Microsoft Space Simulator
Microsoft have already provided the anorak-clad legions of the world with something to get their furry teeth into with Flight Simulator, in which the truly friendless can spend days of their life flying, in real time, in a light aircraft from New York to San Francisco. Now they've gone one step further and made Space Simulator, in which the anorak par excellence -let's call him "the snorkel jacket" - can spend eight months of his life flying, in real time, in a pretend space cruiser from Earth to Mars. Or if he's particularly keen, 450,000 years of his life flying to the core of the galaxy. (Assuming, that is, he's bought a reliable computer and got plenty of Pot Noodles in, of course.)
With Right Simulator, there is a very good reason (or excuse, if you prefer) for spending so long in a small room on your own, pretending to fly a plane, and that's the well-known one; that you can actually use the software to learn to fly a proper plane. Hours in the simulated air, as long as you do it in accordance with certain rules, can be counted towards the qualifications that you need to gain a real-life pilot's licence. (With the added bonus that if you crash into the conning tower, the magic of the reboot ensures that no-one will ever know.) Even if you don't use it in the official way, the flight models of the planes are so accurate that you'll still have a bit of a headstart when it comes to learning in real life - as indeed Duncan, our very own von Rich-thoven, proved by trying that very thing. And he's still here to testify to its effectiveness, with all his lower limbs intact to boot. Which is more than you can say for one or two real-life so-called "pilots". Like Flight Simulator (FS), Space Simulator (SS) can't lay claims to being a game, but unlike FS, you can hardly claim that several years stuck in front of a monitor with SS will prepare you in any way for a top job as an astronaut. Especially as there doesn't seem to be any plans on Microsoft's part to release dedicated hardware add-ons. We've had nary a word about personal versions of those high-speed centrifugal things that test what you do under extreme G-force -black out, vomit into your hair, or lose it completely and start singing the theme tune from Randall and Flopkirk Deceased (complete with hand movements). And without those, how will your astronaut training be complete? So. Space Simulator isn't really a game, because there aren't really any overall objectives. And it can't really be called a simulator because most of the things it's trying to simulate aren't actually possible at the moment. So what is it? What do you get for your money?
What you get
What you get is a wide variety of pre-set scenarios (or "situations", as they like to call them), and a variety of spacecraft appropriate to a certain situation. Some of the things to do are based on real-life, like landing a space shuttle, while others are fictional, like "hot-dogging" a spacecraft through the spokes of a rotating space station. Don't get excited, this isn't Stunt Island: even this scenario - which is far and away the paciest - will hardly test your reflexes, given that the thing is all set up and the spacecraft performs the trick without you. And if you used the video facility to record a mission to show to your friends, they'd beat you to death in protest.
Unfortunately, the variety of ships is largely negated by the fact that they handle identically, whether it's an intergalactic explorer or a one-man jetpack. They are also windscreenless which means your view is without a frame: the view is transparent and so vision is totally unimpaired, which may be fine for gazing at bitmapped planets, but does little for the ambience of the thing. In fact, the only way to see your ship is to use external views. And when you do. I'm afraid you'll be disappointed: it's dull, polygon city.
The same controls are used for every ship: a set of blasters and miniblasters that are accurate in terms of physics, but are a little fiddley to use. There's a handy list of autopilot manoeuvres that you can select for when you need to perform little tricks with which to impress any watching space chicks.
What you also get
The other thing you get is the opportunity to blast off to distant galaxies. Both real and imaginary solar systems have been included. The imaginary ones are generated at random when you first load the game, so there's always the chance that you'll get lucky and come across a planet where the natives need to be taught the meaning of love. Actually, there aren't any natives. There's nobody else around. Just endless, randomly generated planets. Oh yes, all very pretty, but ultimately rather dull. And it's all very well selecting areas of the universe and zooming-in the view to look at a bitmapped planet, but you can't get away from the fact that all you're actually looking at when you do so is a big, broken-up bitmap. Another problem with the bitmaps is that only certain areas have been "done". Choose to view the Crab Nebula, for example, and you'll see a bizarre, huge square bitmap plonked in the middle of space. Come in to land the space shuttle, and you'll see a huge bitmapped square of land surrounded by blank green nothing.
Not exactly inspiring.
In a way, Space Simulator falls some where between the two stools of serious astronomical software and space exploration game, and most people would prefer it to concentrate on one or the other and get it right. Let's face it, among the many entertaining space exploration games are two all-time classics: Star Control II provides lengthy exploration and RPG-style adventure with large doses of humour, while Elite II gives you an accurately-mapped galaxy, complete freedom and the chance to be a money-making mercenary to boot. As for serious star-gazing, the magnificent RedShift provides everything you could possibly wish for.
All in all, Space Simulator provides you with plenty of "situations" to fiddle around with, but it doesn't really alter the simple fact that flying around in space is essentially incredibly boring and, without the motivation of being wrapped up in some over-riding purpose, has little appeal.
Download Microsoft Space Simulator
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP