The Ur-Quan Masters
Let me tell you about the greatest game you haven't played. Back in 1990, Star Control, a sort of a starship Mortal Combat game with minimal backstory, was released. It received a sequel in 1992 in the form of Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters, which was later improved and re-released for the 3DO console...and it kicked ass. Back in 2002, the game developer studio Toys For Bob gave up the ghost, but released the games source code (unlike, say, Interplay...). Thus the free open source game Ur-Quan Master was made. And lo and behold - it was good.
The gist is this: the Alliance of Free Stars (joined by the humans at the last second) was defeated by the Hierarchy of Battle Thralls. You're a captain of a Precursor ship built by the human science mission on the planet Vega and your task is to help save Earth...and basically everyone else in the process. These are small spoilers, but it's impossible to talk about the game without them.
Armed, locked, loaded and save game'd - ready to take on anything!
Ok, you got your spaceship, you got the starbase over Earth to refuel, replenish the crew and buy upgrades. Now go nuts – but first you must collect some minerals. Most of the game is like an extended version of Mass Effect 2’s mineral scanning, only, you know, more interesting. Every planet has different conditions and different minerals on it. That means that your lander filled with the poorest saps from your crew might just land on a planet that is wrecked by firestorms or freak lightning. Oh, and the trips to and fro the surface cost the same fuel that your ship uses. And not all minerals are of equal worth. And your ship has limited containment... You see where I'm going with it.
But all this is used to fuel you exploration efforts – minerals translate into credits, and credits translate into fuel, crew and upgrades. You need those, since space ship combat – from top down perspective and usually with a planet in the centre that affects the path of your shots – is a thing that happens a lot. And instead of HP, you ship loses crew. The crew aboard the Earth space station is finite. So, unlike most of today's games, you can lose Ur-Quan Masters.
You can lose it because of the hidden timer too, but it's worth a try. Why? Because space is chock full of weird shit. Alien races come in all shapes, sizes and form – and some are so alien, you can't even talk to them. But the ones who can...well, those will help you piece together the story of the game's universe, and trust me, it's well worth the effort. There's absolutely no hand holding. Not even a quest log. If something is mentioned, assume it can be found (and probably shot) somewhere in the dark expanse of space. And if you don't shoot it...well, the FULLY VOICED DIALOGUES (except for your part, of course) are sort of branching and you can talk yourself into all sorts of trouble. Or out of it.
It took us a long time, because like all space colonists we could only build one building at a time.
You see, unlike in modern games, where everything has to be explained lest the fragile flower that is the player be frustrated and sad, Ur-Quan Masters makes you feel like a real space explorer. You never know what's out there. A jump through hyperspace can land you on a system flush with untapped resources – or absolutely nothing. Or a species' homeworld. Or you might stumble on some ruins. Or on hyper-hyper space. You'll meet truly funny allies and truly terrifying threats. This game is one of the best space and games in general out there, a real masterpiece.
It's also funny how pleasant the graphics from 21 years ago look now (they look even better in the HD version that’s in the works). Go ahead, compare it to early 3D games that almost make you gouge your eyes out. Or even to the older quest games. Ur-Quan Masters is awesome and it carries over to the sound part. Heck, the fans are constantly releasing remixed soundtracks, so you'll never get bored.
Probably the only issue that I have with the game is the one I had with GTA 1 and 2 – when your vessel can go back and forth and spin on the Y axis (and drift, because physics), it doesn't make for good, pleasant aiming that can be especially hard with some enemies. Other than that – a game that's almost flawless.
Sometimes the battles are...strange.
So before Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen comes out and immerses you into a pretty galaxy of starships, try Ur-Quan Master. Try to get the feeling what’s going throughout space, not knowing what lies ahead really feels like.