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10 best space games that'll take you to places you've never been before

(Image credit: Annapurna)

If you’ve ever looked longingly at the night sky and wondered what it’d be like to live among the stars, here’s some good news: you don’t have to be an astronaut to visit faraway planets. Just by switching on your PC or console, you can inhabit whole other galaxies via the best space games. Some are relaxing, some terrifying, but all are full of wonder and secrets.

Naturally, the infinite scope of space supports games in every genre, and on this list of the very best space games you’ll find RPGs and adventure games alongside more traditional strategy and space combat sims. No matter what your tastes, there’s something waiting out there for you. So strap on your helmet: here are the 10 best space games you can play right now.

Outer Wilds

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4

A wonderfully-crafted indie space adventure with a variety of endings that leave you floored. Its cutesy presentation belies just how clever a game it is: as a first-time astronaut, you explore a miniaturised galaxy over the course of 22 minutes, zooming between planets in your ship and picking at story threads. When the clock runs out, you respawn and do it all over again – this time armed with everything you learned in your previous life. Gradually, you unravel Outer Wilds’ mysteries, finding other spacefarers and discovering why you – and you alone – are stuck in a time loop.

We love how dynamic the world feels. Outer Wilds doesn’t stay still for your 22 minutes: instead, planets orbit the sun and comets follow predefined paths in real-time. One puzzle can only be solved when certain planets align, which only happens at specific times. Another planet gradually dies over the course of each life: it’s intact at the start, but torn in two by the end. You’ll find endless secrets to discover, and you won’t want to stop digging until you’ve slotted every piece of the puzzle into place.

Stellaris

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4

The Paradox team behind medieval story generator Crusader Kings 2 turn their talents skywards, and the results are stunning. Stellaris is a deep, gripping strategy game about building up a space-faring empire and squashing any foe in sight. Or, if you prefer, it’s about establishing a race of friendly technocrat turtles that help other species expand. That’s the beauty of it: you set your own goals, assign your own traits to your species, and play it however you like.

It has all the exploration of a traditional strategy sim, but your relationships with other factions take on more weight than usual. You’ll steer your civilisation through war and peace, watch alliances form and betray each other, and band together with foes to fight extra-dimensional invaders. It keeps getting richer through regular updates: for that reason, you ideally want to buy the PC version, which is ahead of the console edition (its UI is easier to navigate with a mouse than a gamepad, too). Dive in, and prepare to lose all track of time.

Mass Effect 2

Available on: PC, Xbox One (backwards compatible) 

Mass Effect is the space RPG by which we measure all others. The long-awaited Mass Effect: Andromeda was a huge disappointment for fans, but the original trilogy, and particularly the second game, remain masterpieces. The overall plot of the series – space hero tries to unite and save the galaxy against a deadly force – sounds generic, but doesn’t feel it moment-to-moment. That’s largely down to the crew you assemble, each with distinct personalities, goals, and senses of humour. As they gradually open up, you’ll look forward to every trip back to the Normandy between missions, just so you can see what they have to say next. 

The combat improved as the series went on, but Mass Effect 2 has the best sense of pace, and does the best job of ramping up the stakes before a thrilling – and potentially heart-breaking – conclusion. Our advice is to start with the first game, and try to stick with it. If it’s not your bag, or if it feels too dated, just watch one of the many plot summaries on YouTube and jump into Mass Effect 2. It’s a long flight, but you won’t regret it.

Destiny 2

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4

If you only have room in your life for one online FPS, make it Destiny 2. It’s got it all: addictive PvP modes, big co-op boss fights, long story arcs and, most importantly, tons of loot. You’ll never be short of things to do, and often you’re juggling several tasks at once across various planets, from complex, multi-part quests to simple by-the-numbers stat padders, such as completing a certain number of PvP rounds. At every step you’re watching your power tick up, and equipping your guardian with evermore lethal gear.

When it comes to the actual shooting, Destiny 2 makes the act of pulling the trigger more satisfying than perhaps any other FPS on the market. Guns feel weighty but not cumbersome, and headshots reward you with showers of special effects. We’d advise playing with a group, especially for the toughest raids, but it’s still a fun time if you’re solo. Best of all, most of the game is completely free-to-play, and you could easily dump 100 hours into it before being tempted to spend any cash.

Elite: Dangerous

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4

Elite: Dangerous feels a bit like Space: The Game. It hands you a ship, boots up the engine and asks you to make your living however you like in a galaxy full of other players, be that via trading, smuggling, mining, exploring or dogfighting. It’s not a full-on flying sim, but it really sells the fantasy of space travel. Your cockpit is alive with blinking lights that let you adjust the balance of power to your ship’s systems, and the sheer scale of the world means flying between two planets can take ages, even with a hyperspace jump. Sit back and enjoy the gorgeous views.

A recent update added full tutorials, which made it even more accessible for new players. It requires some patience, and the slow pace might put some players off, but if you’ve ever wanted to live a second life as Han Solo, this is your chance.

EVE Online

Available on: PC

If you thought Elite: Dangerous sounded like a detailed recreation of life in space, wait until you try EVE Online. The 16-year old MMO is bigger and better than ever, and every single element of its game is player-directed. Players form their own alliances, and the whole economy is dictated by player actions. With so many different factors at play – 25,000 players online at any one time, each with their own goals – you find that cool stuff just constantly happens, from the collapse of superpowers to huge PvP fights with thousands of ships spewing lasers across the sky (check out some of the best stories here).

Developer CCP isn’t afraid to add more chaos: it recently swarmed the game with a massive alien invasion, and turned off a key plank of player communications, leaving everyone in the dark. No doubt 2020 will throw up plenty more surprises. Learning the game is harsh, but once you’re in EVE’s world, good luck getting out.

Kerbal Space Program

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4

Half toybox, half science project, Kerbal Space Program is the most fun you can have while learning about space. On the surface, it’s a game about building ridiculous rockets and launching tiny green men into space – and then watching the whole thing literally fall apart before your eyes while you giggle. But the more you play, the more you want to understand it. Before long, you’re agonising over the correct entry angle for a moon landing, or the right configuration of engines to achieve maximum thrust. The proper rules of physics apply, and the most satisfying achievements require careful planning and attention to detail.

It’s a sandbox, but you’ll always have a goal to aim for. It’s the kind of game you can spend a week playing, put it down, and then come back months later without worrying about where you left off. With a follow-up due next year, there’s no better time to play.

Homeworld Remastered Collection

Available on: PC

Gearbox’s remaster of Relic’s sci-fi epic Homeworld makes it feel even more special than it did 20 years ago. Both games in the collection are real-time strategy games with the option to pause, but there’s far more emphasis on story than most RTSs: the action is a conduit for a tale of a civlization clawing itself back from near-extinction, with a mothership bound for home that must be protected at all costs. Its campaign missions, which play out as combat scenarios, each move that story forward, and the weighty, minimalist cutscenes between them are expertly crafted. 

The combat sprawls out in all three dimensions, with hundreds of ships flying in all directions, but the updated UI makes it easier than ever to direct your fleet where you want them to go. It takes a bit of learning, but it doesn’t take long before you’re barking orders to individual clutches of ships, zooming in from a tactical map to watch a single, heroic pilot land a killing blow. If you missed out in the ‘90s, get on board.

FTL: Faster Than Light

Available on: PC, iOS

One of the best indie games ever made still has plenty of fuel in the tank. As the captain of a top-down ship, your goal is to reach friendly territory by jumping between randomly-generated segments of space, each full of nasty enemies, traders, and the odd friendly face. Combat somehow feels both urgent and thoughtful: you can pause at any time to assess your options, and yet we’re always in a constant panic, re-routing precious power from our weapons to our shields to absorb damage, or even purposefully bombing our own ship to neutralise boarding parties.

The inherent randomness of each run, and the scarcity of resources, makes FTL feel brutal. Every decision is tortuous, and every victory has a cost. Aiding a civilian ship being chased by pirates will reward you with scrap, but it’s also one more fight to worry about: and in FTL, each battle can be your last. However unfair it sometimes feels, you’ll learn something from each run and come back stronger and smarter the next time around. What began on Kickstarter became one of the most polished rogue-likes on PC, and it later came to iOS, so you can take it wherever you go.

Observation

Available on: PC, PS4

The smallest game on this list is one of the most intriguing. From No Code, the creators of Stories Untold, comes a tense sci-fi adventure that’s part slow-burning horror, part puzzle game, all wonderfully voice-acted. You play an AI aboard a spaceship where the only person left alive is Dr Emma Fisher, the game’s hero. Everyone else is missing, and the ship is falling apart: it’s Fisher’s job, with your help, to patch it up and get back on course. Except that something strange is happening, and you keep receiving the same message from an unknown source: “BRING HER”. 

It’s that slowly-unfolding, sinister story combined with moment-to-moment puzzling – unique puzzles with clever UIs appear once, never outstay their welcome, and then disappear, replaced with the next one – that makes Observation so unique. You navigate the station’s warren-like corridors via CCTV cameras and freely-controlled drones, using environmental clues such as schematics pinned to walls to figure out what to do next. Individual challenges keep you locked in for each play session, but it’s the twisting story that keeps you coming back.

Sam's gaming PC is literally held together with masking tape, and he bought his PS4 from a friend of a friend of a (dodgy) friend for a tenner. He wishes that games still had paper manuals, mainly so he could get the satisfaction of ignoring them. He grew up in Essex, and now lives in London.