Space games are coming back. The Kickstarter success of big projects like Star Citizen have reminded everyone that there's still an audience for games set in the big black. New tech like the Oculus Rift gives us new ways to enjoy shooting lasers at other spaceships and the massive hardware leaps we've enjoyed since the glory days of X-Wing and Freespace 2 can support prettier spcace games built by smaller teams.
We've rounded up 14 of the most exciting candidates. Some are looking for funding on Kickstarter or upvotes on Greenlight, others are already out, but are still growing and being updated regularly. If you like space games, these are the ones you should be keeping an eye on right now.
First up, Starmade. 'Minecraft in space’ may be a fairly reductive assessment of StarMade, although it’s not an entirely inaccurate one. This is, after all, a game about building things out of blocks and exploring a procedurally generated sandbox world – or universe in this case. Once you’ve created and customized your own craft, you can explore galaxies populated by randomly generated asteroids, ships and planets, blast space pirates with rockets and lasers and salvage materials from destroyed ships to craft stuff with. It’s been in free-to-access alpha for 18 months and was recently greenlit on Steam, so if you fancy catching a glimpse of a voxel nova for the first time since the early Nineties, this is where you’ll find it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could walk on the planets? That’s the question that inspired former Bethesda programmer Brendan Anthony to develop this space-exploration RPG. In Rodina, you can gad about the galaxy in your swanky ship, then guide it down through a planet’s atmosphere, land it, and take a stroll through its procedural landscapes - and all without so much as a hint of a loading screen or cutaway. Inspired by the likes of Freelancer and the Elder Scrolls games, it’s got some surprisingly arcadey combat, though you can use more devious methods to deal with rivals, hacking computers to incapacitate them with toxic gas, for example. It’s due out within “a few months” and will adopt a tiered payment model, a la Kickstarter. Find out more in our interview with Rodina's creator.
Link: Elliptic Games
It’s fun to turn to the Dark Side every now and again, and Enemy Starfighter casts you as a particularly villainous sort. You visit new systems as part of the ominously named Harbinger Fleet and take down rebel defences so that your armada can follow you. Perimeter breached and war machines destroyed, you can demand the poor beggars either submit or be eradicated. Then you jump into hyperspace and repeat the trick until the galaxy is firmly under the iron fist of your evil empire. It’s a blend of whizzy space combat and tactical fleet organization, and the latter’s pretty crucial as any units you lose are gone forever. That it looks rather a lot like a first-person Homeworld (or a stylized X-Wing) does it absolutely no harm, and there’s Oculus Rift support, too. Last-minute delays notwithstanding, it should be with us before the year’s out.
Link: Enemy Starfighter site.
As the only remaining human in Skyjacker’s galaxy, you begin at the business end of the food chain. To survive, you must raise your profile on the Pirate Stock Market by completing criminal activities – sabotage, robbery, kidnapping, assassination, that sort of thing. It’s a game that prizes improvisation: you can send asteroids careening into enemy hulls, blast engines to slow down escaping craft, and even rip off ship parts you like the look of to mount onto your own.
Sounds good to me, though it needs a little help if it’s going to reach its $150k Kickstarter goal – or, indeed to get greenlit on Steam. If you fancy a bit of interstellar swashbuckling (spacebuckling?) then click either of the links below.
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages
Ring Runner’s a bit like the Millennium Falcon of space games: it’s peculiar and a little unwieldy, but it’s also quick, nimble and hugely characterful. It’s a top-down shooter roguelike, or a strange brand of ARPG if you prefer, with scores of ships, hundreds of apparently unique abilities and gadgets, a clutch of online multiplayer battle modes and plenty of procedural gubbins besides. 20 hours’ worth of smartly written campaign awaits you, if that sounds like your kind of deal. You can grab it now from the official site (link below), or vote for it on Steam Greenlight (link also below). And if you’re feeling particularly benevolent, why not do both?
Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator
Artemis casts you and a group of friends as the crew of a surrogate Enterprise. Each player has a different role to adopt and an individual console to master: there’s Engineering, Science, Comms and, naturally Weapons, and it’s the captain’s job to organize the group. It’s a game designed for LAN play, really, but you can take it online, too, and it’s a hoot either way. Whether you’re a well-oiled machine or you’ve got five people barking conflicting instructions at each other as everything falls apart, it’s a wonderfully involving, inclusive experience. It’s been knocking around for almost two years, but it was officially released on Steam a month ago, and it’s high time you got it on your radar. We got the office together for a big Artemis adventure, and you can read all about that in our All Hands on Desk feature.
Kerbal Space Program
If you’re fed up of blasting intergalactic space terrorists to atoms, why not tackle an even tougher enemy: the laws of physics? KSP is all about building a functioning rocket from an array of parts and seeing how far you can take your little green alien into space. The sandbox fun of the original game has now been supplemented by a career mode, with a rather shallower difficulty curve to encourage those whose rockets blew up before leaving terra firma, prompting them to give up. By limiting your options and giving you tangible goals, it makes for a gentler introduction to the game’s finer pleasures, and should hopefully open up a rewarding if unforgiving game to a wider audience of would-be astronauts. For a sense of what you're in for, check out Phil's quest to reach the Mun and Iain's Kerbal Chronicle.
Link: Official site
No prizes for guessing your role in Keen Software House’s sandbox fix-‘em-up. The inchoate ideas that made Miner Wars 2081 such a promising mess have been developed and refined into what looks to be a tighter, more focused brand of open world space sim. The idea is to construct and maintain spacecraft and space stations, mining asteroids for resources before inevitably watching in horror as a clumsy pilot demolishes your handiwork in seconds. Still, if your stuff is going to get smashed up, at least it gets to break apart in an authentic manner – thanks to the game’s realistic volumetric physics engine. It’s currently in the alpha stages, and should get a Steam Early Access release in the not-too-distant.
Link: Space Engineers site.
The granddaddy of open-world space exploration games has a respected name to trade off – enough for a hefty £1.9million worth of investment - but it’s evidently far from the only game doing the intergalactic trading and shooting thing these days. So what distinguishes Dangerous from its rivals? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of scale - Frontier’s promising “the richest, largest gaming sandbox ever created” - or maybe it’s the sheer freedom. You can play pirate, bounty hunter, assassin, explorer, or rogue trader, and you’ll even be able to influence the in-game economy. There’s online multiplayer, too, not to mention the seemingly de rigueur Rift support. Braben, you had our curiosity, but now you have our attention. That March 2014 launch is at once tantalisingly close.
The first game designed exclusively for the Oculus Rift VR headset started life as an experiment deep within the offices of Eve Online's developers, CCP. The demo they showed at Fanfest earlier this year put two teams of six players in headsets and invited them to laser each other to death. The Rift lets you look freely around the cockpit and admire outerspace through your frighteningly thin glass canopy. Your missiles lock to your vision, so you can fly over an enemy, flip upside down and then look up through the glass to get a trace. Unleashing a spiralling barrage from such a position feels tremendous. Find out more in our hands-on with the demo.
Initially revealed as EVR, it's since been renamed to Eve: Valkyrie but there have been no announcements since about a potential release date or platforms.
Link: Eve: Valkyrie site.
Galactic Civilizations 3
Unlike the other games in our list, you can't actually pilot a spaceship in GalCiv 3 (as far as we know). But it's the sequel to one of the smartest 4X strategy games ever and, with its 64-bit OS requirement, should hopefully render its interstellar empires with style. Will the exceptional AI that made GalCic 2 so challenging make it into the sequel? Will it retain the complexity of the first two games, and how good will the new ship-builder be? It was only announced a few days ago, so we'll have to wait a while for more details and a release date. Meanwhile, there's the trailer below.
Links: GalCiv 3 site.
It’s been almost a year since Chris Roberts’ ambitious space trading/combat sim quadrupled its Kickstarter goal and backers have been throwing money at it ever since. It’s now sitting on well over $22million, having introduced a suite of new features, including first-person combat on ‘selected lawless planets’ and a new career option as a salvager, if you’re not into the whole ship-on-ship violence thing. It promises a branching single-player and co-operative multiplayer campaign as part of its massively multiplayer world and it will also have Oculus Rift support. The catch? It’s still over twelve months away from launch, and that’s assuming development goes according to schedule – and given Roberts’ past projects, that’s far from a given. In the meantime, you can gaze longingly at a virtual ship you won’t be able to use for a year by visiting the game’s Hangar Module.
It's impossible to have a list of important space games and leave Eve off. CCP’s sprawling MMO is shortly to get its 20th free expansion, called Rubicon. Rather than simply chucking in a few balance tweaks and minor features – though a few ship hulls have been re-engineered – CCP is aiming to make this the first part of a long-term plan to give its players more power within the EVE universe. You’ll now be able to cause problems for even large strongholds with a small group using guerrilla combat tactics, and deploy mobile structures so you won’t need to rely on Empire facilities. There’s a new line of ships designed to enable trouble-free trips to hostile systems, and twitch.tv support, ideal for highlighting the ridiculously epic space wars EVE throws up every so often. It’s due out in a month’s time.