Five Free Games For Aspiring Space Cadets
It’s good to see that Brian Rubin (aka Space Game Junkie) is warming up the blog-thrusters again after a couple of weeks of shore leave; to wit there’s a new post up at the site listing games that he thinks perfect learning material for the new space game fan, which is as good a re-introduction back to active service as you can imagine, and also the kind of post you can’t help but be drawn into arguing over. Those games are, in case you’re wondering: Distant Worlds, I-War, Wing Commander:Privateer, Star Trek: Klingon Academy, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion and the immediate sequels to Star Trek: Starfleet Command, Star Control, Space Rangers, Master of Orion and Freespace.
Now as a bucketlist of games that all aspiring space bucaneers should sample these are excellent suggestions, as you would expect from someone who knows his sparefaring onions better than anyone, but if it was me I’d try to bring in more accessibility and gameplay variety to tempt in the curious acolyte. I mean, we can argue all day whether Klingon Academy is any good or not, but it’s not the easiest game to get a hold of even in these digitally-awash times (likewise Starfleet Command). As for I-War, though I’ve not played it for at least a decade, I can’t imagine it’s very playable to your “average” gamer who barely remembers what a joystick looks like, let alone has immediate access to one.
If you’re going to recruit a new fleet of space pilots, you have to tempt them through the door with what they can access and relate to. Once they’re intrigued by Mass Effect, say, then you can inform them as to how it was inspired by Starflight. If they haven’t run screaming back to Diablo III by that point, you can bring out the big ol’ rusty guns like Starfleet Command and I-War. But hey, each to their own. Same ends different means I suppose
It got me thinking though, what titles would I suggest to gamers looking to sample the best space games so that they might one day warp beyond the safety zone into the inky depths beyond? Truth be told it’s hard not to fall back on the games you’ve personally spent hundreds of hours lost in when recommending games to someone whose tastes and experience you know nothing about. So I added a newbie-friendly condition – that that the game has to be freely available, because people who don’t quite know what they’re letting themselves in for appreciate that kind of thing. They also like not having to faff around with settings and compatibility issues, so I’m going to discount emulated software as well.
Here goes then. Feel free to comment and be prepared for me to tell you that you’re wrong if you disagree.
Star Trek Online: First off, if you’re going to be a fan of space games, you’ve got to have at least some appreciation for Star Trek, and being free to play, STO is a decent place to start a space gaming career. While the game might not do a whole lot brilliantly, it does most things well enough and does them a lot better now then when the game launched two and a half years ago. Space combat is a definite highlight, which is reminiscent of the much-loved Starfleet Command series. Best of all the game doesn’t insist you indulge in its multiplayer side, which means it won’t scare players away in the same way that Eve Online (aka Space Bastards Online) tends to.
Starshatter: A couple of years ago I’d have recommended FS2-Open without hesitation, but with Freespace 2 back in circulation at gog.com, it’s no longer a free route to playing one of the greatest space combat game of all time. Instead I’m nervously going to push Starshatter to fill the freebie void, since it’s now open source and seems to be picking up more fans these days than it ever did when it was a commercial game. Shatshatter can be a rather dry experience, but if you get through it and find some enjoyment along they way, you will be well in the way to earning your wings. If you do have a few cubits to blow however, blow them on Freespace 2.
The Ur-Quan Masters: So far we have a massively-multiplayer RTS-esque game and a midly-hardcore space and fleet combat game. Next comes probably the greatest exploration adventure ever made, Star Control II, which has been updated from the old 3DO version files over the course of the last ten years by dedicated fans and via the blessing of the game’s original developers. In spite of the PC original being available at gog.com, Ur-Quan Masters really is the definitive version, one that like very few of its contemporaries is every bit as engrossing now as it was nearly twenty years ago. If this list were in must play order, UQM would be firmly at the top.
Oolite: Oolite is to the classic space trading game Elite what Ur-Quan Masters is to Star Control II, a massive and free fan attempt to bring one of the greatest space games up to date in spite of commercial indifference to do likewise. Oolite goes much further though. Since Oolite’s creators have allowed others to easily expand and build far beyond what was ever possible with the Braben-Bell original, or indeed any space game since, Elite is as much the inspiration as it is the foundation. Indeed, if you’re wondering why Elite veterans have stopped calling out David Braben on the sequel he’s been putting off for the last decade, it’s because Oolite is filling the void more than admirably. (As is Pioneer for those who prefer Elite’s Frontier sequels.)
Cosmic Supremacy: There are heaps of free 4X games out there, so many that you could supplant your own favourite without any argument from me (Neptune’s Pride perhaps). I’m going for this one because I think it’s the closest to old school Civilisation (it used to be called SpaceCiv in fact), which you would hope many gamers are familiar with to some degree. If they’re not, they have no right calling themselves a gamer.