First off, let me state for the record that I am not a Macintosh person. I use Windows, I prefer Windows, and I'd recommend Windows to anyone in a heartbeat. In addition, as a gamer, using a Macintosh usually isn't in my best interest when it comes to gaming...usually. While the Mac had some good original games like Bungie Software's Marathon (the spiritual predecessor to the Halo series), most of the games for the Mac were sub-par ports of PC games, usually too little, and too late.
There is, however, an exception to every rule. Most gaming systems, even those with lots and lots of terrible games, have at least one game that makes it all worthwhile. As such, for the Mac, there is one game series that many Windows enthusiasts have been green with envy about for years now. The one series that makes the Mac community stand up and say "See, NOW don't you wish you had a Mac?", only to have us lowly Windows followers hang our heads and mutter, "...yes...". That must-own, Macintosh exclusive is a little known shareware series called Escape Velocity by Ambrosia Software.
Escape Velocity (or "EV" for short) is a sandbox-style game where the entire universe is open for your exploration, and it's up to you to carve out a living. In fact, it's pretty obviously inspired by the classic space trading sim Elite, although it's modernized quite a bit. As such, it bears a bit more resemblance to Origin's (also Elite inspired) Wing Commander: Privateer, though on a much greater scale, and replacing the first person dogfights with much quicker, overhead battles.
The story takes place in the year 2246, and mankind has expanded to colonize many star systems surrounding the Earth. You are a guy who has saved a little bit of money working on freighter starships, and you now have enough money to buy a small shuttle with 10,000 credits (the in-game monetary unit) leftover. From there, you can start out to make your fortune by delivering goods, trading commodities, or taking special missions. As you get more money, you can buy larger ships, allowing you to take more dangerous missions, or trade more goods.
There are various plot points in EV depending on what systems you land on and what missions you take. However, the primary back story of the game is that when mankind started exploring space, they came into contact with an alien race. This alien race just happened to be hostile, and a large war was fought between the humans and the aliens. Eventually, the human planets banded together to form a powerful confederation, one large enough to destroy the alien race. However, after the war ended, the Confederation refused to give up power, and started to enslave the outer rim planets. These planets rebelled, throwing you into the following galactic political situation: Confederation VS Rebellion. While this plot setting isn't exactly original, it is more than enough to set an exciting tone for the game. The game's setting is also made more interesting in that each planet has its own small backstory, one that reflects the commodities and missions you can get on the planet.
The game is viewed from a 2D overhead perspective, and the interface allows for much quicker movement than Elite. The graphics are rather sparse and a bit on the small side (you will definitely need to click on the screens on the right to get a full view.) You can move around freely in each star system without using fuel, but if you wish to jump into an adjacent system, there is a fuel cost. You also are not allowed to jump out of a system if you are too close to the system's center and it's a populated system. When you land on a planet or space station within a system, you have a variety of options, including buying and selling commodities, taking up new missions, refueling your ship, buying enhancements for your ship (or entirely new ships, if you have the cash), and checking out the spaceport bar, where sometimes you are approached for the special plot driven missions. As you advance in the game, you sometimes get more difficult missions, and as your reputation gets more dangerous (by fighting and destroying larger and larger ships), you will also get deadlier missions. The best way to do this (without damaging your status with by attacking peaceful ships in a government's star system), is to attack the various pirates you'll usually find in uninhabited systems.
The battle system in the game is pretty simplistic, but very fast paced and engaging. You could jump into a system and be attacked by several ships, with only few seconds (thankfully, if someone is hostile towards you an alarm goes off) to prepare and make the decision to fight or flee. Obviously in the beginning, running headlong into a fight is usually a poor choice. However, from fighting, there is always a chance that you could capture enemy ships, and add them to your fleet. Because battles (like flying) are held in real time and can start and end in the blink of an eye, the excitement in battles never wears down.
The beauty of the game is that you do not have to go down the "most-powerful-fleet-ever" option for playing the game. You can also choose to simply become a trader, trading goods and building an escort fleet of courier ships and freighters. You can become a pirate in a tiny starfighter and terrorize said freighters. Or, by siding with the Confederation or Rebellion (which happens when your legal status with the two governments goes up and down respectively), you can take missions from each of them to destroy the other side. Obviously taking and succeeding in these missions will cause you to further go towards one side, though some missions can do nothing but improve your reputation with a government (delivering vaccines to plaque stricken planets), or do nothing but hurt your reputation (escorting criminals to pirate planets for safe haven).
This is just scratching the surface of the game. You can also hire escorts (done from the Spaceport Bar) to either help you carry more commodities around (and thus make a better profit), or to help you fight against your enemies. Also, when your combat rating reaches the very top, you can "conquer" planets: assuming you can defeat their usually insane defense force. In addition, commodities you trade can suddenly shoot up and down in price for a few days leaving you to quickly take advantage of the situation.
This game typically forces one to suffer through the, "just one more turn", syndrome, as Civilization players can attest to. That is, you could be playing the game, it's time to "go to bed/work on paper/go to work", etc, and you'll be thinking to yourself, "You know, I can afford that Argosy in another 50k, I'll just do a few more deliveries", or "Hey, there is a surplus of food on this planet which is setting its price to near nothing. I better take advantage of this...". Thus, a one hour session of the game could easily turn into many more hours if you aren't careful.
Escape Velocity also has enormous replay value. Even if you've done every Rebel mission, you can still start a new game over and do the Confederate missions. There are also other special mission strings that can be done for other planets as well. Also, if you are feeling zealous, you can play "strict play" mode, which means that if you die, you cannot re-open your pilot file to continue from the last planet you landed on, which usually happens if you die. You get one life, and if you lose it, that's it. Generally, not even the most hardcore EV players are brave enough to venture into this mode of the game.
In addition, after you've beaten and played every mission in the game, EV features a very unique plug-in system (which uses a specific Mac OS feature known as a "resource fork", making it the primary reason the game couldn't be ported to Windows), in which fans can modify and create their own universes, with their own missions, their own plots, their own ships, and essentially create brand new games, with relative ease.
EV is the kind of game in which you could tell it was made by people who love playing games. There are tons various geek references to Star Wars, Star Trek and the LOADS of references to Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Here is a screenshot for a veritable torrent of Douglas Adams allusions, featuring planet Beeblebrox of the Zaphod system, and your combat rating can be classified as "harmless" or "mostly harmless"). The game is made to be very open ended, and a lot of fun, no matter how you want play to play it. It is this expansive format that was taken to new heights when Ambrosia created the game's much revered sequel.
Escape Velocity: Override is a perfect example of a game that took an awesome concept that was well executed and made it even better. It basically takes all the aspects that made EV great and expands in almost every area. The universe is larger (around 2-3 times larger), there are more governments (from 2 main governments to around 6 or 7 main governments), more complex plots (as a result of more governments), more ships, more ways to outfit your ships, and FAR more missions and mission strings.
The (primary) plot of the game takes place in 2156, nearly 90 years before the original Escape Velocity. Currently, the humans are in the middle of the war between the alien race mentioned in the first game (known in this game as the "Voinians"), and instead of the confederacy, the humans are called "UE", or "United Earth". Your character's back story is still the same, you start with a shuttle on Earth, and you have to go out and make your fortune.
The gameplay mechanics are also still very much the same. You can buy/sell commodities, take missions, etc, but the game is far more robust when it comes to missions. In the first game, most of the time you were given a variety of mission types by default and you could take these missions whenever and wherever you want. In EV:O, you usually have to find new governments to get new mission types, and usually have to be offered and complete a unique mission before you are offered the new mission types. This existed in the first game, but the options were very limited. Plot wise, there are also more alien races, and many of these races have different governments and their own wars, so the potential for more missions and alliances is more immense.
In addition to being larger, the game is more difficult: your early missions pay you less than in the first game, the ships are more expensive, and because there are more ships, the power base between ships has been spread out more evenly. Also, combat has been more refined to a point where certain weapons are more effective against certain ships, so you have to plan ahead when you are upgrading your ship to see if what you are doing is correct for the missions you might take.
Like EV, EV:O uses the same plug-in system, so, like EV, EV:O cannot be directly ported to Windows. However, also like EV, this lead to the creation of many original plug-ins from the fan community. (See the picture to the right with the Millennium Falcon and Corellian Corvette from Star Wars.) This adds to the replay value even more than the first game, since the base game that all plug-ins are based on are more detailed than before.
The game also featured a unique way to get people to pay for the game. In the original EV, if you did not register the game, a guy named Captain Hector would fly onto your screen and remind you to register. In EV:O, he not only reminds you to pay up, but if you don't cough up the cash, Captain Hector will steal about half of your ingame fortune from you at random points in the game. However, the game is well worth the $25 for it, so it's usually best to lay out the cash up front, and save yourself from any potential aggravation down the road.
Escape Velocity: Nova is the latest installment into the Escape Velocity series. This installment is very unique in several ways. First off, it uses a different plug-in technology than Classic Mac OS, which helped allow the game to be ported to Windows (this port did not occur until around 2003, however). In addition, they included the first two games as plug-ins so that Windows users could enjoy all three games for the first time. Second, it is the first EV game (much the disappointment of many fans) to limit the player to one major story string for a pilot. So, if you played the Federation string, and then wanted to play the Rebel string, you had to create an entirely new game and start from scratch. This was especially annoying since you couldn't even take missions for planets you were friendly with if you have already started one of primary government's mission strings. The game also uses better sprites, rendered in such a way as to make them look 3D (though this isn't entirely new, as certain plug-ins for the original EV and EV:O have been using this technique for a while).
The game takes place far into the future passed the original EV. At some point, mankind develops "hypergates" which allow for instant travel between planets and systems. A terrorist attack destroys this system, leave humans isolated for a period of time. The game starts at a time when lightspeed travel was becoming mainstream again. As with the first two games, you are a pilot with a simple shuttle, setting out to make your fortune in this new and exciting galaxy.
The game's universe is a little bigger than EV:O's, but with a far more complex plot. In EV:O, the war between the UE and the Voinians was the main focus of the game. In EV:N, this focus is lifted across the six primary governments. While very deep, the depth required to bring the player into the story lines killed off a bit of the open-endedness of the game. This forced story is the main reason why many consider EV:N a step back (albeit a small one) in the series. If Ambrosia ends up making a fourth Escape Velocity game, hopefully they'll take a step back and reinvestigate this setback. Still being able to play all three games (via plug-ins) on Windows is one of the big draws to the game. Unfortunately I have noticed some bugs with the plug-ins, allowing you to jump from the EV and EV:O universes into the EV:N universes. Hopefully these have been fixed through updated patches.
At the moment, there are currently no announced plans from Ambrosia for a new Escape Velocity game, or even a online MMO version (which the fan base has been begging for). However, they also said for a while there would be no third Escape Velocity game (Nova) and that Escape Velocity would never come out for Windows (again, Nova), so it's really anyone's guess if there is a future for the series. However, with epic replay value, a lively mod community, and the game world now being open to Windows users (a 30-day limited demo is available at the published web page), this series could very well survive for a long while without a fourth installment. Since playing it, Escape Velocity has become my personal basis for comparison for all sandbox space exploration games, and so far, nothing has really stacked up to it.