The Escapist loves to play any game that lets you say things like “Stay on target!” and “We’re too close.”
Piloting a spacecraft through the nether between worlds is a fantasy for so many of us. The thrill of watching Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing swerve and dive during the Death Star run in the first Star Wars is probably a big reason why games like Elite and Wing Commander were produced. The genre of space combat sims enjoyed a decade of excellence in the 1990s as the graphics and processing power of gaming PCs matched the fidelity of movement our imaginations demanded. But after a few commercials duds, and that ill-advised Wing Commander movie, we saw a dearth of space combat games in the new millennium.
That’s all about to change. The emergence of Kickstarter as a viable funding method for video games, and resurgence in sci-fi fandom with reboots of Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Star Wars all out or coming soon, has a slew of space combat sims in production. We’re super excited about Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, not to mention smaller offerings like No Man’s Sky and EVE: Valkyrie.
In honor of the new horizon for the genre, we at The Escapist found ourselves reminiscing about the space combat sims that have come before. That discussion led to arguments over which ones were better than the others, which then of course led to a whole bunch of laser dogfights as we duked it out. In the end, we decided to put our rants into article form for the sake of science.
Without further ado, here are The Escapist‘s Best 15 Space Combat Sims of All-Time in reverse order.
Developed by Digital Anvil. Published by Microsoft. Released March 31, 2000. Available on PC and Sega Dreamcast.
Paul Goodman says: The predecessor to Chris Roberts’ Freelancer, Starlancer where the international The Alliance is caught in a desperate war with the brutal Coalition. Donning a flight suit, you take on the role of a rookie pilot in the 45th Volunteers Squadron, and with any luck, your brave efforts could help turn the tide of the war in the Alliance’s favor.
If there’s one thing I remember about this game, it was that it was freaking hard. Enemy ships could take a severe beating, and escort missions were a nightmare if you didn’t take out hostile torpedo bombers fast enough. How well you performed during a mission determined your rank, which in turn determined what star fighters or weapons you could use, and if you barely scraped by, you’d often be stuck out-gunned in the later missions. But as tough as it it could be, Starlancer was a solid space-sim with some engaging dogfights. It also does a good job of immersing you in the Alliance/Coalition war, with news reports in between missions and references to characters and other ace pilots you’d meet later on in the story.
14. Tachyon: The Fringe
Developed and published by NovaLogic. Released March 30, 2000. Available on PC. Steam.
Paul Goodman says: Tachyon was one of my favorite games growing up, and one of my first experiences with space sims. Set in the 26th century, you play as Jake Logan, a starfighter pilot who gets exiled from the solar system to The Fringe, a region of space where mega-corporations, pirates, and struggling colonists vie for power and resources. And it stars Bruce Campbell. Yes, Bruce Campbell.
With branching storylines, a few large scale battles (for its time) and a host of bad-ass ships to pilot and customize, Tachyon was an entertaining, if not exactly groundbreaking, game that provided a nice middle ground between complex sims and more casual shooters. For me, the main highlight of Tachyon was how you could get into some really wicked cool dogfights, with the option to “slide” your ship around on its axis and use your own inertia to pull off the kind of maneuvers you might have seen in Battlestar Galactica. Heck, there are some space sims out there that can’t claim to have that kind of Newtonian physics in play. Or that they have Bruce Campbell. Did I mention Bruce Campbell is in this game?
13. Wing Commander: Privateer
Developed by Origins Systems. Published by Electronic Arts. Released September 22, 1993. Now available on PC and MacOS. GoG.
Liz Harper says: One of the driving forces of the main Wing Commander universe is detailed storyline in which you’re the main character, but Privateer places itself on the periphery of the story and doesn’t feature many of the elements you’re familiar with from previous titles. (And depending on how much you liked those titles, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.)
What Privateer did do well was offering the player an immensely open world — think The Elder Scrolls but in space — in which you could choose what kind of character you wanted to be and whether you wanted to follow the main storyline or explore on your own. Instead of being locked in to the naval combat of previous games, you could choose to be a merchant, a bounty hunter, or to fight for a local militia… all for a hefty fee, of course. The cash you made from completing missions or selling goods could be put back into your ship, upgrading your engines, weapons, shields… or even buying a brand new ship. It allowed for customizable gameplay that the main Wing Commander universe just didn’t have.
Developed by Digital Anvil. Published by Microsoft Game Studios. Released March 4, 2003. Available on PC.
Greg Tito says: Chris Roberts’ follow-up to Starlancer was maligned at its release for not living up his promises, but it’s a bangup game in its own right. In Freelancer, you could travel to a large number of star systems (48) as Edison Trent, and engage in any number of nefarious actions like piracy or bounty hunting. Or, you could just be a trader, moving commodities from one system to the other, and avoiding those pirates. The lore and story of the single player game, while not particularly original, was a fun continuation of the Starlancer war – imagining what it would be like if several colony ships consisting of different ethnic groups had to start a civilization in a completely different sector of space.
The multiplayer was where Freelancer really shined. It was like setting up a mini-MMO with up to 128 other people on a server, and seeing what happened when it was humans flying those ships you were dogfighting. The problem was that the open world aspect didn’t really feel organic and free – prices of goods didn’t shift, and territories remained fixed no matter what the player or players did. Still, Freelancer allowed an incredible amount of freedom in how you played the game. You could embody Edison Trent however you liked, and that was a really cool addition to this genre. And if it inspired Roberts’ upcoming Star Citizen, so be it!
11. Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War
Developed by Volition Software. Published by Interplay Productions. Released on March 19, 1998. Available on PC. Steam.
Greg Tito says: Created after a split from Parallax Software, makers of the Descent FPS, Volition made FreeSpace. Yes, the creators of the wacky gangster games of Saints Row got their start making a space combat sim. And it was awesome. The player is sent on a variety of missions, using a large number of controls that put it much closer to flight sim than arcade sim.
FreeSpace tells the story of two galactic civilizations fighting a long war, until a third unknown species arrives. The previous enemies form a Terran-Vasudan alliance to combat the Shivans, and the player slowly discovers a way to attack the massive super-destroyer dubbed the SD Lucifer. Perhaps the best part of FreeSpace, other than the amazing explosion animations, was that you could actually depend on your wingmen to be competent warriors on their own. You could give them orders and actually expect to have them carried out, which was extremely useful when attacking the huge enemy ships.
This wasn’t the end of Volition’s space combat days. More to come from them in this list!
10. Rogue Squadron
Developed by Factor 5 and LucasArts. Published by LucasArts. Released on December 3, 1998. Available for PC and Nintendo 64.
Devin Connors says: My crippling PC gaming, and Star Wars addictions started at the tender age of four or five, but I didn’t fall in love with a video game console in such a way until the Nintendo 64. There are too many amazing N64 games to list, but Rogue Squadron is absolutely one that stands out in the crowd.
The space combat genre had already seen several worthy Star Wars entries, but Rogue Squadron was the first title to find a home off the PC, and it dropped the space fight setting for missions on planets like Tatooine, Sullust, and Kessel — names that still make Expanded Universe lover’s ears perk up. Of course, the bonus missions hit all the right sweet spots, from blazing down the Death Star trench, to blasting womprats in Beggar’s Canyon. I seem to recall spending more time taking down AT-AT’s on Hoth than on anything else.
Along with exploring a treasured universe most of us know and love, Rogue Squadron brought 3D flying combat to the N64, and it did so in style. The graphics were stellar at the time, controls were solid for a one-joystick controller, and the vehicle choice was all any hardcore Star Wars fan could ask for. You could even unlock a 1969 Buick Electra,(which replaced the V-Wing airspeeder).
Developed by David Braben and Ian Bell. Published by Acornsoft. Released on September 20, 1984. Available first on BBC Micro, later Commodore 64 and NES.
Greg Tito says: Admittedly, I never played Elite but I am fascinated with it nevertheless. Created by David Braben and Ian Bell for the Acorn computer system in the UK, it was the first game to model a completely random galaxy of stars and planets you could visit in your spacecraft. Elite is truly an open-world experience. You start out on the Lave space station with a simple ship and 100 credits. It’s up to you to decide how to earn more credits – through piracy, arbitrage trading, taking on missions from military commanders or mining – and you can use those credits to upgrade your ship. There’s no end goal, no ending credits scroll; the fun is in the journey.
Elite is interesting in many ways because of how efficiently it was coded. Braben and Bell used procedural generation to create the 8 galaxies with up to 256 one planet star systems each, so the data storage needed on the disk was minimal. The whole game could fit on a single 5 ¼ in. floppy disk, which is crazy given how much gameplay could be derived from it. Because of its popularity in 1984, Elite also inspired hundreds of gamemakers including the minds behind EVE Online, World of Warcraft, and even Grand Theft Auto. David Braben went on to found Frontier Developments which has created games for decades, including Roller Coaster Tycoon and the Zoo Tycoon port that was a launch title for the Xbox One. Frontier is busy gearing up for the release of an extremely ambitious multiplayer sequel Elite: Dangerous that will finally realize the dreams Braben had in 1984.
8. X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter
Developed by Totally Games. Published by LucasArts. Released on April 30, 1997. Available on PC.
Justin Clouse says: And here you might have thought that multiplayer focused games were a more recent deal. Well back in 1997, LucasArts released a follow-up to their Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: TIE Fighter series. Where the first two focused on stories of pilots in the Rebel and Galatic Empires, with missions taking place in and around events of the films, Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter was instead developed purely with multiplayer in mind, though later a story based expansion, Balance of Power, was added. What X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter might have lacked in the story department was made up for with an incredibly robust array of options for play. You could team up with or against your friends in a variety of scenarios and missions, even down to selecting what your role in that battle would be. This allowed you to play the same mission but from multiple different angles. Ultimately let’s face it, the big draw for X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter was just battling it out in some of the most iconic sci-fi imagery every created. “Divert power to forward deflector shields” might have just been a throwaway line to fill some space from the movie, but here it was something you actually did with its own gameplay mechanics to consider.
7. Star Wars: Battlefront II
Developed by Pandemic Studios. Published by LucasArts. Released on October 31, 2005. Available on PC, PS2, Xbox, and PSP. Steam.
Mike Hoffman says: Star Wars: Battlefront II, from Pandemic and LucasArts, put players in the roles of the nameless soldiers in the epic battles from the Star Wars films. Unlike its predecessor, Battlefront II introduced space combat, and while it wasn’t simulation-level realism, space combat in Battlefront II was ridiculously fun, especially in multiplayer.
Players piloted iconic ships like X-wings, TIE Fighters, and more in battles that could support up to 64 players in multiplayer on PC. After launching from their own factions capital ship (like Star Destroyers), players could get into dog fights or attack enemy capital ships. When taking on the massive starships, players destroyed various systems such as the engines or life support by blasting external weak points or boarding the ship and fighting off enemies directly, infiltrating the rooms containing those systems.
While the game never offered a deep, realistic spacefaring adventure, it did provide huge space battles that fulfilled all our fantasies of jumping into an X-wing and fighting the Empire. The cancelled Star Wars: Battlefront III never saw a release, but a leaked video showed players leaving ground combat and heading straight to orbit to carry on the fight. Hopefully the upcoming Star Wars: Battlefront from DICE and EA will offer something just as epic.
6. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi
Developed and published by Origin Systems. Released in 1991. Available for PC and Mac. GoG.
Liz Harper says: Why mess with a winning strategy? Wing Commander II took the original Wing Commander and improved the graphics, the sound — featuring full voices for characters in certain sequences — and the story in an all-new chapter of the Wing Commander saga. As WCII opens you learn that the Tiger’s Claw has been destroyed by new Kilrathi stealth technology… and without any other survivors, you’ve taken the blame and demoted to serve on an out of the way space station for the rest of your days.
Fortunately, the game skips over the ten (no doubt tedious) years your character served and you jump back into the story when there are new Kilrathi attacks in the system. Though the combat is much the same, the story has a lot more depth as it follows your rise from disgrace… and, of course, uncovering the traitor who really doomed the Tiger’s Claw and clearing your own name. While in hindsight, story seems to string together a heck of a lot of tropes, it did so better than anyone had before it.
5. FreeSpace 2
Developed by Volition. Published by Interplay. Released on September 30, 1999. Available on PC. GoG.
Justin Clouse says: While there were many fine games following it, for my money, Volition’s FreeSpace 2 represents the peak of space combat sims era. Released late in 1999, FreeSpace 2 was a culmination of the previous decade of space combat. The gameplay was refined to a perfect balance of hardcore simulation weighted towards more simple and dynamic dogfighting. Especially noteworthy was the sense of scale evoked during play – a huge focus according to the developers. Giant capitol ships would trade barrages of weapons fire, as you in your comparatively tiny fighter darted around them in your own little battles. For its time, FreeSpace 2 was quite the looker too, the ships all had interesting models with every race having its own distinct aesthetics, and your epic battles were back dropped against some lovely nebulas. FreeSpace 2 also continued one of the best aspects of Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War with its strong story based singleplayer campaign which managed to marry a compelling narrative with a varied string of missions, beyond just the normal attack, defend and escort. On top of all that, FreeSpace 2 made some great strides in improving the weaker and broken multiplayer offering from the first game.
4. Wing Commander
Developed and published by Origin Systems. Released in 1990. Available for PC and Mac. GoG.
Liz Harper says: First in the series of five Wing Commander games (and another six spin-off games), this 1990 title from Chris Roberts was an early example of mixing space combat gameplay with an in-depth storyline. Though the space combat was fast-paced fun, looking back on the game it’s the story that made Wing Commander — and the entire series to follow — unique. The game cast you as a new pilot in the war against the vicious Kilrathi. You served on the carrier Tiger’s Claw alongside a diverse cast of characters — some of whom would serve as your wingman throughout the game and many of whom you could chat with at the bar between missions.
Each mission had a specific objective and you’d be assigned a ship type and a wingman to fly with you. Complete your mission objectives and you’d come back to find the war going well — and the Tiger’s Claw making more offensive attacks against the Kilrathi. Fail your objectives and you would find the war effort going badly and your missions growing more desperate and defensive. And, if you wanted more story, Wing Commander had two add-on mission packs, The Secret Missions and The Secret Missions 2.
Sure, mixing solid gameplay with a compelling story that changes based on your actions is the norm for blockbuster games today, but in 1990, Wing Commander was something brand new.
Developed and published by LucasArts. Released in February 1993. Released on DOS, Mac, and Windows.
Greg Tito says: The beauty of X-Wing was its ability to make you feel a part of the Star Wars universe. From the mission briefings’ similarity to the scene before the Death Star run – down the old man droning on – to the sweeping score of John Williams, you really were able to imagine yourself as an important member of the Alliance. The story loosely follows the plot of the first film, with the third tour of duty culminating in the attack on the Death Star while the two expansions are set before the events of The Empire Strikes Back.
The mission design was satisfyingly varied – dogfighting with TIE Interceptors, targeting lethal TIE Bombers or escorting the huge frigates in massive operations were all on hand. I also loved how each individual ship you could pilot – A-Wings, Y-Wings, X-Wings and the B-Wings in the expansion – all felt different and had specific uses. The A-Wing’s concussion missiles and quick engines made it an excellent dogfighter, while the slow and steady Y-Wing could devastate larger targets with its torpedoes. The titular X-Wing was the jack-of-all-trades and in the missions you pilot it you could choose a more varied strategy.
I personally liked exploring the various areas on the Mon Calamari Star Cruiser Independence. There, you could fly training missions with each ship design, earning you medals you could see on display, as well as letting you fly historical missions. These felt like achievements before “Achievements” were a thing in every game. X-Wing was an absolutely wonderful game that succeeded in transporting you to galaxy far, far away.
2. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger
Developed and produced by Origin Systems. Released on December 30, 1994. Available on PC and Mac. GoG.
Liz Harper says: The Wing Commander franchise broke a lot of ground for space combat sims, but none of the games more so than Wing Commander III. Like X-Wing, released the year prior, WCIII used full 3D animation for its ships and fighter scenes — but it also continued the story of the future Kilrathi war, offering a more in-depth story experience with a movie’s worth of live-action cutscenes. (No, really: If you put the cutscene footage from a single playthrough together, you’ll end up with about two hours’ worth of viewing.)
That may not sound like much when modern games are expected to provide 40 or more hours of gameplay, but it was cutting-edge for its day, needing to utilize new CD-ROM technology — WCIII came on four discs — primarily to fit all the cinematics. The resulting story had Hollywood scale — though it does have a bit of a B-movie feel which suggests it might not have had a Hollywood budget — starring Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, and John Rhys-Davies. (And these cinematics, B-movie though they may be, are a lot better than the actual Wing Commander movie released in 1999.) But WCIII does Hollywood one better since choices you make throughout the game will change the story you’d see on the screen, making it as much an interactive movie experience as a game.
And the best space combat sim of all-time is …
1. TIE Fighter
Developed by Totally Games. Published by LucasArts. Released in July 1994. Released on DOS, Mac, and Windows.
Greg Tito says: Taking everything players loved about X-Wing and twisting it, LucasArts let you play as the bad guys. As a pilot in the illustrious Empire, you fly TIE Fighters, TIE Bombers, TIE Interceptors and even new original spacecraft designed specifically for the game by LucasArts. The whole game is framed with the Empire as a force for law and order in the galaxy with the Rebel Alliance portrayed as terrorists and chaotic forces. As an adolescent interested in unique storytelling, I loved that TIE Fighter played with perspective and put the events of the films in an entirely new light.
Mechanically, TIE Fighter‘s flight engine was vastly improved from its predecessor and simple graphics changes increased the feeling of immersion. At first, the ships you are flying lack shields so the challenge in fighting superior craft like the X-Wing is profound. You can only take a few hits from laser cannons while your enemies can absorb much more. Eventually, you do get to pilot craft with shields, but they all feel very different from the Alliance ships.
Perhaps the best addition to the X-Wing model was the secret objective in each mission. You would get your briefing from an Imperial Officer as normal, but then you could engage in a conversation with a shadowy figure on the Star Destroyer which would give you objectives above and beyond the main goal of the mission. These orders came from the Emperor himself, and completing them allowed you to join a Secret Order overseen by Palpatine himself. Fail them? And you may displease the Sith …
TIE Fighter was a fantastic blend of gameplay, story, emotion and reward. It is the greatest space combat sim ever made.
There you go, The Escapist has spoken. Several of these games are available from our friends at GOG.com, but others sadly are lost in the ether of Disney acquisitions and copyright litigation. While you wait for the big titles coming out in the next year, why not check out some of them?
And don’t forget other space combat sims that just missed out being on the list.