaxy in an attempt to recruit them to your cause.
Star Trek Online
Star Trek Online is an excellent Star Trek game, although it may be a little too heavy on the combat to be completely true to its source material. The game does successfully capture the feeling of piloting a huge vessel around the galaxy to seek out new life and new civilisations and all that jazz, though, and the fact that the game has a strong focus on user-generated content ranging from player-constructed alien races to full mission sequences makes it a great deal of fun. It’s not as polished as it could be and PvP is broken as hell, but it’s a free-to-play title that doesn’t gouge you for in-game purchases at every opportunity.
Find out more here.
I wrote a little about the upcoming 4X space strategy title Endless Space a little while back. The game is now in beta testing as it gets closer to release. I haven’t tried it yet but am planning to give it a go over the weekend.
Endless Space is less “personal” than other titles due to the fact that you’re not controlling your own individual vessel, you’re overseeing a whole empire. That doesn’t stop it from being full of the joy of discovery and exploration, however — finding a star system with planets rich in valuable resources is immensely satisfying, and successfully defending it against incurstion from your opponents is even more satisfying.
X: Beyond the Frontier
I haven’t played this game for ages, nor have I played its sequels and expansions. But the original game struck me as an impressive experience that truly made you feel like an insignificant speck in a massive galaxy that would most certainly go on with its own business without you. Over time, in true space opera style, you could make a name for yourself and work your way up to being an immensely powerful individual, but the journey was a long, slow, tough one — rewarding, though.
Grab it from Steam.
Having returned to playing this recently I had forgotten quite how excellent the space section of this game was — it’s certainly the most well fleshed out component.
After designing your custom race’s custom spaceship, you then take to the randomly-generated stars to colonise new planets, trade with other spacefaring races, toy with the natural order of things on developing worlds, discover lost relics, complete missions, mine for valuable resources, paint planets and carve obscenities into the ground using rivers. It’s very freeform in how the player can tackle it, which gives each game the potential to be completely unique.
Will you seek peaceful solutions to conflict? Will you only expand your empire to planets already capable of supporting life, or will you terraform barren rocks into new Edens? Will you go to war with rival empires or attempt to buy them out? And will you satisfy yourself with building out your empire, or will you embark on a quest to get to the centre of the galaxy and uncover the mysteries of the universe?
I played this game on the Atari ST. It was brilliant. It was a relatively early title from Electronic Arts, and was immensely freeform in its gameplay. Taking on the role of a starship captain, the player was simply tasked with exploring the galaxy. This involved flying to new star systems, descending to planets, exploring in a “rover” vehicle, engaging in diplomacy between alien races and battling enemies. There was supposedly an overarching plot, but I never got that far when playing it as a youngster — I simply enjoyed flying around and exploring space. It may well be one to revisit with the eyes of an adult.
A space sim from Origin (as in the software company, not the digital distribution platform) that cast the player in the usual role of a “privateer”, Space Rogue was interesting for the fact it wasn’t just about flying around shooting things and hauling goods from planet to planet. Landing at a base launched a top-down roleplaying component during which you could explore, talk to people, engage in combat against enemies and take part in a galaxy-spanning plot that, again, I can remember very little about besides a series of fetch quests that involved you ferrying messages back and forth between two sisters called Cebak and Tiwa. There were text-based adventure sections, too.
Space Rogue, then, was something of a precursor to the next game I’m going to mention.
Space Rangers 2
An utterly bizarre yet lovable game from Russia, Space Rangers 2 takes players on a wild ride across the galaxy, taking in turn-based strategy, real-time strategy, third-person shooter combat, text-based adventures, trading, RPG-style levelling up and all manner of other crap along the way. It’s an absolute Frankenstein’s Monster of a game and all the better for it. It’s almost futile to describe the experience of playing it, particularly when you can check it out for yourself for super-cheap thanks to GOG.com.