Saturday, 27 August 2016

No Man's Sky: From Hype to Reality

It can be difficult to avoid hype, to avoid hope, to avoid the ceaseless marketing push of certain games. For those of us that read games-related websites, who take an interest in what is available and what is upcoming, you may see news about the current hot game every day.

For No Man's Sky this was readily apparent. It was a space-flight game, with millions of stars to discover, with procedurally generated galaxies. It would have unique wildlife on each world, it would have an overarching quest that you could undertake or you could just fly around and have fun.

A beautiful view of a neighbouring planet and its moon, close enough that it would cause all sorts of problems if the physics was in any way near reality.
These claims were not false of course, but in the minds of the media and the eagerly watching public, they grew beyond what the game could support. Carefully managed trailers made the game seem full of wonders and beautiful vistas, and again that isn't exactly false either. Sometimes with a little information, we are so eager to fill in the blanks we find ourselves unable to see the truth.

The game itself brings to mind the likes of Starflight, Star Control, Elite, Daggerfall, Minecraft and Spore. In some ways it surpasses these earlier games, and in some ways it falls short. I have enjoyed it, to a certain extent, but I'm just not sure if I could ever recommend it, at least in its current form.

"Discovering" a new planet (that will already have alien outposts and mysterious monoliths on it)
The mystery for me was always "What do you do?", I was searching for the primary focus of the game. Was this to be a "walking simulator", the oft-derided genre that nevertheless has brought us great games such as Dear Esther, Gone Home and so forth. Was this to be a Minecraft-clone, as that was very much a game sold on procedurally generated content. Was this to be a space exploration game, such as Elite, a game with a vast galaxy that can be explored.

The truth is, it lies somewhere between these three examples. Unlike a walking sim, it doesn't have the strength of a story-driven experience, even though there is a story of sorts (or at least a path to follow). Unlike Minecraft it lacks the ability to build and create on the planets, with crafting limited to upgrading your equipment. Unlike Elite, the galaxy is not based on reality, planets do not orbit stars but hang in space, every planet seems to have outposts and alien artefacts.

The art for the monoliths is great, but lacks variety
Each planet in No Man's Sky is rich with colour, it's landscape a repeating pattern that extends for vast distances. Each star system is a clump of worlds, the star in the distance, with asteroid fields ever present, a space-station and the threat of pirates. Each planet seems to contain almost everything you could want, some of it in vast quantities. Only the rarest items and elements have to be searched for, almost everything else will fall into your lap with a little exploration.

As such, the survival element is neutered almost completely (except for certain extreme environments). You always know there is going to be plutonium around to fuel your ship, jagged red crystals always to be found even near outposts and points of interest. Upgrades to your equipment are helpful, but only serve to reduce the grind in most cases.

Some of the wonderful terrain generation, this was a particularly lovely planet
Every planet seems to have an abundance of Sentinels too, small flying robots. These pests seem designed to "protect" the environment, and will attack if you mine too much or break in to certain outposts. Of course your continued progress is reliant on resources, and your primary way to acquire them will always be mining. Certain crafting recipes require you to come into conflict with the sentinels too, and I was surprised that I'd ended up destroying so many so quickly. After a while you realise they're just a pest, as are the occasional hostile wildlife. A small stone in the shoe, a constant annoyance getting in the way of a good walk.

The pirates on the other hand are on the opposite extreme. Seemingly arriving from nowhere once you have some kind of valuable cargo, they spring their attack in small groups. The space combat is clumsy and cumbersome, as is all the travel in the game, meaning the space combat is unduly difficult. Best then to do your trading at one of the outposts on the planet, before you decide to head into space. Again, with management, it becomes an inconvenience rather than an enjoyable part of the game.
Talking to an alien
Inconvenience is a major theme that runs throughout the game, and there are a number of puzzling design and UI choices that lead to this. You see this from the very beginning of the game, in which it opens with a starfield rushing past in various colours. No menus, no way to restart your game, no way to start a second game. Once in your new game state, you have a crashed ship and some debris nearby. There is a red blob, which asks you a question, and replying one way will give you the main story (such as it is), and replying the other way will let you roam free, and wonder if you made the right choice or not.

Your equipment, ship and inventory are all very limited in space to begin with, which provides another big chunk of inconvenience, The worlds you visit are strewn with vast quantities of resources, and yet you'll find yourself constantly without space unless you're careful about what you need to take with you. This would be less troublesome if you actually needed very few of each resource, but for some of the later upgrades it can require you to have a few hundred units of a few different resources, and if you want to make multiple upgrades this can be frustrating.

Locking onto a landing pad is sometimes unbelievably difficult, and a frustrating waste of resources to move your ship
Even more frustrating in fact because when you want to upgrade your multi-tool and starship, all of your current upgrades do not transfer over. Your new ship or tool may have several of the upgrades you want anyway, but not always, and not always in the best orientation either. Upgrades have adjacency bonuses (something not explained by the game, only inferred by a common colour highlight), so having multiple upgrades next to one another is useful (as is having multiple upgrades of the same type, so it's worth having a +1, +2 and +3 upgrade to your mining laser for example, as they all stack to a certain extent).

There's also no map, barring the galaxy map which is an awful, difficult to navigate cluster of stars. On each planet you have little way of knowing where you are, and in the spaceflight there's no map to tell you where each planet is in relation to each other (or moons, space stations etc.). It would be nice to be able to mark places that you might want to return to, but the game seems intent on you progressing ever forwards and never staying in one place for long, which is an odd decision for a game which lets you name every star system, planet, bird, bush and rock.

Sometimes I like to carve smiley faces when mining (although this is a little skull-like)
There are quite a few other problems I could list, and go into detail about, but I think I've been negative long enough. Because I actually find the game enjoyable, and don't regret the time I've put into it (although I may have reached my limit with it, barring some new features).

What I do enjoy is the terrain generation. The worlds are alien-ish, even if the flora and fauna aren't sufficiently different on the various worlds I've visited. The actual terrain is much more interesting than Minecraft, but lacks the malleability. The mountains, lakes and plains are a great backdrop, but the game really needs more in the way of mechanics to flesh that out.

Learning a new word from this knowledge stone (hampered slightly by some sort of bug here)
One of the most interesting parts of the game is meeting the alien races. There are I think four alien types, each with a language to uncover. This is done by slowly gaining new words from special monuments and from the aliens themselves. Each word is like gaining a new puzzle piece, with the hope of combining them to create an understanding. When speaking with an alien, you see gibberish other than the worlds you have found. From those understood words, you must decide what response to give, usually from a choice of three.

It's these sorts of puzzles which provide the basis of my continued enjoyment of it. There are a few other puzzles, simple ones at outposts to provide you with places of interest, but they are very limited in design and repeat far too often. The language barrier is the most engaging part of the game, and with hundreds of words from multiple languages provides a real drive to continue exploring.

Getting a new formula from an outpost
The actual main quest of the game is seemingly to reach the centre of the universe (and since I told the red blob, Atlas, to bugger off, I seem to be devoid of that quest, or indeed any way to recover it). I'm not sure how many systems you have to go through to get there, I'm hoping it's not too many or I'll never make it.

It has, for now at least, replaced Minecraft as the game I play when I want to listen to music and just wander around an interesting world at my own pace. How long it remains in that spot we shall have to see.

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