2014 Holiday Space Game Buying Guide: Complete Experience Edition

Still One of the Best Values in Gaming!
Still One of the Best Values in Gaming!

Hello folks, and welcome to my Space Game Holiday Buying Guide for the holiday season of 2014! With all of the digital distributors gearing up for their holiday sales, I figured I would go through various sub-genres of space gaming in order to help identify the best gaming values for your buck. The criteria for these games were a mix of quality, longevity and affordability along with accessibility. I also did NOT include early access games on this list, as I felt that’s become enough of its own thing to deserve its own list, which will follow this one in short order. For this list, I wanted to focus on complete experiences that any space game fan would enjoy, whether they’re getting a gift for themselves or for others. Now, with that said, here’s my list for the finished/released games to look out for during the holiday sales of 2014!

First Person Combat Simulations

So you just wanna in a cockpit, get out there and shoot some some scum, soldier!? These games will DEFINITELY fit the bill.

1. Freespace 2 (GOG, Steam) – The king of the hill has retained its crown for fifteen years, and once you play it you can easily see why. With an exceptional story, the best dogfighting around, and a ton of content thanks to the Freespace Open project, this is game you could literally play for years. Sure, the first game is also decent, but you don’t need to play it to enjoy this one. Once you get this game, be sure to use the FSOInstaller to install the latest and greatest version of the FSO binaries in order to get the best visuals.

2. Tachyon: The Fringe (Steam) – The beauty of Novalogic’s games is their accessibility, and Tachyon is no different. With great combat, a fun story and of course, a main character voiced by the exceptionally amazing Bruce Campbell, there’s not much to dislike about this game. Sure it’s kind of on the old side and the visuals are a bit…bleh, but it’s still a great game that’s worthy of any space game fan’s ownership.

3. The Wing Commander Series – By this “series” I mean games 1-5 in the base series, which include:

  • Wing Commander (GOG, Origin)
  • Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (GOG, Origin)
  • Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger (GOG, Origin)
  • Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (GOG, Origin)
  • Wing Commander: Prophecy (GOG)

This series is a veritable history lesson about space combat sims, taking you from some of the earliest that the genre had to offer to late 1990s 3D accelerated glory. These games offer a more cinematic experience than most other combat sims, with extensive cutscenes and characterizations, along with slightly branching campaign paths, which is still a bit unusual in the genre. While some might say you can easily jump into the later games and enjoy them — and this is mostly true, sure — to get the full experience you’d want to play all of them in order.

4. The Independence War Series – This series basically includes three games, which are:

  • Independence War, I-War in Europe (GOG, GamersGate)
  • Independence War: Defiance, a standalone expansion to the first game (Comes with the Deluxe Edition of the first game)
  • Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos (GOG, GamersGate)

These games are the only games here that rely on fully Newtonian physics modeling rather than the “WWII combat in space” type of gameplay many combat sims employ. This makes these games a bit more challenging, but also, ultimately, more satisfying. In fact, Independence War 2 is one of the few flat-out piracy-focused space sims you’ll find, if maybe the only one (that I can think of currently anyway), which definitely adds to its charm. These games still look pretty great as well, but play a bit differently. While the first game and Defiance are more linear, militaristic sims, the second game is a much more open experience. You don’t need to play the first game to enjoy the second at all, but they’re worthwhile regardless.

5. The Star Wars: X-Wing and TIE Fighter Series – If I had written this just a few short months ago, I wouldn’t have included these because they used to be a lot more annoying to get a hold of. Now, however, thanks to GOG you can enjoy the majesty of these fantastic games easily. This series is comprised of two games:

  • X-Wing and its associated expansions (GOG)
  • TIE Fighter and its associated expansions (GOG)

These games represent some of the finest space combat dogfighting action you’ll find anywhere, especially TIE Fighter, which took what worked with X-Wing and imrpoved upon almost every facet of it. These games are, again, on the old side, but if you can get past that, their gameplay is pretty much unmatched.

Open Trading/Combat Simulations

More interested in maybe making some money, doing some racing or other non-combat activities as a break from the shootey shootey? These games will have you covered!

1. Elite Dangerous (Official Store) – It’s out, it’s out, and it’s great! IT’S GREAT! Go get it, seriously. It’s so good. It’s got hauling, smuggling, bounty hunting, mining, exploring and so on, and it’s just fun to fly and gorgeous as HELL.

2. Evochron: Mercenary (Official Site, Steam, GamersGate) – This game is at the top of my list here for a few reasons. First, it’s got an amazing tutorial that can likely take even the greenest of space pilots and leave them feeling competent enough to take on the universe. Second, it’s got a lot to do, from racing to cleaning (yes, cleaning) to combat to trading and so on. Finally, it’s still constantly being updated too. I mean a recent updated added little mechs to the planetary portion of the game that the player can control. How cool is that?! This game also has both single and multiplayer capabilities, so it can basically fir to almost any kind of game you want. Online multiplayer combat? Sure? Trading in an offline universe? Go for it! There’s a lot to offer here, and it looks pretty damned gorgeous too!

3. X3: Albion Prelude (Steam, GamersGate, Humble) – First off, I’d likely get lynched if I DIDN’T include one of the seminal X games on this list, so I chose the one I found the most accessible, that being Albion Prelude. Some folks tell me Terran Conflict (Steam, GamersGate, Humble) is better (and you need Terran Conflict to play Albion Prelude, so it’s kind of a win-win), but I found Albion Prelude to be a more fun, focused experience. These games excel on the business side of things, allowing players to build whole factories, trade routes and business empires above all the shootey shootey. I kinda bounce off these games my own self, but if it clicks with you, you’ll have a hard time finding a better economic space sim. And no, don’t get X Rebirth. I know it’s the newest and blah blah blah, but trust me, avoid it. You can also typically find this and the other X games on sale in a Superbox (Steam, GamersGate, Humble) pack that has all of the games up to Rebirth, and these typically go on deep sales as well.

4. Wing Commander: Privateer (GOG, Origin) – Sure, it’s over twenty years old, and sure, it looks god damned dated (because it IS), but dollar for dollar it’s still one of the best games you’ll find in this little subgenre. It’s got a great story, fantastic combat, a wonderfully realized universe and lots of ways to make money and shoot down other ships.

Real-Time Strategy

Feel more like being an admiral than a pilot? These games will put you in the admiral’s chair and allow you to command numerous forces across several space battlefields!

1. Conquest: Frontier Wars (GOG) – An amazing mix of tactical and economic strategy gaming here, one needs to not only focus on managing their forces tactically, but making sure they’re supplied as well. This game has great graphics even for its age, along with an excellent story and some of the best music you’ll hear in any space game. The gameplay itself is also top notch, allowing for quite a bit of variety in battlefield tactics thanks to varied ship designs, admirals that add their own bonuses and aliens that are truly alien. Beyond the campaign are single and multiplayer skirmishes on random maps that are just silly fun. This is definitely one to own.

2. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (StarDock, Steam, GamersGate, Green Man, Amazon) – This is a fantastic RTS game with 4X elements, mixing exploration, economics and research with some of the finest combat you’ll see in an RTS. Seriously, the spaceship porn here is top notch. The gameplay is a lot of fun, the interface is intuitive, and multiple factions along with mods ensure a high degree of replayability.

3. Star Wars: Empire at War (Steam) – Okay, the ground portion of this game is so-so, fine, I get that. The space portion of the game, however, is a ton of fun, and it’s always fun to see Star Destroyers take on Mon Calamari cruisers. With several game modes, this game can keep you going for a long time. There are even, if I recall, skirmish maps that let you skip the ground stuff entirely and just do space combat, which, yay! :)

4. Nexus: The Jupiter Incident (GOG, Steam, Desura) – This one is kind of an anomaly as it doesn’t have the usual base/unit building of other real-time strategy games. You almost can call this one a real-time tactical game, as that’s what you focus on. Throughout the course of the campaign, you’ll lead your forces through a wide variety of missions in some of the most grueling combat you’ll find in a space strategy game. It’s about as realistic as you could get in terms of modeling the intricacies of starship combat, so much so the combat pretty much feels naval-based, which actually works quite well for it. It also has a gorgeous engine that still looks great all these years later.

4X/Grand Strategy

Screw being the admiral, you wanna be the emperor, all knowing and all seeing! Believe it or not, this was a tough genre to filter through, as there have been so many entries of late. The problem is a lot of them just aren’t that great/exceptional, so we’re left with a few that really highlight how awesome these games can be.

1. Master of Orion 1 and 2 (GOG, GamersGate) – Yeah, we’ll be ignoring the third installment in this series. Master of Orion 1 and 2 play quite differently, the first being a little more macro, the second being a little more micro. The beauty here is that these differences allow you to eventually choose which of these games you like best. Since they’re both awesome in their own way, it’s a win-win! ;) Hell, many, many, maaaaany 4X games are still trying to emulate the success of these games twenty years later, but there’s no point, as these are still highly playable and highly awesome.

2. Distant Worlds: Universe (Steam, Slitherine) – Yeah yeah, y’all knew I was gonna include this one, didn’t ya? ;) I include it for a variety of reasons beyond my own biases. First off, it has a great manual along with an excellent series of tutorials. When you couple this along with the game’s automation, it makes for a game that’s more accessible than it might appear at first blush. Secondly, you have truly unique gameplay in the genre, with amazingly generated galaxies filled with life, danger, trasure and peril. The universes you’ll find here are some of the most extensive seen in a game (that I can recall), and they’re just so awe-inspiring to explore and discover. Third, the aforementioned automation truly turns this into the game you want to play. For example, if you only want to deal with diplomacy, you can do that! Only wanna build ships? Fine! Want to take control of one ship and fly around while the game’s AI takes over everything else? Go ahead! The options are almost limitless, especially with the game’s extensive modding capabilities (hell, you can edit the game within the game as you play it). This is truly one that should be on every gamer’s hard drive, to be sure.

3. Sword of the Stars (Steam, GamersGate, Green Man, Desura, Humble) – The first one, not the second one. I admit I’ve not played a hell of a lot of this one, but what I have played I’ve enjoyed immensely. What the game offers is unique races, fantastic gameplay and a ton of variety that keeps people coming back to it years after release. You can also likely get this one for a song, as it goes on sale dang often. This is a truly unique 4X that has something for everyone.

4. Starships Unlimited (Matrix) – I didn’t initially add this to the list because I didn’t expect it to go on sale, but this in exceptionally deep, fun and replayable 4X that is insanely worth the time and money. Starship focused, very tactical, tons of gameplay options and charming graphics. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Third-Person Combat RPGs

You don’t want to fly inside the cockpit, but you still want to focus on ship-based gameplay? This is the subgenre for you. This is, admittedly, a weird one, as there are a lot of games that could fall under this umbrella, but it’s basically games that mix third-person combat with RPG elements, of which thers are several.

1. Drox Operative (Soldak, Steam, GamersGate, Desura) – Y’all know I love this one, and once you play it, it’s easy to see why. Basically, you’re a mercenary playing a spaceship-based action RPG inside a 4X that the AI is playing against itself. There are a multitude of races to play with their own bonuses, several ways to win (and lose), a wide variety of quests and fantastic combat. I might be a bit biased, yes, but I think this is one of the best values in space gaming. This is especially true when you add its Invansion of the Ancients expansion (Soldak, Steam, GamersGate).

2. Starpoint Gemini 2 (GOG, Steam, GamersGate, Green Man, Amazon, Humble) – What do you get when you mix the openness of Freelancer with the tactical combat of Starfleet Command? Toss in some RPG elements and you have Starpoint Gemini 2, a massive game that allows you do a wide variety of missions in a large galaxy. I’ve been playing through this one and, even with a bit of grindiness, there’s quite a bit to offer here. The combat is fun, the missions are varied and the graphics are lovely. Definitely this is one to keep an eye on.

3. Space Rangers HD: A War Apart (Steam, GamersGate, Green Man, Amazon, Humble) – Whereas Drox and SG2 offer real-time combat, Space Rangers offers exciting turn-based combat in a very vibrant and realized universe with TONS to do. I mean TONS. You can fight pirates, take on Dominators and save whole solar systems, engage in text adventures, have some robotic real-time combat or engage in some arcadey wormhole combat goodness. This game has a tons of way to play, as you can be a pirate, trader, mercenary or soldier, among others, and its turn-based nature makes it easy to jump into without getting overwhelmed. Definitely an excellent game.

4. Dangerous (Official Site, GamersGate)- This is an excellent space exploration, trading and combat game that has a simple interface, fun gameplay and a varied, living universe with lots to do. Whether you want to fight, trade or explore, there’s plenty to keep you occupied, from missions you’ll find at stations to random missions that pop up in the world as you fly around, along with managing trade in a dynamic economy and exploring systems for new ships and equipment, this game has a bevy of activity to keep you busy.

Arcade-Focused Combat Games

Wanna just get in there and shoot something right quick with little muss or fuss? These games primarily focus on quick, arcade-style combat. They might have RPG elements and stories and the like, but their combat is arcade through and through.

1. Really Big Sky (Steam, GamersGate, Green Man, Desura, ShinyLoot, Humble) – Still one of the best years after coming out. While I’ve admittedly not played every space combat arcade game there is (who could, really?), this is the one I keep coming back to, whether it’s on my PC or my Vita. The random levels, multiple game modes, frantic combat, amazing visuals and funny narration just keep me coming back over and over, and it usually can be found for a song.

2. Space Pirates and Zombies (GOG, Steam, Green Man, Desura, Amazon, Humble, IndieGameStand)- I think just about everyone I know owns this one — and deservedly so — but if not, you owe it to yourself to get this game. It’s fun, frantic, engaging, random and damned enjoyable. This is almost two games in one, as the game drastically changes once the aforementioned zombies are introduced. There are lots of ships to fly, and the combat is just a blast.

3. Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages (Official Site, GOG, Steam, Green Man, Desura, Amazon, ShinyLoot, Humble, IndieGameStand) – This is a really fun, top-down combat game with fairly realistic phyics that has just a ton of gameplay. Besides an extensive, well-written and funny single player campaign, there are a multidude of multiplayer modes (including a full-on MOBA) and skirmishes as well, filling this game to the brim with content. It’s also a lot of fun and damned challenging.

4. Gran Vitreous (Official Site, Desura, IndieGameStand)- This is an arena-based arcade shooter with RPG elements, random loot and dynamic campaigns. The weapons vary wildly from machine guns to mines to lasers to missiles, the missions are fun and varied, and the randomization keeps things fresh. I’ve been having a blast with this one, and it both plays smoothly and looks great. The controls are fantastic, and it offers a lot of frantic arcade fun.

5. Zigfrak (Official Site, Steam, GamersGate, Desura, ShinyLoot, IndieGameStand) – This is an excellent space combat game thingy that…is kind of hard to describe. It’s an ARPG with a focus on amazing loot, but it’s also a story-based combat game that takes you all over the universe. The game has a lot to offer, really funny writing, frantic combat and exciting gameplay

Roguelikes

Do you want a severe challenge wherein you know you’ll die a lot? I mean, A LOT? Take a look at these roguelikes if you like to torture yourself. ;)

1. FTL (Official Site, Steam, Amazon, Humble) – Still the one to beat years after its release. This game is just brutal — so much so it gives me anxiety attacks — in how it finds ways to kill off your crew. Whether it’s fire, lack of oxygen, boarding actions or whatever else, this game will show you many, many ways that your crew can die, almost to the point where one wonders if the game doesn’t even want you to succeed. ;) Regardless, it’s so good many more recent games look to it for inspiration.

2. Infinite Space Series – Imagine that you have a game like Starflight…expansive, exploratory focused, and challenging, but crunched down to twenty or thirty minute bursts. These are the Infinite Space games, which consist of:

A third game in the series is currently in early access. These games are fast, fun and at times brutal in how they kill you. Regardless, you’ll find new friends and enemies along with awesome loot to improve your ships. These games do a great job of giving you a random galaxy to explore in a short amount of time.

Conclusion!

That’s it! Remember, this list covers fully-released, complete games and not early access games, which will be in a separate list. I hope you found this guide helpful and enjoyable, and I both thank you for reading it and encourage you to share it with others. :)

If you need resources to track the prices of these games, might I recommend two? First off, IsThereAnyDeal is an amazing site that tracks your wishlist and emails you notifications on price changes. Then, this collection of deal-focused SubReddits is a fantastic resource for keeping track of deals as well. With these two resources, you shouldn’t miss a beat. :)

Have a happy holiday shopping season!

PS. Devs, if I didn’t include your game here, please don’t take it personally. ;) I love you all. ;)

PPS. Any GOG or Amazon links you use from this list will help the site out a little bit, FYI, so please, buy early, buy often. ;)

16 comments on 2014 Holiday Space Game Buying Guide: Complete Experience Edition

  1. Just wanted to say – THANKS for the round-up. With so many games out there it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
    I find it remarkable/interesting/depressing that so many of your top picks are over 10 years old. Unfortunately I can’t disagree, I still get a (big) kick out of playing MOO2, and MOM.

    1. Hey gs, welcome to the comments, and I’m glad you found the list useful. Yeah, the sad thing is there was a huge gap in both games and the quality of space games we had for around a decade. While the original Space Rangers 1 and 2 fit in the middle of that gap, there was little else to keep us going, so I agree it’s a bit weird/depressing.

  2. So, you would recommend Evochron Mercenary over Starwraith’s newest game, Arvoch Alliance? It’s hard to get much information on either.

    I would disagree on a couple points though. With the new titans, yeah, Sins ships look amazing, but the combat isn’t much to see. Except for 3 new units and strike craft, ships mostly stay still like dueling partners; not exactly naval battles in space. If Empire At War ground combat seems dull, I’d recommend playing with a friend. The way teams share upgrades and resources is a fun dynamic I thought.

    Also curious on your opinions of the other Sword of the Stars games(The Pit and Ground Pounders), since you’re a fan. Would you still recommend against SotS2, even after all the patches?

    1. Hey Space_Enthusiast, lemme answer your questions one by one!

      Arvoch Alliance is more along the Wing Commander style linear militaristic combat sims, rather than an open trading and combat sim like Evochron. Evochron is also the better game, I think.

      I’ve played a bit of both The Pit and Ground Pounders, and I enjoy them both. I’ve not touch Ground Pounders in a long time, shortly after their IndieGoGo campaign ended, so I should revisit it, but it definitely had a fun Panzer/Star General vibe to it.

  3. So many 4X games have been released over the past few years, almost all of them have been tough sells.

    For the life of me I can’t penetrate Distant Worlds – despite trying over and over. In part it’s the UI, in part it’s the issue that I DON’T want to have to relegate swaths of my empire to automation. I can see the appeal among people wanting an-ultra detailed simulation of galactic empires with all the bells and whistles, but as a playable GAME it comes up short for me.

    I’ll mention two other space 4X games in its place:

    Endless Space – A game I have some issues with (fleet management, weird AI behavior, star lanes to name a new) – but is otherwise one of the more complete and polished 4X games in recent memory. The UI and visuals are stunning, there world is reasonably alive, and the strategic gameplay is pretty good.

    Armada 2526 Supernova – Totally under most people’s radar and written off for having cumbersome real-time tactical battles (seriously, just ignore that and use auto-resolve) and a lack of ship and race customization. However, as a STRATEGY game that requires players to make some tough choices in how to manage their empire, it’s the best among the last decade worth of space empire games, IMHO.

    I suppose some people would say GalCiv2 deserves a nod – I never had much love for that series.

    Lastly – if you have an iOS unit – Starbase Orion deserves a mention. It’s about 90% of the way to being a MoO2 replica, but with a modern interface and plenty of other bells and whistles. This one IS the best 4X space game I’ve played in the past decade – and it’s a mobile game. Imagine that.

    1. Sounds like I need to give Armada 2526 a fair shake. I have it, but I’ve not touched it yet because the reviews were so middling.

      I so wish Starbase Orion would come to Android.

      1. Just because, below is a ‘mini’ review I’ve posted in various places as I (mostly pointlessly) advocate on behalf of Armada 2526’s merits (with the supernova expansion / gold edition! You need the expansion!).

        ————————————————————-

        * Very cool trade mechanics in the game. Rare resources (anti-matter, rare minerals, etc.) and galactic wonders (e.g. tourist traps!) provide opportunities to establish port facilities that allow goods to be imported or exported to your other worlds OR to other worlds where you have established a trade mission (e.g. with other empires). Visually the trade routes look really cool.

        * Research system is really interesting, allowing you balance the degree of specialization vs. generality in your research across 9 different research fields. It works well and makes for some legitimately interesting choices in the game.

        The technologies themselves are all pretty awesome – very few are of the incremental +X% nature – they almost all add new strategic capabilities to your empire. For example, the hyperspace tech branch focuses on fast ship designs and technologies that allow you detect and traverse wormholes. The biotech branch focuses on terraforming but also biotech weaponry. The information tree gives you cool navigation abilities – the ability to change orders midflight, or even to send fleets to deep space, awesome for creating picket lines to intercept enemy fleets.

        * I “Love” the information war side of the game (and the associated technologies). Building stronger levels of sensors + detection and building stronger levels of stealth technology is a constant arms race. But very cool. Add to that the ability to infiltrate special forces and spies into enemy empires and it makes for a cool game.

        * Diplomacy is handled quite well – and I think the options you have for treaties and the like are more robust than most other 4x games I’ve seen.

        * The game lacks ship customization – but I’m totally fine with this, in fact I’m growing to prefer it. There are still probably 40-50 different types of ships in the game – so there is more than enough diversity to keep things interesting.

        * I was initially quite skeptical of the combat, which is real-time. But I’ve had a few revelations about it that makes me enjoy it much more. First, you can always auto-resolve, which is fine for many battles. When you manually control the fight, the key is that you are supposed to PAUSE the fight periodically to issue new orders and inspect the various units on either side. It’s really hard to assign orders in real-time (a bit clunky interface).

        What is really cool (if graphically a little ugly) is that the combat includes space combat and ground combat all working at the same time. You’ll use assault shuttles to drop storm troopers, tanks, and the like (or use your infiltrated special forces!) to start attacking the ground defense systems while the space war rages overhead. Pretty cool.

        * The economy isn’t terribly complex – bit it works. One thing I really like is how construction projects work. Colonies have a main building that you use to build other building (shipyards, research centers, etc.). You can construct more of these main buildings if you want. But you can also construct multiple shipyards within a colony. So when you get that awesome rich system – you can fill it with shipyards to crank out ships. The game largely avoids having all kinds of finicky bonuses and modifiers to the game – which keeps you focused on the big picture. I really like that. It’s the opposite of endless space in that regard. All the buildings you construct serve a very clear and focused purpose, and the amount of buildings you can make is linked to the systems total population. You always have tough choices on what to construct.

        * My only major gripe is that the interface is a little clumsy “at first” – but after having played a few games and learning the in’s and out’s – it’s pretty straightforward and does the job.

        * Victory is based on either setting a turn limit and competing for highest score (and each race scores in different ways), or ignoring the turn limit and playing for domination. Not the most original – but it works.

      1. Hey sekullbe, welcome to the comments! AFAIK, v3 is the final/definitive version of the game, I’m 99.5% sure.

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