David is an avid gamer across multiple platforms such as consoles, handhelds, mobile phones, and PC.
What Are Space Sims?
All sorts of games can take place in space. Space is a setting, not necessarily a game genre. For this article, I'll be focusing on those games that primarily take place in a spaceship in space, which are known as space simulators. While there may be other elements to the game, the focus is on what is happening in space. So this list won't include first-person shooter games like Halo or real-time strategy games like Stellaris.
That being said, I am a sucker for space games. I've been playing space games since the Atari. The space scene really exploded with PC gaming, so that is where I have spent most of my space gaming time. This list is built primarily with the immersion factor in mind. Basically, did I feel like I was in space? Was the world believable? Along with other factors like combat, story, etc., the immersion factor has always been what I look for in a space game. Needless to say, this was a difficult list to assemble.
- Released: 03/04/03
- Developed By: Digital Anvil
- Published By: Microsoft Game Studios
- Metascore: Holds a 85% metascore on Metacritic.
All About Freelancer
Freelancer was originally designed to be an online game. However, that was scaled back to a single-player game. It was disappointing at the time, but it turned out to be a great choice.
- Great story. Most space sims are open-ended. You are given a general direction and told to do whatever you want. With Freelancer, there is an actual story that dictates why you do what you do. The story is solid and the characters are believable.
- Open-ended. The game is open-ended though. While you have quest missions you have to do, there are times you are free to do whatever you want between those missions. It's nice to have that choice.
- Active world. What I really like about this game is that the world is active. You'll see traders flying about, pirates attacking other ships, and so on. You'll hear comm traffic as well. It really sucked me in.
- Combat is solid. There are choices of ships and weapons as you progress throughout the game. Combat is fun and fast, but not so fast you miss out on anything. The challenge is there. It's not easy but not too hard.
- Everything else is okay. Trading is part of the game, but not required. Can be good to do when grinding to buy a new weapon. You can explore, but you'll mostly just see the sites. There are a couple of surprises if you know where to look though.
- Outdated graphics. The biggest downside is that the graphics are becoming outdated. There have been mods that improve them, but even then, it's not like some of the top of the line space sims out there that use a similar style.
- Can be hard to find. Oddly enough, it can be very difficult to find a copy of this game. Microsoft has the ability to publish it through one of their online services, but they have chosen not to do so. Best way to find a copy is through Amazon or eBay.
If you don't need a graphically stunning game, and you know where to find it, Freelancer can be a great game. Despite more recent games, I still put this one at the top of the list.
Why It's on This List
This was probably the first space sim I played through multiple times, I loved it that much. It also had the best story of any space sim out there, even competing with some RPG story lines. I cared what happened to the characters. As far as classic space sims go, this one is one of my favorites.
2. EVE Online
- Released: 05/06/03
- Developed By: CCP Games
- Published By: Simon & Schuster, Atari
- Metascore: Holds a 69% (2003) and 88% (2009) metascore on Metacritic.
All About EVE Online
EVE Online became what Freelancer was trying to be—an online game where players can interact with each other. This game is just as old as Freelancer, but it has held up very well over the years.
- Completely player run. For the most part, players control the economy in the game. While basic items can be purchased from NPCs, anything beyond that must be purchased from players directly.
- Combat can be dull or exciting. Combat is a huge focus on the game. However, depending on the ship and weapons, it may also be boring. A ship that has a long-range can fire at the enemy from a distance, so the enemy just looks like a speck on the screen. There are ships that are faster, which can get up close to the action.
- Exploration is fun. There is a ton to explore and find in EVE Online. Missions are somewhat random, so it can be fun to see what you have to do and what you'll be exploring. Outside of missions, it's fun to fly around to see what you could find. Could find a secret enemy base or a wormhole.
- PvP can be brutal. For the most part, players can avoid PvP, but as you start going deeper into the universe, it can be hard to avoid. Players actively seek out other players to kill just for the fun of it. If you wish to explore deep space, you'll need others to go with you.
- Complicated market system. The market system is the most complicated market system I have ever seen in a game. Hundreds of items are for sale. There isn't one universal market board either. It matters where you sell the item, how far someone is willing to travel for it, and so on.
- Massive skill system. There are skills for everything in the game. From trading, mining, to flying a spaceship. The way to obtain those skills is through time. You select (or buy) a skill and automatically learn the skill over time. Some skills can be learned in minutes while others can take days.
- Has a subscription. EVE Online is free to play, but it limits the skills and spaceships you are allowed to have. If you get a paid subscription, then you get access to everything in the game.
EVE Online has a huge learning curve, probably the biggest learning curve of any space sim I have played. It's worth learning though if you want something to sink a lot of time into.
Why It's on This List
Everything about the game is great, but what got me into it was the trading. While my character could fight decently, I was an expert trader. The best part is that I had it set up that I had players moving goods back and forth for me! That's how robust the economy is in the game.
- Released: 03/09/20
- Developed By: Boxelware
- Published By: Boxelware
- Metascore: Holds a 76% (estimate) metascore on Metacritic.
All About Avorion
The best way to describe this game is "Minecraft in Space." It's not that literal, but it does share elements with Minecraft, which can be good and bad.
- Mining rocks. The big downer when starting the game is that the best way to progress is to mine. Mining isn't boring, but it isn't fun either. Once you get past that hurdle, the real fun begins.
- Customizing ships. As you obtain minerals, you can start making your own ships. There are random pre-built ships you can buy, but making your own ship is a lot more satisfying. It also matters what parts you place, how big they are, and where you place them. It's a huge time sink all in itself.
- Decent space combat. The combat isn't award-winning, but it isn't bad either. There were times I had to run away because I was about to be destroyed. There is also plenty of loot to be had, but it takes time to collect as well since battles can stretch out far in a sector of space.
- Make your own bases. If you scrape up enough money, you can make your own bases. They can do different things too, like serve as a mining hub or trading post. You can also set up in an empty sector if you want to have an area to call your own. Bases can be fully customized just like ships.
- Make your own fleet. Eventually, you'll want to make your own fleet. Ships can be set up to mine different areas to gather materials for you or scrap wrecks of ships you've destroyed. Other ships can accompany you in fights.
- Universe is active. There are NPCs flying about, enemy ships attacking other ships, and so on. I don't see any big impacts in all of it, as it seems focused on whatever sector I am in. But I still enjoyed it.
- Lots to explore. There are sectors I would come across that had the most bizarre things going on that I still haven't been able to explain. Some I was able to explain, which made it all the more fun.
If you want more control over the look of your ship and what you do in-game, then this is a good choice. It has minimal story, but it doesn't really need one either.
Why It's on This List
Other space sims have tried to give the player a fleet and bases the manage. This one does it and does it well, along with being able to customize them with a unique look. Only problem is that I can never decide on the look for my ships!
4. Shortest Trip to Earth
- Released: 08/15/19
- Developed By: Interactive Fate
- Published By: Iceberg Interactive
- Metascore: Holds a 68% (estimate) metascore on Metacritic.
All About Shortest Trip to Earth
I can see myself catching heat for including this but not FTL on my list. However, I feel it's justified since it builds on the great job FTL did.
- Harder than FTL. This game is tough. There is a learning curve and it feels like you aren't given a lot of time to figure that out. You'll die multiple times, which is normal, but it still makes learning hard.
- A lot of choices. There are a ton of choices when it comes to modules on the ship, crew, missions, and so on. Each time I played I had a unique setup.
- Technical issues. This is one of the few space sims that gave me technical issues. I had a 40 person crew on a huge ship, I experienced some major slow down which caused me to lose a fight I was in.
- Light on story. A story is there, but it's only a means to an end. It's about the journey. In fact, many characters are randomly generated, so you won't really get attached to any of them.
- Need to micromanage. During fights, you need to manage your ship, your crew, and watch everything going on. When I had a 40 person crew, that was really hard to handle.
- Combat is fun. When it all comes down to it, the combat is engaging. When up against three ships at once, you'll frantically plan out your moves to deal with each ship before they destroy you.
- Not as open-ended. While you can explore a lot, it isn't as open-ended as the other space sims I listed. That's okay though, as each playthrough is unique enough to make it feel different each time.
I feel like this is a good successor to FTL. It has its problems and isn't as streamlined as FTL, but I sure enjoyed it a heck of a lot more.
Why It's on This List
The variety of things to do, modules to install, and how different each run-through is made me keep going back to the game. While FTL is good, it felt stagnant after a while. Shortest Trip to Earth did not have the same stagnant feeling.
5. Space Rangers HD: A War Apart
- Released: 10/17/13
- Developed By: SNK Games, Elemental Games, Katauri Interactive
- Published By: 1C Entertainment
- Metascore: Holds a 68% metascore on Metacritic.
All About Space Rangers HD: A War Apart
This is a bizarre game, to say the least. At the time, I felt it was very ambitious in all it was trying to do. Some of it works, some of it doesn't.
- Includes multiple game modes. Can you believe there is a RTS feature in this game? Or a text-based adventure? Both are in Space Rangers, along with some other genres. Not all are great. For example, the RTS is bare-bones, but it's decent enough.
- Hasn't aged well. Graphically the game isn't much to look at. It gets the job done, but the graphics are not stunning by any means. If you want nostalgia, then this game has it.
- Universe is alive. Of almost all of the space sims I have played, I actually felt the universe is alive. NPCs travel from system to system, what you do affects the game, and so on.
- Different roles to play. From the get-go, you choose the role you want to play. While you can deviate from that, the best part of the game is playing the role you picked.
- Space combat is unusual. Most of the time you'll have a top-down view of space. It's also turn-based, so you'll occasionally pause to change orders and let combat continue. It's still a lot of fun though.
- Poor critic reviews, high user reviews. I point this out since this is the worst-reviewed game on my list, but if you look at user reviews in Steam, they are very high.
It's not a modern game, but it's a good game. Other, more modern games have improved the look, but have yet to capture the same feeling that this game provides.
Why It's on This List
I come back to this game from time to time because of the variety it has. Each aspect of the game, including the RTS and text-based adventure, is pretty good. The space combat and exploration is engaging enough to push through some of the mediocre parts of the game.
FTL: Faster Than Light – As I said above, FTL is a solid game, I just found the other game to improve upon it. However, it's still worth picking up if you want something that is tried and true.
Rebel Galaxy – This was hard not to put in my top five. The reason I didn't because I don't like the music at all (though you can change it) and the space combat was on rails. Otherwise, it's a solid game.
Star Trek Online – I have a love/hate relationship with this game. As a huge Trekkie, I love playing any Star Trek game. But, it has some pitfalls. There are microtransactions, the game is hardly true to Star Trek, and the ground combat is horrible. The reason why it's an honorable mention is because the space combat is a lot of fun.
X Series – I think these are some of the worst space sims out there, primarily because of the developer. The last X series game I purchased was X Rebirth. It did not live up to any of the promises from the developer. It had multiple bugs, a boring galaxy, and just wasn't fun to play. The metascore for this game is 33%, with user reviews being just as bad.
What Do You Think?
Now I know I left out some obvious choices. When doing research for this article, I looked at other lists that didn't have many of the games I listed. I still stand by my list, but I want to hear what space sims you love and why. Please share them in the comments below.
Looking for a Good Space Strategy Game?
- The Top 5 Space Strategy Games for PC
What's better than conquering a planet? Conquering a universe! This article contains a listing of the top 5 space strategy games for the PC.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 David Livermore