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December 20, 2007 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Seeking recommendations for some great space exploration/simulation games.

I tend to be an observant, introverted, imaginative person, so any game that offers a rich universe to explore is right up my alley. I'm more of a sci-fi fan than a fantasy one, though, so I prefer space exploration games over the more popular "fantasy world" franchises like Ultima, Oblivion, Fable, and WoW.

Unfortunately, few games in the space sim genre have struck my fancy, so I humbly turn to the Hive Mind for some advice on new titles to explore. Here are some of the games I've seen that have come closest to my ideal, to give you an idea of exactly what I'm looking for:
  • Noctis - Probably the best example. A staggeringly huge persistent galaxy, with billions of planets and moons to wander. The art style is evocative and spare. First-person, 3-D, and with an emphasis on open-ended exploration. See this review for an excellent description of this game's appeal. "The real joy of Noctis lies in setting eyes on alien landscapes that nobody has ever seen before. From verdant rain forests to bleak, blasted deserts, the worlds of Noctis never fail to engage the senses. In my voyages I have found icy planetoids so distant from their parent stars that it is impossible to tell where the ground ends and the darkened sky begins. I have swum upon giant worlds with liquid-rock surfaces whose temperatures extend into the thousands of degrees Kelvin. I have watched triplicate stars rise above placid green meadows, their light refracted by a high canopy of crystalline trees. From mountainous peaks extending thousands of meters above rolling oceans, I have gazed down at my distant landing pod and marveled at my own precious insignificance." Unfortunately, the game's graphics are not the best, there's no sound, and the long-awaited sequel is pretty much vaporware at this point.
  • Spore - Not out yet, I know, but its vast galaxy of traversable planets teeming with life has more than caught my attention.
  • Infinity: The Quest for Earth - Also not out yet, but a good example of what I'm after. Persistent universe, billions of planets, ability to land and explore on foot, realistic scales, etc. Developer's page is here, Wiki article here.
  • Battlecruiser: Millenium - A laughably bad game in most respects, this one captured my imagination as a kid for its large catalog of planets and the ability to enter their atmospheres and walk, swim, and fly across their surfaces. Click here for a decent write-up of the game.
  • Celestia - Really more of a glorified planetarium than a game. Once you leave the Solar System there isn't much visual stimulation to be found, but I still love this space sim for its great interface and the way it conveys the immense scale of the universe.
And, just to clarify things, here are the types of games that I am NOT looking for:
  • Space flight simulators - I'm not too keen on having to pilot the orbital equivalent of a Boeing 747 just to get around. The aforementioned Battlecruiser lost a lot of points in this respect. Noctis hit the sweet spot of navigation, with its point-and-click interface and the ability to name and leave notes on locations in a shared database.
  • Space combat games - Combat can be present, but it shouldn't be the game's primary component.
  • MMOs or subscription-based games - There are plenty of "WoW in space!"-type games (EVE, Anarchy Online, Star Wars Galaxies), but most of them don't quite fit the bill. The focus in these games is usually on player interaction (trade, combat, role-playing), while exploration is an interesting novelty, or even unavailable. Infinity (mentioned above) comes closest to my ideal MMO exploration game.
So, bottom line: I'm looking for a persistent 3D universe, preferably procedurally generated (millions of worlds or more), that permits open-ended exploration both in-system and on-planet. Something solitary, relaxing, and beautiful, with plenty of visual variety. Online/offline functionality doesn't matter.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Rhaomi to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
One of the Myst games (I forgot which, 5 I think) has an extremely beautiful space world with all sorts of planets and stars and deep blue skies. My boyfriend was raving about it before I reached the level and I could see why!
posted by divabat at 6:12 PM on December 20, 2007

A bit of research shows it to be the "Todelmer" age from Myst V. It does look gorgeous, though I fear the space exploration angle will be limited seeing as Myst is primarily a puzzle game.

I read that Myst V is full 3D, though, which reminds me that the original Myst had a 3D version as well. So, thanks for giving me another game to put on my list of things to check out one of these days. :)
posted by Rhaomi at 6:33 PM on December 20, 2007

You've got a very narrowly defined game genre. Not just space exploration, but vast open-ended procedurally generated universe. Noctis is a pretty unique game, I'll be curious to see if anyone can match it.

I enjoyed playing Independence War 2: Edge of Chaos quite a bit. It's a bit more space combat and flight sim oriented than you're asking for, but it also has a good free roaming feel.

If somehow you missed out on the 1984 game SunDog, well, it pretty much defined the genre you're asking about.

The Eve Online folks have tried to make exploration a significant part of the gameplay; explicit rewards for finding random things in solar systems. But last I checked it hadn't really worked out. Still it can be kind of fun to fly around and if you stay outside the lowsec space you can ignore the PvP game.
posted by Nelson at 7:49 PM on December 20, 2007

Nelson, those sound interesting -- I'll have to check them out after Christmas. Should be good for the looong plane ride back home...

And I guess you're right about the "narrowly defined" thing. I guess it's just born of frustration seeing the near-perfection of Noctis seemingly abandoned by its sole author. So sad... a waste of vision, really.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:19 PM on December 20, 2007

posted by stopgap at 11:34 PM on December 20, 2007

Star Control II and Alien Legacy might work, though Alien Legacy can be difficult to run on modern PCs. I say "might", because you didn't list any classic games in your examples (with the possible exception of Ultima).
posted by yath at 12:38 AM on December 21, 2007

Star Control 2 is excellent but is not 3d and is probably too fight heavy, but if 2d is still worth a look to you, you should definitely have a look at it. You might also want to check out Starflight and Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula. There's also a fan made Starflight 3 in the works, but progress there appears to be pretty slow.
posted by juv3nal at 3:51 AM on December 21, 2007

It sounds to me like you're looking for the modern equivalent of Frontier: Elite II or a modern (and preferably debugged) equivalent of First Encounters?

Failing modern updates/rewrites, time to break out an emulator?
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 5:14 AM on December 21, 2007

Oh man, juv3nal, what have you done? Now I'm going to be up all night (re)playing Starflight 2.

And that Infinity game (which looks like it's going to be very pretty) seems to have cadged much of their storyline from the Foundation series. I wonder if they could talk to Asimov's estate about using the name.
posted by JaredSeth at 4:12 PM on December 21, 2007

Star Control 1 should be on your list as well.
posted by Four Flavors at 5:24 PM on January 2, 2008

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