Game Mechanics Every Space Combat Sim Should Have: Part Two: Weapons and Combat

Updated: Feb 11

A Terran Leviathan cruiser fires upon a Shivan Manticore Interceptor From the FreeSpace Source Code Project
A Terran Leviathan cruiser fires upon a Shivan Manticore Interceptor. From the FreeSpace Source Code Project

Welcome back, everyone! In the last article we looked at the controls, navigation and other ‘non-fighty’ features an ideal Space Combat Sim (SCS) should have. In this, the second and concluding article we will investigate what we are really interested in - the juicy Zero-G combat. Let’s dive in.

1) A wide Variety of Strike Craft with Distinct Roles

No matter how cool your ship is, flying the same thing day after day, year after year can become boring. Therefore, a range of ships of different sizes and specialities should be available, whether this is by purchasing them yourself as in Elite Dangerous or being able to choose ships for specific missions as in FreeSpace.

Elite Dangerous Ship Scale 2019 Edition

0:21 - I guess Homeworld isn’t the only game with a Space Banana…

Video by Mat Recardo

2) Lots and Lots of Guns!

Any SCS worth its salt should feature a range of different guns. These could include hit-scan beam weapons which obviate the need to lead the target - such as those used by the Minbari’s Nial fighter in The Babylon Project. Other guns could include kinetic energy weapons, e.g. the mass accelerator cannons used by Battle Star Galactica’s Vipers and ‘bolt’ weapons fired by TIE fighters and X-Wings from Star Wars - which are erroneously called ‘lasers.’

Gimbaled auto-targeting weapons, such as those that can be equipped in Elite Dangerous, should also be an option. This will be most useful for gamers who suffer from ‘can’t hit the side of a bus’ syndrome, and for less agile ships that cannot turn on a dime.

Elite Dangerous: 2.2.03 - Gimballed weapons

Video by FG

Ideally, some of these guns should have specialist uses, whilst others should remain general purpose. The first two Colony Wars games, Colony Wars and Colony Wars: Vengeance, suffered from over specialized guns - one type for energy shields, one type for the target’s hull. Both were next to useless if used against the wrong target.

This necessitated swapping weapons mid dogfight which was far from easy. This was made worse by a sub-optimal control scheme which did not make the most of the PS1's controller. (Or at least, there wasn't a control option that was optimal for me.)

Colony Wars: Vengeance ... (PS1)

Choose purple for shield, orange for hull…

Video by 10min Gameplay

The far superior third instalment, Colony Wars: Red Sun retained these anti-shield and anti-hull ‘lasers’, but also introduced general-purpose ‘lasers’ which were pretty good (but not great) against both. Loading up your fighter with these made gameplay flow seamlessly. It might take a little longer to down an enemy with them, but it felt far more ‘user friendly’ and intuitive.

Colony Wars III - Red Sun

…or choose green for everything

Video by김춘삼

Another workaround is to enable a fighter to mount both sets of weapons and fire both at the same time, perhaps with the penalty of a reduced rate of fire and/or greater energy/ammo usage to prevent them from being overpowered. This too will avoid having to swap weapons mid-dogfight.

The FreeSpace franchise is an excellent example that uses both methods. It features special-purpose and general-purpose guns, and the ability to mount and use multiple guns of various types at the same time. This gives the player considerable freedom regarding their load-outs, allowing them to match their weapons to their play style or the demands of a specific mission.

3) Lots and Lots of Rockets, Missiles and Bombs

All good Space Combat Sims should include a variety of ordnance to fire at your digital enemies and for your enemies to fire back at you and your allies. Dumbfire rockets, swarm missiles, heat seekers, long-range missiles, anti-subsystem / turret missiles, anti-capital ship torpedoes, and possibly even free-fall bombs (for land attack), to name but a few, should all be included. The FreeSpace franchise, and especially mods for it such as Blue Planet, feature extensive arsenals of such weapons.

Needless to say, you should be given flexibility in choosing your loadouts unless there is a mission-specific or economic reason not to - i.e. you can't afford the weapons you want in a space trading sim.

There are a number of recent real-world missile innovations which I would love to see implemented in-game. One of these is semi-guided rockets, such as the real-world laser-guided APKWS weapons. A barrage of rockets that will almost certainly hit your target so long as you keep it near the middle of your HUD would be devastating at ‘knife fight’ ranges.

Another is ‘lock-on-after-launch’. If you have played a lot of SCSs you will probably have found yourself firing off a missile a split second too early - i.e. before you had gained target lock. Wouldn’t it be great if your just-fired missile could then home in on the target? Some modern missiles already allow for this, a feature called lock-on after launch. Implementing this in-game would be a godsend in a hectic furball of a dogfight.

A third real-world innovation is the capability of simultaneously tracking and locking on to multiple targets, then firing missiles at them in quick succession - a process known as ripple-firing. Now imagine you are facing an in-game swarm of fighters which you need to take out quickly. The ability to lock on to all these fighters at the same time, and then ripple firing missiles, or even launching a simultaneous salvo of missiles, at them would be a game-changer. You can see an example of this below.

FreeSpace Blue Planet: Age of Aquarius - Warmachine

This footage was taken from the deliberately bombastic and overpowered ‘Warmachine’ Remix

Video by EatThePath

4) Mid-Mission Refuelling, Re-Arming and Swapping Loadouts

In heavy combat, your supply of missiles and ammo for ballistic weapons can run low alarmingly quickly. If the game uses a finite fuel mechanic, with that fuel running out faster when using afterburner (as was the case with the original Wing Commander) then this too can run out before the mission’s end.

One obvious solution to this is to be sparing with their use. This can be advantageous for games aiming for realism as it introduces resource conservation into the mix, which can raise both the tension and the challenge.

For more action-orientated games, a mechanic allowing the player to rearm and refuel their craft mid-mission should be considered. This could be via collectable pick-ups - as in Star Trek: Invasion, docking with a resupply craft - as seen in the FreeSpace franchise, or by making a ‘pit stop’ on a carrier.

Consideration should be given to enabling players to change their load-outs during resupplies and as to whether damage to the player’s craft can be repaired during this process. Sandbox (space box?) games could also feature skimming the atmospheres of gas giants and possibly even stars to replenish their fuel reserves.

Elite Dangerous: Fuel Scooping for Beginners

If scooping from a star isn't metal enough for you, you can try scooping the astrophysical jets of Neutron stars!

Video by EDTutorials by Exigeous

5) Non-Lethal Options

Even the most gung-ho Space Combat Sim hero may need to ‘take them alive’ once in a while, so there should be the option of crippling a target instead of blowing it up. Of course, crippling a ship also opens up opportunities for a spot of space piracy for 'pilots of low moral fibre’. EMP attacks, destroying the targets engines and navigation systems etc. should all be options.

FreeSpace Port: Mission 4 “Avenging Angels”

Julius Caesar once said “I love treason but hate a traitor.” But what if everyone benefits from the treason because the traitor knows something you don’t? Should you still hate him then?

Video by blackyoshi1230

6) Destroyable Capital Ships

Who wouldn’t love to see a plucky little ship take on a hulking great capital ship and win?

If an SCS features capital ships, there should be some way for your fighter to influence the battle. This could involve flying anti-capital ship bombers with nukes and the like to destroy some capital ships directly. Another option is to perform surgical strikes against a capital ship's weapons and engines to disarm and disable it, then letting friendly capital ships finish it off with their big guns.

FreeSpace 2 SCP (Source Code Project)

Can your puny little bomber take down a 6KM long juggernaut? No, but it can pull its teeth so that something equally large can finish the job.

Video by Gergination

Targetable and destroyable subsystems should also be considered. For example, taking out the capitals ship’s sensors to blind it, destroying its communications so it cannot receive orders or signal for help or taking out its reactors or FTL drives to prevent it from escaping.

It should go without saying that the enemy should be able to do likewise to friendly capital ships, thus requiring the player to protect these ships from the above threats. Some fighter craft may be better at this than others. This could culminate in epic ‘fleet engagements’ with capital ships, bombers, and fighters on all sides duking it out.

FreeSpace: Blue Planet Delenda Est Karuna Mk 2 Remix

Epic enough for you? Also, note the variety of weapons used by fighters and capital ships alike on both sides.

Video by Dan Bell

7) ‘Flyable’ Capital Ships

Protecting and destroying capital ships is one thing, but what about being able to control one yourself? This can provide a completely different gameplay experience which introduces a good deal of variety. Various mods for FreeSpace see the player controlling capital ships in-game with varying levels of success. However, the free-to-play online PC game Dreadnaught is arguably the best example of controllable capital ship combat in video games at present.

Dreadnaught Official Gamescom 2015 Trailer

Video by GameSpot

8) Planetside Missions

Not strictly necessary for all SCSs (they are Space Combat Sims after all) but a few missions set in the atmosphere of a planet, as in Colony Wars: Red Sun, or the ability to explore the landscape, as in Elite Dangerous, can introduce some welcome variety. This is especially so if the effects of atmospheric flight and gravity have to be taken into account, as this will create a very different flying experience.

Colony Wars III Red Sun - Gameplay PSX (PS One) HD 720P (Playstation classics)

Ground combat also shown at 09:48

Video by John GodGames

9) ‘Fly-through-able’ Megastructures

Let’s be honest, we all thought the Millennium Falcon flying through the Death Star 2 in Return of the Jedi was awesome. The sequence from The Last Starfighter where Gunstar One was pursuing that Kodan Scout Ship through the tunnels (caves?) of that huge asteroid was also pretty cool. Being able to fly through giant structures in a Space Combat Sim is just as awesome.

Star Wars X-Wing Alliance - Death Star Tunnel Run

Video by MickVideoGames

FreeSpace SCP: Silent Threat: Reborn