Updated: Sep 7
The Space Combat Simulator is a genre that disappeared into obscurity at the start of the millennium, with 1999’s FreeSpace 2 being the last, and many would say greatest, example of the type. It appeared the days of frantic first-cockpit-view space dogfights were sadly a thing of the past, with only the work of modders keeping specific titles alive in the background.
However, with titles such as No Man’s Sky, Elite Dangerous, Star Citizen, and the recent surge of VR titles such as EVE: Valkyrie and End Space it appears the Space Combat Sim has made a comeback and is looking better than ever.
With this in mind, I have compiled a ‘wish-list’ of features and gameplay mechanics that every Space Combat Sim (SCS) should have. Some games already feature many of these, but not all, and fewer still include the entire list. Perhaps future SCSs will?
I have split the list in two since it was getting on for 3000 words. Part one covers controls, navigation, VR support etc. whilst part two covers combat. Let’s dive in.
1) Six Degrees of Freedom Movement
In space, there is no need to restrict yourself to the flight characteristics of gravity-bound aeroplanes. Therefore, why not fully unleash a craft’s potential by allowing a full six degrees of Freedom (DoF) movement scheme? One game series that did this extremely well was the ‘90s era Descent. Although not strictly a Space Combat Sim, the franchise showed just how liberating 6 DoF movement can be.
Which way is up again?
Another collection of titles that most definitely are Space Combat Sims is The Babylon Project, a Babylon 5 themed Total Conversion of FreeSpace. Fans of the show will likely remember just how agile the EA Starfuries were with their distinctive (and apparently highly plausible) x-wing configuration. When piloting one in-game you too will be able to turn on a dime, shift sideways and move up and down vertically whilst facing in a different direction. Mastering these mechanics is vital for success on higher difficulties.
Babylon 5 Mod: Start of the EA Civil War
Skip to 05:00 to see vertical movement in action
2) Reverse Thrust
Planes need to keep flying forwards to maintain lift, but a spacecraft does not. Therefore, even if a full 6 DoF control scheme is too complicated to implement, then at least all craft should be able to fly backwards. Indeed - depending on its engine placement - a spacecraft could fly backwards just as fast as it can fly forwards, as the video below shows.
FreeSpace Blue Planet: War in Heaven
Skip to around the 01:05 mark to see reverse afterburner!
The Zen art of continuing to move along a trajectory whilst having the freedom to face in any other direction. This can be very useful for maintaining situational awareness in chaotic ‘furballs’ and makes strafing runs against capital ships, freighters, and other large objects much easier. Again, if you have seen Babylon 5 you will have seen Starfuries do this regularly.
Two games that make good use of this are the aforementioned Babylon Project and act three (Tenebra) of Blue Planet War in Heaven. FYI - Glide needn’t be restricted to fighter craft either - capital ships can do it too!
Blue Planet Capital Ship Glide
These have been a staple of SCS games since the first Wing Commander, and are often vital for surviving in dogfights and evading missiles.
Wing Commander put afterburners to good use in other ways too. Due to inertia, after a burn of re-heat, your fighter would continue along that trajectory for a few seconds regardless of which way your fighter was facing. This mechanic could be exploited to create an ersatz glide effect, which worked equally well against Jalthi fighters and Dorkir transports. I jokingly termed this technique the ‘slide-by-shooting’. (In my defence, it was the ‘90s and I was 12.)
Afterburn ability needs to find the sweet spot between ‘too slow to be of use’ and ‘so fast that it is uncontrollable’. The PS1 game Star Trek: Invasion is arguably an example of the latter. To me at least, the afterburner sometimes felt like warp speed. One press of the boost button and you would be on top of that formally distant Romulan Warbird. I found it to be too fast to be of any use in dogfighting.
Perhaps the boost in this game wasn’t designed for use in general combat and was instead intended for making hit and run attacks, beating a hasty retreat or for quickly ‘covering ground’ (covering space?) between objectives. However, it felt ‘wrong’ after playing Wing Commander, FreeSpace, and Colony Wars: Red Sun, all of which encouraged judicious use of afterburners to gain a tactical edge in dogfights.
Star Trek: Invasion
Skip to around 03:46 to see the Romulan War Bird make its grand entrance. This video also shows how reverse thrust and ‘slide-by-shooting’ can be useful in combat.
5) Able to Travel Long Distances Quickly
If the boost ability in the aforementioned Star Trek: Invasion was intended to close distances quickly then this was a wise move, as every SCS should have this, however not every SCS does. This could be done via ‘micro-jumps’ or high-speed directional travel, such as the Frame Shift Drive from Elite Dangerous.
Frameshift Drive – Elite Dangerous
6) Easy to Learn, Challenging to Master Controls
Basic controls should be simple and intuitive so players can pick up and play without having to memorize a whole flight manual. That said, the controls should offer enough features, flexibility, and customizability to allow veteran players to become the virtual Red Barons of the game world.
The FreeSpace franchise is a good example of this. Auto targeting and auto speed matching are welcome ‘beginner-friendly’ features that will usually suffice on easier difficulties. However, on higher difficulties success will require both the flying skills of a fighter ace and the management and planning skills of a Wing Commander as you coordinate your NPC wingmen. (More on them in part two)
7) Support for Multiple Control Inputs
The game should be playable with basic default input devices, i.e. basic keyboard and mouse or gamepads, but it should also allow for the use of advanced input devices to enhance the player experience.
Peddles allow your feet to get in on the action. Joysticks add immersivity and a pleasant ‘hand-feel’. A HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) system combines a joystick with a throttle control, both of which possess multiple buttons. HOTAS systems were invented to enable a pilot to access the most essential buttons, such as trigger, master arm, selecting missiles, afterburner controls, etc. without having to remove their hands from the two core control devices. This works just as well in video games as it does in real-world fighter aircraft.
Below is Thrustmaster’s high-end HOTAS Warthog. It is *allegedly* a faithful re-creation of the controls of its namesake - the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The A-10’s nickname is the ‘Warthog’ due to its, erm, ‘aesthetically challenged’ appearance. For a review of Thrustmaster’s economy focused T-Flight HOTAS X click here.
8) Support for VR
Eve Valkyrie and similar games such as End Space showed what a ‘native’ VR Space Combat Sim could be. Elite Dangerous showed how Virtual Reality support can improve ‘VR optional’ Space Combat Sims. Ideally, any new Space Combat Sim should feature optional VR support as standard. (Assuming it is running on a platform that has a VR system of course.)
EVE Valkyrie VR
ELITE DANGEROUS VR
Another welcome feature is support for TrackIR 5, a form of pseudo-VR designed for Racing Sims, Flight Sims, and Space Combat Simulators. Being able to look out of your cockpit in any direction without having to change the orientation of the ship is great for immersion and situational awareness. It can also grant you a significant edge in combat, especially if the game features a virtual Helmet Mounted Cueing System, in which case looks really can kill.
DCS: F/A-18C Hornet - Initial JHMCS Tests
Conclusion of Part One:
In the next article, we will cover the aspects of Space Combat Sims that truly defines the genre, the frenetic seat-of-your pants combat we all know and love. See you all there.
This concludes the controls, navigation and features section of this two-piece article. These are only my opinions, however, what are yours? Do you disagree with any of them? Can you think of other examples that illustrate the points made above? Are there any non-combat features that are on your personal wish-list that were not covered in the article? If so, feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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