Some smart people once famously described space as the final frontier. Before being aware of other continents, humanity knew all the big and small dots filling the night sky.
When we figured out the technology to leave this water-covered space rock we live on, we took that leap and have kept a presence on the orbit ever since, with occasional trips to the moon.
But that’s not good enough, is it? We’ve been working on getting a crew mission to our closest cousin, Mars, but until then, we have to rely on video games to give us the taste of what it could be like to be among the stars, exploring the planets and asteroids, meeting alien creatures and civilizations.
In order to celebrate these stellar aspirations, let’s talk about a few games which make exploring the cosmos really fun. These are not just open world games, these are open galaxy games!
Flying beyond gravity
The core fantasy of most people dreaming of space travel is being able to pilot a space ship from planet to plat, star system to star system. And it is, indeed, as powerful and compelling an image as riding across a plains on a horse with no name, or sailing the high seas. There are degrees of simulation involved here, depending on how deep and realistic you want it.
At the most accessible side of the spectrum, there are games such as No Man’s Sky, which abstract the nitty-gritty of spaceflights to easy controls and simplified ship management, in order to let players explore the virtually infinite, procedurally generated, universe at their leisure. NMS wants you to discover and survive rather than training you up to be a pilot.
Way up the complexity scale there’s Elite Dangerous. It’s quite dedicated to a compelling and fairly open-ended spaceship gameplay, letting you engage in anything from mining to piracy, provided you get the handle of the much less abstracted controls. ED’s world is very dynamic, with factions rising and falling, players at war, or cooperating to explore distant systems together in massive expeditions.
Finally there’s the still elusive horizon of Star Citizen, a massively expensive, staggeringly detailed game about living in space. With believable physics, complex controls, mild survival systems, and amazingly designed ships, Star Citizen is an impressive technological achievement even before you even leave the landing pad on one of the space stations. Nobody knows when and if the game will even be released, but if you want immersive, realistic space sim with emergent storytelling potential, it could serve you well.
Stories under the stars
The games above lean towards being player-driven: your ambitions are your main motivation. But looking for adventure might not cut it for everyone. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of space-faring games which come packaged with gripping tales of science fiction derring-do on top of letting you travel around the galaxy at your leisure.
One example might be Star Wars: The Old Republic, set in in the space fantasy world which has been going strong for nearly 50 years. SWTOR takes place a few thousand years before the events you know from the movies, and offers not just two distinct major story arcs for Republic and the Sith, but also four class-specific stories per side.
On top of that, there’s around thirty planets with their own plots and stories and secrets to discover off the beaten path. And if MMO trapping don’t excite you, consider Jedi: Survivor, an upcoming (indeed, arriving shortly) TPP action game and a sequel to an excellent Jedi: Fallen Order.
But perhaps you’re from the other Star-franchise. In that case, you might be happy to know that Star Trek Online is alive and kicking, with a large map, a starship under your sage command, and plenty of away-team missions which deliver a different brand of action than space battles do. You even get to design your own alien species or customize an existing one in a powerful character creation system. Oh, and it’s also a good blend of personal involvement and broad ship management gameplay, which made the next game such a hit.
FTL: Faster Than Light is very different from TOR or STO, on all fronts. It’s top-down, pixel-art rogue-lite adventure taking you n a journey across many systems and planets, as you carry an important message which might protect your faction from violent insurrectionists. Each segment means new challenges, new small and big stories, more risk of space combat, but also new opportunities.
FTL is excellent, and the randomized galaxy means that the illusion of scope is much stronger than with SWTOR or STO, even if the space exploration happens on a complex web of rails connected by procedurally generated nodes.
Career and conquest
We’ll cap this short glance through expansive galaxies with a few entries coming from the left field, so to speak. They are less about third-person adventures, and more about exploring the galaxy for power and profit. They still have massive universes, but you’re getting a more strategic view of it, full of factions, power relations, and good ol’ fashioned money.
Money is a key motivator for the world’s most joblike video game, EVE Online. This MMO’s complexity is through the roof, having steadily climbed for the last two decades. EVE is almost entirely player-driven, with systems in place to let them establish corporations, simulate working mundane space jobs, and wage massive clan wars which might drag dozen or hundreds of people into them. It’s not a game for the uncommitted, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you get the hang of it.
If you’d rather have something less… MMO, you could take a look at Stellaris, Paradox’s magnificent and gorgeous space 4X strategy game, letting you choose (or create) a spacefaring civilization and try to expand its influence across the galaxy, weathering emergent crises, confronting enemies, and building alliances. Distant World: Universe is quite similar to Paradox’ behemoth, with a massive galaxy filled with planetary systems you could colonize, trade with, or incorporate into your interstellar business.
Push the boundaries of your universe
Whether piloting your own ship through asteroid fields looking for a good spot to land and find adventure, experiencing gripping tales in your own way, or expanding your budding empire on faction and one planet at a time, these games offer vast universes and inspiring freedom to carve your own path.