Space games really do run the same gamut as the racing genre. Some are utterly arcade, others are total sims, others are open-world.
You've got a good starting position with Hellbender etc. Most space games, at least the pure dogfighters, don't deal with much beyond switching weapons and throttling energy around shield banks.
If you're not willing to roll back to the Wing Commanders or LucasArts' doyens, then starting with the Freespace series is perfect. The Great War and the expansion are fantastic, but it's Freespace 2 that deservedly gets called out as the last great space fighter game. It has massive scale, a fine narrative, excellent mission structure and has a slew of mods that can smarten it up. Still plays like a dream, too.
I'd also be willing to suggest checking out the Independence War games. Newtonian physics make at least the original I-War
game something really special. Engaging vessels at high-speed while sloughing your frigate sideways to compensate for inertia is something else. The second game
is great fun, too.
Also props to Starlancer
, a game often left in the shadows, but a great Cold War-esque romp.
There's a bunch of Euro games, especially from the former Soviet states, that are quite interesting. The Tomorrow War
looks pretty stock-standard, but it has a decent enough story in a Russian mil-SF way (has your atmospheric-orbit/space transition, too). There's also a demo for Home Planet
out there, a Russian-made dogfighter that felt akin to I-War in a way; high on the electronic countermeasures and speed, low on the terrestrial dogfighter-but-in-space gear. Shame it never got released beyond a demo in the West.
As one of the few people in the world who, despite the outcoming being less than stellar, loved tinkering around in Derek Smart's Battlecruiser 3000AD/Millennium
becoming an open-source project is something awesome. If the idea of flying/managing a BSG-style carrier floats a boat or two, check out the game. Glad it has returned, as it disappeared from the Matrix store a while ago.
As far as freeform Elite games go, though? Elite is kind of the pinnacle, and everything that has seemingly come after it been constrained or localised to a degree. I'd say the X games are close, but then, they don't really have the freedom - better seen as sandbox business simulations. Your office just happens to be the bridge of a ship. Freelancer was okay, but I didn't like it as much as many other folks.
Tell you what, though. You might want to check out Unknown - 3D Space Trader
on iOS. It's as faithful a clone as you're going to get, and has that sparse, vector universe to explore. Recommended, especially for the two bucks it's going for. Plays really well on iPad as well as iPhone.
Hope that helps. Love the genre, but kinda not sure what Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen mean for it right now. I'll take an Enemy Starfighter over those two. Plus two Rodina titles.
Could waffle on for hours. Parkan II...now there was an opportunity...