The 20 best space games on PC
Be pilots, pirates and space truckers
Everyone loves a good space game, but sometimes it can feel like there are more space games to play than there are stars in the sky. Fortunately, we’re here to help with our list of all the best space games you can play on PC. Whether you’re a budding space cruiser captain, a wannabe space conqueror or an intrepid space-faring explorer, there’s a space game here for you.
This is an updated version of our best space games list for 2020, and we’ve added and removed eight games in the process. We said goodbye to a lot of the classics (read: ejected out the airlock), and focused more on bringing this best space games list bang up to date. There are still a couple of good oldies in there, but we’ve mainly gone for games we’d recommend you play today.
We’ve also kept our definition of “space game” fairly traditional this time round. While you’ll find plenty of hybrid games in our best space games list, from RPGs and strategy games to roguelikes and more, you’ll find most of them involve hurtling across the universe in a ship of some description, rather than, say, settling on the surface of a new planet and starting a new life for yourself. That means no Surviving Mars or Astroneer, for example. We’ve also discounted games like Destiny 2 and Alien: Isolation, mostly because while they’re set in space to some degree, you never actually get to go to space. Disagree? Then tell us about it in the comments below along with what you think deserves a place in the list, and maybe you’ll convince others – and us – to give it a go.
Best space games
There are loads of brilliant space games to be found on PC, but we’ve selected 20 of the best below. We’ve also split our best space games list across multiple pages for ease of navigation, and you’ll find the page links at the bottom of each page. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a completely different kind of game, then check out our list of the best PC games to play right now. Onwards!
20. Mass Effect 2
The Mass Effects are Captain Kirk simulators. You’re not Sulu, blowing Klingons out of space, or Chekov, piloting a ship; you’re the boss. And being the boss largely means telling people what to do – and snogging. Commander Shepard’s second mission remains their best – it’s a planet-hopping Argonautica and suicide mission with some of BioWare’s best-realised characters.
While the line separating the good guys and the bad guys seemed clear in the original Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 blurs the lines and foists deals with the devilish Illusive Man upon Shepard. That awkward alliance nets Shepard a new version of the Normandy, and introduces a sci-fi trope that’s a personal favourite of ours: a smart-talking AI. EDI and Joker’s helm banter might have bordered on the Whedonesque a bit, but we can’t imagine the ship without it.
No Mass Effect is an island, though. The middle game might be the best, but the first lays all the groundwork. And don’t listen to the naysayers, the final game drops the ball a bit during the closing act, but otherwise it’s a cracking end to the trilogy.
Where can I buy it: Steam, Humble, Origin
What else should I be playing: Mass Effect wouldn’t exist without Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which saw BioWare bid farewell to Dungeons & Dragons and head into space for the first time.
Having been lumped in with run-and-gun first-person shooters since the time of its release (CGW magazine called it “Doom on Benzedrine in a vacuum”), Descent’s numerous innovations have often been serially overlooked. True, it didn’t have many rock star developers working on it, there were no demons from hell rampaging through it’s claustrophobic corridors and there was not one smear of blood to enrage or delight its audience. What it did have was speed, maze-like 3D levels and a range of movement in all directions that was at beautiful odds with the limited space in which to manoeuvre.
Disorientation was a constant companion – for some players so, too, was motion sickness – but in rescuing trapped colonists otherwise doomed to die and escaping each quaking level before it was engulfed in a nuclear fireball the game paid out in full.
After more than 20 years, does Descent remain an essential game in the same way as Doom? Given that it would morph into Freespace and remain to some degree in Red Faction’s DNA, yes, yes it is. More importantly, it’s still enjoyable, more so in many ways than the game that inspired it.
Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s been no shortage of Descent-style games recently, including Sublevel Zero, Retrovirus and NeonXSZ, and we’re big fans of Overload and Blast-Axis, too.
If there’s one title in this list that likely wouldn’t be improved by an HD release, it’s Freelancer. Given that Chris Roberts’ last full game has been widely unavailable for much of its 13-year existence, any kind of re-release would, of course, be very welcome, but in light of how much fan effort has gone into maintaining and improving it since, v1.0 would do just fine.
The original Freelancer was a very good game; a slick and accessible successor to Wing Commander: Privateer and the sequel to Starlancer that offered just the right blend of storytelling and open-world adventuring, but sadly with a campaign that was unable to fill the space that had been created for it. With many promised features left by the wayside – a full economy and the capacity to host thousands of players simultaneously – it was hardly the great white hope it was initially hyped up to be. That it remains one of the great space games now is largely down to the mods that continue to be developed for it, in particular the Crossfire and Discovery mods. Between the two of these, Freelancer has been augmented and expanded beyond all recognition and can today claim to offer the depth of content and many of the features that was denied it prior to its first release.
Where can I buy it: Used copies are available for around £10.
What else should I be playing if I like this: DarkStar One? Nah, only joking. Chris Robert’s mega-funded Star Citizen is obviously worth serious consideration, but it’s nowhere near complete and probably only worth keeping an eye on for now.
17. Galactic Civilizations II: Endless Universe
Galactic Civilizations II isn’t the most inventive space strategy game on the planet (pardon the pun), but Stardock’s intergalactic conquer-’em-up isn’t so much about unexpected story twists as it is about just creating a really good, solid 4X game. You guide a space-faring race across the stars and stake your claim on the rest of the galaxy, job done.
What sets Galactic Civilizations II apart, though, is its crafty AI. Not only does it offer a meaty challenge to your space-faring exploits, but its attempts at deploying tailored, counter-strategies makes it feel all the more personal each time you play. It is getting on a bit now, but the Endless Universe / Ultimate Edition release shows Galactic Civilizations at its best, bundling in both expansions (Dark Avatar and Twilight of the Arnor) and giving you the option to destroy entire solar systems.
Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG, Humble
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you liked this, then you’ll probably like its sequel, Galactic Civilizations III.
16. Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Contrary to popular belief, the X-Wing series wasn’t a direct assault on Wing Commander. It was an attempt to transpose the systems and success of Totally Games’ first series onto what would be its second. Indeed, you don’t need to play much of either to see that there’s more of Wing Commander in Battlehawks 1942 and Their Finest Hour than there is of X-Wing or TIE Fighter in Wing Commander. Just as Star Wars’ space battles are inspired by WWII combat footage, the X-Wing series are informed almost entirely by Totally’s WWII fight games. That they all featured a mission builder, combat recorder and historical missions only serves to underline that fact.
In any case, had X-Wing been intended as Star Wars’ answer to WingCo, X-Wing 2 would surely have followed it. Instead Totally and Lucasarts opted to flip the story to the Dark Side, in so doing allowing players the opportunity to fight for the Empire for the first time while avoiding the mistake of painting everyone in it as wholly and irredeemably evil. Even though we knew we were on the wrong side, the game had us believing our hearts were in the right place, even if our guns were pointing at the good guys.
As the oldest arcade simulation on this list, TIE Fighter has aged rather well, partly because its 3D engine predates the murkier, fuzzier lines and textures of the 3Dfx era. Mostly though it’s because the gameplay is effectively timeless. Despite the fact that the difficulty levels are rather less consistent than in X-Wing, TIE Fighter’s improved AI, power management and ship targeting swing the recommendation firmly in TIE Fighter’s favour.
Where can I buy it: The Steam version gets you the 1994 original release (including expansion) and the 1998 Collector Series release. To get the superior 1995 Collector’s CD edition of TIE Fighter you need to go to GOG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: X-Wing as a matter of course. X-Wing vs TIE Fighter still gets played online from time to time and its Balance of Power add-on is a worthy follow-up. Then there’s the comparatively weak X-Wing Alliance, which at least has a seat for you aboard the Millennium Falcon.
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