This is my next: Oolite
You've probably never heard of the game before. Don't worry; neither did I until about two weeks ago.
How it Started
The story starts out like this: around two weeks ago, Ars Technica released an article commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Commodore 64. To emphasize the legacy of the C64 as a gaming machine, they showed off three Youtube videos of games running on the legendary device. The first was a shameless Mario clone called Giana Sisters; nothing special. The second was a 2-player racing game called Racing Destruction Set; cool, but nothing to get very excited about. The last was an open world, 3D space trading called Elite; that's cool and all...wait, what?!
For those that don't know, Elite is a classic 80s PC game where you take control of a freelance space trader, whose main goal is to travel the stars in search of wealth, thrill, and fame/notoriety. You can do many things in this game, such as profitting by selling/smuggling goods between planets, accepting space missions to perform, engaging in dogfights with space pirates or rogue aliens, and pimping your ship to defend yourself against the worst that space has to offer. The moment I read the sales pitch, I instantly fell in love with it. It's like the game I never knew I wanted until learned about it. I just had to play the game someway, somehow.
A casual trip to Wikipedia turned out really helpful. The wiki pointed me to an interesting Elite clone called Oolite (Interesting fact: 'Oo' in 'Oolite' stands for 'object-oriented' due to the game being written in Objective-C). In essence, it is an OpenGL recreation of Elite, down to the planets, stars, ships, and UI. The game is also free and open-source, so there was virtually no excuse for me to not try the game out. After a few minutes of downloading and installing the game on my Macbook Pro, I soon found myself ready to trade some goods, and reach for the stars (literally).
To go where no mainstream gamer has gone before.
Not for the Faint-Hearted
I won't lie to you: this game has a notoriously steep curve. You start out with a modest ship, only 100 credits, and a front laser that takes forever to actually kill something. In addition to that, there are many key controls to memorize. It took me at least half a dozen trips to the 'Read Me' file before I got a good grip on the controls, and without proper ship handling, you can't even dock your ship in a space station without breaking it into a million pieces. And in another addition to that, at the start, pretty much any ship that is not you can shoot you down in mere seconds. In many ways, it actually reminds me of my experience when I first played Morrowind, where you start out so weak and helpless that a measly rat could kill you. Oolite can be pretty unforgiving at the start. You will struggle with the UI and the controls. You will crash your ship the first time you try to dock. You will not survive your first encounter with pirates. You will struggle to make a decent amount of money by trading. You will probably even curse to the heavens why you even decided to play this crude and unforgiving game in the first place.
Docking at this rotating space station isn't as easy as it looks...
But just like with Morrowind, I somehow persisted with playing the game, and the addiction eventually took hold of me. Having started as a crippled trader, I can now travel to any planet in my local galaxy, make a decent amount of profit as I move from station to station, successfully escort passengers through space, and arm myself with enough weaponry to stand a chance in space dogfights. Oh, and I now have 23 pirate kills under my belt; there's that too. I'm still not done, though. I'm gonna need a new ship that can carry more cargo. I'll also need to arm myself with additional, more powerful lasers and missiles to combat tougher enemies. While I'm at it, I should probably install some mods to enhance the gaming experience...wait, there's mods?!
OXPs: Oolite Plus Your Universe
Oolite also gives you the option of installing Oolite Expansion Packs (OXPs) that serve the purpose of adding content on top of vanilla Oolite. These can range from graphical mods that can make current content prettier and fancier, to new additions such as ships, planets, stations, and game mechanics. Of course, these are all completely optional, and Oolite as a vanilla game stands well on its own, but if you ever thought that something about the Oolite universe felt missing or wrong, there is probably an OXP that will fix just that.
Oolite Expansion Packs (OXPs) allow you to beautify your universe, such as this high-res planet texture.
These OXPs are also really easy to install. You simply download these zipped files from the web, and place the main folder in a conveniently placed 'Add-Ons' folder in the main Oolite directory. It's about as simple as installing add-ons in World of Warcraft, so being able to shape the world of Oolite to your bidding should be a cinch. Personally, I will first be installing graphical mods in order to bring the game's graphics up to speed with today's offerings. I'm still deciding which game enhancements I will be installing, but some have definitely caught my attention.
The Final Frontier Awaits
Almost every person I've showed the game off to has commented that the game looks boring, but at this point, I pretty much don't care anymore. I am honestly having the time of my life with this game, which says a lot for a freeware game that was built almost completely by a community. I am currently playing what could be the game of my dreams, and I am loving every moment of it. I keep telling myself: "Just one more space station stop."; the game is that hard to put down for me. Sure, you start out not being able to do much, but with diligence, experience, and commitment, Oolite becomes one hell of a space sandbox that has a ridiculously huge amount of stuff to offer.
*Updated: Correction for the features included in the original Elite game