We're going to infinity, and beyond with our list of the best space exploration games out there.
It’s a big universe out there, and video games have made traversing star systems a common activity. There was a time when space exploration games were limited to certain genres, but now it’s more of a theme, a core idea that defines the philosophies of wildly different titles. In this article, our aim is to showcase some of the biggest and best space exploration games out there. This is not a ranking, and all of the titles mentioned have something interesting and unique to offer despite sharing a common goal: making us feel closer to the stars.
But, what makes a good space exploration game? Well, we like to think they don’t have to be realistic experiences all the time. It’s all about the wonder of going out there and uncovering the cosmos’ secrets. Maybe the task is simply to abandon Earth, or maybe space is simply defining an otherwise simple adventure… or tales of conquest. The journey is what matters, and outer space is inherently the most unpredictable setting we can wish for.
If you’re looking for something more peculiar, you might want to check out our list of the best PSVR space games, or the best Star Wars games. The somewhat extensive list we’ll be exploring in this article isn’t bound to certain franchises or platforms, and we’ve tried to include something for everyone. Now, let’s blast off into the unknown.
1. Outer Wilds
- Release date: May 28, 2019
- Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch
An open-world game on the surface, Outer Wilds takes flight and sends players on a timed adventure across a solar system stuck in a 22-minute loop which ends with the sun going bye-bye. It’s all about the freedom of exploration and figuring out the system’s secrets – each planet is strange in its own way, and an extinct alien race might hold the key to breaking the time loop and stopping the sun from going supernova.
This one’s an easy recommendation for almost anyone looking for a compelling and emotional non-linear adventure that doesn’t overstay its welcome and is filled with interesting characters. Of course, it’s jam-packed with puzzles and situations that make your head spin. Take that into account before putting on your space suit.
2. Endless Space 2
- Release date: May 18, 2017
- Platform: PC
We promised you a bit of space conquest, and Endless Space 2 is the best turn-based, space-set strategy title that you can find right now. It completely behaves like a normal 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate), but the path to victory is never the same. This sci-fi universe is vast and rich, and so are its possibilities, but one thing always remains true: reaching new systems and colonizing their planets never gets old.
Build an isolated empire, expand your borders across the stars through diplomacy, or let money do the talking to keep your enemies away. Its expansion packs make things weirder and more unpredictable, as if sentient trees which colonize worlds with “celestial vines” weren’t strange enough.
3. Elite Dangerous
- Release date: December 16, 2014
- Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Space flight simulation aficionados are familiar with this one, as it’s been dominating that genre for years now, and with good reason. In spite of its steep learning curve, few games are as massive and rewarding as Elite Dangerous – the persistent online universe and a 1:1 scale representation of the Milky Way galaxy houses many gameplay possibilities that move at their own pace.
Elite Dangerous certainly isn’t for everyone, and is more of a lived-in experience that grows with you. Don’t expect to get a lot done in one hour. The journey matters here way more than crossing off tasks. Still, the number of different occupations (from space trucker to pirate) guarantee more than enough variety to keep patient players entertained for hundreds of hours. Furthermore, the Odyssey expansion (released May 19, 2021) introduces an on-foot FPS element to the game, although the community doesn’t seem to be vibing with it.
4. FTL: Faster Than Light
- Release date: September 14, 2012
- Platforms: PC, Android, iOS
Faster Than Light ain’t a looker, but it’s got it where it counts. It can be largely described as a procedurally generated roguelite, and the goal is to reach an allied fleet in order to deliver a package of critical information. The problem is that there are a bunch of dangerous space sectors between your single spacecraft and the bulk of your allies. Plus, a massive rebel fleet is also chasing you.
The game focuses on managing the ship’s systems and your crew, who are the “blood” that keep the entire thing working. It’s profoundly stressful but highly addictive, and remains one of the most unique space-related indie titles available. Moreover, you get to make some hard decisions as you push forward through the cosmos in a piece of junk, so it’s not all about battling pirates and fixing your ship with little to no resources.
5. No Man’s Sky
- Release date: August 8, 2016
- Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
Everyone remembers how much of a disaster the launch of No Man’s Sky was, but Hello Games turned the ship around in spectacular fashion around a year and a half into post-launch development. With a few more years of massive updates, it now packs an absurd amount of content, so you’ll never be at a loss for anything to do. And, in case you didn’t know, its procedurally generated universe is practically endless and can be fully explored with friends and/or random players.
As stated by the developers, No Man’s Sky captures a sense of exploration and optimism typically seen in the sci-fi literature of the 1970s. That promise was always there, but the original experience was extremely shallow. Now, it feels like one of the liveliest universes we’ve explored in a video game. The first couple of hours might be rough, but it quickly picks up and goes where no game has gone before.
6. Kerbal Space Program
- Release date: June 24, 2011
- Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
Squad’s Kerbal Space Program (KPS) is another game that may not seem very enticing at first, but contains lots of absorbing ideas and executes most of them in an engrossing and charming manner. It took a while to get KSP out of Steam’s early access program, but the final result has captured countless players’ minds for years, and user-created mods might have something to do with that.
The player controls a space program operated by small humanoids called Kerbals, and the goal is simple: come up with vehicles and plans to explore their star system while avoiding catastrophic failures. KSP plays out like a comedy based on the history of space exploration, and it’s slowly gained a cult following that is now eagerly awaiting the sequel, which launches in 2022.
7. Spore: Galactic Adventures
- Release date: June 23, 2009
- Platform: PC
We know this is an odd pick, but hear us out. Spore: Galactic Adventures was a great expansion pack that turned the basic Spore late-game experience (uneven and mostly shallow) into an exciting set of space adventures. Jumping from one planet to another and exploring every corner of the galaxy became more than just a chore, and the extensive adventure and planet creators gave users even more tools to come up with fun content.
Spore hasn’t aged that well overall, but its Complete Collection is, in our humble opinion, worth revisiting even now. Maxis threw lots of exciting ideas into it, and many of them still haven’t been successfully replicated by more modern titles. We wouldn’t reject a reboot either.
8. Homeworld Remastered Collection
- Release date: February 25, 2015
- Platform: PC
Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld games are landmarks of the real-time strategy genre, and even bigger triumphs for lovers of good, meaty science fiction. Gearbox Software’s substantial remaster of both titles only solidified their legendary status and made them relevant again. The series has now started to grow past the classic games, but they’re still must-play releases.
As in most RTS titles, the Homeworld games focus on gathering resources to build military forces to crush your opponents, but the plot and worldbuilding that hold everything together make them stand out: the Kushan exiles of the planet Kharak set out on a mission to reclaim their ancient homeworld of Hiigara from the Taiidan Empire. It’s a sprawling epic about space nomads with really cool ships. What’s not to love?
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Fran Ruiz is our resident Star Wars guy. His hunger for movies and TV series is only matched by his love for video games. He got a BA of English Studies, focusing on English Literature, from the University of Malaga, in Spain, as well as a Master's Degree in English Studies, Multilingual and Intercultural Communication. On top of writing features and other longform articles for Space.com since 2021, he is a frequent collaborator of VG247 and other gaming sites. He also serves as associate editor over at Star Wars News Net and its sister site, Movie News Net.