Sci-fi is having a huge resurgence in video games at the moment, if this year’s E3 was any indication - there were space games everywhere you looked. I saw 11 of them, and played all the playable ones. It is a very good time to be a wannabe space pilot - plenty of them are space flight and/or combat simulators. Others are just set in space, using strange foreign planets as a backdrop for shootin’ stuff. All of them have rad spaceships. Here’s the rundown.
I was a smidge too young for Elite first time around (actually I wasn’t born), but I can now proudly say that I’ve successfully docked a spaceship. In virtual reality. Using a flight stick. Admittedly someone from Frontier had to dive in and adjust the speed at which I was rotating my spaceship at the last minute so I didn’t crash, but it was still a wondrous moment. I had triumphant Star Wars music stuck in my head for hours afterwards.
David Braben and Frontier’s Kickstarter-funded space epic is now in premium beta, which means you can play alongside backers if you buy in. It is the kind of game that I can see swallowing lives. Frontier flew some of the game’s backers out to LA to help introduce new players to the game: some of these people play nothing else, and their enthusiasm was infectious (as was Braben’s - no man knows more about video game space than this chap). The scale of the universe it presents is frankly ridiculous. You could fly around in there for years and only see a fraction of it.
Of all the space games out there, this is both the most complicated and, for me, the most convincing: the vastness of the universe, the way the stars blur past as you enter hyperspace, the incredible fidelity of the VR; your virtual hand moves on the ship’s control just as your real hand moves on the flight stick. I was both hugely impressed and slightly intimidated.
Dreadnought is a free-to-play spaceship combat game for PC made by Yager, the people who did Spec Ops: The Line (they've got pedigree in spaceships too, though) - it’s simple, pretty, and greatly entertaining, plus lots simpler than it looks. First you pick a ship: they’re all VERY closely modeled on famous and popular spaceships from across science fiction, fastidiously detailed and replete with deceptively complex screens of stats and abilities. Then you and a team of others fight against another team of ships close to some planet surface. The ships are essentially FPS/MMO archetypes - the sniper, the tank, the healer - but they’re all fun to play. I spent a lot of time hiding my gigantic artillery space ship near the ground and shooting up at confused warships, then cloaking and scurrying away. It was great fun.
Lego Batman 3
Does anyone else secretly wish that this game actually starred the little blue 1980s spaceman from the Lego Movie? He’d be so excited.
Also, the Bat-Rocket is just a fantastic spaceship, and that space Bat-suit is excellent.
Anyway, I really didn’t expect the next Lego Batman to basically be Resogun, but never let it be said that there are no surprises at E3.
Civilization: Beyond Earth
This game is actually dangerous and I’m not sure it should be allowed. How many spouses will be neglected as we build our interstellar empires? How many children will be sat in front of inappropriate late-night TV as their parents play out just one more turn? Ironically, I suspect Firaxis will only be happy once it has caused the downfall of civilisation as we know it.
Elite might present an entire universe, but Valkyrie concentrates on (relatively) small areas and tight, pacy aerial combat. You whoosh out of some giant carrier ship and suddenly you’re out in space, staring at nebulae and stars and planets and floating chunks of asteroid, but what you’re concentrating on is the five other ships approaching you from across the void. Valkyrie was the first game I ever played on the Rift, and it’s still the best. The Oculus DK2’s head tracking makes it feel even more like you’re actually in this spacecraft. My two favourite things: pulling up sharply and turning your head to keep a lock on a target before scoring a missile hit, and the splintering glass of the cockpit and desperate warning noises that precede a sudden death in space.
This is the space shooter that's most fun to actually play, right now.
Tales from the Borderlands
You might think this is only tenuously a space game, but most of the E3 demo took place on a floating space-station and the rest on an alien planet, so you’d be wrong, but I know what you mean. Featuring Gearbox humour, Telltale artistic direction and an excellent dancing combat mech, Tales from the Borderlands is more like a space sitcom than space sim - but it’s something I haven’t seen before, and it has a nice unreliable-narrator conceit that makes it really interesting..
At one point whilst watching someone play Alien Isolation, I saw them get caught by the alien and skewered from behind, with the horrible thing’s claws extending through their stomach, and knew that I would never, ever be able to actually play it because I am a gigantic coward when it comes to frightening video games. Alien: Isolation is one of the most frightening video games I’ve ever seen in action, genuinely. It nails that tense, adrenaline-fueled horror of being all alone on a dying ship with something dreadful.
I missed the Destiny alpha because it was the weekend after E3 and I was too busy sleeping. You probably know far more about it than I do. Of all the space games here, this is the one that threatens to consume my life. I’ve a weakness for colourful Asimovian sci-fi and for Halo, and Destiny very much caters to both.
Star Wars: Battlefront
HAHA JUST KIDDING, nobody’s seen Star Wars: Battlefront. Still - Hoth and Endor, right guys? (I do not know my Star Wars, but apparently this is a thing.)
Anyway, let’s all assuage our disappointment at not seeing more of Battlefront by watching the announcement trailer again.
Star Citizen was tucked away somewhere at E3, so I missed out on playing it - but as it’s mostly a combat demo right now, I’m not too disappointed. Chris Roberts’ Kickstarted successor to Wing Commander is currently a game of potential; I’m waiting for it to scale up. The main thing that floated through my mind as I watched the gameplay demo was “god, this is beautiful”. I love the floating interface, the detail on the ships, that shield effect, the sense of velocity.
No Man’s Sky
I haven’t played No Man’s Sky. I don’t think anyone has played No Man’s Sky, yet, except Sean Murray and his Hello Games compatriots. But good God, do I want to, along with thousands and thousands of other people. Tina spoke at length with Hello Games about how No Man’s Sky’s procedurally-generated universe is possible, and what it is you’ll actually do in the game, but mostly I just wanted to shoot gaps in asteroids and then barrel-roll through them, and discover planets full of dinosaurs. Let me at it let me at it let me at it.