I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I like video games with an outer space setting. Aliens, spaceships, laser guns, cool armor, the whole nine. I have played MANY great space games. I’m still surprised I graduated college because of all the time I spent playing Starcraft. The Galactic Civilizations series and Rimworld are still two of my favorite games of all time. Recently I’ve played a lot of Stationeers, Battletech, and Surviving Mars. I have really enjoyed all of these and have gone back to play them on many occasions.
However, what I want to talk about are a specific kind of space game. The “Space Sim”. The Space Sim genre is kinda niche these days and different people may define it differently. I’d say the most basic definition is a game where the player directly controls a spaceship that you fly around in space. It can be either an in-cockpit view or a third-person view behind the ship.
The genre has been around since the beginning of PC gaming. Titles like Wing Commander, Freelancer, and the Star Wars X-Wing and TIE Fighter games are still regarded as the “gold” standard for space sim games today. More recently titles like Elite: Dangerous, No Man’s Sky, and Star Citizen have gotten a lot of attention. I can’t fail to mention the long time running MMO Eve Online as well.
A lot of modern space sim games have tried to capture the same “feel” of the classic games like Freelancer and TIE Fighter. Many of them do the same types of things and then try to add on even more. Features like atmospheric flight on planets, Newtonian flight physics, realistic landing and docking processes, or leaving the cockpit and walking around on planets and stations. Some games do these things really well, and others not so much. Others make an obvious trade off by focusing on certain features and scaling back on others. A couple (I’m looking at you, Star Citizen!) try to do EVERYTHING!
Because “Space Sim” can vary wildly in features and characteristics it makes games that come out in the genre all very different. When I learn about one coming out I really have to do my due diligence to research it so I know exactly what to expect if/when I play it. Having played quite a few different space sim games I have a pretty good handle on what features I look for.
Here are the main qualities I look for in a space sim:
1. Relatively simple movement controls. Some games get REALLY over complicated when it comes to moving the ship around. Either it’s too realistic when trying to dock with a space station, or realistic space physics just make flying around or fighting way too complicated.
2. A basic economy. I like having the option of being able to mine or transport commodities between locations to make some cash. It’s an added bonus if my buying/selling actions effects the economy in local areas.
3. Multiple ships. I want to be able to own more than one ship and then switch between them for different purposes. An added bonus if I can have multiple ships and have them fly with me in a squadron or send them off to do other things while I go about my business.
4. Exploration. I want a HUGE universe to fly around in. Not just pretty graphics to look at, but things to discover and things to do. Space is BIG and there should be a lot to discover!
5. Base/Station Building. This isn’t a requirement, but it adds a level of fun that I really enjoy. It gives me a goal to work towards and that will keep me playing longer than anything else.
6. Leave the ship. This is tricky. A lot of games do this, but VERY few do it well. Sometimes it comes off as “gimmicky” or something they quickly threw in the game so they can put it on a feature list. If it could be well done, and with a purpose, it would be really great.
Many many moons ago I played Freelancer that I talked about above. It was fantastic. A lot of what I look for in a space sim today come from my experience playing Freelancer. The controls for flying were pretty straight-forward. The combat was fun. You could purchase more ships and swap between them, so you could have a ship for mining and hauling cargo, and another for fighting. It was a HUGE universe with TONS of planets and stations to land on and trade with. There was a story you could follow, or you could just go off and do your own thing. You could trade commodities, fight in the military, or be a pirate. It was relatively simple to learn and play, but it was just complex enough to keep it interesting and give it some depth. I even ran a private server for a while with a mod running on it that added a lot of extra locations and trade commodities to the vanilla game. I played it for a quite a long time and it is the game that I compare all other space sim games to.
I’m still looking for the perfect space sim game to recapture the joy I had playing Freelancer. A few have come really close but for one reason or another they just didn’t “stick”. I played Eve Online for quite a while. I did really like the game, but it’s primary problem is simply that it’s an MMO. The idea of an MMO is to be a time sink so they can keep you playing as long as possible and make more money off of you. To me that makes things always feel like a grind. Everything takes FOREVER and it takes a ton of time to earn enough in-game currency to purchase anything. I don’t like PvP and I didn’t like that when you died you lost EVERYTHING. However, I really liked the combat, graphics, and complexity of Eve. At the time I played I had a lot more time to learn the game. If I could find a single-player version of Eve I’d be very happy. I also played Star Trek Online for a bit. I enjoyed a lot of things about that game too. I liked that you had a crew on your ship who each had a role to play with their own special abilities. You could also do ground combat and they would have unique roles to play there as well. The combat was a lot of fun too. However, like Eve, it was an MMO and suffered the same “grindy” feel. They also had microtransactions where you could pay real money for shortcuts to get things. I just wanted to play the game, but it felt like anything I wanted to do was going to take forever to accomplish or I’d have to spend real money to do it.
Another game I played was Egosoft’s X3: Albion Prelude. A lot of people in the space sim community really enjoy this series of games. X3 originally came out in 2011. This game is MASSIVE. However the learning curve is BRUTAL. Some say it’s less of a learning curve and more of a learning CLIFF. I would agree. I think my issue with X3 is that when it released it was really buggy. Since then the developers have put out COUNTLESS patches and a handful of expansions and content packs. Because of that the game has undergone a TON of changes. I think if I had played the game when it was new and had the additional expansions and additions slowly introduced to me it would be different. Instead, I’m looking at the game as a whole and it’s just way too much to take in at once. The less than intuitive UI doesn’t help either.
A couple of years ago the same team that made X3 made a new game. I was really excited for this one as I’d have the opportunity to get in on an X game when it was brand new. It was called X: Rebirth. I couldn’t wait and I purchased the game on release and started playing. Unfortunately, the game was awful. A lot of the features that I really want in a space sim were there, they were just horribly broken. Also a lot of the stuff that people said made the previous X games great were no longer there. Since release they have addressed a lot of the broken stuff and even released a few DLC that added more content and things to the game. I have gone back and tried it a number of times. While most of the bugs were fixed I was still disappointed. Some of the systems in that game were just poorly designed and were just plain not fun. One feature I really looked forward to in that game was the station building, and I could never progress far enough to even try that feature.
Elite: Dangerous is another game that I looked forward to because it really focused on exploration. However, after watching some videos for it all I could see was pilots struggling to actually land their ship on a platform. I have NO desire to spend hours just trying to land my ship at a station. Sometimes logical and fun gameplay need to trump realism. Another game along the same lines that I did play was Evochron Mercenary. This one had Newtonian physics. In this game you had to purchase fuel for your ship. That part didn’t bug me too much, but the process of trying to be super-efficient with my fuel was annoying. For example, let’s say I wanted to land on a station. I’d point my ship in the precise direction of the station and then activate my engines and my boosters to get my speed up as fast as possible. Then, you’d kill the engines. Because of the realistic space physics you would continue to accelerate towards your destination. Once you arrived you’d kick on the afterburners in the opposite direction to slow down and stop. Trying to dogfight with another ship with these physics was just way too complicated for me and it just zapped all the fun out of it for me.
So, my quest for the “perfect” space sim has continued. I have read that Egosoft is now making another game in their X series. It’s going to be more of a true successor to X3, but take some of the better parts of X: Rebirth and put them all together. That game could be amazing, but they have a track record for buggy games at release, and I’d be very surprised if that game makes it out in 2018. I will be keeping my eye on it though.
I did recently discover something new though. A game called Starpoint Gemini: Warlords. This game came out just over a year ago. I remember reading about it a long time ago, but it was still early access and I didn’t want to deal with a possibly buggy game. Since then they have released 4 DLC and a couple of very large free patches. I read up on the game and it does a lot of the things I like. The flight mechanics are pretty simple. The combat is similar to Eve Online and Star Trek Online. You are also able to build stations and bases in the galaxy, and you can expand your territory. There is an RTS-type layer to it where you build stations on resources and then send fleets of ships in to defend them. You can also send in civilian ships to do salvaging and mining operations for you. I can build or purchase new ships and upgrade them and fly them myself. There is a story mode and a sandbox mode.
I watched a few YouTube videos and found the game on sale online. I pulled the trigger and started playing. The campaign is really a glorified tutorial for how all the game systems work. I’m OK with that. I really want to dive into the sandbox mode anyway, but having some guidance on how things work together is a good start. I’m really enjoying the game so far. It’s a good mix of fun gameplay, some RPG elements, exploration, and base building. I can’t wait to amass a huge war fleet and infrastructure and start taking over the galaxy.
So, will this be the space game that will draw me in? I think it’s too early to tell, but I am having a lot of fun so far. I may do a more in-depth review later after I finish the campaign and I’ve used a few more of the games systems.
Until then, fly safe!