Open world space games are back. Post-EVE they’re multiplayer oriented. Elite Dangerous decided to drop its single player. Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky may have single player campaigns, but they aren’t out yet.
The last great space open world game was Privateer and it was its world that made it worked. Privateer succeeded where Freelancer failed because it was a different kind of game. It wasn’t just an open world Wing Commander. Instead you started out in a flying crate that couldn’t stand up to a single fighter. It was dirty and ugly. Getting by took running odd jobs delivering ore around a single backward solar system.
It should have sucked and sometimes it did, but it also made it real.
You weren’t a hero in Privateer. Until the end there were no big stakes. You were just a truck driver in space (that game was actually made and Dennis Hopper was in it) trying to get by. Everything was broken and everything cost money. Keeping your ship flying so you could get work was about stretching a tight budget even tighter.
You could eventually buy the big ship and the top of the line weapons, but only after a lot of sweat and toil. And it wasn’t just you. Your enemies weren’t Kilrathi, though they were in there. You were fighting petty pirates flying basic fighters or crazy retro fanatics. They were just as much at the bottom of the ladder as you. You were flying through industrial zones where militia in basic fighters fought it out with pirates trying to steal some cargo or smugglers moving drugs and slaves.
And you could become a drug dealer or a slaver too. It was an option.
Privateer was a bad neighborhood, a working class universe in which you could make good or bad choices, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. You could run cargo or hunt down pirates. Those are the same limitations you find in other open world space games, but here they were the character of the universe you lived in. They didn’t feel like bad game design, but like a matter of fact statement.
For the few glamorous fighter pilots, there was the opportunity to do something big and take on the Kilrathi in a war for humanity. Everyone else was just working a 9 to 5 job. They might be doing it in space, but it was still the same old.
Space wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t exciting. It was miserable and dirty. And it was amazing.
Star Citizen’s promos borrow from the same toolbox, but it will be interesting to see if it can capture that feeling. Freelancer didn’t.