The View From Orbit: An Editorial Column About Space Games

Published: November 30, 2015 1:00 PM /



Captain's Backlog, stardate 20151120:

Let's start out with a big wallop of catching-up with the state of things thus far.

In 1994 I bought my first PC, after being rather miserable in trying to play Wing Commander on my Amiga 500.   The first thing I did was buy X-Wing, TIE Fighter (which had just come out), X-COM, and Wing Commander I and II.   There hasn't been a game with a spaceship or a battlemech in it since that moment that I haven't played—so you could say I'm a devotee.

Fast-forward to 2013, where I teamed up with another starfighter pilot, Brian Rubin, to start up the Space Game Junkie Podcast.   Brian and I both wrote freelance for various publications in the late 90s and early 2000s—we go way back—and he started his blog as a "space game museum" of sorts.  I'd been doing a MST3K style podcast for years and recently ended that, so I suggested he get a microphone and I'd get him started.  Well, it's been almost 200 episodes thus far, and the list of guests Brian has been able to book for interviews is the who's-who of the genre clear back into the 80s.  I just show up and hit record—he does the hard stuff.

In our time doing this, I've learned quite a lot about the industry, indie development, crowd funding, how difficult PR is, and had an opportunity to talk to the guys who made Wing Commander, TIE Fighter, Freespace, Galaxy On Fire, and scores of indie devs.  We've seen the genre of space games go from stone cold dead to ... well, look around and what do you see?   By some miracle of the indie market, it's back in a huge way.  We thought we were just going to talk about old games and pine for a dead genre.  Thank goodness we were so wrong.

Let's play catch-up and we can focus on current events afterwards.

  • Elite Dangerous:  David Braben and Frontier Developments revived the classic masterpiece Elite from 1984.   It's been out in the wild a year now, and has its first expansion Horizons due out to pre-order customers in a matter of weeks.  Very successful, and very actively under development.  I liked it but didn't love it at first, but they've been killing off my objections one by one for the past year and it's finally at the right balance of difficulty and fun to keep me engaged continually.
  • Star Citizen: If we have learned one thing from this project, it's that the audience for spaceship sim games is large, vocal, and hungry.  Also, they used to have a lot of money, but Chris Roberts has it all now.   When you get $92+ million dollars of pre-orders, it's going to draw a lot of scrutiny—and that's where things are currently.  I'm neutral on this issue.  The game looks utterly amazing—really, it's just stunningly gorgeous.  Now, the gameplay and content has to prove it can match that.  We'll talk about Star Citizen at great length another day.
  • Homeworld Remastered:  Homeworld has been the gold standard by which space RTS games have been measured for over a decade, and with good reason.  Great story (Trivia - written by Martin Cirilus of Kerberos Studios, who went on to Cataclysm, Sword of the Stars etc.), amazing visuals for the time, and the first game to effectively employ a 3D map.  Gearbox got the license to the IP at the THQ fire sale and did an amazing job of recreating Homeworld 1 and 2 in stunning 4K high resolution.  This game has some amazing mods as well.
  • Rebel Galaxy:  Oh man, this game is pretty unique and satisfying.  It scratches an itch for a Privateer style open world sandbox like nothing has since Freelancer.   You start out as a Han Solo type with a small cargo ship in a universe full of ruffian aliens who would be right at home in a smokey biker bar.  The difference is that you end up kicking ass in huge capital ships by the end.  It's very much an action-RPG styled affair, which only makes sense when you realize it's brought to you by the team behind Torchlight I and II, and one of the devs made Diablo.  If you want literal Diablo in space, you're looking for Drox Operative, btw.  

These are the four juggernauts in the genre right now.  There are a lot—I can't keep track, there are so many—of indie space games in the pipeline right now.  Let's look at what's come out quite recently.

  • Star Wars Battlefront 3:  Battlefront came out this week, in the hype-up preceding Star Wars VII in December.  Battlefront 2 is revered by fans and has had tons of modder love poured into it since 2005 when it came out.  Reviews are firmly "Meh" on this one, because while the game nails the look and feel of Star Wars perfectly, the actual content wears threadbare in a few hours.  Also, this is yet another $120 game from EA.  $60 today and $60 spread out in DLC over the following year.  My advice is to look at what happened with Titanfall in pricing and DLC and expect the same here, so be patient if you can and you'll snag it for 80% off inside of a year I'd bet.  That being said, I bought it anyway, because what is here is nothing short of sublime.  Looks and sounds exactly like Star Wars.  Some folks have a sour spot about it being non-competitive in the traditional Call of Duty / Battlefield FPS sense, but they seem to have forgotten the "casual goofy fun" that was the reality of Battlefront 2.  I knew going into it that I was going to buy a $120 game on the installment plan, and I'll give you a whole column about why I'm perfectly alright with that despite my initial strongly negative reaction to the demo we got in October.  This is definitely a game you pick up for 30-90 minutes of mayhem—a gaming snack, not a meal.  And that's fine.
  • Anno 2205:  This city builder follows the pretty-darn-awesome Anno 2070.  In 2205, quite a bit got streamlined; there's no sandbox mode, and that annoyed a lot of people.  But, they let you colonize the moon, so there's that.  
  • Alien Isolation:  Not a recent game—it's a year old now—but I have to talk about it before I discuss Dispatcher.  First we had the amazing Dead Space games that set scifi survival horror in motion.  It still scares the hell out of me, because the sound design is supreme and the jump-scares aren't cheap and over-used.  The "horror on a spaceship" genre started with 1979's Alien movie, and it's fitting that the best game in that franchise is a return to those roots.  If you haven't played this, catch it on sale in the next couple of weeks.  I'm still playing through it occasionally.
  • Dispatcher: This survival horror game came out from early access on Nov 12th.  I've barely scratched it, but I know two things:  You can choose "porn star" as a character class, and you creep around in a spaceship doing your best to not be eaten by what looks like a cross between an Alien and a shark-man with a face made of teeth.  It's rated "very positive," so there must be something to it.
  • Fallout 4:  Some obscure science fiction RPG you've probably never heard of.  
  • Starlord: Night Dive Studios, who are in the business of getting old DOS games working, delivered another one from 1993.  I'd avoid this particular game.  It wasn't too great back then, and it struggles to not explode on Windows 8.1.  Plus, doesn't have Groot in it.  Wrong Starlord.
  • Steel Strider: 2D side-scrolling mecha action game.  Very retro styled.  Did you ever see Metal Warriors from Lucasarts on SNES?  This is a lot like that.  It's also a follow-up to their previous game Gigantic Army, which isn't dissimilar at all.  Consider this a refined "more of that."
  • Galak-Z:  Originally released earlier this summer for PS4, Galak-Z is the peanut butter cup of scifi games.  Hey, you got your retro pixel-riffic mecha anime game in my side-scrolling space shooter ...  mmmmm.  They kept it a secret that the starfighter could transform into a mecha until the last minute, those devious devs.  Did you grow up on Robotech and 16 bit consoles?  Get it.
  • Prominence:  Honestly, I have not played this one yet.  It's Myst but in space, from the look of it.  The screenshots show corridors and you'd think it's an FPS, but it's actually the classic adventure point-n-click style "go over there" type movement.  Object combination puzzles and such.  If that's your thing, this could be worth a look.
  • Starpoint Gemini 2 - Titans DLC:  Do you own Starpoint Gemini 2?  If you skipped it because you didn't care for the first game, reconsider.  Two is significantly better in every way.  Also, they give you the entire first game remastered in the new version as free DLC.  There's one $5 DLC prior to this one, and Titans picks up in the end-game and extends the campaign.  Titans is a fitting title, because the new ships are giant monsters that look inspired by EVE Online's battleships.  If you don't have a save game that's high enough level to partake of it, you have the option to start a new game with a character suitably leveled to handle it.
  • Star Wars The Old Republic - Knights of the Fallen Empire:  I bought SWTOR when it came out, played my 30 days, and cancelled the account.  It felt really "meh," and I didn't appreciate that it was essentially WOW with lightsabers.  Well, this has all been rectified now that they're in the "freemium" era of the game and have returned to a more "Bioware style" RPG and story.  The new DLC kicks in at level 60, and the best way to go about it is to subscribe for $15 for one month.  That gets you this DLC, the prior Revan DLC, preferred account status for life, some free premium currency coins, and a free token that allows you to roll a character that starts pre-leveled to 60 so you can leap directly into the new content.  However, the positive changes to the game extend clear back to the beginning areas, so it's worth starting out at level 1 and experiencing the whole thing.  There's a TechRaptor guild now, because this thing got its hooks into us again.  Seriously, I loathed this thing at launch and really enjoy it now.
  • Conflicks: This game is utterly and amazingly ridiculous.  Ok, if Monty Python had written DUNE and instead of melange, space travel was powered by chicken eggs, it might explain what's going on.  In grade school we used to play this game with a paper "football" triangle that you'd flick with your finger.  Replace the folded paper with various spaceships.  Oh, the multiplayer is great fun as well, so make sure to bring a friend.  This is the best starship battle RTS shuffleboard in space simulation you'll play this week.  I guarantee it.
  • Endless Sky: Top-down free space game.  Single player only.  Reminiscent of Naev, Transcendence, Void Expanse, and the old classic Escape Velocity Nova.  If you're not familiar, basically it flies like Asteroids and has trading like Elite.
  • Ceres: This was a little rough at launch and maybe should have been early access.  They've been patching constantly since, so it might be sorted out by now.  There's a demo on Steam as well, so check that out before you go $20 into it.
  • Angels Fall First:  This is the game everybody has dreamed of.  Essentially this is Battlefield 4 in space.  Spawn in your starship, repel boarders, jump in a fighter or assault shuttle and do the same to the enemy ship.  Or fight with tanks and powered armor in ground combat.  They've been working on this thing for seven years or so, and finally took it into public early access.  It's very much an alpha but it's good enough to have some fun with friends in.  I've got high hopes for this one. Check out our interview with the developers.

 I think that's enough to get us caught up on what's transpired in space game releases over the past couple of months.  That's just two months, and not all the games that came into early access or full release—we'd be here all night if I didn't restrain it a little.

In retro news, you probably know that has released TIE FighterX-Wing vs TIE Fighter, X-Wing Alliance,  and the majority of the back catalog of other Star Wars games in recent months.  I'm happy to report that X-Wing vs TIE Fighter's multiplayer works beautifully via Game Ranger or Evolve, both of which simulate a LAN connection between players.  The X-Wing Alliance Upgrade Project has been updated to work with Alliance, and you simply shouldn't play that game without it.  It makes it look almost modern.  

Coming up – Star Wars Battlefront 3: How my opinion of the game did a complete 180, and I'm contented with it now.

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