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 411mania » Games » Columns

The 8 Ball 01.07.14: Top 8 Space/Sci-fi Games
Posted by Marc Morrison on 01.07.2014

Welcome all to another edition of The 8 Ball. This week the topic is about Space/Science Fiction games, with a few caveats. As a whole, science fiction can encompass a lot of different subgenres into it. So I tried to limit my focus to either big space games (that focus on exploration), or else games that give you control of a space ship (that can focus on crew relationships). Liana didn't have this restriction so her list is a little more generalized than mine, simply picking science fiction series she likes. Still, enjoy both of our lists:

8. The Polynomial: Space of the Music (PC)

Calling The Polynomial a "space" game is pretty apt for what the game actually is. The game builds an artistic space based on the mp3 file you select. The basic gameplay is that you are a ship and you can shoot down other little ships that populate the space, which is actually pretty basic. The Polynomial does give you an incredible feeling of freedom as you move around though. You have a good amount of X/Y/Z movement which gives you a sense of space as you fly around. The game also still looks gorgeous today. A bit simple, sure, but artistic beauty trumps technical mastery in this case.

7. Colony Wars (Playstation 1)

As a kid, I never really had a PC that could run the "big" space games, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Wing Commander, etc. So when Colony Wars hit the PS1 I got pretty hooked on it. Colony Wars had the usual tropes of weapons, torpedoes/missiles, EMP weapons, lasers, etc., but they all felt pretty solid. It had a pretty impressive sense of scale as well, especially when some of the bigger ships were blowing apart. The music was also nice, composed by the same guy "CoLD SToRAGE" who did the Wipeout music. The game is a bit archaic today, but is still pretty solid. Plus, it emphasized the notion that you really had to build a space game for the platform. Just porting a game from another platform with a bare minimum of work can lead to some unpleasantness.

6. FTL (PC)

Yep, this is the second appearance of FTL on a recent column. While you don't really have "direct" control of you ship, you do over your crew, and that is something most space/scifi games tends to ignore completely. In FTL, without your crew, it's game over, so keeping them alive and (hopefully) trained will allow you to make it further in the game. FTL has you meeting with Preying Mantis's, Rock-Men, and robots along your travels to escape the rebels. I'm hoping the free expansion adds a bit more content (maybe like planet exploring), but FTL is a worthy scifi game that adds on a lot of twists that many people seem to forget about.

5. Star Trek: Bridge Commander* (PC)

The small caveat with Bridge Commander is *"with Kobayashi Maru mod installed". Normal Bridge Commander is actually a pretty decent game on its own. It does a great job of emulating what it's like to be in the world of Star Trek. Phasers, photon torpedos, managing engineering systems, firing in arcs is all fairly accurate to the franchise. With the Kobayash Maru mod though, the game is expanded upon greatly. Inter-system warp, transporter use, wormholes, and dozens of new ships across different factions are added to the game. If you are a Star Trek fan at all, Bridge Commander is the game to track down and play. The most baffling thing about it is that it's now 12 years old and Paramount/CBS has done nothing like this game since. This game was also done by "Totally Games" who did most (if not all) of the old X-Wing/Tie-Fighter games.

4. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Multi)

Speaking of Star Wars games, KOTOR 1 is still the best Star Wars game to date. If you want a space-sim type Star Wars game, go with the X-Wing series, or try tracking down that prototype of Battlefront 3 that is somewhat out there. KOTOR 1 doesn't have a lot of space scenes, outside of a few really bad turret sequences, but it does have characters that are deep, worlds that are fun to explore, and a story that isn't the same tired rehash of 30 year old movies. The plot twist is a bit obvious, but the relationships that develop with you and your characters, especially with the light/dark side system, served as a good prototype to the next game on my list. A small mention to Jedi Knight 2, which I personally found kind of passable, but my friend Adam oddly likes a lot.

3. Mass Effect 2 (Multi)

I had to pick one Mass Effect game, and I chose Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 1 is a much more ambitious game, the Citadel alone is an example of that. But the basic shooting isn't quite there. And Mass Effect 3 is "fine", but the story feels oddly disjointed, and almost all of the characters you met in ME2 are discarded. Mass Effect 2 strikes that good balance of having an interesting story/characters and the basic gameplay (shooting, running around) to keep up. Ostensibly, Mass Effect is the Star Wars of this generation, with having a good first episode, a superb second one, and a somewhat muddled third episode to try and wrap everything up. Given some of EA's recent problems I'm afraid that they'll try and make more of these games and drive them into the ground, and that would be an utter shame.

2. Starcraft (PC)

As with the previous few games on this list, there's not a lot of "space" in a game called Starcraft. A few missions do take place in space, but they are mostly aboard platforms which is kind of the same thing. Starcraft remains beloved by almost everyone who has played it. The balance between the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss units is great, which each race having their own strengths and weaknesses against each other. Even if you disregard the multiplayer part of the game, I really enjoy the fiction/story of Starcraft. It is kind of a pastiche of Wahammer 40K (Protoss are Eldar, Zerg are Tyranids), but the characters are all well-defined and have good motivations driving them. Plus, everyone loves Jim Raynor, we can agree on this as a society. While Starcraft is much more fondly remembered/regarded than my last game, it doesn't quite beat it out.

1. Freelancer (PC)

I'm not sure how popular Freelancer is/was, but I honestly really loved the game. Freelancer has the best control system for a space sim, basically acting like a first person shooter in space. You control the acceleration of your ship with the keyboard, and you can use your mouse to steer your ship up & down/left & right. It's a control scheme that can take a minute to get used to, but it comes completely natural after a short while. The story is kind of throw-away, but it has some good voice actors attached to it. The biggest problem with the game is getting attacked all the time as you did system jumps, but you could get around them by just blowing all the pirates up. If you're interested in Star Citizen then Freelancer is definitely worth a look.

The Better Half with Liana K


8 Favorite Futuristic Franchises

It's a new year, and so we thought now would be a good time to look toward the future. And let's face it, in video games, depictions of the future are actually examinations of the present, for better or for worse. So get ready for a bit of a cerebral ride here, because I based my list predominantly on the science-fiction elements of these game franchises, as opposed to giving primacy to how they work as games.

8: Space Harrier

Space Harrier is an extremely hard game to explain, because it existed in that wonderfully random landscape that was video games in the mid 1980s. One could call it a "space fantasy" game, because it really wasn't set in any particular time, and consisted of enemies that ranged from cyclops mammoths to Chinese dragons to alien pods. The clear science fiction element was the combination jetpack/under arm cannon that allows the player to fly and shoot giant things. There was no real plot to speak of ľ though I realize now that this is an example of the Japanese 'displacement' theory that applies to Anime and Manga -- but it was the first game I remember wowing me on graphics alone. I had no idea what was happening because the action was almost too fast for my eyes to follow. And that sounds so quaint based on the turbo-charged stuff I play now. But psuedo-3D sprite scaling was an innovation back then. Oh man, thinking about this makes me feel old.

7: Wing Commander

While the Space Flight Simulator genre is in a coma right now, indie games are starting to bring back the love we all felt for Wing Commander back in 1990. Wing Commander was one of the early proofs of the Star Wars Rule of futuristic games: the more a game reminds us of Star Wars, the more we're probably going to like it. This rule has been a consistent predictor of success right up to the present day, because Space Operas are far more universally accessible than hard science fiction. But the Wing Commander franchise was also an early adopter of using celebrity voice acting in video games, including Christopher Walken, Malcolm McDowell, and, of course, Mark Hamill. Celebrity voices seem to have become a thing you absolutely must do in Space Opera games, and Wing Commander is a huge reason for that.

6: M.U.L.E.

M.U.L.E. stands for Multiple Use Labor Element, which is the primary development unit in this 1983 Electronic Arts title. M.U.L.E. was a forerunner of both multiplayer gameplay and in-game economics, but I didn't give a damn about that when I was six. What I cared about was that the M.U.L.E.s looked like AT-ATs (See Star Wars Rule) and there were aliens everywhere. I was way too young to really understand what M.U.L.E. did, but there has to be a reason rooted in early childhood for my love of strategy games. In my mind, there's a direct line between M.U.L.E. and Sid Meier's Alpha Centuri, a game that didn't sell well because it wasn't enough like Star Wars. (Although we all should love it for its homages to Dune.)

5: Halo

I'll never claim to be the biggest Halo fan, but even I can see that Bungie's original vision was a beautifully desolate universe, and the games don't do justice to the worlds in which they're set. Keeping with the Star Wars Rule, Halo employs the "long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away" thing. Therefore, most of the cool future tech in Halo is the Forerunner stuff, or is retro-engineered from Forerunner stuff, which is supposed to be from the past. But for the purposes of player experience, it's humanity's future that matters, and while that makes us all a bunch of selfish assholes, it allows art directors to create visually stunning fusions of new and ancient, and familiar and alien, and Halo achieves mastery in this particular balance in every element of the franchise. Furthermore, the idea of an intergalactic disease in the form of the Flood is exceptionally timely, as we demolish our planet and near space, even as we deal with an increasing number of antibiotic-resistant "Super Bugs".

4: Fallout

Fallout is one of the few surviving franchises from the golden age of Interplay, and while its transition to 3D environments lost some of the franchise's trademark fatalistic absurdity in Fallout 3, it got that back in spades with New Vegas. You need a sense of humor when dealing with post-apocalyptic, retro-futuristic settings, because they have an inherent element of stupidity that you can't escape no matter how hard you try. The bleak comedy of the Fallout series has a purpose that was a commentary on mentalities left over from the Cold War before being "borrowed" by Bioshock to deal with Objectivism. For those of you too young to be aware of the Cold War, there was this odd duality of awareness that had Pet Rocks, MTV, and designer jeans on one hand, and Communist containment and the fear of nuclear Armageddon on the other. By extrapolating that to a post-nuclear world, Fallout's developers continue to show how silly we all can be as a way of escaping global problems that are far too big for most of us to do anything about.

3: Metroid

There was a time in video game history where it was a big deal that you could explore maps to the left as well as to the right, but Metroid is notable for another big deal that blew gamers' collective minds. As one of the many media properties inspired by Ridley Scott's film Alien, a predominantly male pack of gamers identified with a solitary mech suit adventurer that turned out to be a woman. Metroid launched in 1986, and almost thirty years later, we're still debating whether female protagonists can head up successful game franchises. But Metroid taught us that it's the creative function of a character's gender, not an inherent preference on the part of the player, that makes it work, and Samus was way ahead of her time.

2: Gears of War

Gears of War has been dismissed as both interactive meathead cinema and some of the worst writing in gaming, but when they hired an established writer to make it "better" for Gears of War: Judgement, the outcome was flat and boring. There's a deceptive amount going on under the surface of the series' Expendables in Space premise: the resource-driven underpinnings of war, the environmental impacts of those wars and the petro-states they benefit, the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a butt ton of daddy issues. But the most poignant thing for me about Gears is that it fully embraced the idea that soldiers never have enough information to really make informed moral decisions, and therefore, their jobs, at their cores, are really just about reaching certain objectives... because they're told to... and killing a whole bunch of "hostiles"... because they're told to, and making all that somehow fun... no matter how sick that is at a distance. In that way, Gears of War resoundingly cut to the core of the experience of playing a video game, and the whole of the Gears games with Cliff Bleszinski at the helm far exceeded the sum of their parts.

1: Mass Effect

In terms of playability, Mass Effect has always been a little bit broken because it can't figure out what it wants to be. But its "Star Wars that isn't Star Wars" universe is everything that Bioware does best. It's impossible to rapidly summarize all the levels of social commentary happening in Mass Effect, because they range from politics, to gender theory, to same-sex relationships, to bio-warfare, to colonization, to culture wars, to... well, you name it, it's probably there. The Mass Effect team manages to create great science fiction because it understands the historically important role science fiction has played: good sci-fi has been on the vanguard of social justice. The Mass Effect universe is so huge, and covers so many races and significant individuals, that the original game trilogy managed to defy even the ideals of universality that most science fiction relies upon. Was that too heady? Oh well, Krogans are still badass!

Complainer's Corner

There's a lot of space/scifi games out there, possibly too many to mention. Under the specific criteria I tried to follow above though, that can narrow the list down somewhat. My honorary 9th pick would be Space Rangers HD. The main reason it's not on here is because I have FTL on my list, and having two games from very recent columns seems a bit of a cop out. Also, Star Citizen isn't on my list, because it's not out yet in the slightest. Still, here are a few games that didn't make it: Eve Online, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Kerbal Space Program, Solar 2, Descent, Sins of a Solar Empire, the X series, and Nexus: The Jupiter Incident.

The General Roundup

A few comments I'll try and address from the previous week: I've never really played a Pokemon game ever. And aside from that series, most Nintendo games don't have a lot of longevity, aside from just trying to find secrets. I don't think most (if any) GTA games belong on that list, particularly GTA 5. It was a decent enough game but I was getting sick of it about 3/4ths the way through and wanted it to be shorter. Some "Mad love" to both people who responded to my Space Rangers pick. I love that damn game, and it is among one of the most fun games I've played. Lastly, Civ 5 can be a massive undertaking if you want it to be, but an extremely enjoyable one. Well, as long as you go with the Beavis & Butthead Civ mod.

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