Space sim round-up: Three games to get you back in the galactic dogfight
You twist and barrel roll, barely avoiding fire from the enemy capital ship’s flak cannons, emptying your fighter’s missile bays and energy weapons. Your withering fire tears through your opponent’s hull as you pull up and hit your afterburners. The sunburst explosion limns your fighter in silhouette as your enemy perishes in your wake. Another kill for the greatest ace in the galaxy.
The space combat genre had been in hibernation for a good decade after 2003’s Freelancer, leaving fans in a bit of a drought. But, recently, a few indie gems have emerged that are deserving of your attention. For this article, I’m going to focus on less well known recent single-player experiences, and I'll be setting aside VR support as a concern. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll get to compare Elite Dangerous with Star Citizen (get on it, Chris Roberts!).
For the purposes of playing these games, whenever possible, I used a Thrustmaster T.Stick X, which has an integrated slider throttle and a ton of buttons. For $35 it was an awesome, experience-enhancing buy for less than the cost of a beer and dinner out.
Strike Suit Zero
Strike Suit Zero was one of the first games of this new crop of space sims, coming out back in 2013. In the year 2299, far-flung space colonists are struggling for independence from Earth. At the beginning of the game, they’ve discovered a planet-killing super weapon, devastated your fleets, and are heading to Earth to blow it the hell up. You are the pilot of the Strike Suit, a space fighter that transforms into a flying death robot.
Where it stands out
It’s a pretty interesting concept that nods toward anime, complete with mecha and their mandatory missile swarms. It’s bright and beautiful, with longer missions, voiced supporting characters, and the most traditional plot of all the games I’m reviewing here. You have your grumpy senior wingman, your noble commander, and your reckless, maverick general – tropes that any fan of the genre (or science fiction in general) will recognize. I’m definitely curious about where this story is going to go, and the game’s description promises some meaningful choice in the story.
Where it falls short
The original version of the game doesn’t do a good job of explaining to you how the Strike Suit works. You spend the first few missions stuck in a much more traditional fighter (which still handles well and plays like you would expect), but when you hop into the Strike Suit you aren’t given much guidance. The Director’s Cut, along with offering enhanced visuals and a wider field of view, gets you into the Strike Suit quicker and takes some time to explain to you why it’s great. You can play this game with a HOTAS, but I’m not sure how you would execute certain double tap dash movements in death robot Strike Mode.
Also, when you’re in Strike Mode, dogfighting becomes child’s play. Your ship auto aims for you (think an aimbot in an FPS) and your guns are ridiculously devastating. Enemy forces fall before you by the dozen, and while that may be great for giving you a sense of momentary omnipotence, that’s not really why I come to this genre. But if you want the ability to totally hulk out in a space combat game, SSZ is for you.
House of the Dying Sun
If Strike Suit Zero is a noble space mecha fighting for justice, then House of the Dying Sun is an evil space warrior sowing slaughter and terror across the galaxy. As the game itself states, the Emperor is dead, a pretender sits on the throne, and your only goal is to mercilessly slaughter the nobles who betrayed him. And when I say mercilessly, I mean mercilessly. In one mission, you kill the Emperor’s doctor just because, well, if he couldn’t save the Emperor, he needs to die. That is no way to treat a medical professional, man.
If all of this makes you sound like one of the bad guys, that’s because you ARE. Imagine if the Return of the Jedi was followed by six hours of a single angry TIE Fighter pilot rallying the Imperial forces to murder Luke, Han, Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, Nien Nunb, Mon Mothma, Admiral Akbar, Jan Dodonna, Wedge Antilles, and all the people who ever lent them money or gave them a hug. THAT is House of the Dying Sun.
Where it stands out
The dogfighting feels incredibly tight, with smart AI, nail-biting tension, and great controls (the game claims to not support HOTAS, but it’s lying to you - my T.Stick worked just fine once I bound all the controls. KBAM and mouse are cool, too). One of my favorite parts of the game is a “drift” mode that lets you continue moving forward while spinning your nose around to aim elsewhere. Yes, just like in Battlestar Galactica. This is especially thrilling for strafing capital ships: you can fly directly at the larger ship, firing constantly, then adjust your nose so you’re flying by the enemy ship, activate drift, and swing your nose around to blast the ship as you zip by it. Then readjust, turn off drift, and zip away before the capital ship can shoot back. I never, ever got tired of how awesome this was.
Also, this game has flavor and atmosphere bursting out of its cell-shaded seams. There are no cutscenes and no voice acting beyond some basic announcer voices, but the story still feels so rich and the world so fully realized. For example, one of your armor upgrades is apparently based on the interlocking armor plates of a dead alien apex predator that the Empire hauled across the galaxy to study. Every mission description is dripping with quiet rage and authoritarian viciousness. And the free soundtrack pays a definite homage to Battlestar Galactica’s pounding kodo drums, which match the game’s intensity perfectly. The whole game feels like a fully realized, singular, artistic vision. It’s uncompromising and brutal, just like the character you play.
HotDS’s most unique feature allows you to pause, switch to a top-down tactical view of the battle, give orders to all of your allied ships, and then leap into the cockpit of any of your allied fighters. A well-thought out and executed battle plan is especially critical when the difficulty ramps up. Speaking of which…
Where it falls short
The difficulty curve is weird. Early game is easy, with simple objectives. Mid-game ramps up steeply, even at the lower difficulty settings. Then, in the late game, when you’re leading a fleet of three fighters, two small frigates, and a big-ass capital ship that sports deadly flak cannons and a ludicrously powerful long-ranged rail gun, the enemy fleet folds hard against you, even on higher difficulty settings. Of course there’s always the option to switch back to a “fighters only” difficulty mode, which, to be honest, I haven’t had the courage to try.
Graphically, House of the Dying Sun the least impressive of all three titles profiled here. It’s still impressive and atmospheric, but if you’re looking for the shiny, HotDS might not check that box for you. But in terms of pure, vicious, dog-fighting bliss, you really can’t beat it.
Everspace is what happens when Freelancer, Descent, and FTL have a lovechild. It mashes up the traditional space combat formula with elements of roguelikes, crafting, and exploration. You play an amnesiac fighter pilot in a procedurally generated universe full of resources, pirates, space corporations, and hostile aliens. Pretty much everyone wants to kill you, including people who remember the life that you’ve forgotten.
You will die a lot. But every time you die, you keep your credits and your equipment blueprints, and you can spend that money on perks that make your next run just a little bit easier.
Where it stands out
Everspace is deeply unique and manages to get many things right. I actively hate both crafting and exploration games (I drink your delicious, delicious tears, Minecraft fans!), but I love doing both in Everspace. The controls directly facilitate this experience–you have a degree of freedom of movement that I’ve never seen in a space combat sim. There’s something magical about flying into an enormous, hollowed out asteroid, finding an enemy base inside, and robbing it of all its precious minerals, ore, and equipment. Unlike other roguelikes, which leave me dejected after a permadeath, in Everspace I get to go on a spending spree and then launch into space again to use all the neat stuff I just bought.
And, as the most recent game to come out in this group, its graphics are outstanding. Everspace is as poetically beautiful as House of the Dying Sun is vicious and violent.
Where it falls short
You are really fragile in the beginning of the game, and end up having to run away from many of the larger fights, which doesn’t sit right in my Hero Gut. But you learn to run from the biggest battles early on because otherwise you will die a horrible and ignominious death. The procedurally generated areas are sometimes surprisingly brutal, even early on in a run. I’ve gone to the second area on the map and gotten swarmed by enemy fighters, died, and started over.
It’s also important to note that Everspace does not support HOTAS at all (and it isn’t lying about that), but the KBAM control was so good that I didn’t miss my stick at all. At times, it plays a lot more like an FPS in space than a traditional space combat game. I thought that would annoy me, but I actually love it.