Exploring the outer reaches of space has been the theme of several video games over the years. From Asteroids to the hulking Star Citizen, gamers have often dreamed of reaching out and touching the stars. But not all space sims are created equal, and not every single one of them is worthy of being referred to as the "best."
While there are modern releases floating around out there that look every bit as promising as the classics, they're either unfinished or not quite up to par as the hits we're running down on this list. These are the games for the ages (some of them, at least). Keep reading for some of the best space sims of all time.
Digital Anvil's space trading and combat simulator Freelancer released to eager PC players back in 2003 with a wealth of improvements on Starlancer, its chronological predecessor. Single-seat spacecrafts are the order of the day here as you zip through space to trade with merchants scattered throughout the universe and tumble into dogfights to protect what's yours.
As mercenary "freebooter" Edison Trent, you can choose from pirate, bounty hunter, or trader while siding with a certain faction and complete various missions interspersed with over two hours of in-game cutscenes. It's an incredibly feature-rich, engaging narrative that allows you to live the life you want while exploring space.
The relatively simple mouse and keyboard controls make doing so satisfying and enjoyable, and help further cement Freelancer as one of the all-time greats. Even better? You can pick it up for a bargain these days.
Volition created an excellent space sim in the form of FreeSpace 2, a PC favorite released back in 1999. It's the perfect amalgam of piloting menacing starfighters, realistic physics, and an assortment of quests set against a backdrop of various stars, planets and nebulae.
The action takes place right in your cockpit, with a customizable HUD and plenty of gnarly space battles to etch a permanent smile across your face if you're into frenetic dogfights. It's as close to perfection as I believe space sims can ever get in terms of capturing that genuine feel of being involved in truly epic battles, and there should absolutely be a FreeSpace 3 in the future. If you're into space combat like you see in science fiction, this is the game you should seek out, pure and simple.
Wing Commander: Privateer
Wing Commander: Privateer won't win any awards for its graphics nor its inerfaces, and the cockpits you're saddled with while piloting your ship are a little obtrusive. But if you want a blast from the past that successfully marries randomly generated missions and space trading with a burgeoning sense of personality, Privateer is where it's at.
From butting heads with the feline Kilrathi to running shipments under the nose of some particularly nasty space truckers, it's a unique and darkly hilarious look into the space genre from the late '90s riddled with grit and a sense of unity, even when you're floating through space, seemingly alone. Privateer somehow makes you feel like you're an instrumental part of the universe, and that's why it's always worth revisiting.
Ready to take to the stars? You'd better be ready to put in as much work as it takes to stay on top, then, because that's what the demanding but always rewarding EVE Online requires of you. The MMORPG allows players to customize their own ships, join one of five major factions, and tweak hulking spacecrafts to their liking while mining, taking on jobs, and battling other players for supremacy.
Most of the game takes place directly within your ship save for some brief interactions at docking stations, and the in-game world is impressively enormous. Want to escape the real world and live in space? EVE Online is the best way to go about it.
Commander Blood is one of the most bizarre experiences one could ever have in PC gaming, but its predecessor Captain Blood is even more obtuse.
Bob Morlock takes on the name "Captain Blood" as he finds himself stuck in the spaceship of a game he actually created. After he's accidentally cloned 30 times, Blood sets off on an 800-year quest to disintegrate every single clone in the universe, or die trying.
Through the UPCOM system, a slew of picture icons that allow you to communicate with the aliens you meet along the way, you've got to earn the trust of the locals on each planet and eventually find your clones and take them out before you wither away.
Every aspect of this game looks and feels as alien and indecipherable as you'd imagine the rest of the universe might, and for that reason you'd be remiss to write it off as some odd PC iniquity.
Independence War 2
Independence War flipped the script when it was released by offering first-person control in a bid to serve up a convincing spaceship command experience. In many ways, by changing to a first-person view than other more traditional flight models, it offered a much more comfortable and accurate space flight experience with the abundance of tactical information, speed, shields, and other tidbits a captain must busy themselves with during flight.
Star Trek's Starfleet Academy attempted this and failed prior, but Infogrames' Independence War did it with flying colors, creating a series of combat simulations that keep you coming back for more.
If you've ever fantasized about playing around in a sandbox-style playground in space, you've never gotten your hands on Space Engineers, a newer game with a dizzying amount of options for would-be explorers. Taking control of a single astronaut (that's Space Engineer to you), you can create your own space station or ship to be used in-game or flip to Survival Mode, which finds you gathering, refining and utilizing certain minerals to stay alive.
It's a punishing and often confusing experience, but it never ceases to be fun, especially when you roll up all of the different things you can actually do in-game. With several planets, aliens, and hostile spacecrafts, it's improving all the time, and worth investing your time in.
Sins of a Solar Empire
Sins of a Solar Empire is technically a real-time strategy system, but it offers such a rich and varied take on space simulations that it absolutely deserves a spot on this list. Stardock's sprawling strategy game finds players controlling one of three different races in a massive set of solar systems to conquer planets, clusters of asteroids, and other players.
Though there's a lack of a single-player campaign, matches may be played offline or with other players and offer a clever blend of gorgeous graphics, interstellar hazards, and bloodthirsty opponents who will do their best to outwit you and outlast you as you drift through space collecting resources and ensuring you come out on top.