3 Steam Sale Space Sims

Getting into the cockpit of three heavily discounted games

3 Steam Sale Space Sims

I've recently been getting back into flight simulators. This is in part for a research project looking at sound design in immersive vehicular settings, but flight games have been a big part of my gaming life since I was little. One of the first games I remember playing was Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator, released in 2000, on the family Windows XP computer.

3a9440dd5f949e0974743732d46fadd27190efc0.pngI used to play this game for hours on the family computer. Image from IGN.

In looking back into this genre, having already enjoyed soaring through the skies in the realism-oriented War Thunder and the unabashedly unrealistic but hella-fun Ace Combat 7, I have recently picked up a new interest: leaving the atmosphere behind and flying through the void of space.

With the Steam Winter Sale going as of time of writing, I thought now would be a good opportunity to show some of the most interesting offerings in the oft-overlooked genre, and give a brief summary of my thoughts on them. With them going so cheap at the moment (none of them break a fiver!), there's never been a better chance to try.

A word on HOTASes

HOTAS stands for "hands on throttle and stick"; they're a peripheral designed to emulate the flight stick and throttle of real aircraft. When navigating 3 degrees of rotational freedom — you don't tend to be doing many barrel-rolls in a Bethesda game, unless it's glitching… so you might well be, come to think of it — they're very useful. The analogue input HOTASes allow for is also superior for fine-control than the digital input of a keyboard.

b2436a52412367c9fcb08527805a56a8e1211512.pngThere's usually a few of these X52 HOTASes going on Ebay for not too much, and is my flight stick of choice. Image courtesy of Logitech.

When I decided to get back into the genre, I found myself a HOTAS going cheap on eBay for the full nerd immersive experience. I think the experience of these games are greatly enhanced by having one, but you do not need one to enjoy these games. I would recommend an analogue input device of some kind though, so if you're playing on Steam, now would be a good time to find a compatible gamepad. I'd recommend this if you're interested in the genre but, very reasonably, don't want to dive straight in.

Star Wars Squadrons

bc4b80da9616430ab2a35dd160d7b63f1ebf0e95.pngScreenshot from EA

Currently at a 95% discount down to a ludicrous £1.75, and with the notorious history of EA's handling of the Star Wars IP (lest we forget the Battlefront II gambling debacle), I was very dubious about this game. Surely they can't have much faith in its ability to make money if they're willing to flog a not-yet three-year-old AAA game for so little? This is very likely, but that's not a bad thing here.

EA have largely given up on this game because they know it won't rake in the money they might want it to. The game averages about 100 concurrent players, so the multiplayer scene is present, but not exactly thriving. EA abstaining from their usual, predatory, microtransaction-filled tactics might also contribute to this — there's no slow drip-feed of players paying them for this or that morsel of content, and the game is much better for it.

Thing is, this is a really solid game. For a little over one quid there is a very solid campaign in here where you play alternately as a hotshot Imperial or Rebel pilot, and the flight and combat mechanics are very good indeed. The real appeal, of course, is the fantasy of the thing. You get to fly an X-wing or a TIE fighter or any number of the other legendary Star Wars vehicles, and do so through a plot which feels like it fits well within the established story of the main Star Wars titles, without you needing to know much more than the original trilogy in order to appreciate it — although more diehard fans will appreciate the various nods and cameos present. This is the game on this list that, on a moment to moment basis, makes you feel the coolest while zipping around Star Destroyers or pulling off daring trench-runs.

This one's also on sale for the same price on the PlayStation Store if you're of a console-persuasion. If you've a VR headset, it also supports that, for a really immersive cockpit experience.

X Series (Specifically X2: The Threat)

0a62015fc7d7e6c466f57cedfc3d7361b41a6280.pngScreenshot from Egosoft

I'll start this recommendation with the caveat that I've not had much chance to get into X2 yet since I've been playing this series chronologically and have only just finished the first game (which, being released in 1999, is only a year younger than I am!).

That being said, X1 is often cited as being one of the weaker games in the series, or simply as a more limited version of X2. I can see why; the first game was quite rough around the edges, not in the buggy kind of way a lot of games are now but in a more a quality-of-life kinda way. Fortunately, most of my gripes with X1 have been largely buffed out of its sequel, and what I loved about it has only got better.

X2 is currently going for 99p at 80% off. For one of your finest pounds sterling you get to explore a rich open world heavily inspired by the sci-fi of the end of the last century. Over a hundred sectors and a host of unique alien races, friendly and... not so much, will give a budding space-explorer plenty to look for. If space-capitalism is more your thing, there is an incredibly intricate trading system which will allow you to build an interstellar trade empire when you get bored with arguing over a Monopoly board this Christmas.

This is a good one for the explorer. It's a much less fighty game in general; although you will have to defend yourself from the less friendly of the galaxy's denizens, it's much lighter on dogfighting and leaves much of the fighting with a more intimidating foe: the market. *shudder*

Elite Dangerous

746b08ac3aa954469e12fac735acecdd8189652f.pngImage from Frontier's Store

The fact that X is commonly described as "German Elite" tells you a lot about what this game is about. Much of the central mechanics are similar to X, but brought to the massively multiplayer sphere.

This is the game to pick if you're particularly keen to delve into a community of fellow starship pilots. Elite is a single-player game that can be played online, and there is an enormous amount of stuff for one player alone to explore, but if you are inclined to engage with the online community in an immersive space sim (and don't want to have to get the several PhDs the average person needs to play Eve: Online), this might be the perfect choice for you. Elite's universe runs on the Frontier servers, which means that even if you are playing in the solo mode where you don't have to engage with other players, your choices, trades, politicking, etc. will have a real impact on the galaxy at large. It's a living, breathing ecosystem unto itself that is a joy to dabble in.

Like Squadrons, Elite supports VR headsets, so you can really feel like you're inside the cockpit.

At 80% off for £3.99, Elite Dangerous probably has the most going for everyone. Squadrons has intense dog-fighting and the possibility of vs multiplayer, as well as the juggernaut-ish presence of the Star Wars IP behind it. X is for the space-traders with no interest in the multiplayer aspect. Elite Dangerous has a bit of all these elements without focusing on one alone, and this versatility of playstyles, especially in the MMO context, is where its strengths lie. 

Steam’s Winter Sale ends on the 4th January, so you’ll need to be speedy to grab any of these games if something caught your eye. If you do end up trying your hand at the flight stick: fair flying, and I’ll see you in space, pilot. 

Header Image Credit: EA Press Kit


Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill Contributor

I am a musician, musicologist, and music journalist. I did my BA in music at the University of Oxford and am currently doing a PhD in music performance practice at the University of Birmingham.

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