The Strategy Gamer's Guide to... The Best Space Strategy Games15 May 2018 1
Space. The final frontier. Mankind's inspiration from the antediluvian age, and similarly so with computer games. Some of the medium's heaviest hitters are set in hard vacuum, which is why we're listing off some of gaming's greatest contemporary space games. We've decided to sidestep anything that could be considered a '4X' game, given that those deserve their own 'Best Of' list.
Instead, here's a top shelf guide to strategies set among the stars. We stretch as far back as 2005 in this list, but for the most part, these are recent titles that'll scratch that space itch.
Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock
We cannot say enough good things about Black Lab Games' Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock. Outside of being just a darn good use of the license -- sharing top billing alongside the boardgame -- one of Deadlock's biggest triumphs is sidestepping space itself. This is a game that can be incredibly intimate, with fleets manoeuvring in wolf packs, closing distance to chew out the sides of enemy vessels and hack or nuke their way to victory.
Unlike a lot of strategy game in hard vacuum, relative verticality and the y axis are key to successful engagement. Speed, heading and the height dovetail into a ship's firing vectors, making this no mere boring old circular broadside affair. Players need to minimize their damage intake as much as their damage output, which leads to a highly engaging ballet of ranging and ordnance. Battlestar Galactica Deadlock, whether it be the sprawling campaign, skirmish or online multiplayer, is not just a game for Battlestar fans, but any turn-based aficionado.
Homeworld Remastered Collection
Publisher/Developer: Gearbox Publishing w/ Aspyr
Prodigal pretences aside, it was a grand day when Gearbox saw to the remastering of two giants of the real-time strategy genre. Relic Entertainment's original masterpiece might have been released nearly twenty years ago, but Homeworld hasn't aged a day. Gearbox tightened the screws, applied a tasteful array of textures and let the awe-inspiring tale of a galactic voyage home tell its story once more. Even now, Homeworld remains effortless to play. Its ruminative pace and wistful production values convey a sense of space and time that hasn't been matched since, and narrative presentation that does so very much with relatively little.
Homeworld 2's inclusion is the cherry on top, and while I still think the original title's story is the stronger of the two, the sequel ramps up the nitty-gritty of fleet production and composition. Gearbox again treated this 2003 game with care, providing the necessary technical updates while letting its classic gameplay speak for itself. Gameplay aside, Homeworld Remastered is a tasteful, powerful example of the strategy genre firing on all artistic cylinders. Time-tested gameplay, timeless art.
X3: Terran Conflict
X3?! But that, you say, is a spaceship game! Indeed, but as the grizzled deep-space entrepreneurs of Egosoft's long-running series know, there's a deliciously satisfying business sim nestled deep within the network of sensor arrays, software modules and ship systems. X3, and in particular, the Terran Conflict expansion, is ostensibly Eve Offline. A rags-to-riches sandbox of buying low, selling high, building and marketing, controlling and dominating. It can be a daunting experience for a first-timer, but X3 is a game that rewards patience and offers a suitably relaxing pace that lets a player acclimatize at their leisure.
If you approach X3 as a proxy for TIE Fighter or Descent Freespace, you'll more than likely be disappointed. But if the idea of running a mercantile empire in space, building networks of manufacturing hubs in a dynamic market appeals, there's really no other option. A little unconventional in its digital bonsai approach of cramming spreadsheets into sensor tickers and station reports, X3 simulates a living, breathing world in the same way STALKER did for the FPS genre. The world will unfold around you, and care little for your presence unless waves are made. A unique and invigorating strategy game hidden within a cockpit.
Publisher/Developer: Edge Case Games
The fusing of MOBA and starships has been done before, but never as well as Fractured Space. Players have direct control of their vessels, sure, yet within these pilotable leviathans beats a tactical heart. This is about majestic clashes between magnificently detailed ships and their discrete array of special abilities. PVP game modes have teams jumping between periphery sector lanes, whose ownership stipulates the drive on final sectors and eventual victory or holding the line in PvE against an AI foe.
The interplay between ship classes is as detailed and nuanced as you're likely to find in any of the big RTS derivative MOBAs, with lots of passive and active buffs aiding fleet actions. The elephantine grace of these massive ships makes Fractured Space a very interesting game; slow without being ponderous, measured without turning stale. In a medium where lithe fighters are often the stars of the show, the emphasis on gargantuan battlecruisers makes Fractured Space a game of tactical musing over instinct and reaction. This is the thinking man's MOBA.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada
Publisher/Developer: Focus Home Interactive/Tindalos
In the lead-up to its impressive-sounding sequel, the original Battlefleet Gothic: Armada still casts a magnificent shadow in adapting one of Games Workshop's greatest games for the digital realm. A gorgeous real-time tactical title, Tindalos' game of spaceborne cathedral combat shines with a surprisingly good campaign atop a crisp and quick battle system.
There's an old school naval sensibility to Armada's engagements, where gauging an enemy's speed and heading is as important as managing ordnance cool downs. Space is still an inexplicably flat plane, but like the tabletop version, littered with all sorts of helpful or dangerous detritus. Mines, asteroid clusters and gas clouds become as big a part of one's arsenal as the onboard payload, shaping one's tactics or impinging on engagements.
The fleets themselves are varied and offer quite different experiences. From the brutish Ork clunkers to the glass cannon hotrods of the Eldar, the prestigious Imperial Navy to the lance-ridden fleets of Chaos, there's great tactical breadth in Armada's fleet composition, customization and usage. With a good multiplayer module to sit alongside a satisfying campaign, Battlefleet: Gothic Armada will hold its rightful place here until its sequel sees fit to dislodge it later in 2018.
FTL: Faster Than Light
The game that needs no introduction. Bigger than Ben Hur, an indie darling success story and perennial after-action report generator, Faster Than Light is the tactical, turn-on-a-dime ship management sim that made roguelikes very fashionable when it released in 2012. Subset Games went on to craft the equally excellent Into the Breach, but their debut title remains a shining light in simple, effective design.
FTL's brilliance belongs to its minute-to-minute gameplay, with the flow-on effect of every choice -- however subtle or seemingly insignificant -- being the beat of a butterfly's wings. With an encroaching rebel threat adding to the heaped tension of a game with no do-overs, simple bifurcations weigh heavy. Answer that distress call? Hire this crew member? Upgrade that module in favour of this one? And when combat comes calling, the right person at the right place is often a very hard call to make. Thrilling and infuriating in just the right measurements.
FTL is deserving of its accolades, and if you've not already got it checked off in the inventory, get thee to wherever you can find it. A tactical roguelike RPG that asks the hardest question: What do we do now, Captain?
Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space
Publisher/Developer: Digital Eel
You might not have heard of Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. That's okay. I'd sure like to be in your position again, a cleansed palate ready to taste the weirdness for the first time. Weird Worlds might seem to have been bested by the aforementioned FTL at first glance, but for my money, they work wonderfully in concert. Weird Worlds doesn't start with its foot on a player's neck, and while the game lives up to its 'space opera in thirty minutes' claim via uninvited brutality, there's a quirky pulp levity to Digital Eel’s galactic roamer.
Players start on their flagship with the barest of directives, leap-frogging as far as their fuel reserves and initiative will take them. Inventories balloon, friendly crew met, foes found. From nodal traversal to the short and sweet combat, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space has a whimsical air that frees the player from agonizing over the next mission. If it doesn't work out this time around, there's always the next. The original Strange Tales is available for free over on Shrapnel Games and the sequel dropped in 2015. However, 2005's Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space is the formula at its cleanest and most joyous. A game that lets players explore an odd galaxy before the coffee cools.
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
Publisher/Developer: Stardock/Ironclad Games
Buy From: Direct
One of the older titles on this list, Sins of a Solar Empire actually launched in 2008. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, the standalone expansion, was released in 2012. But these games have had such a profound impact on the strategy space that it’s unthinkable not to address them here. Sins of a Solar Empire possess an endurance that parallels the continued popularity of franchises like Supreme Commander, or Command & Conquer Generals, and is a title where perennial requests for a new version have reached a fevered pitch.
Sins is perhaps the definitive title which perfectly captures the blend of 4X and RTS: empire management, tactical fleet battles, research, diplomacy, and did I mention the fleet battles? It’s an intoxicating formula that manages to turn what could have been viewed as a stripped-down experience (technically there’s no campaign, only skirmish matches) into a cult phenomenon. A bevy of high-class game mods have also cropped up around it: from Star Wars and Star Trek, to Battlestar Galactica and even Halo (The Sins of the Prophet mod is amazing –ED), SOASE is the very definition of a modern and enduring classic.
Mi-Clos Studios' Out There is the outlier in this list, given that it is largely driven by its rich writing. But calling this game merely interactive fiction would be a gross disservice to a tough, rewarding resource manager nested in a highly replayable space adventure. It bridges the celestial journey of Homeworld with the heavy choices of FTL and Weird World's adventuring, creating a unique experience you might have missed when it initially dropped.
Presented with pulp comic visuals and a dreamlike ambient score, players must navigate their way home while seeking out crucial supplies and items. Out There's innumerable random events, initially-indecipherable alien languages and galactic layout mean you'll only experience a fraction of the game's entire mission payload, spread between three endings. Systems have multiple planets to explore if the budget can stretch, aliens to interact with, resources to harvest and events to surmount.
This is also the only game on the list that doesn't feature any combat. In keeping with its golden age of science-fiction wistfulness, Out There is a roguelike strategy with higher aspirations. No hostiles in this hostile universe. Just a ship, finite cargo and you. Good luck, plan well, learn the language.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to read your favourites and ideas below.