This game took me a while to get comfortable with but after getting there I can confidently say there is no other space combat game out there that has been as exciting and realistic for me to play. Once you get the systems down and learn navigation (There are a multitude of youtube instructional video's I highly recommend you watch as you begin playing) you are given free range of a vast universe with a multitude of locations and enemies. One of the most interesting concepts for me initially was being able to fly down to the surface of planets from space. The planets vary in type and in atmosphere some even have hostile weather systems or visibility conditions that make atmospheric flight very difficult which I found really cool. The main draw for me also being the realistic physics involved in flight. You cannot just drop through an atmosphere without burning up so you have to approach at the correct speeds and angles and flight controls shift from atmospheric to space seamlessly. Also in space you can fly using true newtonian flight or switch on the fly to an adaptive system that mimics atmospheric flight by compensating for the intended forward direction. Being able to continue on a trajectory at enormous speeds and rotate on any axis without impacting your trajectory has always been the draw of space combat for me but is rarely implemented in space games. Flipping over at speed and accelerating in the opposite direction or setting a trajectory and flipping on your side to strafe a capital ship at incredible speeds is amazing and it's made manageable by being able to switch back to a directional flight mode when you just want to point and fly. The gauges need to be researched a little bit (also on the video's) if you are unfamiliar but provide spectacular feedback that not only brings realism but adds depth and enables more control with a clear idea of the forces at work from and on your ship.
I play a ton of games but there is something special about this one that keeps me coming back. There is a great community of people willing to help out and some incredible mods available. I have some for my HUD that uses the HUD from the ship on the movie Oblivion that's really well done and mods that make the nebulae and space in general look absolutely phenomenal. There isn't a ton of story or progression, there are a lot of different ships, weapons, components, etc. and you are given the ability to edit your own ship designs by choosing components and altering their size and placement on your ship allowing every ship to be completely different even if using identical components. I have spent hours creating and saving ship designs alone with the different components and different levels of components. There are also ship mods made by the community that use models from popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. You can trade although trading is limited since cargo is extremely limited even at the highest levels but quantity is not what I assume was the goal. There are many alert style missions where a commodity is needed at a particular station or planet that appears with a timer and you need to acquire and deliver it to get the reward which is usually substantial. There are many different levels of missions with varying goals of taking out single ships to entire fleets or mining asteroids for particular minerals and even cleaning giant solar arrays with tractor beams where you remove the dirt from the panels with your ship.
The solar systems are VAST and can contain many planets and stations that require jump drives to navigate and gates connect the systems although the gates are placed in different areas in each system but do not act as doors at the barriers between rooms, you can fly past the gates and on into space if you so choose. Many gates are actually located in the center of the systems so it's not a N,S,E,W square setup. It's vary natural and organic. The stations offer vendors, supplies, components, fuel, commodities, repairs, missions and a few other things. You fly in to the stations and dock with them to interact and you are protected within until you undock and exit the force field. There are also varying levels of difficulty in the different systems with some containing very few hostile ships, some with many and although I haven't made it out there yet some are active war zones and incredibly hostile. There are also different factions that inhabit the systems with who you can build up your standings by running missions for or against their enemies. The faction standings are system specific and do not carry over throughout the universe which i found adds a lot more gameplay in that your standings affect your ability to use different stations and the prices of things like fuel and other commodities. You may also purchase licences that allow you to hunt the enemies of that faction for rewards.
This game is the closest I have ever felt to actually having a ship in space with the freedom to fly anywhere and do anything. The realism is incredible and comes through in scope of environment, optional objectives and the feel of opening up a universe for you to inhabit as you so choose. I've actually just flown around as I imagine I would to relax and enjoy the majesty and solitude of space and no other game has inspired that kind of feeling for me. That says a lot.
Disclaimer: I live in and run a home for homeless and disabled Veterans where we have multiple computers and Steam accounts so hours played does not always reflect my actual experience with the game being reviewed other than showing the minimum amount of time I have personally played as this is my personal account.