Video Games
The 15 Best Space Combat Sims of All-Time

The Escapist Staff | 29 Jul 2014 15:00
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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.

15. Starlancer

Developed by Digital Anvil. Published by Microsoft. Released March 31, 2000. Available on PC and Sega Dreamcast.

starlancer cover

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.

tachyon cover

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.

wing commander cover

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.

Check out our "Good Old Review" of Wing Commander: Privateer here.

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