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It was only a decade ago that many of us were lamenting the decline of the space game genre. Fortunately, the scene has since turned around. While most new space fighters, traders, and simulations are retail releases, there’s a large free selection to choose from as well.
The genre of “space” is an all-encompassing one. Here you’ll find games that let you pilot fighter ships, as well as chart new planets and explore new systems. You can also buddy up with other players online, or build your empire as a trader or pirate. This laissez-faire approach to space sims has been ingrained in the genre since the original Elite.
Today we’ll take a look at the best free examples of this classic sci-fi sub-genre.
The following are either entirely free, open source, or currently offer a significant free option (often as a result of being in the early stages of development). They are free of microtransactions or similarly aggravating free-to-play models.
1. FreeSpace 2: Open/FSO Installer (Windows, Mac, Linux)
FreeSpace 2 is a space combat simulation released in 1999, and many fondly remember it as the best example of its kind. In 2002, developer Volition released the source code for the engine under a non-commercial license. Thus, the FreeSpace 2 Open Source Project (or FSOpen for short) was born. Game assets (like textures, sound and so on) were not included in this release.
The result is a game engine that’s been continually improved and maintained over the years, in cahoots with other projects designed to bring FreeSpace 2 into the 21st Century. You can use FSOpen to play the original FreeSpace 2 with upgraded graphics and compatibility, but you’ll need a copy of the game in order to do that.
Instead, why not check out one of the many free mods and total conversions that do not require a copy of FreeSpace 2? The game engine has been used time and time again to bring the worlds of popular sci-fi series like Battlestar Galactica to life via fan-made projects.
Here’s a few of the best:
- Diaspora: Shattered Armistice: A Battlestar Galactica total conversion, with an emphasis on space combat.
- The Babylon Project: A Babylon 5 mod, last updated in 2010.
- Inferno: A FreeSpace 2 mod, for fans of the original game!
- Wing Commander Saga: Unsurprisingly, a Wing Commander themed-mod that uses FSOpen as its engine.
- Exile: Another FreeSpace 2 mod, designed as a continuation of the official storyline.
Check out Hard-Light for additional projects, a thriving community, and more!
2. Allegiance (Windows)
Allegiance began life as a Microsoft Research Games project, and released in 2000 to a warm reception. Unfortunately, a lack of widespread high-speed internet crippled the game at the time, leading to Microsoft shutting it down and later releasing the source code under a shared license in 2004.
The community picked up the slack and continued to develop Allegiance. In 2017, the game was further open sourced under an MIT license. Existing solely as a community project, Allegiance is a truly free online space sim that blends team-based, human versus human combat and real-time strategy (RTS) elements.
You can play the role of a commander, giving orders to your teammates from a familiar RTS viewpoint. Or, take on the role of a fighter unit (in first-person view) and carry out those orders. The scene behind Allegiance is still very much active today, and development is ongoing. It should run on “any Windows PC from the last 10 years” too.
3. Pioneer (Windows, Mac, Linux)
Pioneer is an open source project that you can download for free, with the option to contribute your own time to the project or simply donate if you really love it. It’s a wholly single-player space adventure game, with no plans to introduce any multiplayer elements.
You’re free to explore the galaxy at your own pace. You can’t leave your ship, walk around space stations, or wander on a planet’s surface. Visually, the game looks a bit spartan at times, but it’s still in active development so it’s likely to improve over time.
While the presentation is a little flat, you’ll see some particular moments of beauty in the lighting effects. The game is set at the turn of the 31st Century, and describes itself as an open-ended adventure game:
“You are free to eke out whatever kind of space-faring existence you can think of. Look for fame or fortune by exploring the millions of star systems. Turn to a life of crime as a pirate, smuggler or bounty hunter. Forge and break alliances with the various factions fighting for power, freedom or self-determination. The universe is whatever you make of it.”
4. StarMade (Windows, Mac, Linux/SteamOS)
StarMade is like Minecraft in space, with an emphasis on building and exploration. Like Minecraft, it too uses voxels to achieve that blocky, minimalist 3D look that suits the genre so well. Also in line with Minecraft, StarMade uses procedural generation to populate much of the sandbox.
The game is currently in alpha, and at this stage a free-to-play game. According to developers, “there are plans to transfer to a paid model some time in the future,” but it looks like some free-to-play aspect will remain. If you want to jump in early, you can pay $15 to help fund development through the early access program.
StarMade is an online or offline experience. You’re free to create your own single-player worlds, but there’s also scope for vast multiplayer servers in which you and your friends can mine and build to your heart’s content. The game includes some really advanced building tools already, which makes building starships and bases a more satisfying experience.
For all its blocky visuals, StarMade manages to look rather good with some rather stunning lighting effects (assuming your hardware is up to snuff).
5. SpaceEngine (Windows)
As the name may suggest, SpaceEngine is a literal space simulator. It allows you to explore the universe at your own leisure, without being bogged down by narrative, quests, or Newtonian physics. It’s not a spaceship simulator, but a chance to sit back and watch the cosmos go by.
So while it’s not quite a game, it’s very much an experiential piece of software — and it’s free to boot. There’s a good reliance on procedural generation, with the rules based on actual scientific data rather than random data.
“You can travel from star to star, from galaxy to galaxy, landing on any planet, moon, or asteroid with the ability to explore its alien landscape. You can alter the speed of time and observe any celestial phenomena you please. All transitions are completely seamless, and this virtual universe has a size of billions of light-years across and contains trillions upon trillions of planetary systems.”
If SpaceEngine interests you, it might be worth looking into the Spacemen project too.
6. Oolite (Windows, Mac, Linux)
Another open-source project, Oolite is a remake of David Braben’s classic Elite. This title brought the space simulation genre into the mainstream and is still playable all these years later. Just like Elite, there’s no story or overbearing restrictions, and you’re free to do as you like in a large universe sandbox.
Trade, fight, become a pirate, mine, smuggle, or some combination of all the above till you get bored. The game boasts a huge amount of customization over the original, with over 500 expansion packs released. These packs expand the game in a myriad of ways, with new equipment, game mechanic overhauls, quests, visual upgrades, additional planets, and more.
The port is platform-agnostic, and while the wireframe graphics look a bit basic by today’s standards, the gameplay is as captivating as ever.
7. Orbiter (Windows)
Orbiter is like SpaceEngine in that it’s a space simulation first and foremost. However, Orbiter places a great deal of emphasis on realism. That means real Newtonian physics, and an experience designed to give you “an idea of what space flight really feels like.”
The result is an experience that adheres to the laws of physics while still allowing you to venture deep into space to explore new worlds. The simulator has amassed plenty of additional content over the years, including historic space flight recreations. It also features custom and futuristic space craft that go beyond the current realms of exploration.
It’s free to play, with an option to donate to keep development afloat. Orbiter is certainly more of a simulation than a game, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it!
Free to Play Games
The following games offer a good free to play option, though with microtransactions for elements like premium currency, ships, or progression boosters.
8. Fractured Space (Windows)
Jump into the free to play world of Fractured Space, a “space combat game where you control a gigantic capital ship to seize mines and bases for resources and buffs.” The game includes cooperative player vs. environment (PvE) modes, and competitive 5v5 player vs. player (PvP) fights too.
It’s free to play, with the usual freemium economy in place. Players must purchase “packs” of ships, skins, boosters and premium currency (though it has no lootboxes). Microtransactions range from around $10 to a whopping $99.
9. Star Conflict (Windows, Mac, Linux/SteamOS)
A cross-platform massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, Star Conflict offers another blend of co-op PvE and competitive PvP from a company who’s main business is free to play games. While the game is free to start, it hits hard with the optional purchases.
Yo can buy individual ships for as little as $9 or as much as $35, and bundles for more than $100 that include multiple ships. Premium currency comes in stacks of $2 to $100, and there’s even a “premium license” which grants greater rewards for battles, among other buffs.
10. EVE Online (Windows, Mac)
EVE is another MMO that operates under the free to play mantra, though it’s certainly built up a name for itself over the years. If you want a window into just how hostile an environment EVE can be, check out this story about a particularly hostile takeover that took place earlier in 2017.
That’s not the first time EVE has made the news due to its internal politics. The game incorporates a hands-off approach, much like the original Elite. Explore, mine, scavenge, fight, betray your alliance and sell their assets to your enemies — it’s all here. There’s even a realtime economy that changes based on player actions.
It’s probably one of the most daunting games to start playing, but it offers unrivaled depth by way of its massively multiplayer nature. It’s also getting more free to play friendly, though it includes the usual premium currency and something called “OMEGA time.” This unlocks ships, doubles progression speed, and maximizes player skills.
Lastly, we’ll close with a few classic space sims that exist in the gray area known as abandonware.
11. Freelancer (Windows; 2003)
Freelancer isn’t free, but it’s also not currently available for sale beyond places like thrift stores and eBay. As a result of this, many have taken to hosting the game online for others to enjoy. It’s your quintessential space sim, with the usual “pick your trade” approach, and it still holds up today.
12. Descent (DOS, 1995) [No Longer Available]
Descent isn’t your average space simulator, since it’s more of a first-person space combat and exploration game. It largely takes place in a series of tunnels, so it lacks that “wide open” space feel. But it’s a DOS game from 1995, with all the bleep-bloops you’d expect.
The shareware version is hosted on many abandonware sites, and it’s definitely worth a go if you’re looking for a blast from the past. Dust off your joystick or connect a controller for best results.
13. Star Wars: TIE Fighter (DOS, 1994) [No Longer Available]
Possibly the best use of the Star Wars license following Empire, TIE Fighter is a dogfighting simulation that also requires a joystick for best results. Abandonware-hosted versions come in at around 10MB, but are lacking compared to the Special Edition CD release. That one includes the original John Williams score you know and love; you can buy it on GOG for $10.
The Final Frontier
Which is your favorite space simulation of all time? There’s a good chance it didn’t make this list since we’ve focused on just the free offerings, so we want to hear from you.
If you enjoy simulation games, check out Overcooked. For running old software as well as games on Windows 10, take a look at our guide and get ready to play. And for the space geek in you, here are a few websites that celebrate man’s first moon landing.
Image Credit: SergeyNivens/Depositphotos