Anyone who grew up watching any version of Star Trek has dreamed of commanding a Federation vessel. And Faster Than Light is an amazing PC game that lets you do just that — plus a free expansion will let you add more weapons, drones, and alien ships.
I was a little late to the FTL party, but I fell in love with the game immediately. It has a very retro feel, and the controls are very intuitive. Click on your shields and you increase power to the shields. Click on a crew member, then right click on a room in your ship, and that crew member will go there. The top-down view of your ship lets you do everything from hiring your crew to directing all power to shields to opening an airlock so the vacuum of space extinguishes that fire that just broke out in the transporter room. [Note: At the moment, FTL is available as part of the Steam Holiday sale for less than $4.]
The simple controls support a game with lots of strategic depth, and sometimes brutal difficulty. It's a Rogue-like game, meaning you can't save and go back if something happens you don't like, and the sectors and enemies you face are generated randomly.
Sometimes you'll run into a really tough alien ship and desperately try to hold things together until your warp engines recharge, allowing you to escape. Sometimes aliens will beam aboard your ship and slaughter your crew, and there's basically nothing you can do about it. When your crew members die, you won't be getting them back, and when your ship is destroyed or left derelict, there's nothing to do but start over from the beginning. On easy mode, I've so far made it to the end boss once (I was promptly obliterated).
The variety of weapons and defensive systems you can use to customize your ship provide an immense number of options. You can take out their shields with ballistic attacks, then surgically destroy their systems with lasers. Or you can hit them with bombs that start fires, keeping their crew busy while your combat drones keep up the barrage. Ion weapons let you disable systems without damaging the hull, while boarding with your crew gives space combat that up close and personal touch.
My discovery of FTL coincides almost perfectly with the recent announcement of a free expansion called Faster Than Light: Advanced Edition. In addition to new sector events and new ship layouts, it will add more hostile environments to the sensor-blocking nebulae and hull-burning red giants. The Borg-like Lanius alien race will probably murder my crew over and over. The new mind control system will let you force alien invaders to repair the damage they just did to your ship, and the hacking system will let you mess with your enemy's on-board systems. Why are the medbots in sickbay shooting acid at us, aaaaaaaaaa?!
FTL is almost perfectly designed for playing on a tablet, so iPad owners should be happy to know that an optimized version for that device will be released at the same time as the free expansion, scheduled for "early 2014."