Short of training to become an astronaut or hitching a ride on a deep space probe, your gaming PC is the best way to leave Earth behind and journey through the cosmos. Whether you're trading or pirating your way around the Milky Way or being hunted by a monstrous alien on a stricken orbital station, these are the best space games you can play on PC right now. From survival horror and 4X strategy to deep simulators that let you live another life among the stars, there's something here for everyone.
Homeworld Remastered Collection
Developer: Relic/Gearbox Software
One of the best singleplayer RTS campaigns ever, beautifully remastered by Gearbox. The sight of thousands of your ships streaking across the game’s vividly colourful space-scapes is majestic. Battles are tense and tactical, with many types of ship to command, including colossal battleships. The Remastered Collection looks great on modern PCs and comes with the original Homeworld and its sequel.
More: Check out our Homeworld Remastered review.
Developer: Frontier Developments
An entire galaxy is your playground in this massive, beautiful space sim. Starting with a basic ship and a handful of credits, it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. Do you become a fearsome pirate? A master trader? An explorer? The beauty of Elite Dangerous is being able to play in a way that suits you. From thrilling dogfights to gentle exploration, there’s something for everyone. Its ships are a dream to fly, from nimble fighters to heavy cargo haulers, especially with a flight stick.
More: Read about what it's like to play Elite Dangerous with a full HOTAS setup and VR headset on a $13,000 gaming rig.
Developer: CCP Games
Live another life—in space! There’s nothing else like EVE Online on PC, a massively multiplayer RPG where everything is controlled by players. It’s a living galaxy in which thousands of capsuleers fight, trade, mine, and explore together. Break away from the relative safety of your police-patrolled starting system and you’ll find a ruthless, cosmic Wild West, where piracy, espionage and scamming are rife. Whether you’re fighting in a massive space war, where thousands of real-world dollars hang in the balance, or just exploring New Eden on your own, EVE is unforgettable.
More: Learn about the military-grade technology that powers EVE Online's vast universe. Every now and then a huge battle breaks out and $13k worth of ships explode. Here's the story behind one such fight.
Developer: Misfits Attic
Despite being viewed entirely through a retro-futuristic computer interface, Duskers is one of the scariest, most tense sci-fi horror games on PC. In it you pilot a fleet of drones searching derelict spaceships for fuel, upgrades, and clues about why the galaxy is so mysteriously devoid of life. The ships you board are crawling with strange creatures, which makes looking for clues in those narrow, dark corridors an especially nerve-racking experience.
More: Read our review of Duskers.
The LucasArts point-and-click adventure that everyone forgets about. A mission to divert an asteroid heading for Earth goes awry, sending a group of astronauts to a distant, seemingly abandoned, world. Some of the puzzles are maddeningly obscure, even for a LucasArts game, but its colourful, bizarre planet feels genuinely alien. Great voice acting too, with X-Files and Terminator star Robert Patrick playing the lead.
More: check out our our Dig retrospective
Universe Sandbox 2
Developer: Giant Army
This space simulator lets you play god and manipulate replicas of real galaxies and solar systems, and witness the (often catastrophic) results of your cosmic meddling. Increase the mass of Jupiter and you’ll see the rest of our solar system being sucked into it, or delete the Sun and watch Earth and the other planets drift away confused.
Developer: Ocelot Society
Stranded alone somewhere near Jupiter on an old starship, your only hope of returning home is an AI that has serious emotional problems. You interact with Kaizen using your keyboard, and sometimes it'll be willing to help you. But then it'll change its mind and decide the best thing to do is close the airlock and trap you outside the ship until you run out of air. A clever adventure with the understated mood of a '70s sci-fi film.
More: Read our review of Event.
Mass Effect 2
If you’ve ever fantasised about being Captain Kirk, in command of your own starship, exploring the galaxy, meeting weird aliens, being confronted with cosmic dilemmas, then Mass Effect 2 is that in game form. It’s part Star Wars space opera, part brilliant Star Trek episode, and one of the best sci-fi games on PC. It doesn’t have the freedom of Elite and is largely a linear experience, but it takes you on an unforgettable journey around the galaxy, visiting bizarre planets and getting involved in the lives of the people who live on them. We love the whole series, but Mass Effect 2 is our favourite.
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, is hunted through a dilapidated space station by a xenomorph in this incredible survival horror. Taking its cues from Ridley Scott's original 1979 film, it's a masterpiece of slow-burning tension. And the station itself, Sevastopol, is a great example of lo-fi sci-fi, with chunky retro-futuristic tech and eerie flickering lights. One of the most faithful movie adaptions ever, and a great horror game in its own right.
No Man's Sky
Developer: Hello Games
No Man's Sky wasn't quite what we imagined, but there's still fun to be had in its vast procedural galaxy. It's one of the most colourful sci-fi settings on PC, and being able to seamlessly transition from space to the surface of a planet is an impressive technical feat. And while planets are still fairly barren and lifeless, the addition of base-building in the recent Foundation update gives you a lot more to actually do when you touch down on them.
More: Chris returned to No Man's Sky after the Foundation update to see what's been changed and improved.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Developer: Totally Games
A rare opportunity to be the bad guy in George Lucas’s space opera. With a variety of Empire-themed missions—dogfights, escorts, attacking capital ships—and a story to follow, it’s one of LucasArts’s best Star Wars games. Replace this entry with Star Wars: X-Wing if you’d prefer to play as the boring old Rebel Alliance. The best thing about this entire crop of Star Wars space sims is that they’ve all resurfaced to buy on GOG.com, compatible with modern systems.
FTL: Faster Than Light
Developer: Subset Games
FTL mixes turn-based and real-time strategy together to capture the experience of captaining a Star Trek-style spacecraft. It’s a strong roguelike, too, with a backdrop of a familiar yet fun sci-fi universe that comes with its own semi-humorous lore and a neat set of narrative beats that make the journey to its finale endlessly exciting. Being able to name your ship and crew makes it all the more heartbreaking when they die together in enemy space.
Wing Commander: Privateer
Developer: Origin Systems
Fans of the series will argue endlessly about which Wing Commander is the best, but we love Privateer’s darker feel. It’s a rich sandbox in which you can be a mercenary, a pirate, a merchant, or a mix of all three. You jump between systems looking for bounties to hunt and ships to rob, and the first-person dogfights are a thrill. There’s a linear story, but the real joy lies in doing your own thing.
More: Richard Cobbett explains why this one's brilliant in this Privateer retrospective.
Kerbal Space Program
Wrestle with gravity and the laws of physics as you build your own spacecraft and attempt to explore the cosmos. A robust, compelling sandbox of possibilities that’s as funny as it is clever. Escaping Kerbin’s atmosphere and landing on the Mun for the first time with a ship you’ve built is about as satisfying as PC gaming gets.
More: Read our Kerbal review to discover why it's one of the highest-scoring games in PC Gamer history.
Developer: Cloud Imperium Games
As we write this, ambitious space sim Star Citizen has raised an incredible $183 million through crowdfunding. That money is being invested in a sweeping game containing a vast, connected universe and a campaign, Squadron 42, that boasts a cast including Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. Star Citizen isn't out yet, but playable elements are available to backers.
More: Check out our interview with Mark Hamill on the set of Squadron 42.
Take On Mars
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
If you like your space games a little more grounded, try Arma developer Bohemia’s Take On Mars. It’s a space exploration simulator based on real astro-science. You can build a Curiosity-style rover and explore the surface of the red planet or construct your own Moon base. A game for people who want the sci without much of the fi.
More: What it's like to build a new home on an alien planet in Take On Mars.
Sins of a Solar Empire
Developer: Ironclad Games
Mixing real-time strategy with 4X elements, Sins is a game of galactic conquest. Choose a faction, gather resources and become a mighty space-lord. Commanding its real-time wars is a thrill, but combat isn’t always the answer: you can use diplomacy to conquer systems too. A refreshingly slow-paced RTS with some truly massive space battles.
More: Our review of 2012's rather good Rebellion expansion.
Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator
Developer: Thom Robertson
You’ll need a group of three to six friends to get the most out of this one. Each player controls a different station of a starship—engineering, weapons, helm and so on—and must work together to destroy enemies, with a captain giving orders. It’s basically like staging a Kobayashi Maru test in your living room, and it’s amazing.
More: All Hands On Deck—our silliest team feature ever, probably.
Developer: Keen Software House
Minecraft in space. Well, sort of. Harvest asteroids for building materials then craft them into floating bases and flyable spaceships. You can hover around with a jetpack or build a gravity generator to walk on the surface of bigger asteroids. One of the best co-op build-’em-ups on PC, and new features are being added regularly.
More: Space Engineers has a pretty great Star Wars mod that adds ships from the films.
Galactic Civilizations 2
Conquer space with an army of customisable ships. Thanks to its smart, creative AI, a full-size game can take many exciting weeks to complete. You have to balance economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural, and military power to forge alliances, engage in battles, and dominate the galaxy. Similar to the Civilization series, certainly, but on a much grander scale.
More: Tom Francis' epic war diary.
Developer: Blendo Games
This turn-based strategy game by prolific indie studio Blendo (Thirty Flights of Loving) plays out in 30-second bursts. Queue up your orders, then watch the action unfold until one side is completely obliterated. With a relaxing classical score, including Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, and a stylish, curiously colourful art style, it’s one of the more offbeat games on our list. Flotilla also features psychic advisor dogs—there’s a strong sense of humour at work, here.
Developer: Chucklefish Games
Terraria-esque survival with a sci-fi twist. Hop between randomly generated planets on a starship, hunt alien creatures for food, build colonies and underground bases, and try not to die. A brilliant sci-fi sandbox with a charming art style. Playable races include robots, beings made of solar energy, ape-like creatures, and wingless birds.
More: Ten great Starbound mods.
Developer: Vladimir Romanyuk
Do you like feeling small and insignificant? Do you enjoy having existential crises? Then play SpaceEngine, which features the entire universe. Or at least the bit we know about. Focus on Earth, then pull back at top speed, and you suddenly become aware you’re on a tiny speck of dust hurtling through an endless void. The tech is remarkable, allowing you to travel effortlessly between galaxies and land on planets, but besides exploring, there isn’t much else to it.
This modern take on classic arcade game Lunar Lander is a unique, challenging low-gravity flight simulator. It’s not as deep as some sims, but wrestling with its physics to deliver cargo and make landings on alien worlds is enjoyable. It’s also one of the best games to play with a VR headset, if you’re lucky enough to have an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Developer: Volition, Inc.
While most space simulators use plane-like physics, FreeSpace attempts something more realistic, resulting in responsive, weightless controls. Battles play out like zero-gravity World War II dogfights, and it’s one of the best space combat games on PC. You’ll never forget your first combat encounter inside a colourful nebula.