Luckily there are hobbyists, fans and those obsessed with the genre that still produce and maintain projects for free, in their spare time. This list of 6 totally free to play space-themed time-wasters is bound to ring a few bells amongst old fans of the genre. Then again, If you’ve never enjoyed a good space sim before now might be your chance!
Freespace 2 Open [Windows, Mac OS X & Linux]
Freespace 2 is an often raved-about title that went open source in 2002. Since then a small team of dedicated fans have worked on engine updates, gameplay tweaks and a whole host of modifications that inject some new life into this aging classic.
In case you missed it first time round, the Freespace 2 space simulation game was originally released on PC in 1999 and developed by Volition Inc. Gameplay involves space combat, reconnaissance and escort missions that don’t adhere to true Newtonian physics, but instead use simplified space physics that make controlling your ship that little bit easier.
Once the source code was released, the Freespace 2 Open Source Project was founded. Downloads include the original Freespace 2 on the updated engine and total conversions that take their cues from popular TV shows such as Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica available on the mods page.
The Ur-Quan Masters [Windows, Mac OS X & Linux]
Star Control II was originally released on the PC in 1992 and later ported to the Panasonic 3DO. To this very day it still enjoys a cult following, so much so that it was remade once the source code went open in 2002 as The Ur-Quan Masters.
The game doesn’t really fit into one genre as it combines strategy-based battles, exploration of the vast galaxy, diplomacy and resource gathering. Much of the game involves meeting other species and visiting new worlds, though there is also a two player space combat mode (which has been upgraded to allow for online combat in this remake).
Oolite [Windows, Mac OS X & Linux]
It was only a matter of time before this oh-so-faithful Elite remake cropped up! Oolite is the classic Elite you knew and loved, with improved graphics and a lot of expansions.
Much like the game it was based on, Oolite is a completely open-ended space combat and trading simulation. There are no real objectives, though it can be argued that the game’s primary goal is to reach “Elite” status.
If you’ve never played Elite before (or you’ve misplaced your manual) then I’d recommend reading the Elite Wiki, which also has a section dedicated to Oolite. This should get you up to speed on the basics that you’ll need to master this notoriously in-depth space sim.
Vega Strike [Windows, Mac OS X & Linux]
Not a remake this time, though heavily inspired by Elite and Wing Commander, Vega Strike is another trade, exploration and blast ‘em up set in space. The player must undertake missions in order to earn money which can then be spent on upgrades and new vehicles (thus enabling more missions).
Once a ship has been equipped with a jump drive, the player is free to dart around different corners of the galaxy at special portal-like jump points. Missions are varied and can be received via the ship’s computer or by talking to certain individuals in bars.
Example missions include transporting cargo, rescuing escape pods from battle zones and patrol missions where the player must scan undocumented targets. Vega Strike is an incredibly rich game, and costs absolutely nothing! For a more in-depth look, check out our existing article.
In March 2000, Allegiance Zone was released by Microsoft Research to the online games portal Microsoft Zone, under a subscription model. Unfortunately only 29,000 units of this 3D online multiplayer shooter were sold, and servers were switched off in 2002.
There were of course a small number of fans who weren’t best pleased, and sought other ways of playing their new favourite game. Allegiance Zone went under a shared source licence in 2004 and is now maintained entirely by volunteers.
Blending space combat and real-time strategy elements, there are 8 playable factions each with their own perks and attributes. Many find it hard to place Allegiance into a genre, as it is so unique in its approach and was undoubtedly released before its time.
Less of a game and more of a simulation, Orbiter is a space flight sim that makes use of realistic physics and both real-life and fictional spacecraft. The simulator was released in 2000 after the developer felt that there were no space sims that adhered to the rules of Newtonian physics.
Players are able to launch the Space Shuttle from the Kennedy Space Centre, download additional spacecraft and tour the whole solar system before re-entering the atmosphere and attempting a landing.
If you think space flight sims are too easy then you’ve not played Orbiter.
This list should keep you busy even if you only have a passing interest in space flight, interplanetary trade or full-blown space battles. Don’t forget to check out NASA’s full iOS line-up if you’re space-mad!
Have you played any of these space simulation games? Any others you’d like to recommend? Is the genre dead? Or has it simply changed? Have your say in the comments below!
Intro image: Shutterstock