Some say that space is the final frontier. There is some truth to it, even though it seems like we know more about space than the ocean depths. Regardless, pop culture loves space, because who knows what weird creatures live in the crystal hives of Betelgeuse, or what primordial specters of the first intergalactic civilization feast upon the stars? We definitely only made up at least one of those.

Therefore it should come as no surprise that video game has spread their feelers beyond Earth’s atmosphere and oh, what wealth of stories and ideas they discovered. On the list that follows you’ll see adaptations of 1960s technological dreams, one or two ways to grow your very own empire, some ways to bring the olive branch or the smoking barrel to the invading aliens, and who knows, maybe even some education?

Without further ado, let’s see what games think about things that lie beyond that comfortable gas cushion separating us from the void.

Star Wars: Squadrons

Release date:2020-10-02
Genre:Space combat
Developer:Motive Studio

There are many Star Wars games which let you have all the cool adventures boots-on-the-ground-style, but there are few modern games which let you take to the skies and space in a ship to engage is some ol’ fashioned dogfighting. Thankfully, there’s Star Wars Squadrons, which is all about the aerial and space battles between faithfully recreated iconic ships.

The game’s plot covers the events from the destruction of Alderaan, through the Battle of Endor, and into the New Republic era, which is a real treat. As for the gameplay itself, it’s a cockpit-view flight sim, and you get to direct more power to shields, engines, or weaponry. “Full power to forward shields” indeed. You also get experience, which unlocks more ships, gear and customizations.

Key features
  • The first dedicated Star Wars space combat sim in many, many years
  • The plot takes you through the Original Trilogy and beyond
  • The ships and their cockpits are very faithful to the source material
  • Authentic power management: you decide where you need the boost

Outer Wilds

Release date:2020-06-18
Genre:Action
Developer:Mobius Digital

Despite also putting you in the pilot seat of a spaceship the way SW Squadrons does, The Outer Wilds is a very different beast. Rather than giving you thrilling dogfighting, here you get to explore a planetary system in 22-minute time loops, each ending with a supernova, unless you find a way to prevent the boom. Thankfully, your discoveries are persistent across loops.

Parts of the game happen on foot, as there are facilities and ruins to explore in search of clues. The Outer Wilds is a fascinating game with a self-contained, finite structure. It won’t give you endless experience, but figuring out the mystery of the doomed system is engaging and satisfying, and the locations you visit look amazing, with great location designs, freak weather, and more.

Key features
  • A mystery story solved one loop at a time
  • The world changes on a timeline, you need to figure out how to use it to your benefit
  • Both on-foot and in-cockpit exploration
  • Mild survival mechanics, especially around the oxygen supply

Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander

Release date:2016-09-08
Genre:Indie
Developer:Massive Damage, Inc.

Taking a step back from a personal perspective, in Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander you take the role of, well, a starbase commander. You have an old space station of alien origin to reclaim and run as efficiently as you can, and in the meantime, you have to deal with an endless stream of challenges, opportunities, and threats, because the station is a tasty morsel for the galaxy’s denizens.

H6 has a neat pixel art. Aesthetic, but don’t let this simple style mislead you. There’s a lot of crunchy strategic goodness to bite into regarding the research and management of Halcyon, including resource gathering and diplomatic duties. There’s even something for fans of action: ship battles and away missions are very much present and important. Good luck, commander.

Key features
  • Many story events forcing you to make weighty decisions
  • Complex management of a mysterious and somewhat derelict space station
  • Detailed diplomacy, and when it fails: tactical ship-to-ship and face-to-face combat
  • You get to send out exploration ships to make you more aware of the galaxy around you

Alien Isolation

Release date:2014-10-06
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Creative Assembly

A survival horror based on a beloved franchise, made by the studio famous for the Total War series? That’s a pretty weird match, but it turned out to be quite spot-on as far as survival horror mechanics go, and proving that in space really no one can hear you scream. With Ripley’s daughter as the protagonist, it ties to the main series with more than just the titular Alien.

Alien: Isolation is a very tense game, with more than just the incredibly dangerous xenomorph as Amanda Ripley’s opponent. There is a new kind of android, for instance, and a very creepy one at that. Of course, there’s the classic motion tracker to increase the tension, but Amanda can also craft a number of helpful tools, like noisemakers or pipe bombs to help her out in a pinch.

Key features
  • Depending on enemy, stealth or gunplay is the answer
  • The Alien has good hearing: motion tracker’s beeping can be your downfall
  • Crafting system supplying Amanda with tools
  • Perfectly captures the aesthetic of the original movie

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2

Release date:2019-01-24
Genre:Strategy
Developer:Tindalos Interactive

The word about town is that in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, but the Warhammer 40k setting also has an entire galaxy’s worth of space to fight over. Battlefleet Gothic Armada (both 1 and 2) is a PC adaptation of Games Workshop’s board game, and is all about clashes of massive starfaring craft of the unapologetically epic-scale WH40k universe.

You pick a faction from the game’s many, build your fleet, and test your naval tactics against sleek Eldar craft, Imperial Gothic cathedrals with plasma drives, Tyranid living bioships, and other sides of the conflict for the Milky Way Galaxy. There are even three singleplayer campaigns, one each for human Imperium, cyber-undead Necrons, and all-consuming Tyranids.

Key features
  • 12 factions to play as
  • 3 singleplayer campaigns
  • Dozens of spaceship types, big and small
  • A great adaptation of a classic board game

Destiny 2

Release date:2017
Genre:First-person shooter
Developer:Bungie

Over the course of Destiny 2’s story, and your journey for the best gear, you’ll travel across the Solar system many, many times pursuing enemies and participating in raids. You might be based out of Earth, you’ll visit Jupiter’s Io, to example, as well as Mercury or Mars. All in all, you won’t lack for space travel, although the planets do differ substantially from what we know in the 21st century.

On top of that, D2 is a really tight, really satisfying shooter in its own right, with fantastic moment-to-moment combat experience. And it has gone Free-to-Play recently, with only the latest expansions behind a paywall, so nothing stops you from checking the game out. It even has an actual story, too, unlike the first instalment.

Key features
  • Three familiar classes (Warlock, Titan, Hunter) with new and changed sub-classes
  • Dedicated story mode with a well-defined antagonist
  • Tonnes of cool weapons, including pieces of legendary power
  • Four expansions to date, since the 2017 release

Elite Dangerous

Release date:2015-04-02
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Frontier Developments

Among the games on this list, Elite Dangerous is probably the only one that really lets you feel like you’re in control of a spaceship, forging a life among the uncaring stars, exploring the dark corners of space. A largely online multiplayer experience, ED sells you on its space setting like few games since Freelancer ever could.

Elite Dangerous is constantly being worked on by the devs, and the player base’s actions reflect across the servers. There’s a lot of player-driven events, such as giant expeditions into unexplored corners of space, which draw dozens of players, cooperating to go as far as possible. This importance of player action to the evolution of the world is rivalled only by EVE Online.

Key features
  • A huge galaxy to make a life in
  • Actions of the playerbase can have far-reaching consequences
  • Consistently updated
  • The fourth entry in the Elite series

Endless Space 2

Release date:2016-10-06
Genre:Strategy
Developer:AMPLITUDE Studios

After the success of the space-conquering 4X Endless Space, the arrival of a sequel was a given. Over the campaign, you’ll find yourself pursuing the mysteries left behind by the Endless, an ancient people which achieved a nigh-godlike status, and in the footsteps of which later galactic species had followed. What you uncover is entirely up to you.

As a 4X, Endless Space 2 is already a risk of a heavy “just one more turn” syndrome, and it certainly embraces it. Add to that real-time space battles, and there’s always something you want to do before your job is done for the day. And the game looks truly amazing in the same way photos of nebulas and other wildly-coloured parts of deep space do.

Key features
  • Excellent science fiction 4X game
  • Mysteries and anomalies to investigate, for better or worse
  • Beautiful visualisation of the outer space
  • Extensively customisable spaceships

EVE Online

Release date:2019-04-10
Genre:Space simulation, MMORPG
Developer:CCP

EVE Online has a reputation for being impenetrable, with very complex player-driver economy, corporate and alliance politics, and other interactions and power balance established during the two decades it’s been out. Nevertheless, if you have it in you, EVE can be a very rewarding game, and a nice speculation on what humanity’s future in space might be like.

EVE Online comes in two flavours: a free-to-play model, and a subscription unlocking the Omega version, which carries with it certain benefits. For one, training is faster, and some ships are only available in the Omega version. Luckily, everything you gain in Omega you retain if you switch back to the F2P Alpha, you simply don’t get to unlock new features like certain Omega-bound skills.

Key features
  • Become an elite pilot with a neural link to their spaceship
  • Hard to get into, extremely rewarding when you do
  • Alive and kicking since 2003
  • Establish your own Corporation and carve out your own slice of space

Everspace

Release date:2017-05-25
Genre:Adventure
Developer:ROCKFISH Games

Everspace is a curious beast. It’s a space combat simulator, with ship upgrades, tense dog fighting, and pirate ambushes. But it’s also a roguelite, in that once you die, you come back to life at square one, but you can buy Perks with money you got on the last run. With help like this you should be able to go further with each new attempt.

As with most roguelikes death is inevitable, but if you reach certain points in each playthrough you begin to uncover the mystery behind your continuous existence, in addition to becoming more skilled with handling the game’s systems. And, surprisingly, it’s optimised for the KB M combo, so don’t feel pressured into investing in a gamepad or a joystick.

Key features
  • Space sim roguelike is as rare a combo as it gets
  • Get stronger with each run
  • Discover why you keep being reborn
  • Crafting system to help you along on your journeys

FTL: Faster Than Light

Release date:2012-09-14
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Subset Games

FTL: Faster Than Light is another space roguelike, but this one has more to do with the strategy genre than with space combat. Rather than being a pilot of a one-person craft, you take the role of a captain of a larger ship. You’ll be in charge of giving orders to the crew, deciding which systems are to be powered, and which doors are to be opened to choke out fires and hostile boarding parties.

In addition to the daily operation of your ship, you’ll also interact with alien species, for good or ill, and there’s a wealth of text-based events waiting for you in deep space, putting you in front of all kinds of difficult decisions. With each new galaxy being randomised, you will often encounter events you won’t be properly equipped to deal with.

Key features
  • Roguelike spaceship strategy
  • Simple, but clean and informative graphics
  • Give orders to your crew like the captain you are
  • It’s not Star Trek, but it’s close enough

Homeworld

Release date:2015-02-25
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Gearbox Software

One of the older games on the list, but one that still holds up two decades since its original launch. Although it was Relic Entertainment’s first game, the Canadian studio knocked it out of the park on the first try, creating a real-time strategy with full 3D unit movement, and tension built by your fleet carrying over from mission to mission, which made mistakes very punishing.

In Homeworld your mission is to guide what’s left of your people to their ancestral homeworld. Unfortunately, the alien nation which razed your planet for violating an ancient treaty is hot on your heels. The storyline is very dramatic, and managing your forces well enough to see it through is a challenge. In 2015 Homeworld received a remaster, which made the game look fresher after all those years.

Key features
  • Relic Entertainment’s first game, and an instant classic one at that
  • Your fleet makeup persists from battle to battle
  • 600 thousand people are the last that remains of your people
  • A dramatic, high-stakes story

Kerbal Space Program

Release date:2015-04-27
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Squad

In Kerbal Space Program space is more of a goal than a setting, but it would be unfair to not mention this complex space flight simulation. For all of the cartoonishness of the titular Kerbals, the game follows a rather accurate engine for aerodynamics and orbital physics. If you pair it up with a seemingly limitless construction system, you have hundreds of hours of fun engineering on your hands.

If you’re good enough, you can create your own Transformers and pilot them to the orbit. Sure, any new odd creation is more likely to crash and burn, but Kerbals make it so amusing it’s usually hard to get mad because of it. KSP is as much a space flight simulation, as it is an engine a cartoonish evil engineer might use to design a wacky machine of uncertain purpose and short lifespan.

Key features
  • Complex simulation of aerodynamics and orbital physics
  • Virtually limitless construction possibilities
  • Cartoonishly comedic Kerbals make explosive failures fun
  • Two expansions already out, and there’s a sequel coming up

Mass Effect 2

Release date:2010-01-27
Genre:RPG
Developer:BioWare

The Mass Effect series is among the most important science fiction video game franchises in modern memory, and with good reason. Over the course of three games commander Shepard and their three different crews have visited a number of planets all around the galaxy, and made enough friends and enemies to encounter a familiar face wherever they go.

We picked Mass Effect 2 for this list, because while ME1 let you ride along the surface of various unimportant planets, and ME3 had this thing where you escaped Reapers in real-time, Mass Effect 2 made each planet feel unique and alive in it own way. This game is essentially an anthology of short stories, each happening in a new, vibrant location. And this is a pretty fun approach.

Key features
  • You get to visit plenty of unique-feeling planets
  • Each main mission is tailored to be dramatic and engaging
  • The first ME game to use Paragon and Renegade interruptions
  • One of the coolest final missions of the decade

No Man’s Sky

Release date:2016-08-12
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Hello Games

Loaded with content, with actual multiplayer, and several years’ worth of updates, No Man’s Sky is finally the game that was advertised broadly before launch. Procedurally generated planets are fun and relaxing to explore, players can build bases to hole up in after a long day, and there’s a seemingly endless number of new planets, new flora and fauna to discover and name.

It doesn’t go for the aesthetic fidelity of Elite Dangerous and the likes, settling for a simpler, more abstract style, but that makes generation of new content easier without having new creations look too out of place. If you’re looking for a chill space exploration game, No Man’s Sky is a pretty good pick, with little (except some life-support meters) to worry about.

Key features
  • More planets than you would have time to visit
  • Relaxing and as solitary as you want it to be
  • Recognisable aesthetic
  • Possibly endless procedural generation of content

Stellaris

PC
PS4
Xbox One
Release date:2016-05-09
Genre:Simulation
Developer:Paradox Development Studio

A space 4X easily rivalling Endless Space 2, Stellaris is made by the brilliant minds at Paradox Development Studio, which means that it’s complex, demanding, and entertaining nonetheless. It doesn’t have a plot contextualising the game the way ES2 does, instead it puts emphasis on running a planetary nation which recently gained access to starfaring technology.

You even get to design a species, complete with its phenotype, various traits, and the core of the ideology and form of government. It’s quite detailed, and it’s going to influence your playstyle during the entire playthrough. It even avoids the pitfalls of bad 4X endgame thanks to events and catastrophes shaking up the status quo and keeping late stages interesting.

Key features
  • Paradox’s tried and tested complexity in space
  • Design a starfaring civilisation and turn it into a galactic empire
  • Endgame designed specifically to avoid typical 4X late game problems
  • Plenty of post-launch content and regular updates

Surviving Mars

PC
PS4
XOne
Release date:2018-03-15
Genre:Simulation
Developer:Haemimont Games

Surviving Mars is a step down the scale ladder from Stellaris, but being published under the aegis of Paradox, Haemimont’s still does have a lot of moving parts. SM tasks you with establishing a self-sustaining Mars colony, first with adorable retrofuturistic-looking robots, and then with the hands and hard work of colonists willingly coming to live on the red planet for some reason.

You’ll build various sources of electricity, a number of different resource-producing and processing facilities, as well as a stable of handy robots and vehicles. You’ll also eventually start exploring the region away from your mission, seeking new resource deposits, or investigating mysteries. And oddly enough, the research tree is arranged at random, so you’ll never have the same exact starting experience on every run.

Key features
  • City-building game set on Mars
  • Each colonist is unique, with their own traits and specialties
  • Retro-futuristic designs
  • Powerful mod support

Universe Sandbox 2

PC
Release date:2012, 2017 (Universe Sandbox 2 version)
Genre:Space gravity simulation
Developer:Giant Army

What game could be worthy of the “space game” label more than a game that’s literally a simulation of celestial body interactions? Admittedly, it’s less a game and more a visualised astrophysics engine, but there’s something really fun about being able to fling moons into planets like you’re an angry god vengefully playing marbles.

Universe Sandbox lets you play around with anything from individual asteroids, to entire galaxies. If you’re interested in seeing how one galaxy may swallow another, now you can, and it looks suitably cataclysmic. Similarly, it’s very entertaining to put Earth way too close to the Sun and see what happens. And it also comes in VR and works well with motion controls, which is just a great idea.

Key features
  • Complex and quite scientifically accurate
  • Crashing galaxies into each other is apocalyptically entertaining
  • You might learn something
  • Works really well in VR

…and beyond

That concludes our list of games, in which the outer space is more than just a dream, it’s reality. Hopefully you found something that caught your interest. This list is barely scratching the surface, of course, there are dozens and hundreds of games conquering that final frontier.