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Starfield, the highly anticipated science-fiction RPG from Bethesda is nearly upon us. While September 6 is not that far off, for sci-fi fans, and folks who appreciate a Bethesda romp, the it’s been a painful wait since the game’s first announcement back in 2018.
But we still have a few more parsecs to go before we initiate a landing sequence on this open-world space epic. Why not spend the time with some other, great space-themed science fiction games?
Here you’ll find modern classics, old throwbacks, and even a couple of multiplayer games that’ll send you adventures out there in the black. Some of these games will even offer a level of deep space simulation that you just won’t find in Starfield when it hits consoles and PC later this year.
All systems are a go. Let’s check out some of the best space-themed science fiction games you can play before Starfield.
Availability (Legendary Edition): Windows (Steam Deck YMMV*), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
So you wanna explore the vastness of space and meet all kinds of new people and make decisions that will have lasting implications throughout your gaming experience but you’re bummed you have to wait until September for Starfield? Girl, Mass Effect is right there. And with Mass Effect Legendary Edition, the recent re-release of the games bundled together and updated with reworked visuals and faster loading times, losing 100+ hours to a video game has never been easier.
BioWare’s space-faring trilogy has it all: malevolent creators of the universe hell-bent on restarting its biological clock and wiping out all organic life, a ragtag, diverse group of heroes fucking and fighting their way through space, and a leader you can mold and shape to your liking in Commander Shepard. If you want to be an asshole in Mass Effect, that’s your prerogative, but please make sure you play as FemShep for Jennifer Hale alone.
Pick Mass Effect up if you’re a fan of fantastic, fleshed-out characters and epic, beautifully written stories, or if you’re in the mood to explore every available corner of the galaxy while verbally sparring with an alien you find incredibly attractive. But if you’re looking for a solid third-person shooter you may want to take a sec to consider. While many don’t mind Mass Effect’s somewhat gluey shooting and movement mechanics, this is not going to feel like Fortnite. Personally, I find playing through the series as a Vanguard (half gun-toting soldier, half move-shit-with-your-mind biotics) makes the gunplay feel far less offensive, and hurling enemies through the air with blue magic is fun as hell.
Mass Effect 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t check it out ahead of Starfield. The characters and their stories will get you fully invested before you learn the deep secrets of the stars, the revelations of which have profound implications for the fate of the galaxy. — Alyssa Mercante, Senior Editor
*Your Mileage May Vary
Fallout 3: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS3
Fallout 4: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
Fallout: New Vegas: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS3
There’s a reason Starfield has so much hype behind it: Bethesda’s decades-long oeuvre of freeform, open-world RPGs has kept us all happily occupied exploring, conquering, and modding for years.
With Fallout, Bethesda brought its open-world RPG formula to an established science-fiction setting, one where you explore the remnants of a post-nuclear fallout world at your own pace as you traverse wonderfully immersive environments, meet interesting NPCs, and take on quests that are often seamlessly integrated into the natural ebb and flow of exploration.
That model is very much what we expect Starfield to follow, just on a grander scale and with spaceships. If you haven’t played any of the Fallout games, which includes the Obsidian-developed fan-favorite New Vegas, these are all excellent, enormous RPGs that can devour all of your free time if you so choose.
The Outer Worlds: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, Nintendo Switch
The Outer Worlds: Spacer’s Choice Edition: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox Series X/S, PS5
In 2019 Obsidian Entertainment proved that it could take Bethesda’s first-person open-world RPG formula and make its own original game from it. Somewhat smaller in scale but no less engaging, entertaining, and impressive, The Outer Worlds is a great sci-fi RPG.
Set in a far-flung future based on our own history (with some key alterations), The Outer Worlds gives you a small star system to serve as the backdrop for your adventure. You’ll get your own ship which acts as a kind of fast-travel device to the various open hubs. Once planetside, you engage with an eccentric cast of characters, utilizing skills in both combat and social scenarios, and will have a number of main and side quests to venture through. The Outer Worlds isn’t super deep, but often funny and fun.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox Series X/S, PS5
On the surface, you might think Hardpsace: Shipbreaker has a rather mundane premise: You’re a “shipbreaker,” tasked with salvaging old spaceships in the distant future, breaking them up with high-tech power tools and sorting the materials for necessary processing. But don’t let that fool you. Hardspace delivers some great space-themed science fiction with a solid narrative about a far future firmly under the control of profit-seeking corporations which have factored your probable bodily harm and destruction into an acceptable level of loss for their balance sheets. (Um, we are talkin’ the future here, right?)
Tearing apart the game’s procedurally generated ships leads to a satisfying level of destruction. Like No Man’s Sky lets you carve up planet surfaces, Hardspace gives you a laser cutter to dice up ships, picking apart what’s valuable while trying to avoid various hazards as you float around in space.
There’s a satisfying sense of scale as well. Planets orbit off in the distance, massive structures float around you, dwarfing and impressing you with the fantasy of high-tech industrialization. Add to that a nice gentle, Firefly-esque soundtrack, and Hardspace offers compelling science fiction wrapped up in some great aesthetics. Here’s a game that you can, forgive the pun, space out to as you get to work wiping out your extraordinary corporate debt.
Availability (2023 remake): Windows (Steam Deck OK), Xbox Series X/S, PS5
EA’s popular Resident Evil 4-alike Dead Space returned by way of a very faithful remake this year. And while it’s a creepy and challenging romp through a ravaged space station where the dead have transformed into unspeakable horrors, it’s also a solid sci-fi experience. If you’re up for some jump scares and targeted zombie mutilation, Dead Space is worth a tryst before braving whatever may come in Starfield.
Starfield isn’t billed as survival horror, but, I mean, have you played a Bethesda game? The developers are never too scared to insert spooky, unnerving moments in its large, open-world RPG romps. Whether it’s getting involved with the creepy Dark Brotherhood in the Elder Scrolls games or braving feral ghoul-infested spaces in Fallout, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Starfield might have more than a couple spooky moments. but it’s unlikely to go all the way toward horror. Good thing you can check out Dead Space for that. But don’t just come for the horror: The game has a great science-fiction premise too.
Dead Space takes place in a far-flung future in which humanity has resorted to destroying entire planets, a process called planet cracking, to mine for resources. Themes of destruction, dangerous scientific advancements, and the terror of what lies out in the darkness is central to this tale of gory horror.
If waiting for Starfield has you in the mood for some trips to space, but you’re also a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with Dead Space.
Availability: Windows (Steam and GOG, Steam Deck YMMV)
First released for PC DOS in 1992, it’s no exaggeration to say that Star Control II is one of the greatest games of all time. And unlike some other great games of its era, it’s not just one of those curiosities that we can look back on and appreciate for its ambition and achievement but would struggle to go back to and enjoy now. If you’re open to what it’s doing, Star Control II, available on Steam and GOG (or as a free, upgraded source port of the 3DO version), is still eminently playable and fun today.
Cast as a human space captain in a time when humanity and many other alien races have fallen to the vile Ur Quan, you must explore a vast galaxy, recruiting disparate alien races and strengthening your fleet until you have what it takes to defeat your tyrannical oppressors. The gameplay is an engaging mix of exploring a hazardous galaxy, gathering resources from planets, interacting with alien races, customizing the ships in your fleet, and having space battles with alien aggressors.
The game quickly pulls you in with a terrific sense of discovery as you travel the galaxy, encountering memorable new alien races and having well-written, captivating exchanges with them, and it’s immensely satisfying to build up an intergalactic alliance to take the fight back to the Ur Quan.
Released to critical acclaim in ‘92, its legacy has only grown in the decades since, as it’s frequently been listed among the greatest games of all time, including here at Kotaku. It was among the first games to show how exploring the stars could make for unforgettable gameplay, and it helped set the stage for what Bethesda is doing with Starfield today. — Carolyn Petit, Managing Editor
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck OK), macOS, iPadOS, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch
Starfield is promising an epic universe, with upward of 1,000 planets to explore. That’s impressive, but what if you want to experience a slightly larger scale? Like a quintillion planets large? Oh, is that not enough? Okay, what about 18 quintillion planets? If you haven’t checked out No Man’s Sky in recent years (or perhaps ever), then you, the aspiring virtual space explorer, owe it to yourself to jump into what is one of gaming’s greatest comeback stories (and a solid space sim, besides).
Originally launching in 2016 to lukewarm reception, No Man’s Sky might’ve fallen shy of expectations in its early days, but such times are lightyears behind us. The countless updates and solid support the game’s received since have only improved and expanded the experience. And few other games are really able to capture the thrill and scale of seeing a distant planet, taking off in your ship, and landing there. In fact, while Starfield promises many planets to explore, it won’t actually have an atmosphere-breaking, planet-landing animation. No Man’s Sky not only delivers that, but makes it one of the best and most immersive parts of the whole experience.
There’s a lot to do in No Man’s Sky too, whether that’s mining, crafting, getting into space dogfights with pirates, or just exploring and taking in the sights. Recent difficulty adjustments have also lowered the bar for entry, so if you just want a chill trip through the cosmos without investing too much time gathering tons of resources to fuel your ship, there’s never been a better time to hop into No Man’s Sky.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck OK), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
I always felt Bethesda games had a touch of the immersive sim to them. While firmly open-world RPGs, the way that certain encounters always had that gentle level of unpredictability, particularly when you consider how unpredictable character builds can get, was something I enjoyed quite a bit. If you share that enthusiasm, why not check out 2017’s reboot of Prey?
Firmly an immersive sim, Prey is also an excellent space-based science-fiction game and story. It features your usual meditations on what happens when corporate-invested science goes maybe a few steps too far, but Prey imagines a different path for the space race, one in which humanity just kept at it, developing and producing more and more industrial solutions to our seemingly desperate need to get out there and explore.
And explore you will, as Prey’s Talos I space station offers both epic scale and plenty of starry vistas to gaze out on. Just be wary, as its meticulously rendered science labs play host to some of the biggest jump-scares this side of Dead Space. While Prey’s action is fast and brutal, the fantasy of space-age technology amped up to extreme degrees is almost always front and center.
Availability: Windows (YMMV), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
If you’re looking for a less-serious space sci-fi trip and have a few friends who’d be willing to join in, then maybe it’s time to assume the role of space-faring dwarves ready to plumb the depths of an alien world. There are untold riches to be had, and countless hazards and beasts to face in their pursuit.
A cooperative first-person shooter built around the “get in, loot, get out” loop of extraction shooters like Escape from Tarkov, The Cycle: Frontier, or Call of Duty’s DMZ, Deep Rock Galactic will test your wits and ability to respond to unforeseeable circumstances. That core gameplay experience is a lot of fun, and its underground alien environments make for a very convincing and engaging science-fiction experience.
With procedurally generated caves to explore and mine, no two games are ever the same. And the class-based gameplay really forces you to come together as a team for the best outcome. Though it has a silly premise, it’s a fun planet-mining simulation in which to cause trouble with friends.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Halo has always taken many of its lore and story beats from the wider world of space-themed science fiction, and 2021’s Infinite campaign offers one of the most expansive, vista-rich, and free-roaming Master Chief experiences yet. Cast out on a fractured portion of one of the series’ infamous Halo installations, Infinite’s landscape is a broken, beautiful, and mysterious sci-fi world and a great first-person shooter experience that affords you freedom and room to explore.
Many might be quick to point out that Halo has had better campaigns in the past, and you should absolutely check those out if you’re interested; but the open world of Infinite is unique to this entry. The ability to take in the colossal space that surrounds you, scaling enormous heights with Installation 07’s other half stretching into an eternal loop above and around you, plunging into the depths of ancient structures from precursor civilizations, and allowing encounters with the Banished to happen rather organically in these spaces grants a level of scale that’ll serve as a nice appetizer for the even larger and more free-roaming Starfield experience we expect to be playing later this year. The added armor and equipment upgrades in Halo Infinite also provide a nice, though very simple, level of character progression to chase as well.
If you really want to get into the story of Halo Infinite, though, it might help to do some homework. Catch up on some summaries of the campaigns in Halo 5 and Halo Wars 2 to get a general sense of what’s going on. Where Halo goes in the future with its galaxy-spanning lore is anyone’s guess, but Infinite offers solid FPS gameplay set in an inspiring sci-fi world.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch
What if you’re in the mood for a strange yet beautiful sci-fi experience set in the far future of our solar system, but also want to grind for some cool loot with friends? Well, might I introduce you to the bizarre spectrum of sci-fi weirdness that is Warframe?
A third-person loot shooter, Warframe has you travel across the entire solar system via open-world environments and procedurally generated dungeons generated from gorgeously detailed sci-fi tilesets. Oh, and it’s free to play! Honestly, even if you’re not really looking for a loot shooter, Warframe is at least worth the download to get a taste of the odd and alluring designs of its lovely sci-fi world,which have few parallels in other games. But if you do stick around after taking in its strange sights, you’ll find a lengthy, rewarding multiplayer experience with a wonderfully mysterious story.
You might remember Warframe as that one free game you downloaded on your PS4 when there weren’t so many games on it. But from its humble beginnings in 2013, the game has grown and prospered to become a very diverse and entertaining experience.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck Very Unsupported*), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
Starfield is clearly aiming for the more plausible side of futuristic science fiction, and we’re absolutely here for it. But what if you’re in the mood for something more fantastic, but still set in space and across other worlds, and you want to team up with a bunch of friends? Well, spending some time in Destiny 2 might deliver just what you seek.
First release in 2017, Destiny 2’s original campaign and first few DLCs have since been vaulted, but in their place are a number of very entertaining science-fantasy sagas about impending doom and the heroes who will attempt to thwart it. And much like we’ve come to expect from Bethesda games, your hero in Bungie’s Destiny is your character to build. Grinding missions to earn new gear, taking on epic foes, and looking stylish as you do are all key points here.
And how about those vistas? I mean, I pretty much have a rule for myself that I can’t play Destiny while stoned because, uh, I’ll just stare at these skyboxes for an eternity or two. Seriously, Destiny is free to play, so go download it and park yourself on Nessus or Europa for a while: It’s pure sci-fi eye candy.
*Trying to get Destiny 2 running on non-supported operating systems can result in a ban.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Windows (Steam Deck Unsupported), macOS, iOS, Android, Original Xbox, Nintendo Switch
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Original Xbox, Nintendo Switch
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic first arrived in 2003, and with it the mold for Mass Effect and many subsequent RPGs was born. Starting with BioWare’s (Mass Effect, Dragon Age) pioneering first entry and ending with Obsidian’s (The Outer Worlds, Pillars of Eternity) thrilling sequel, KotOR is an essential part of modern gaming history and a damn great sci-fi experience by way of the Star Wars universe.
Working with source material that’s more fantastic than what we likely expect to see in Starfield, you’ll get the choice of being a Jedi or a Sith, with some room to hang out in the middle as well—though as a ‘00-era game, some of the morality choices feel a little dated by today’s standards. Given the game’s age, that’s not the only aspect showing its age. Combat, in particular, feels a little rigid, though you can pause it to get a sense of what’s going on in case you feel overwhelmed. If you’re down with its quicks, KotOR remains a wonderful Star Wars RPG.
Taking place 4,000 years before Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the events of the game are removed enough from the movies that you can really make your own story here as you unravel the secrets of the Jedi and Sith.
If you’re a Star Wars fan and haven’t played KotOR, you need to close this tab and get to it. If you’re just looking for a great RPG set in space, KotOR won’t disappoint in that category, either.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), Xbox One, PS4
What if you’re in the mood for some space travel, but prefer a smaller-scale tale of exploration gone wrong? 2016’s The Solus Project is worth checking out as a survival pioneer sim that has a much smaller scale than what we expect from Starfield, but still sells the fantasy of being on a far-off world. The game sees you crash on a mysterious, alien world on which you must now survive against the elements.
You’ll spend a lot of time alone in The Solus Project, as it’s up to you to make the best of an alien world’s resources—as well as repurposed parts from your crashed spacecraft—to survive each day. As a survival game, it will tax you with more desperate scenarios than what we typically find in a Bethesda game, but as an appetizer to Starfield, it works to sell the gritty experience of needing to survive against all odds on an alien world.
The scale of the planet that orbits the world, and the intense storms that come and go, really sell the environment as a place situated somewhere in space. That experience is only heightened in VR, which The Solus Project supports on PC.
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck YMMV), macOS, Linux, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
Stellaris is a game I have lost every single time I’ve played, but I still return to it at least once or twice a year for the pure joy of sci-fi space simulation it offers. If you’re a 4X strategy vet, then you probably already know about this game (and are likely much better at it than I am), but if not, here’s the basic gist: You are in charge of the fate of a interstellar civilization, responsible for its maintenance and expansion across the cosmos. It’s a big galaxy out there, and you’ll come into contact with other civilizations, some of which might provoke epic battles in the vacuum of space.
But even if you’re not up for the challenge of managing a whole-ass civilization, the fantasy of space exploration is really well satisfied by Stellaris. It’s why I keep coming back despite cratering several ambitious civilizations at this point. The visuals alone are lovely, with an excellent view of an entire star system that also lets you zoom in and get up close to various planets and ships. It’s also accompanied by a soundtrack that has since found its way into my various ambient and electronic playlists as it’s just perfect to zone out to.
Though very different from what Starfield aspires to achieve, Stellaris has become one of my favorite ways to spend time in space. Maybe this time my civilization will actually—nope, sorry, that one’s been snuffed out by militaristic expansionists yet again. Oh well…
Availability: Windows (Steam Deck Unsupported), macOS, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5
What if you really want to go to space? Well, I can’t help you there, but I can suggest a game that’s maybe about as close as you could possibly get. Elite Dangerous features a 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way Galaxy. Yes, you read that right. With ship controls that get close to flight sims in terms of intricacy and the skill required to set sail without crashing and losing your guts to rapid death spirals, Elite Dangerous offers a remarkable level of realism that’ll give you an unrivaled level of immersion, if you’re up to its challenge.
We know that Starfield is going to be light on realism elements, aiming to prioritize the fun and fantasy of space flight more than a clinical simulation of what space travel is probably like. But that’s what makes Elite Dangerous such an exciting game to play right now in preparation for it. While it doesn’t let you land on every single planet, even No Man’s Sky can’t offer a scale and depth of simulation quite like this.
Elite Dangerous features intricate space exploration, opportunities for PvP, and the scale of it all really delivers a taste of that odd mix of awe and dread that William Shattner described during his trip up there in 2021. With excellent visuals and sound effects, a fitting score, and an epic scale, Elite Dangerous is a commitment, but a worthwhile one with a scale that few games can match.
Promising a scale that’s almost too large to believe, time will tell whether Starfield will land among the ranks of the best and most captivating sci-fi space journeys out there. Until then, there’s no shortage of spacey games, big or small, AAA or indie, to fill our time with. What other starbound games have caught your attention lately?