by Gene Turnbow
Okay, show of hands – how many of you as children got packing boxes, decorated them with crayons to look like spaceships and flew to Mars in one? Ah, ha, yes, I thought so. Lots of hands went up. Space travel seems more commonplace now than it once did, but it still has that almost magical appeal. As adults (or just bigger kids with day jobs) we still remember that siren call of the final frontier. The good news is, now that personal computers have come of age, so have space flight simulators.
Here are a few of them you can try out. All of them require some reasonably serious graphics hardware on a reasonably fast machine, so don’t expect this stuff to work on the machine in your office or the one in the computer lab at school necessarily.
for Space Engine
|CPU||2 GHz||3 GHz|
|RAM||2 Gb||2 Gb|
|OS||Windows XP||Windows 7|
I saved the best for first. Why not? Let’s cut to the chase.
Space Engine isn’t open source, but it is free, and you can customize the experience in a lot of different ways. The list of available functions is rather impressive. According to the description on the SpaceEngine website, SpaceEngine has every type of celestial object known to modern astronomy. It also lets you exercise time control in order to observe the rotation of planets and their orbital movement, view orbital paths, take in the splendors of 3D planetary landscapes and volumetric space models, import your own user add-ons and, most importantly, pilot spaceships. Depending on how much you’ve wanted to work for NASA, this may be the niftiest component of SpaceEngine.
Not only can you zip through this virtual universe like the Silver Surfer with Free mode, but you can choose between Spacecraft mode and Aircraft mode, both of which utilize inertia to simulate a rigid body in zero gravity. The only thing that SpaceEngine is missing is a contingent of little green men. But I bet you could add them.
The only thing missing is that for some reason it’s not open source. Presumably the author, Vladimir Romanyuk, is hoping to sell this engine later.
This one has been around a lot of years, and until recently is the one I considered the best. Unlike SpaceEngine, Celestia is open source, and again unlike SpaceEngine, it will also run on OSX or Linux. It takes great pains to be as scientifically accurate as possible, but then so does SpaceEngine. There’s a substantial user community built up around Celestia, though, due in part to its open source nature – and, you can import your own celestial objects and place them in the “universe”. It’s gorgeous, and fun, and you can fly to other stars in the galaxy fairly readily (since little is known about the planetary systems around other stars, there won’t be much to see but the star itself when you get there, but it’s still fun). I was looking at the code for Celestia for a while to be the kernel of a spacecraft cockpit simulator, but it would have needed more than a little corrective surgery to get it to the point where it could be used for that, so I moved on to other projects.
You can’t actually fly the ships you import into Celestia, or SpaceEngine, for that matter. Of the two, Space Engine produces better planetside imagery. If you want to actually fly ships in space, though, there are some fun options.
Total Conversion Mods
These are games where all the content has been converted to a theme other than the one the original game was designed for. Here are some interesting ones – in each case you have to own a copy of the game for which the mod was designed, and in some cases this is a little tough because the game itself hasn’t been sold in years. Since we’re hoping to see J. Michael Straczynksi at Comic-Con 2012 this weekend, here are a couple of Babylon 5 mods:
- The Babylon Project – of a number of B5 total conversion mods, this is one of the few that’s actually fully finished and completely playable. It uses the Freespace 2 engine, which fortunately went open source in 2002. This means its rendering engine is a little antiquated, but it also means you can actually get a copy of it and play this TC mod.
- Babylon 5 – X3TC – based on X3 Terran Conflict, this conversion probably looks the best of all the B5 conversions, but it’s missing story features.
Open Source Space Flight
There are a lot of commercial games that put you in the cockpit or on the command bridge of a starship, and I’ve had a number of favorites over the years – but if you want something really unique, try one of these open source games:
- Vega Strike - This one’s been around for years now, and is very playable and a ton of fun and one of my personal favorites. Fight in galactic wars, participate in inter-world trade, become a pirate, and fly against other human pilots. Available for free for OSX, Linux, and of course Windows.
- Pioneer Space Sim – This one is gorgeous and has some nice planet work, but you’re alone in the universe. Nobody to interact with, and no signs of civilization anywhere. Still, if you want to explore space and not get shot at, this might be a good bet.
- Oolite – Oolite is a space sim game, inspired by Elite, powered by Objective-C and OpenGL, and designed as a small game that is easy for users to pick up, modify and expand upon. Almost every aspect of the game can be changed by using simple, free graphics packages and text editors. Originally written for Mac OS X, Oolite is available for Mac OS X (10.4 and higher) and PCs running Windows XP, Windows Vista or Linux. It requires at least a 1 GHz processor, 1 GiB of memory, and a graphics card capable of accelerating OpenGL graphics. This one’s open source too, but you’ll need Objective-C to tinker with it. You can get precompiled binaries, though, so if you can’t compile it, you can still play it.
There you have it – enough freeware space flight and combat simulators to keep you busy for a while, each providing various degrees of playability and scientific accuracy, and all of them fun to tinker with.
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