With the launch of No Man’s Sky fast approaching, Game Rant takes a look at some of the best space exploration titles from the history of video gaming.
The release of No Man’s Sky is nearly upon us, and gamers anticipating the title are expecting much from the game. Promising a procedurally generated galaxy to explore, the title is seemingly putting discovery and adventure as its top selling points.
However, No Man’s Sky is far from the only game that has promised users the tantalizing prospect of space exploration. Indeed, from the very early era of gaming, players have been simulating that feeling of heading out into the stars searching for something new. Here’s our pick of some of the best space exploration games.
PC gamers are unlikely to need any introduction to EVE Online. The popular massively multiplayer online game has been giving would-be space captains some of the largest scope in gaming for years. Still running strong since its release in 2003, the title gives users a huge amount of choice in how to play the game, be it in the form of legitimate in-game careers as traders or miners, or taking a more ‘unconventional’ route as a space pirate. EVE Online has proved to be a deeply immersive game for many, and is no doubt going to go down as an iconic space exploration experience.
What’s more, EVE Online offers up a great level of customization, even for character creation elements that are barely ever seen. However, it’s the phenomenal – and somewhat bizarre for outside viewers – huge space battles that are often the biggest pull of the game. Gamers need to be careful, though, as sometimes a mixture of conflicts and virtual crime can end up costing players thousands of dollars in real world money.
Wing Commander: Privateer
The Wing Commander franchise was one of the largest PC gaming series of the 1990s. The series employed some of the biggest names in acting to play roles in the FMV sequences of the games, and was a major part of the space sim zeitgeist of its decade. However, when it comes to player freedom, 1993’s Wing Commander: Privateer is still seen as the best of the bunch.
Unlike some of the other titles in the series, Privateer offered players an open-ended world to explore, and users were even able to ignore the entirety of the game’s central plot if they so chose. Meanwhile, the player’s role as a freelancer meant that wide number of jobs were there for the taking. Wing Commander series creator Chris Roberts has since expanded into crowd-funded behemoth Star Citizen, and although the title has suffered from controversy and an awkwardly slow development cycle, many are still holding strong to the game, hoping for another chance to feel that same sense of discovery that games such as Wing Commander: Privateer offered.
Star Fox 64
The Star Fox series is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises, and for good reason. The original SNES title wowed players with a level of graphical quality that had barely been seen on consoles by that point, and with fantastic, addictive space shooter gameplay. The company, however, would outdo itself even further with the release of Star Fox 64.
Although the title may not be as open-ended as many games that would be traditionally seen as explorative in nature, not only did Star Fox 64 deliver a planet-spanning adventure for players, but also had a wealth of secrets to discover. Players will long remember the joy at finding a secret warp, and the variety shown through alternate mission paths.
Sins of a Solar Empire
The 4X strategy genre (standing for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) has often used the vast possibilities of space as its setting. Recently, Stellaris managed to tie together watertight strategy and space exploration to great effect, but many previous examples can easily be found by discerning gamers. One of the best games in this style is Sins of a Solar Empire, from developer Ironclad Games.
Starting out with humble beginnings in control of a single planet, players are then tasked with expanding their empire throughout an entire galaxy. Exploring other systems and using any useful material found, users then need to use either military might of diplomatic nous to become the most important society among other technologically-advanced species. Even today, Sins of a Solar Empire is an absolute joy to play.
Sometimes, a sense of true freedom is not really required to provide gamers with the level of exploration they crave. Instead, a well-crafted story with a finite number of planets to explore can actually deliver an even better experience than true autonomy, and nowhere is this more apparent than with the Mass Effect series. After all, there’s a reason why Mass Effect‘s galaxy is considered one of the best sci-fi worlds in gaming.
Developer BioWare truly outdid itself when crafting the world of Mass Effect, with a wide variety of unique races and a deep and compelling story to uncover. Although both Mass Effect 2 and 3 have their own merits, particularly with the enhanced combat of the second game, the feeling of discovery in the first game of the series – complete with hands-on planetary exploration courtesy of the Mako – puts the original Mass Effect onto our list.
After first appearing back in 1984, it’s thanks to the power of crowdfunding that the acclaimed Elite series once more saw a return to gaming libraries. Frontier Developments opened up a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 with some rather lofty goals for a new project named Elite: Dangerous. The game promised a huge, to-scale galaxy to explore, with deep and nuanced gameplay to keep users fully involved.
Although the game did not quite have as much depth as promised when initially released, Elite: Dangerous is going to have dedicated support and further development for a long time to come. The title has already been at the forefront of new gaming through its virtual reality support, and will hopefully continue to act as a gaming pioneer in the future.
FTL: Faster Than Light
A title doesn’t need a big budget in order to encapsulate the idea of space exploration. That was certainly the case with indie smash hit FTL: Faster Than Light. Released back in 2012, the roguelike captured the imagination of fans, tasking players with a tough mission across different sections of the galaxy. For many, the game felt the closest to the original tone of Star Trek as had been seen in gaming, with the player having to take decisive action to ensure their ship reaches its destination.
However, the game’s difficulty is also notorious. Space can be a truly be an unforgiving place, with seemingly every gameplay mechanic aiming to end the user’s playthrough with extreme prejudice. This only adds to the allure of the game, however, and FTL: Faster Than Light is seen as one of the top permadeath games on the market.
It has become something of a cliche to claim that a game is ahead of its time, but that is definitely the case with Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld. The title was released in 1999, and was the first truly 3D real-time strategy game on the market. Although the gameplay focused primarily on individual missions in single-player, and multiplayer on deathmatch, the unique details put into the game’s backstory made the player truly feel like part of a greater whole.
The series was left in limbo after the bankruptcy of THQ, but Homeworld thankfully found another owner. Now, intrigued players can even pick up a Homeworld remastered collection that includes both Homeworld 1 and 2, while a prequel to the series dubbed Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak was released in early 2016.
That ends our list of the best space exploration games. Those are, of course, far from the only games that have truly felt like great space discovery titles. The Galactic Civilizations franchise more than holds its own, while the X series kept space exploration going strong through the early 2000s. Hopefully, No Man’s Sky will prove to deserve a place among these stars.
What do you make of our list? Are there any other games that deserve a mention? Let us know in the comments below!