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Best Space Games for PC

PC Gamer, PC Enthusiast and love to write. Strategy games are my thing together with space simulator games and many more interests.

View from space (including HUD) in X3: Reunion

View from space (including HUD) in X3: Reunion

Best Space Games for PC

It's odd that most companies don't want to produce space simulation games. Space games have unlimited potential and lots of fans. To fly in the cockpit of a spaceship, shoot bad guys, and wander through massive imagined universes can be utterly absorbing. The genre includes RTS (real time strategy) games and 4X games (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate).

The games I write about here I have personally played for endless hours and days (with a few exceptions that will be obvious). I know from experience what's good and bad about them.

"Elite," the Father of All Modern Space Games

In the early '80s, David Braben and Ian Bell made a great space simulator game: Elite. Elite was a huge success, because of the immersive play. You were in the cockpit of your own ship, flying around different solar systems, trading, and fighting. You planned every flight: fueling, checking the market for products to buy and sell, upgrading your ship.

The game came out using a vector graphic design, using just four colors. Versions were released for many ancient computer models: the Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari, the British ZX Spectrum computer, and the IBM PC (using IBM's very first graphics card, the CGA with 4-bit color).

A 1995 revision of Elite, called Frontier: First Encounters, exists in both DOS and Windows versions. You can still play the DOS version using an MS-DOS emulator like DOSBox. A great community of modders has changed the game to use D3D. If you manage to get the Windows version, you can download a patch made by fans of Elite that improves the graphics for DirectX as shown in the video below.

Trust me; it is worth it!

The X Universe

The X series of games, like Elite, has no multiplayer mode. The X games are for the lone player who wants to play in a massive sandbox, do whatever he wants, and wander whatever path appeals to him.

X3 Reunion:  A capital ship, and yes you can fly it too!

X3 Reunion: A capital ship, and yes you can fly it too!

The Amazing Games of the X Universe

If you are new to the X Games, you could start with X3 Reunion, since the first games are so antiquated by today's standards, but if you want to follow the story from the beginning, Amazon and eBay carry versions of the older games, improved by Egosoft to play on modern hardware and Windows 7.

Even though Reunion is my favorite, maybe because I spent months playing it, I have to say that Terran Conflict is one of the best games ever, bringing together everything the developers learned from the previous games, the community of players, and the mods that were created. X3: Terran Conflict is a gem, a work of art, with a beautiful soundtrack, great interaction with the virtual world, and stunning graphics detail (which can be tuned for most machines with older processors or video cards).

If you are looking for instant gratification, and want to get into battle within 15 minutes and finish the game in three hours, do not buy Reunion or Terran Conflict; get some space arcade shooting game. But if you love to explore, to plan ahead, to deal with a dynamic economy, to develop a long-term strategy over hundreds if not thousands of hours of gaming, these games are for you.

Of course, the danger is always present, depending on your actions. So "trade, fight, build, think." In all the X games, the player must build an economic empire in order to buy ships, weapons, and space stations, so he or she can discover and explore.

History of the X Universe

The backstory of the X Universe games is told in the Farnham's Legend series of science fiction novels by Helge Kautz.

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In the 21st Century, mankind researches and builds two jump gates between Earth and Mars, giving ships instant travel between the two planets using wormholes. A jump gate is sent to Alpha Centauri to claim a foothold in interstellar space.

In the meantime, scientists discover that many wormholes in space actually jump gates constructed by aliens, connecting a vast number of solar systems. The scientists build self-replicating ships controlled by a single artificial intelligence and send them from the Earth jump gate into the X Universe to terraform and colonize these distant planets to make them suitable for human life.

But when the scientists perform a routine software upgrade of the Terraformer fleet, they introduce flaws into the fleet's artificial intelligence (AI), causing a radical change in behavior. The fleet ships re-terraform the planets, wrecking them and destroying their ability to support human life.

The Terrans try to stop the rogue Terraformers, which ends up in a war between the humans and the machines' AI.

When the Terraformers are about to destroy Earth, a group of ships, led by Nathan R. Gunner, tricks the Terraformer fleet into entering the gate that leads from Earth to the X Universe. Earth is saved and the jump gate destroyed, sealing Earth off from the X Universe.

These events happen about 750 years before the first game in the series, in which Kyle accidentally strands himself in the X Universe with his experimental ship. He learns that many races there are in constant war with a race called the Xenon; the Xenon are actually the Terraformer fleet, which evolved and conquered many sectors of the X Universe.

"X3: Reunion": a capital ship with a jump gate in the background.

"X3: Reunion": a capital ship with a jump gate in the background.

"X: Beyond the Frontier"

X: Beyond the Frontier, the first X game from Egosoft, came out in 1999. Like all the X series games, it has a great story, amazing graphics, and the ability to utterly immerse the player in a new universe, with moments of beauty, danger, and fun.

"X: Beyond the Frontier" Storyline

The player takes the role of a test pilot, Kyle Brennan, in the year 2912. Kyle is testing an experimental ship that has the ability to jump to other solar systems using a wormhole.

During the test jump, something goes wrong, and Kyle is hurled thousands of light-years away into a strange and unknown region of space. His ship is damaged, and its jump drive breaks down. Kyle's accident damages a huge carrier from an alien race called the Teladi, a capitalist race that focuses on profit (Ferengi anyone?).

The Teladi captain loans some money to the hapless player and fixes some basic systems on his ship, for which he of course expects to be paid. He then tells the player about other races in the X Universe and about trading, in a conversation that comes with interactive menus. He also mentions, if the player asks, a race called the Argons, much different from the other species in the X Universe, who turn out to be descended from humans.

More X Universe Games

After Beyond the Frontier became a big hit, an add-on called X Tension brought improvements including a larger universe (more sectors for the player to visit using jump gates), and better graphics, sound, and music. Also, it gave the player more control over the interactive menus. X2: The Threat arrived about three years later, with even better graphics, a new story about a deadly alien race, music, more ships, a bigger universe, and finally, the best feature: the player was not restricted to flying just one ship.

As in later X games, a player can both fly his own ship and control a huge fleet of additional ships, manually or not. Want to be a trader? Buy a transport ship from the four races, improve it, and buy a few fighter ships of different classes to protect yourself. At any time, eject from your current ship to another that you own: it is just a matter of getting into a spacesuit and flying to it.

X3: Reunion 2.0: Bala Gi EXPANSION - Build your own headquarters

X3: Reunion 2.0: Bala Gi EXPANSION - Build your own headquarters

"X3 Reunion"

X3: Reunion is my favorite game of the X series. It introduced a new graphics engine, with beautiful results, especially for 2005. The universe contains about 160 sectors (solar systems connected by jump gates). New A.I. introduces pirates and other enemies flying in groups or small fleets. There is a great story, beautiful music, new ships, and a reputation system that forces the player to work with different races to achieve a status of trust.

This new way of playing means that, in contrast to the previous games where the player could buy anything he wanted if he had money, in X3 Reunion the player must cooperate with various races, for example by trading, to improve his or her status and buy ships, weapons, or stations.

Two major elements of status are a player's trade level and his/her military level. Shooting pirates in a sector is seen as a good thing, increasing the player's status with the local race, while doing the opposite, for example, destroying a station, will turn the player into public enemy number one. "Contraband" complicates the game; some races consider contraband legal while others do not. The police in each sector may randomly scan your ship looking for illegal contraband. They may attack you unless you jettison the contraband into space.

One change that I enjoyed (though tastes differ) was getting rid of the cockpit. In X3 Reunion, a player flying a craft enjoys a full, unobstructed view of space, plus a minimal HUD (heads-up display). In some ship types, using a cockpit mod, you can see a bit of the outside of the ship. But since the cockpit in the X games is not interactive, I don't miss it.

"X3: Terran Conflict"

Terran Conflict brings the best of the X Games to the PC with a new redesign and an incredible graphics engine.

After the time of the Reunion story, the X Universe is once again connected to the Sol System, bringing the Terrans to a new conflict and a huge universe to explore.

Once again Terran Conflict introduces improvements: the graphics are superb, the interactive menus are simpler, and the flight controls using mouse or joystick are even better. Terran Conflict also brings in many new ships, products, stations, and weapons. The stations in the Terran sectors are massive in size, making the player feel really small.

Apart from the storyline, the player can find thousands of smaller missions offered by stations and ships, which may range from a simple cargo delivery to protecting a ship from pirates.

A new concept focuses on capturing ships. Now the player can use capital ships and train Marines who will fly to a target and attempt to capture a ship.

"X3: Terran Conflict": A Few Tips

If you have never played the X games, you will need to know the following:

  • You cannot land on planets. The only way to go to planets is by following the storyline.
  • This is a solo game, a sandbox. There are no multiplayer, online, or LAN options.
  • X3 and their predecessors are massive. Expect to be able to play for hundreds of hours.
  • All X games are difficult to master and understand. They are not kids' games. It takes time to learn everything that is available to you.
  • X3 makes great demands on computer performance, but it can play well on a dual core with a decent video card.
  • X3 Reunion has a lot of menus and sub-menus to command and control everything. It is a bit confusing but with time it gets easier.
  • X3 Terran Conflict menus and flight controls are much better than in previous games.
  • This is not Freelancer or Wing Commander or your average space shooter game. Combat in this universe is deadly, and difficult if you haven't played before.

But isn't this what makes a great space game?

Reunion Plus Terran Conflict - Gold Edition

X Rebirth

X Rebirth

"X Rebirth": A Complete (and Disappointing) Redesign of the X Games

X Rebirth was released in November 2013, after fans had been waiting for four years.

Apparently, this game is not the huge success the others have been. I have not played it, but videos and reviews show that many players are disappointed. Some huge changes were made that didn't make the game any better.

The biggest change was in the process for building stations and factories. In the previous games, you connected several stations into "Hubs" to make one or two products, using multipurpose raw materials. Sometimes you would end up with a few dozen stations to manufacture one or two products. The choices were always yours. In X Rebirth, you have to upgrade your manufacturing station with weapons and shields (in previous versions, factories did not require defense) and you specify what the factory produces by adding modules to increase size, production, and product lines. You can watch the production lines working on the station, but it's not as much fun.

Also, in previous games, you would travel long distances using a device called "S.E.T.A.," actually just a time-compressing option where the game would run at higher speeds, giving the player the impression that he was traveling fast from gate to gate. The whole universe was accelerated. But X Rebirth puts you on space lanes, like highways. When you travel, it seems like you are always in the same sector. Sure it is a big universe out there, but something has been lost.

When you dock on stations now, you get a lame FPS (First Person Shooter) mode, where the player walks around and talks to people. Judging by videos on YouTube, everything inside the stations, including the Non-Player Characters (NPCs), is so badly designed that it seems we have regressed 20 years.

In fact, X: Rebirth could be a great game, if the graphics, gameplay, and controls worked in the environment of X3: Terran Conflict. Many things were left out in order to implement ideas that really do not work, or that cause work for the player, or that seem to have been implemented in a few minutes without much thought.

Maybe in the future things will change, with patches, updates, expansions, or even mods made by the community, but now, it is just a space game for the eyes, nothing more.

I think I am going to stick with Terran Conflict for a while.

Best X Game?

The Freelancer Universe

Freelancer, the sequel to Starlancer, is an old game, but still lots of fun to play, somewhat similar to the X series, yet so different.

Freelancer - A dogfight with the "cockpit view" option on.

Freelancer - A dogfight with the "cockpit view" option on.

From "Wing Commander" and "Starlancer," Comes "Freelancer"

Chris Roberts, the creator of the famous Wing Commander, released Freelancer in 2003. He was under some time pressure because his company Digital Anvil had been bought by Microsoft Game Studios. Originally he had wanted Freelancer to have a dynamic economy, like Elite and today's X Universe series, where players and NPCs could trade.

Although Freelancer as released didn't include all its creator's original ideas, it got very good reviews. The graphics, already a bit outdated at the time, were still considered very good. The player can fly his ship around 46 solar systems using a jump gate. Travel inside a solar system is done on well-designed "space lanes," and if he wants to, the player can fly off the lanes and explore debris fields or asteroids, running the risk of being attacked by pirates.

Freelancer is for people who want instant action without too many things to worry about. The controls are easy to learn; the flying is done in an intuitive way using the mouse. The dogfights are great, though a bit predictable.

The player can purchase different ships, but can only own and command one at a time. He can be a good guy or a bad guy in "factions." If a faction accepts a mission, some A.I. ships may join the player.

The best thing in the game is the sensation of a living universe. Diverse ships pass by—police, military, convoys—and the player can attack any of them, giving him a positive or negative status (reputation) with different factions and their allies.

Freelancer - One of many capital ships

Freelancer - One of many capital ships

"Freelancer": Multiplayer Features, Modded Ships

Freelancer has a multiplayer mode, and even though Microsoft no longer supports the game, there is still a great community, with mods, and servers where a player can test his will against other players.

The game's LAN (Local Area Network) mode lets you use a private server that when disconnected saves all the players' information. This is a good choice if you want to have a LAN party at your house and play with your friends.

The multiplayer capability allows a group of players to carry out a mission too difficult for a single player. Trading is enhanced when players play together. One player can get a ship to haul a lot of cargo, and the others can get good fighters to protect it. The ability to fly in formation with your friends means the lead ship can select the route and choose a space lane, and all the ships will automatically join in formation.

The story is not bad; in fact, it's well-written. The player will discover a plot by a government allied with an alien race that wants to take over the universe. In the story, the player's character is wrongly accused and forced into an outlaw role, taking refuge in other systems, some of which are not very friendly.

The ships are highly customizable, and some mods go even further, adding weapons with different powers, recharge rates, and energy depletion: missiles, torpedoes, mines, shields, turrets, and so on.

Hundreds of missions are available, from simple patrol duty to capturing a criminal or eliminating a group of renegades. Some missions advance the storyline.

Freelancer runs well on Windows 7 with no problems, provided you install all the patches. Many mods are out there including TNG (The Next Generation), which adds more systems, and provides well-known ship designs from many great Sci-Fi series like Star Wars and Babylon 5. You can fly a TIE Fighter or X-Wing.

If you have never played Freelancer, the game is so cheap today that there is no reason not to. It's great fun and full of action, though a bit dated.

"Freelancer" Gameplay

The "Homeworld" Universe

Homeworld came from the now-defunct Sierra Studios, a company that made some of the best games ever in different genres. Homeworld is not a space simulation but an RTS (Real Time Strategy) game in space, with a 3D environment. This means the player can have a 360º view of his ships in 3D.

Homeworld: Cataclysm (Screenshot)

Homeworld: Cataclysm (Screenshot)

"Homeworld" (1999 Version)

Homeworld made its first appearance in 1999 when most people were playing RTS games like Warcraft and Command & Conquer. Homeworld picked up where those games left off and made an amazing RTS game in space.

A great story, good graphics (for the time), and a simple interface to control hundreds of ships made this game a success to be played solo or online.

Research—to discover new ship designs, weapons and so on—can mean defeat or victory. The research tree is small and easy to unlock.

Many players, even gamers, have difficulty playing in a 3D environment, where you can order your ships to fly in all sorts of ascending and descending angles.

Still, by practicing and using the tutorial, players can get the hang of this, especially if they are used to playing Red Alert or Command & Conquer.

To better understand the atmosphere of this game, think about Battlestar Galactica, where you command a mothership, plus smaller ships for different tasks.

Homeworld Cataclysm - by Barking Dog Studios and published by Sierra Entertainment

Homeworld Cataclysm - by Barking Dog Studios and published by Sierra Entertainment

"Homeworld: Cataclysm"

In 2000, Homeworld: Cataclysm was released. It has a great story, like the original Homeworld, and improved graphics. The ships are modular, meaning that the items that you have researched and added can also be destroyed. Homeworld: Cataclysm gives you more control and more ship types, plus improvements in the mothership, research, and manufacturing.

Check out the screenshots and the trailer video below, do not let yourself fooled by the outdated graphics, when this game came out, the graphics were amazing. Even better is the tense gameplay it offers.

"Homeworld 2"

Homeworld 2 brought new concepts to the Homeworld saga: a new graphics engine, ships and storyline. Attacking technique was refined by introducing subsystems: you can pinpoint your attack on a capital ship to do more damage.

The storyline is a bit weaker than in previous games. Also there is only one difficulty level for the campaign, making this a hard game to play and master. Still, it is an excellent game if you are up to the challenge.

"Sins of a Solar Empire": Simple and Massive

Sins of a Solar Empire is something of a cross between Master of Orion or Galactic Civilizations with Homeworld. Sins is a 4x (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game.

"Sins of a Solar Empire"

The graphics are good (though nothing amazing); the special effects are good; the multiplayer support is good; and the visual details are great, thanks to the zoom feature. You can zoom the view down in scale from the galaxy to a planet, to ships, even down to a little fighter that in a "normal" zoom would be nothing more then a dot.

This feature is easy on the graphics engine, so you do not need to have a powerful computer and video card to play this game.

In many ways, Sins of a Solar Empire is a simple game. The tech tree is simple but effective. Gameplay is balanced among three factions. The lack of a campaign mode might be a turn-off for many players, but the ability to create an endless variety of random games is great. Let's just say that if you start a game with two or three stars with 30-40 planets apiece, you have yourself a game that will last days and days, or even longer if you play at the hardest levels.

You must develop a strong economy by developing several planets with various research requirements and building up your fleets from a simple corvette to massive capital ships.

Diplomacy is present, even if a bit basic, but the best feature of the game is the multiplayer option. While playing online or on a LAN, it is possible to save the state of a long game so that all the players can continue later. This is something that I have not seen in games for a long time.

The interface could be more refined, but still, it is simple and clean, and the player will not get bogged down in endless menus and options.

"EVE Online": Probably the Best Space MMO of All Time!

EVE Online is one of the best MMO (massively multiplayer online) space games for the PC ever. It's massive, complex, and difficult to master, with deadly PvP interaction and endless items and options.

Most MMOs call themselves "free to play" and then send players to a virtual shop to buy items. EVE Online has always been a paid subscription game. For a monthly fee of about $20, every item, every ship, and every skill is available to the player from the start. Despite all the modifications, improvements and expansions over the years, CCP, the company that runs EVE, has never raised the fee.

With over 20,000 players constantly playing, peaking on weekends to over 60,000 players at once, no one is ever alone. There is only one server, one instance, one sandbox.