Warning: This article contains spoilers!
In this crazy world of ours, there aren’t many solid, uncompromising truths. In my experience, however, there is at least one rule you can always count on: space battles make everything better. Your epic science fiction wasted too much time dicking around with the “final five” and needs to close with a bang? End it with an epic space battle. You need to distract moviegoers from the fact that you still haven’t killed that stupid Gungan after two prequels? An epic space battle can help with that.
It’s not just in movies and TV either. Video games, since their inception, have played host to some of the best space battles our puny planet has ever seen. Inspired by my time with Freespace, I decided it’d be fun to look at a few of my personal favorites. I’ve picked five (with a few honorable mentions) that have stuck with me over the years. Take a look and let me know which ones left the biggest impression on you.
5. Starlancer – Destroying the Coalition Second Fleet
A criminally underrated entry in the space sim genre, Starlancer dropped the player into the middle of a multi-planet war between the forces of the Alliance (space NATO) and the Coalition (interstellar Soviets). When the game begins, the Alliance is on the ropes after a devastating sneak attack. Much of the story campaign, in turn, follows the player’s efforts to turn the tide and whittle down the Coalition’s overwhelming strength.
This comes to a head in Mission 21 when you and your squadron are tasked with flying stolen attack bombers into the middle of the Coalition’s Second Fleet with the intent of blasting it back to interstellar rubble. What stuck out most to me was the deep sense of satisfaction it delivers. Much of your time in the mission’s opening moments is spent tensely moving through the enemy fleet, trying your best to blend in and look inconspicuous. You go through minutes of this and, honestly, it kind of sucks. That being the case, the feeling of satisfaction you get from finally being able to pull the trigger on your torpedoes at point blank is just immense and worth every second.
Honorable Mention: Star Fox 64 – Katina
Star Fox 64 was the first game I owned for the Nintendo 64 and I played the ever-loving hell out of it. It’s funny because, if you’re really trying, you can get probably complete a playthrough in around half an hour. Despite that though, I couldn’t even begin to make a mental tally of the countless hours I spent playing that game. I explored every nook and cranny of it, won every medal, unlocked the hard mode and then did it all again. I looked up the top player score in Nintendo Power and beat it. Then I beat that score. Then I did it once more for good measure. Most of the time, I don’t consider myself all that skilled of a gamer but I have no qualms about saying that I was great at Star Fox 64
My favorite mission in the game? Katina hands down. An total rip-off of the final battle in Independence Day, the whole level is basically one big air battle between the robotic forces of Andross and the defending Bulldog Unit. You and your cohorts in the Star Fox squadron have to help the defenders push back the enemy fighters and destroy a giant saucer ship before it can settle over the planet’s base and annihilate it with a giant laser beam.
Most of Star Fox 64 is a very linear, on-rails and scripted shooter. Katina, meanwhile, gives you free reign to fly where you want while also pitting you against enemies who move and fight with more freedom. Add in the fact that you can accidentally kill your allies in Bulldog squadron (“Fox! That’s one of ours!) and it all adds up to a battle that’s unparalleled in terms of sheer chaos. The only reason I don’t give it a proper spot on the list is the fact it’s land-locked and not technically a space battle.
4. Homeworld: Cataclysm – Fighting the Bentusi
Considering the fact that I wrote an entire column based on this battle, it should almost go without saying that I was going to give it a spot on this list. An (almost) unwinnable battle, it pits your fleet of miners against a force of and nearly unstoppable trade ships belonging to the advanced Bentusi. What makes this mission really special is the way it uses the battle itself to heighten the intensity of the narrative going on at the same time.
You’re not fighting the Bentusi arbitrarily; you need their help to defeat an alien infection that could threaten the entire galaxy if it’s not contained. The Bentusi however, are intent on just getting the hell out of Dodge and warping away to another galaxy. The only obstacle in their way is you. Your fleet’s commander, in turn, is resolved to stop them even it means sacrificing every single ship in your fleet to bring them back to their senses. Honestly, words alone cannot do justice to this battle and the best way I can really explain my love of it is to just tell you to watch it for yourself.
Honorable Mention: Homeworld – The Bridge of Sighs
While Homeworld is, ultimately, my favorite game in the franchise, I can admit that it doesn’t really have any stand-out story battles like Homeworld: Cataclysm. Where itarguably makes up for it is with battles that are much more interesting in terms of mechanics and the sometimes unintentional opportunities they present. The Bridge of Sighs is perhaps the finest example of this, pitting you against an overwhelmingly massive fleet that’s most easily defeated not with grand tactics or a force of arms, but rather with Salvage Corvettes.
The entire point of the level is destroying a field generator that’s preventing you from jumping to your race’s titular homeworld. Defending the generator is a massive globe of Ion Frigates that will attack and overwhelm you the instant your fleet move near them. Even with a strong force, trying to fight these buggers can be suicide. There are just too many of them and if you try to push straight in you can quickly find yourself being attacked by swarms of ships that come at you from every direction.
The best way to defeat them is to build a sizable squadron of Salvage Corvettes, draw the enemy frigates out with your fighters, and then capture them one after another after another. It’s a bit cheap and, honestly, the massive fleet you wind up with as a result pretty much breaks the difficulty for the rest of the game. That said, it’s still a lot of fun and provides one of the more memorable (albeit for the wrong reasons) moments of the game.
3. Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader – Battle of Endor
Back in the N64 days, I spent an untold number of hours playing Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. As a result, you can bet that I was looking forward to its sequel Rogue Leader when it was first announced. Due to my eventually getting a PS2 instead of a GameCube however, it would be years before I actually got around to playing it. It’s unfortunate because when I finally did play it, it lived up to pretty much all of my expectations. Best of all, it corrected the biggest flaw with Rogue Squadron; the lack of actual space battles.
Whereas Rogue Squadron limited you to missions over the surface of planets (or the Death Star), Rogue Leader featured several levels that let you indulge in the chaos of a no boundaries bout in space. The crown jewel of these was, by far, the Battle of Endor. Obviously based on the battle of the same name from Return of the Jedi, the game pulled out all the stops and delivered an over-the-top and intense fight where you’re completely outmatched but, just like in Return of the Jedi, somehow still manage to stand toe-to-toe with a vastly superior force. My personal favorite part of this level was engaging two Star Destroyers “at point blank range!” Taking down one of them earlier in the game was enough of a challenge. Destroying two within a time limit to keep them from annihilating Admiral Ackbar’s flagship? Intense it was.
Honorable Mention: Star Wars: Battle for Naboo – Droid Control Ship Battle
In many ways I think that Star Wars: Battle for Naboo is one of the most underrated Star Wars games there is. While it did waste a lot of time with unnecessary ground missions (who wants to drive a speeder over a starfighter), it nonetheless succeeded in a lot of the same places as its predecessor Rogue Squadron and, in some cases, ever surpassed it. Case in point, while most of its missions took place over the surface of Naboo, it also several based in space.
The best of these, by far, was the game’s final stage, the battle with the Trade Federation Droid Control Ship from the end of The Phantom Menace. Just like in the movie, it opens with you and a squadron of fighter pilots launching into space to take out the aforementioned ship. The catch, of course, is that you’re completely outnumbered and your weapons have next to no effect on the big ship itself. And that’s where this battle arguably stumbles. While it’s still a blast to fight your way through swarms of surprisingly lethal droid fighters, the battle can pretty much be summed up as destroying a shield generator so Jake Lloyd can fly his commandeered fighter inside the control ship and accidentally save the day. It’s still fun, but the fact you don’t get to destroy the ship yourself always bummed me out.
2. Mass Effect 3– Retaking Earth
With Good Old Reviews being a retro column, you could be justified wondering why Mass Effect 3 is on this list. There are, after all, older Mass Effect titles with their own excellent, climactic space battles. None of them though, had the resonance for me that the final battle of Mass Effect 3 had.
I’ll never forget reaching that point in the game and being awed and overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of it. The swelling of the music, the sight of your fleet jumping out of the mass relay, the retort of the Reapers as they move en masse to meet you. I remember sitting there, slack-jawed as the two sides starting firing on each other and knowing that this was probably the single coolest thing I’d ever seen in a video game. It didn’t matter that the ending that followed was one of the most intensely disappointing story twists I’ve ever experienced. For that moment in time I achieved space opera nirvana.
Honorable Mention: Wing Commander 2– Shadow’s Death
I’m going to be honest and say that I’m at a genuine loss for why this one’s stuck with me so much over the years. The cutscene isn’t that flashy and the gameplay mission that follows is pretty much just standard Wing Commander, i.e. shoot space tigers until they explode. That said, whenever I think about Wing Commander 2, the death of Shadow always comes to my mind.
For those not in know, Shadow is your wingman for the game’s first cluster of missions. A reservist in the Terran fleet, she’s only a few months away from wrapping up her tour of duty and going home to her family. Unfortunately for her, the carrier Concordia gets into a fight near your space station, resulting in Shadow and the player being sent to help with its defense. Arriving just in the nick of time, she breaks off to attack an enemy fighter and is promptly shot down and killed for her trouble.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this left an impression on me simply because of how long it took me to get to this point when I played the game as a kid. Wing Commander 2 is not an easy game and it kicked my ass back and forth when I was younger. By the time I actually reached this mission, Shadow had spent hours on my wing, following my orders and keeping me company in-game. Her death made me genuinely sad and it’s always memorable to me when a game can do that.
1. Freespace- Taking Down the Lucifer
This battle is the last one in Freespace and probably also the most unique. Up until this point in the game, the Terran forces and their Vasudan allies have basically been at the mercy of the Shivans. The biggest factor in their defeat? The impervious shields of the Lucifer: a massive Shivan destroyer that’s kicked the hell out of everything stupid enough to get in its way. After a devastating attack on the Vasudan homeworld, the Lucifer turns its eyes toward Earth. There’s hope, however. Your forces discover that the Lucifer can’t activate its shields in sub-space, giving your fighters a slim chance to destroy it.
This mission, for me, was the embodiment of what I enjoyed most about Freespace: its scale. While taking the Lucifer down is actually somewhat easier than many of the other missions in the game, the sensation of getting up alongside this behemoth warship is incomparable. It feels like a big deal just through size alone. Add in a time constraint and the narrative’s high stakes and you’re given a mission that’s intense through the virtue of its sheer spectacle.