Space Sims?

By Shamus
on Jan 16, 2014
Filed under:
Video Games

By strange fortune, I got the Early Access build of a “space sim” on Steam. (Actually, according to Wikipedia this genre is called “Space trading and combat simulator”. I guess that’s more useful than calling all first-person games “shooters”.) I tried it, and like a lot of Early Access games I kind of felt like it went public way too soon. So I tried another, just to compare. It was also pretty half-baked and not in any state to provide entertainment. I might write about them later,

Remember the whole Derek Smart thing? Way back in 1996 Mr. Smart released Battlecruiser 3000AD. It was, as far as I can tell, a one-man effort. He hyped the game with fervor and was famous for his aggressive responses to criticism. (On Usenet. Remember that place?) The game was notoriously rough at launch, but he stuck with it and – according to the internet – made it right in the end. Since then he’s made a habit of giving away his games once they’re done selling, and seems to have done well for himself. He could be compared to people like Peter Molyneux, John Romero, and Phil Fish, but the truth is he’s very much his own thing. He’s mellowed quite a bit since the 90’s. He’s got his own development company now, but I’ll always see him as the original indie.

Anyway.

After seeing everyone heap so much shame on Battlecruiser 3000AD, it’s really odd to see these new sims come along and outright sell their pre-alpha builds. I feel like the internet needs to heap some shame on these projects, or apologize to Derek Smart.

No. That’s not true. I don’t really think we need to unload hate on these new indies. It’s just strange how the industry has changed, and sometimes it’s hard to see how we got from there to here.

For the record, I have’t played a space sim since Freelancer. And I friggin’ hated Freelancer for being shallow, dull, and railroad-y. I’ve heard that people have fixed it up with mods, but I’ve never had the urge to go back. (And now that I think of it, I haven’t seen the disks in years. It’s possible I don’t have the game anymore.)

I don’t know why I have this sudden urge to play a space sim. The last one I liked was the short-lived Earth & Beyond. Before that, I think it was Starflight, way back in 1992 or so. I haven’t spent a lot of time with this genre and I don’t really know what’s good.

Which brings me to the point of this meandering heap of anecdotes: What’s good out there? No need to suggest Eve Online. I admire the game from a distance. I love the drama, intrigue, and unique community structure the game has created. But I wouldn’t enjoy playing the game. I just don’t like PVP, and in Eve PVP is kind of the point.

So, have any space sims you’d really recommend? Have any you want to rage against? I’m most interested in seeing where the genre has gone in the last few years or so.

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A Hundred!2014There are 134 comments here. I really hope you like reading.

From the Archives:

  1. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “(On Usenet. Remember that place?)”

    Nope.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Well if you arent exclusively looking for a 1st person sim,then space rangers 2 may be worth your while now that it had an HD release(its a fun game even without the fancy new graphics,but hey thats what sells these days).

  3. Strangeite says:

    I don’t know if it fits the genre and it certainly isn’t new, but I would love to find a modern take on the classic game, Homeworld.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Well the prequel is in the works,and HD rerelases will be there before it comes out.

      Anyway,everyone who likes homeworld should definitely try the obscure nexus:jupiter incident.It focuses on capital ships and on a much smaller fleet,and it starts out with petty slow inertia based terran ships before it switches to the more nimble hi-tech ones.

    • Knut says:

      This one has much of the same art direction as Homeworld, and looks like it has potential to be seriously cool:

    • Intro says:

      The Mandate had a successful Kickstarter not too long ago. But it’s still early yet to see what will come of it.

      But I’ll definitely second Nexus: Jupiter Incident. It was occasionally a bit buggy in that ships would “forget” the detailed orders it was possible to give them (e.g., fire these specific weapons at this specific module on the enemy ships), but overall quite satisfying. I like strategy/tactics games that give you a fixed (but customizable) force at the beginning of the mission/level rather than the standard acquire resources and build units RTS.

    • Jonathan says:

      I quit Homeworld when I realized the game was punishing me for being successful by making missions harder. I don’t work hard to improve my fleet just to have more crap thrown at me!

  4. DollarD says:

    Have you tried the X Series of games? I’ve seen them described as Single-Player EVE Online, but since I’ve never tried EVE…

    They used to have a somewhat difficult interface, but since X3: Terran Conflict, I’ve found it much easier to just pick up and go. X3: Albion Prelude is the pinnacle of the series, I feel.

    X: Rebirth, unfortunately, doesn’t seems to have gotten great reviews, and from the forums, I gather quite a bit still needs to be done to get it into a playable state.

    X3 is still fine though, and has lots of mods available. I usually lose a weekend or so every three months when I get the inclination to start a game again…

    • DrCapsaicin says:

      I’ll agree with this, the X series seems like the only consistent game in town. They’ve been around for a while and crank out a new game every few years. X3: Albion Prelude is probably the best in my opinion. It’s vast, sweeping, beautiful. You can fly around hunting pirates, trade goods across the universe or setup a self-sufficient production facility (or likely a mix of all of the above). It’s very free-form.

      X:Rebirth has promise, but as of the last time I got into it, it’s still buggy and disjointed. Interestingly, in my experience the X series games are ALWAYS released buggy and broken and busted, but Egosoft seems to have a great track record of listening to the community and eventually fixing the games so that they turn out pretty good.

    • RTBones says:

      Absolutely – the X series (minus Rebirth, but that’s another story. Rebirth is a game 7 years in development that is plagued by copious bugs) is fantastic. Sandbox, trade, fight, whatever. Its all up to you. Multiple plotlines, which you can play – or NOT.

      Personally, I my preference is X3: Albion Prelude. Terran Conflict is also good. Enormous mod community. In fact, AP is essentially an official ‘mod’ to TC.

      Do yourself a favor – if you like space trading games, check the X series out.

      • RTBones says:

        There’s no edit function, so I’ll just reply to my own content with a couple of points:

        – Every X player will tell you this series of games has a steep learning curve. If you play, make sure to RTM, and don’t be put off by the complexity.

        – The X community is generally very helpful. If you have questions, look on the Egosoft forums – chances are others have too.

        – FAQS/walkthroughs/guides abound for this series, and many are posted on Egosoft’s own forums

        – Let’s Plays are also numerous for this game. Google “William Ferrell Albion Prelude” for a decent series of both vanilla X3 tutorials and X3AP:XRM Mod tutorials.

        • MechaCrash says:

          If you want to get in on the X series, I would suggest Albion Prelude. It’s technically DLC for Terran Conflict, so a purchase of that is mandatory, but playing it is not. You can skip earlier entries in the series entirely, as they are not necessary.

          X: Rebirth is a pile of hot garbage. Do not waste your time on that dumbed down consolized swill. They added a bunch of superfluous tedium, and it is a blemish on the series that will be difficult to wipe away.

    • Alex says:

      X: Rebirth is a PC port of an X-Box game so crap that it was never released on the X-Box. The earlier games… they weren’t bad, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend them. There’s a lot of “one step forwards, one step backwards” in their methodology.

  5. Mark says:

    Oh, good. You only said his name twice. You have to say it three times to complete the ritual of summoning.

  6. BlackFox says:

    Space 4X’s include Endless Space, which I really like, and Galactic Civilizations, which I really don’t, mostly because the interface is godawful. Endless Space has a better, though not necessarily good, interface. They’re not sims as such, but I do tend to play 4X’s far more often than sims, so they’re what I’m familiar with.

    Double Fine has a space base sim in early access called SpaceBase DF-9, which is both Totally Not Dwarf Fortress and Totally Not Star Trek and Totally Not Full Of Double Fine’s Sense Of Humor. I haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet, because I just got sucked in by Dragon Age, but I do own it, and if you’d like me to check it out I certainly could.

    While we’re on this topic, does anyone know of anything like an exoplanet colonization sim? There’s something that looks like that in Early Access on Steam — Maia. Has anyone played that enough to know what it’s like?

    • Nick-B says:

      And I had a WHOLE bunch of stuff in reply to you in which I spelled out the differences I feel between various sub-genres of “space-Sim” and it got eaten up by Shamus’ site having a heart attack as usual. I will try to reproduce it or parts, but it won’t be nearly as in-depth as I had before.

      I divide Space sim into multiple categories, depending on what kind of “sim” you want. First is the Civ-style games, of which Endless Space and Gal Civ are a part of. I love Endless Space as it is the closest you will get to civilization in space.

      Second, another kind of sim is the hands-off “herding cats” style of management, in which you place a job order and wait for the minions to fulfill it. Craft the World, Gnomoria, and Dwarf Fortress are all games I feel are in this genre, and I include older games such as Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius. Upcoming possibilities are Maia (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/maia/) and RimWorld (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/rimworld/), a game that tries so hard to be Prison Architect in space.

      The last category are ship-based sim games, such as Freelancer, Eve Online, Darkstar 1, and the X series. FL and DS One are more railroad story-heavy, while X and Eve Online are open world, with a story only reluctantly put in and mostly for tutorials sake. This category is more what Shamus sounds like he is asking for, and if so, he might be interested in the crowd-mega-funded game Star Citizen (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/star-citizen/) or Limit Theory (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/limit-theory/) which grabbed my attention with their change to game system that allows an easy in-game method of modifying game assets (first video at that link).

    • BlackFox says:

      Editing isn’t a thing, so I’ll reply to my own comment: Just came across this on Steam Early Access.

    • Aldowyn says:

      galactic civilizations II is a lot better, and it is fantastic. Also this hilarious playthrough on CVG came from it.

      Spacebase DF-9 is a base builder, and nowhere near as complicated as Dwarf Fortress (at least not yet)

  7. Craig says:

    I know you have tried Kerbal Space Program, but have you played the career mode in the latest build? Of course its a “space sim” in the strictest sense, and not “Space trading and combat simulator”.

    The science collecting has been revamped so you can’t spam science delivery, which means you can focus on gathering sci from unique areas of Kerbin, and near by planets. It sort of forces you into being more creative, and trying new things to get further in the skills tree.

  8. William Friedman says:

    I really liked EV Nova, though that’s a pretty old game – 2003, I think, but fun and freeform. There’s supposed to be an open source remake called NAEV, though I don’t know if it’s any good.

    • Mechaninja says:

      Escape Velocity: Nova, that’s the one I was trying to remember the name of. Thank you sir.

      Great, great game. Some RPG-like elements and more. They made a bunch of games like it for MAC, but just the one for windows. I always wondered about that. The community seemed pretty healthy, so I subscribed to the newsletter, but all I ever got were ads for like Apple productivity software.

    • brainbosh says:

      Escape Velocity and EV Nova were the first space sim games I played. I really enjoyed them, but have had a lot of trouble getting onto any other space sim game.

      I think the fact that it was a 2D game instead of 3D made a big difference. It meant that the travel and combat were much simpler.

      Are there any other decent space sims out there that are in a 2D setting? The 3D always seems to turn me off.

    • Veloxyll says:

      I am glad someone mentioned EV: Nova. It is really good. I haven’t really found anything that scratches the itch since that. I guess maybe Privateer 2 since that’s out on GOG. I have it modded with a mod I got on the uh, Wing Commander hub thingy on the internet, that removes the slowdown.

      It is a very niche genre that doesn’t see too many releases, sadly.

    • Rory says:

      I play through EV:Nova 2 or 3 times a year. Probably my favorite space sim of all time. There are a lot of mods for it but, unfortunately, they are really hard to get working on pc.

  9. Meliok says:

    Perhaps I’m a bit out of your definition of « space sim » , but Kerbal Space Program lets you imagine your own story in a more peaceful ( and funny ) way. So many things to do in this game ( See Scott Manley channel on youtube for having a small idea on what’s possible ). Moreover, it’s an intelligent game, which teach you « how it works », basically

    For me the « Space Sims » engulf also titles like « Noctis IV » (procedural universe, no fight also)

    See also towards « Evochron » serie as something closer to 3000AD

    Meliok

    • Aldowyn says:

      he’s definitely played KSP. There was one post detailing how he wanted the progression to go a long time ago, and relatively recently he said something that basically went ‘huh that’s pretty much exactly what I said’ :D

    • Ravens Cry says:

      Oh, Noctis. I played the heck out of that once. I felt the midi from the manual was the most appropriate background music, very eerie and full of mystery.

  10. Mike C says:

    There’s always the classic, Solar Realms Elite.

  11. Weimer says:

    Aliens Colonial Marines? No? Damn.

    4X, not a space sim, but still good. Sword of the Stars. The first one, with expansions. Don’t touch the sequel.

    Another good space grand strategy is AI War: Fleet Command, with expansions.

    Both should be on Steam. No demos though. Shame.

  12. Robert Conley says:

    Bah all of the above are toys. Play a TRUE space simulator

    Orbiter
    http://orbit.medphys.ucl.ac.uk/

    ;)

  13. Man, Earth and Beyond. I remember that. EverQuest in Space. Pretty good but… really just EverQuest in space.

    Along the lines of E&B is Star Trek Online, if you like the Star Treks. F2P, and quite viable to play without paying. I’m not going to call it the most amazing game in the world, but I have fun and it’s STAR TREK.

    If you haven’t played the Fresspace saga yet, do that.

    But really, ask again in a year or two after all the Kickstarted space games have come out.

  14. James Schend says:

    The shareware games market was alive and well long before Derek Smart’s drama. Jeff Vogel, founder of Spiderweb Software, has a better claim as “the original indie”, but even by the time he founded the company in 1994 there was already a thriving indie community on the Macintosh platform.

    #GeezerCred

    • Nick-B says:

      Oh wow, someone else who knows of the brilliance that is the Spiderweb Software team.

      • Jeff says:

        I can’t stand their current engine though. I played the heck out of the original Exile series, but the engine they used for Avernum looks really terrible to me. Also going from 6 people to 4 people.

        • sheer_falacy says:

          Avernum 1-3 was actually an engine ago – now everything is on the Geneforge engine (though it’s gone through its own iterations). Still no 6 person parties (well, maybe in Geneforge), but they’re cool games.

        • Rory says:

          Exile 3 is probably my favorite RPG of all time, I played through that game more times then I can count. I tried playing Avernum but I could never get into it either.

    • TMTVL says:

      It’s kinda like Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol. Pretty much nobody remembers the old indies and vaporware. Alien Software’s Neophyte would be another example.

  15. Grenaid says:

    You must have heard of Squadron 42/ Starcitizen by now, although its not out yet.

    Back in the day, I loved Independence war 2 for all its warts.

  16. fizmat says:

    I haven’t really played many space sims, so maybe I’m not the one to ask. But if you can find it, try Parkan: The Imperial Chronicles. (Accept no substitutions)

    A Russian space sim about a rescue mission sent to a remote sector of space devastated by war. To the point of only having robots (of various competing “clans”) inhabiting the planets of the sector.

    It was hyped up as many space sims are. Do anything, ally with anyone. Land on planets, walk on planets, trade, fight pirates, be a pirate, board ships, steal their goods, colonize planets, conquer planets, command your own fleet.
    As it often is in these cases, in reality it’s somewhat limited.
    Being exclusively a trader I never tried because there are not enough types of goods and price differences to make it fun. Befriending the pirate clan is impossible and remaining neutral to them gets very expensive because being pirates they demand tribute to leave you alone. All the robot clans have their own sectors and don’t really interact, so pissing off any non-pirate clan leaves you with no friendly planets in their sector (except if you colonized/conquered some). It’s a suboptimal strategy, but at least possible and can be fun. Conquering planets is hard in a tedious way (kill everyone on your own) and means you have to be enemies with the local clan, which is again not that good for you.

    Your commandable “fleet” consist of up to 6 unmanned drones, but dividing efforts is still fun (You two take that guy, you two – this guy. The third one is mine. Oh no, you disabled that guy, return to me, I want to board and raid his cargo hold for fuel and his computer for intel first!).

    What really works well is planet exploration. Planetary bases are dynamically generated and look more like abandoned people space than doom corridors (Within engine limits of course. And not Earthly people space, like in Duke 3D, so a little corridor-y). Land on a small moon and see a small spaceport with just a waiting room, a storage area, life support, a computer room and a cantina. Land on a rich planet and you will find all of that, plus the factory area, several levels of mines, maybe a train system, a reactor area… There are several plot-important devices and ship upgrades that you have to find on planets this way, but first you have to know which planet to search (so take data from boarded pirate ships, read rumors from trade terminals, or buy information from the info-trading space stations).

    “Quests” are somewhat predictable but fitting: defend planet from pirates, escort transport, rescue transport. Space combat is maybe not great, but definitely good enough. Land combat is too basic but does not take long (unless you are trying to conquer a planet). On the other hand, there’s a “magnetic shoes” button to climb walls. Useless in combat, but you can find secret rooms. And yes, ship upgrades can randomly end up in these…

    The atmosphere on the planet is nice and creepy because of the design, lighting and ambiance. Music in space is excellent. Each sector has its own theme and I adore all of them.

    The main storyline is not that long, has some (one may say cheesy) twists, has a couple of long FPS sections that may get old, but mostly it’s about exploration and searching for specific devices and places, so it works with mechanics that are fun. I didn’t quite get the ending, but it was long ago, I might have been dumb.

    Another con: it’s old. I remember we had to upgrade from a 486 to a Pentium to play it. This brings several problems.
    – The first-person shooter component has sprite-based enemies. If you are absolutely against graphics this bad, may be a problem. But lighting is dynamic-ish (you can shoot out lights, for no gameplay benefit).
    – FPS gameplay speed is tied to framerate. When I tried to run Parkan some years ago the laser pistol worked like a laser machine gun and running too fast was a problem. I don’t know if somebody has a workaround.
    – I don’t know where to get a copy that installs and works out of the box. I hope (haven’t checked in a while) there is a Russian version lurking on torrents somewhere that may or may not be persuaded to work on modern hardware or Wine or virtual machines or something. Getting one for money and in English may be impossible though. GOG doesn’t even have the sequel(s), which are usually easier to find.

  17. lazybratsche says:

    I just got the same bug. Got a shiny new joystick for Christmas, which I’ve mostly used to play Rise of Flight (a WWI flight simulator, which is pretty far from the space sim).

    So I went back to try to find any space sims I’ve missed. I picked up Darkstar One, but rage quit/uninstalled it after the first few tutorial missions. Its flight mechanics make Freelancer look look hardcore in comparison, and what little I saw of the plot was also pretty horrible.

    Next I just installed Diaspora, which is a free fan-made Battlestar Galactica sim based on the open-source Freespace 2 engine. I haven’t played it much yet, but it’s much more challenging so far, and it does an excellent job of replicating the feel of the recent Battlestar Galactica space combat scenes. It’s got an impressive amount of polish for an entirely amateur effort.

    My favorite space sims are the Independence War series, though those date before Freelancer. Its general conceit is that you’re flying a small warship, rather than a “fighter”, with realistic Newtonian mechanics. That means you have to constantly manage your momentum, and plan every maneuver so you don’t overshoot your target. The first, and its expansion, are still amazing games in my opinion. The sequel updates (Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos) the graphics, adds piracy and a decent story, makes everything a little more accessible, and gives you free reign to explore massive star systems. The first game was very much of the “give you a manual to study before even starting”, so perhaps I-war 2 is the better game to try first.

  18. Has anyone got anything to say about Sins of a Solar Empire? I keep seeing it go by on the occasional Steam sale, but I’ve never been tempted enough to bite.

    • Adam says:

      Never played it myself, but all of my friends have and evangelize it to me regularly. So consider that about a dozen upvotes.

    • Alex says:

      I do not recommend it. It’s too grindy and slow for my tastes. And then, when you think you’re finally going to have some fun… the AI surrenders.

    • Mintskittle says:

      Sins of a Solar Empire isn’t a space sim, at least not in the sense that you pilot a single ship and explore the stars. It’s really a space themed real time strategy game that thinks it’s a 4X. Still pretty fun though, but not what I think Shamus is looking for.

    • Calatar says:

      I got it recently. I enjoy it, and would recommend it.
      It has a lot of potential depth to it. Enormous tech trees, multiple races and great looking space battles. Potentially very long games.

      It is an RTS where maps are typically one (or more) star system(s) composed of planets and asteroids as your territories, connected with a finite number of connections.

      I guess I would describe it like a real-time Total War campaign map, where you can upgrade your planets (territories) with orbital structures to boost defense, technology, production capacity, or a variety of economic boosts.

      You can micromanage the ship battles if you’d like, however it is not strictly necessary to do so. Macroing economy, technology, and navy-building is typically more important.

      If you’re the kind of person who enjoys Homeworld, Total War, or Civilization, it’s definitely worth a shot.

    • Lots of fun to be had in a co-op comp-stop situation. There are some good mods for it too, apparently, like Sacrifice of Angels 2 (Star Trek)

  19. Christian Severin says:

    What about stars!, that old turn-based 4X game?

    • Paul Spooner says:

      Ah, Stars! is an amazing game. I’ve never seen the Mass Driver mechanics incorporated anywhere else, and the depth of the mechanics is quite laudable. Sadly, it seems the sequel (predictably titled “Stars! 2”) got caught in the “good graphics” nexus and died in development. I wouldn’t really put it in the same genre as Freelancer though.

  20. Brandon says:

    Ah, Freelancer. I miss that game, really loved it back in the day. It had a really terrible story that was all railroad-y, but it had some of the most fun space dogfighting mechanics In any game I’ve ever played. It also played a lot like Skyrim… in Spaaaaace, except with only about 5 different types of repeatable quests that were all pretty boring.

    I loved a lot of the different mechanics in that game though, and it actually worked surprisingly well as a multiplayer game if you played with people who were fine making their own goals (because like I said, the built in repeatable quests were crappy). I remember one time a few friends of mine made a drug smuggling cartel. One of us had a freighter and the rest of us were the escorts and we would load it up with drugs at a pirate space station and take them into a civilized system to sell through a backdoor wormhole into the system that one of us found so we could avoid the checkpoints at the warpgates. Good times.

    • Aldowyn says:

      I played a lot of freelancer, although for some reason I didn’t like exploring in it as much as I do in, say, Skyrim. Some weird aspects, and it certainly wasn’t as expansive as Chris Roberts wanted it to be (static prices? Really?), but I enjoyed it. Really, the ridiculous main plot just served to take you on a tour of the game world :D.

      Also, Jun’ko’s VA was Jennifer Hale. I was rather surprised when I figured that out.

      • Rosseloh says:

        Freelancer had a surprising number of high-profile voice actors. And overall I think the voicework was pretty good. The only real issue with that game was the railroad-ness. (and for me, the combat difficulty, but that was easily remedied).

        • Ringwraith says:

          I find Freelancer just so easily playable. Sort of like in the same realm as Diablo II for me. You can just install it and start having fun with it.
          It’s something you can just pick up and have fun with, which the space game genre is sadly missing.
          There still hasn’t been anything I’ve found since which is as easy to get into.

  21. Mephane says:

    While we are at it, my biggest gripe with the entire “space genre” is that apparently the majority of games are of the RTS or 4X category, followed by the space equivalent of a brown corridor shooter (i.e. linear mission sequence space shooter with extra bloom effects). I hate managing fleets of many ships, the economy of planets or star systems, I just want my own ship to fly around freely in a vast and open universe. The few games that allow that are of the “we created some tiny rooms with (sometimes plot-driven) doors to their neighbours, spread ridiculously tiny planets and space stations randomly around these rooms, replaced the walls with a distant skybox (plus two dozens rainbow colored nebula because they look cool so why not cover the entire skybox in them) and call it space” type, like Freelancer or the X series.

    (I backed Elite Dangerous because what it promises is exactly what I am looking for, let’s hope it will deliver.)

    • Aaron says:

      this has been my problem too, i dont want to command a fleet, i just want my own ship…and the ability to build wealth to buy a bigger one down the line. tried a few a while ago, cant really remember which ones but it seemed like the only free trader/pirate fighter kept the player in small ships

  22. Mintskittle says:

    Have you looked at Evochron Mercenary? It might be right up your alley.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1MsKZMYedA

  23. Gilfareth says:

    “(On Usenet. Remember that place?)”

    Man, you’re really showing off how old you are, Shamus. The last time Usenet was seriously a thing I was just getting into elementary school.

  24. Bentusi16 says:

    I’m a big fan of the space stuff myself. And to be honest Mr. Young I just can’t recommend much. The recent X-game is so badly managed I couldn’t believe it.

    I can honestly not think of a single one I could recommend right now, which is a shame because I really want to play one right now.

  25. DrMcCoy says:

    Hmm, that reminds me of many a night I spent playing Frontier: Elite II… :)

  26. adam says:

    I got a major craving for a space sim recently. I’m in the same boat as you–EVE is too hardcore, too time consuming, too MUCH.

    Then I remembered that a while back I picked up the X3: Albion Prelude during a Steam sale. So I started it up. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve spent around 40 hours playing it over the past couple weeks, which is a LOT for me. Once you get past the learning curve (which really isn’t that bad), it’s a really fun and mostly-relaxing experience. It’s pretty deep, too. You can do a lot, and just sort of make your own goals. I’ve mostly spend my time building up my trading network but I’m dabbling in the stock market and trying to save up enough cash to buy and fit an advanced fighter ship for a bit of piracy and exploration.

    Has a very active mod community as well.

    You might really enjoy it.

  27. Adeon says:

    You might like Space Pirates and Zombies (and Bounty Hunters). It’s kind of on the edge of the genre in that the main gameplay is closer to Asteroids than most of the other options on the list but it’s an option.

  28. Filthy Casual says:

    This is more in the 4X vein once again but I would like to recommend Aurora. It has no graphics and oodles of depth. It’s regularly described as “Dwarf Fortress in space.”

    “Realistic” colonisation and movement of bodies in space. Economies driven by private companies that can help or hinder your military and colonial efforts. Design the parts so you can design the ships. I could go on forever.

    • Aldowyn says:

      that sounds pretty cool actually…

      you forgot to mention it was free, apparently? (At least it is according to the article on the bay12 games (DF devs) forums that came up first when I searched for ‘aurora game’.)

      I’ll have to try that out.

  29. WILL says:

    No “space sim” perfectly captures trading like EVE, and not a single space sim has real quality space battles that include fighters and large (I’m talking 5 kilometer long here) ships. It’s such a shame and so frustrating that it’s driven me to at least try and make something like it in Unity, just so I could play around with massive space warships to frigates and the like.

    In any case, Limit Theory looks promising, but it’s a one man indie project so it’s a bit more modest in its promises.

  30. Eric Meyer says:

    You could always go new-school old-school and try Oolite, which says it’s “inspired by Elite” but is pretty much just Elite with the ability to upgrade the models and visuals and what not. And that is an AWESOME thing.

  31. sensi277 says:

    I think Allegiance by Microsoft research is just the greatest space sim of all time. Sure, it was released 15 years ago, and it didn’t sell quite as good as Microsoft could have hoped, but it was still a great game.

  32. Foehammer says:

    I feel that I should also mention the space simulator Space Engine.

    Which is a procedural universe simulator and explorer. Almost every type of astronomical body and phenomena is simulated with details down to about the meter level. Its incredibly beautiful and awe inspiring.

    Its Greenlight page has plenty of excellent videos and pictures.

    • Foehammer says:

      Forgot to also mention that they are working on including actual game elements. So far they only have pilotable space crafts, and the appropriate physics.

  33. drkeiscool says:

    Freespace 2.

    Why has no one mentioned Freespace 2?

    • A. Hieronymus Bosch says:

      I have to second this, obviously.

      • Irridium says:

        Freespace 2 is more of a space-combat sim than a space-exploration sim. A damn fine one at that, but still, might not be what Shamus is looking for. Or maybe it is. It’s $6 on GoG, and I’d recommend it. Real fun game.

        As for space-exploration… Evochron Mercenary might scratch that itch.

      • Orc says:

        And be sure to get the FS2 Open version. You still need the original game, but it’s well worth the effort. In addition to the Freespace 2 campaign, the original Freespace (Freespace: The Great War) was also ported to the new engine. And then there are many mods, like Babylon 5 and, already mentioned, Diaspora. I would highly recommend the Blue Planet series, and (esp. if you are into anime) Wings of Dawn.

        • Hydralysk says:

          I definitely second the Blue Planet recommendation. It heavily story focused so it really depends on if you liked the story in Freespace 2, but if you did Blue Planet is basically a love letter to it in the vein of Bablyon 5. It’s also got some of the best mission design and most varied mechanics I’ve seen in any space combat game, ranging from talking a comrade out of a PTSD slump to piloting warships instead of fighters.

          • ehlijen says:

            Blue planet has a great story, that is true and BP2 act 1 and 2 were great.

            In part 2, act 3, I felt that it the designers started falling in love with gimmicky gameplay too much, though. Hoping they’ll settle down for act 4 and 5, but I didn’t get much hope when I voiced those concerns over at their forums.

            To be clear: most missions are fun each on their own and variety is good. But it got so far as having to learn a new kind of game for each, with no progress in skills from one to the next.

            You had:
            Convoy attack
            Stealth puzzle adventure
            Tanya Red alert mission
            capital ship mission
            tower defence mission
            follow the path story mission

            • Hydralysk says:

              I’ve seen that criticism before, and for the most part I think you’ve got a point, especially with the tower defence mission. However I didn’t find the learning curve to be all that steep (on normal mind you), and they were so unlike what I’d seen done in Freespace campaigns before that I tended to feel more excited by them than put off by the fact that they were single use.

              I do have to disagree with the idea that no skills carried over though, since most mission (with the exception of the capital ship and the big story mission) depended on the proper use of the new stealth fighter.

              • ehlijen says:

                Yeah, maybe it was mostly the fact that I didn’t like the stealth fighter.

                I jumped at the chance to fly something that would actually let me actively participate in the fight when the tower defence mission offered bombers instead of that tinfoil toy plane.

    • ehlijen says:

      Probably because it’s a space combat sim, with no economy part.

      I actually prefer that kind of game, but it’s not what Shamus is looking for here, I think.

    • InsanePsychic says:

      Well, I’ll second this too, despite the fact that it is more of a space combat sim, as mentioned above. I personally prefer the more open sandbox-y games too, but Freespace 2 is simply so cool that it is worth getting, especially at GOG’s low, low price.

    • Otters34 says:

      Freespace 2 is just about the best kind of space-combat sim ever made. Even if arcade-like in mechanics, it’s got a very good sense of both scale, stakes, and how to reveal a mystery.

      The enemies are pretty varied too, no shooting the same damned thing for ten missions in a row or nothing. Even if the ships are of the same class there are clear distinctions between them.

      There’s no exploring, and mission-based gameplay might not be what you’re looking for, but it’s not stupid. And that counts for a lot.

      Also, be on the lookout for some plot and setting details that bear an uncanny resemblance to Mass Effect.

  34. Adam says:

    I recommend the Escape Velocity series. It’s top-down, 2d sprites but it has mining, trading, space pirates, and as of EV: Nova, at least three main quest lines. I only played the demo, but it was very,very cool.

  35. A. Hieronymus Bosch says:

    You might want to give Tachyon: The Fringe a shot.

    The protagonist is voiced by Bruce Campbell.

  36. kdansky says:

    Actually EVE PVP is completely optional. You stay to high-sec, and don’t fly untanked overfilled haulers and mining ships, stay in an NPC corp and nobody will ever bother shooting at you. EVE is literally devoid of PVP if you are a tiny bit smart about it (don’t put huge sums of money in brittle ships, but as a beginner you don’t have huge sums of money anyway) and don’t go looking for it.

    EVE’s difficulty and danger is much overblown by its boasting community.

    • adam says:

      This is true, but in my experience of playing for around a year, to be even remotely successful and not just sit there doing mind-numbing trade-routes or mining all the time you have to either A) venture out where you can get shot up and podded or B) maintain multiple accounts.

      You also have to spend a not-insignificant number of months training up to be more than very modestly successful at anything really worth doing, and you have to play a LOT.

      Again, my experience. Maybe it’s different now. Been a few years since I last played.

    • Nalyd says:

      The thing is, the PvP’s really all there is to EvE.

  37. Mpjama says:

    Space Engineers is a fun space sim if you want to build your own ships, all of the basic mechanics are complete, and multiplayer just came out today.

  38. Space sims huh? That’s a tough one.

    Myself I’m a story guy so there need to be some kind of story or overall plot tying it all together, and some backstory and detail to the universe.

    “Frontier: Elite” is probably the classic that most of the space games will be compared to even the new upcoming Elite game, it was very light on story though (pretty much none). The music in the Elite games was awesome especially when docking rotating slowly to classic pieces, it felt like you where dancing in space. You felt like you where on a epic journey. I guess you could call this a traditional space sim.

    “Freelancer” another classic, and actually made by MicroSoft, sure it has a few flaws but I haven’t seen any games of the same type do better, again music helps really sell the experience, voice acting and story is okay (that I can recall), it feels like you are on an adventure in space, it has a epic feel to it. One could call this a space adventure. Word was it lacked some polish, but compared to other space games it looks like a gem. It’s a shame there never was a Freelancer 2, MicroSoft are possibly the ones sitting on the rights on this one, if development started now then in a few years MicroSoft could release a stellar (pun intended) space game once all the current commercial/indie ones has ebbed out of peoples minds.

    “Homeworld” was slightly different, the story was passable, it did feel epic, I can’t recall much of the music, but it did not give you a cockpit view, it’s more of a 3rd person space tactic sim. Due to not being 1st person nor cockpit view you do not get the feeling of being in space though, it’s not that kind of game, I think there was 3 of these, the first then Homeworld 2 then a sequel to Homeworld 2 (which was not called Homeworld 3), pretty much forming a trilogy. There is no trading and stuff like that though.

    “X Series” is a mixture of most space game styles, they attempt a Freelancer type story/plot, but the freedom of Elite, the squad tactics of Homeworld and some Sim City in space thrown in for good measure. The story is ok and has some nice overall arcs, the voice acting and dialog can be cringe-worthy at times.
    If you wish to play and enjoy the X series then it would be best to get “X2: The Threat” and “X3: Reunion” and “X3: Terran Conflict” as those (in that order) form a trilogy and you play the same character across them and comes to a conclusion. Just make sure you fully update/patch the games, for some reason the X games was released too early and it took a few months/years to fix most issues Those three games with the updates are pretty solid. Oh and make sure to get the cockpit mods (unless they have been included in the later patches) for some of the games. I would call X2: The Threat and X3: Reunion and X3: Terran Conflict the “X Trilogy” if you see these as a pack do not hesitate to get them. Here too the music really brings things to life and entering certain areas and hearing a familiar tune start to play will bring a smile to your face. These X games really gives you a nice feeling of being in space. While X3: Albion Prelude seems nice it has a new story (or multiple ones actually), it almost feels like a independent epilogue to the X trilogy, in a way it probably is as the new X3: The Rebirth changes the way the games play, it almost feel like they tried to recapture some of the feel of the X trilogy but failed, so my advise is to go for what I call the X trilogy “X2: The Threat” and “X3: Reunion” and “X3: Terran Conflict” all with the latest updates.

    As to other games, well there are the a couple (or three?) Star Wars games, regular Spoiler Warning fans probably know Josh likes one of them in particular. But these are more along the lines of Homeworld.

    I guess when certain people say “space sim” (me included) they actually mean Elite inspired space sims as opposed to X Wing/TIE Fighter inspired.
    Freelancer and the X series belongs in the Elite camp, and of these thre are sadly few with a good story, there are quite a few without a story but the same mechanics but I find those boring which also means that today I would ironically find Frontier: Elite boring, oops.

    However the key element is to be able to change ships (buy/sell/build), modify the ships (weapons/shields/engines/and other stuff), maybe even get a small AI trade fleet going for you, maybe get a larger ship with multiple fighters supporting it. Add a dash of trading and exploration and conflicts and some story and plot to it all and most importantly awesome music and you got what I’d call a “space sim”. That type of space sim is sometimes called a 3X or 4X space sim. (3X standing for Fight, Trade, Explore)

    “Star Citizen” (apparently one of the guys behind Wing Commander and Freelancer are behind this) and
    “Elite: Dangerous” (one of the guys behind Frontier: Elite is behind this)
    will hopefully bring a renaissance, because if they fail EGOSOFT (behind the X series) will be the only ones holding the torch and that is just way too much weight for any one game studio to handle.

    • Otters34 says:

      Homeworld ‘3’ was just Homeworld 2. The Homeworld 2 you’re thinking of was a spin-off based on the first game’s engine subtitled ‘Cataclysm‘. it had basically nothing to do with the first game’s quietly grand and far-sweeping story, instead being about a small clan defeating a monster from the ancient past.

      On other notes, the Homeworld series is amazing even after the graphics sheen wore off.
      It’s basically THE best space epic I have ever seen in video game form. Makes most other attempts look downright half-baked.

      • ehlijen says:

        Very much agreed.

        Did you read the manual for homeworld 1? Dozens of pages of cultural background on the clans of the player’s homeworld that gets blown up in the third mission!

        Not a lot of developers even try to play in that league of world building anymore.

  39. Paul Spooner says:

    I second this inquiry.

    Maybe it’s was simply the magical glow of childhood ignorance, but I haven’t found anything approaching the wonder that was “Privateer”, either in games before or since. I’ve played a few, but they all seem to be too fascinated with replicating WWII naval warfare in space, presenting amazing visuals instead of reliable simulation, or locking the player into “the story” instead of allowing them to do whatever they wanted. I’d be glad to find out otherwise though.

    Of course, my standards have probably risen and changed since then as well. I doubt I would be very interested in playing Privateer again today.

    • Humanoid says:

      I still play Privateer every year! Sure, probably just a smallish binge of a few days a year, but still.

      P.S. Last year was an attempt to play in the Orion. It still sucks as much as I remember it sucking.

  40. Mark says:

    By and large I’m in the same boat, I theoretically love, love, love Elite-style space sims but I never actually get around to playing any. The early access-ness of so many otherwise appealing titles these days is also a problem. Hrm.

    There’s an indie called Rodina which I’ve heard is quite nice. It’s a more exploration-focused game with the ability to land on planets and a lot of procedural generation. Downside, although it’s reached its 1.0 release my understanding is there’s still a lot of features being implemented.

  41. TMTVL says:

    As we’re just putting together a long list of space-themed games, how ’bout Wazzal by Instant Kingdom?

    Live the life of a space pirate, manage your fuel and defeat ships to add them to your fleet.

  42. Volatar says:

    Where’s X2Eliah when you need him?

  43. Karthik says:

    Others have mentioned Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous in the new crop of crowdfunded space games, but there’s also Limit Theory in the works, a (supposedly) entirely procedural space sim.

    Shamus, you might enjoy watching a few of its development updates–they’re mostly about procedural generation. This one and the one after (#11) amazed me.

  44. I didn’t like freelancer either. It always seemed like a really clunky version of Wing Commander: Privateer, which is The Best Game Ever, so while I really wanted to like it, I just never got into it.

    I also really liked Earth & Beyond. The industry really lost a good group when westwood went the way of the dodo.

    Every once in a while I get the urge to play Eve again. What I do instead is play the Space Odyssey soundtrack while i mess around in Excel. It’s pretty much the same experience.

    I think Star Citizen is going to be the next awesome space sim. I can’t wait.

  45. Halceon says:

    Haven’t played any new space sims in quite a while, but there’s a game called Terminus. It’s a space sim that keeps to the solar system and has some pretty realistic physics. Like electromagnetic shields, which repulse one kind of ammo, but attracts another.

  46. Hammer Wizard says:

    I have been waiting for a good space “open world” game since I first read about Battlecruiser 3000AD. I am still waiting, because it hasn’t existed yet. Everything is flawed when it gets right down to it, usually focusing on one aspect too strongly. Like in the case of the X-Series, it focused on trading so much that “space” became a footnote aspect of the game. It was more about watching your little trade empire grow, in a way that made it not really matter that the setting was among the stars. Lots of spacesims share that shortcoming.

    Why did “trading” become the default basis for exploring space? I mean, in Freespace 2, you were a lowly pilot in a well supplied and well run military. Why cant an open world (open space?) game have the same premise? Why not a post apocalyptic space game where all ships are rust buckets that survive through salvaging wreckage or piracy of healthier ships for parts? Why not a mass effect style space opera, but where you actually can control and upgrade the darn ship and participate in space battle instead of picking points on the map? Where are the space zombies? Why are space games so anti-fun?

    Anyway, Kerbal Space Program has ruined them all for me, forever I think. Once I actually figured out how space travel actually worked, it was hard to go back to “submarines floating in endless invisible frictionless water” that is how every other spacesim thinks space travel works.

  47. ClearWater says:

    I thought this was going to be about The Sims in spaaaaace. (I wonder what that would be like.)

  48. TSi says:

    Oh my !
    Nobody seems to have mentioned Starlancer, probably my favorite spacesim of all time that also has an awesome soudtrack. I also got it on Dreamcast but it lacked the neat intermission phases which were replaced by a menu.
    http://uk.ign.com/games/starlancer/pc-10584
    First mission here : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7azgaPA92uU

    The immersion in this game is just phenomenal and i can’t believe it didn’t get any sequel and, although i’m not an expert on the subject, I still like to believe it’s some sort of spin-off from the Freelancer/Wing Commander universe. Maybe some of the developers worked on both series ? Anyway, the music is awesome, the scenario is interesting and the voice overs are great. There is a constant chatter on the radio that gives life and makes you feel a part of it.

    The game supports Male/Female voice for the player which, aside from being used only when using commands (landing permission for example), was a good thing when my sister started playing some games on my PC.

    Starlancer is not easy to pick up. You’ll need to use quite a lot of the keyboard keys just like in any good simulator (speed controls and locks, target selection, various subsystems, missiles type and of course movement). You can even plug a joystick and enjoy using the hat, bonus if using force feedback.

    Also, i should mention that there are multiplayer modes over ip/lan including Co-Op … yes, Co-Op !!

    I can’t tell you how much fun me and my sister had playing this together, this and System Shock 2 but that’s another story. I really hope for a sequel someday (while waiting for Space Citizen).

    • aldowyn says:

      it’s a prequel to Freelancer. (Which, as far as I know,doesn’t have any relationship to the setting of Wing Commander?) And it’s also ridiculously cheesy in the best way. A much more arcady space combat sim compared to something like Freespace or Wing Commander IMO (although not as much so as freelancer, which was a very different style of game), but I enjoyed it.

  49. TMTVL says:

    Submarines are just space ships under water, so you might like some sub sims. But I can’t name any for PC (unless Treasures of the Deep has a PC port).

    • Bubble181 says:

      The Silent Hunter series, but I’m not a particularly big fan.

    • Oh man, I really wish there was a really good fantasy submarine game. Something where you can walk around inside your sub, get out to do dives, explore and map the ocean floor, recover ancient wrecks, smuggle goods into port… that would be great! Sadly, it seems that nearly all of the submarine sims are stuck in hardcore “realism” instead of exploring more fantasy-centric concepts. There’s still so much frontier territory for game design!

      • CraigM says:

        What you are describing basically sounds like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea crossed with Assassins Creed 4: the game. You know what, I’m down with that.

        Ubisoft, please make the next AC game this. Heck I’ll even tell you how to tie it into the silly modern world story. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was real, and written by the Assassins as a subversive anti-Templar novel. You play as Captain Nemo. Now go, I have money to throw at you if you do this.

  50. Dave says:

    As someone who hates PVP, I can say this about Eve Online… It grabbed me a year ago and hasn’t let its hooks out of me yet. I often wish I’d started playing sooner. :)

    There are times when the non-consensual PvP aspect can get you down, but you learn how to minimize and mitigate it.

  51. Stranger says:

    I’ve been keeping an eye on “Kinetic Void” for a while, but from what I hear it’s still a bit early in the “Early Development” for it to be much more than “Design a broken-powerful ship and go cruising” sort of thing.

    Other than that? I got nothing. When someone mentions space games I flash back to my CDRom of Master of Orion 2 and wish I hadn’t leveled it over and over again when playing . . . or XWing vs Tie Fighter which won’t install the expansion anymore.

  52. Steve C says:

    Star Conflict is isn’t bad. It reminded me a lot of the old X-wing and Tie Fighter games of yesteryear. There’s both PvP and PvE. It’s free to play with similar meta-mechanics to World of Tanks. I enjoyed it for a weekend then stopped playing it as the genre isn’t really my thing. I recommend trying it out as it’s really easy to get into with straight forward controls. It’s easy to both pick up and put down.

    • shrikezero says:

      I’ll second this. Popcorn space battle game. Pretty good graphics. Very much Tie Fighter like it is. Some of the ship types are interesting. Structured almost like a typical MMORPG Healer/DPS/Support setup. Not something I play for lengthy amounts of time. But I do find myself often jumping into a quick PvE battle for the fun of it. I really enjoy the flight dynamics.

  53. Danno says:

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned Spaceward Ho! It’s from the 90s, but I just recently got it for my iPad.

  54. General Karthos says:

    I would also recommend the Escape Velocity Series. IMO, Escape Velocity and Escape Velocity: Override are better than Escape Velocity: Nova, but only Nova works on Windows machines, and only Nova works on OSX. I had to use Sheepshaver to emulate OS 9 so that I could continue to play Escape Velocity and Override.

    The reason I love Escape Velocity Original is that there are some REALLY great mods out there for it, and there seem to be a paucity of that sort of thing for Nova (Nova is a bit harder to mod from my understanding). Unfortunately, even though you can convert Nova to EV Original, or to EV: Override, you can’t use mods from EV Override or EV Original with the Nova conversion.

    However, EV: Override probably has the best series of stories in the base game.

    And yes, despite my preference for EV Original and EV: Override, EV: Nova is a very enjoyable game. You really ought to try it. And for good measure, try the conversions to Original and Override.

    Long Live the Federation!

  55. djshire says:

    Wow, someone remembers Earth and Beyond. I played the trial version, then planned on getting the full version later. By the time I had the money for it….the game servers were getting shut down.

    The soundtrack was wonderful, done by ambient/soundscape/chill-out composer David Arkenstone. I still have it, since they offered it for free for download.

  56. Factoid says:

    I’m with you Shamus, on the whole Freelancer thing. I have been following the Star Citizen development loosely, and it sickens me to see the praise the star citizen fanboys heap on Freelancer. They want Star Citizen to be 50% Freelancer, 50% Wing Commander and 50% Crysis, apparently.

    As far as selling alphas goes, I think the internet was right to heap shame upon Derek Smart. He was a jackass to people with legitimate claims about a game he personally overpromised and underdelivered on. With the paid-alpha games now at least you KNOW you’re buying a potentially buggy pile of crap that won’t be done for years. With Battlecruiser there was the implication from the get-go that you were buying a finished game.

  57. TMTVL says:

    Well, there’s two more DOS games I can mention: Star Quest (not to be confused with Space Quest), and Whales Voyage. And then I’m out of ideas. These two are not very well known, but Kikoskia did LP Whales Voyage if anyone wants to check it out.

    • TMTVL says:

      EDIT: I forgot about Infinite Worlds. Haven’t played it myself, but based on Frankomatic’s videos it seems interesting. Kinda like if Star Knights sacrificed the planet management for more roguelike elements.

  58. SlothfulCobra says:

    If you want a real space sim, try Solar 2 or Universe Sandbox.

    Or if you want a real space sim…

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