No Man's Sky

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No Man's Sky

Postby IamLEAM1983 » Thu May 11, 2017 4:00 pm

Hooooboy. 

Listen, I like my spunky indie game devs with big ambitions and not enough legs to fill these big britches. I love my starry-eyed studio reps trying to both sell the game on prime-time TV and keep the crowd engaged over four or five distinct editions of E3. I love the naivete of it all, the feeling that you're consistently looking at a dev that's looking at you like Oliver Twist looks at the cook, and is always begging for that scrap of attention. They do the best damn thing they possibly can, potentially kick their ambitions in the 'nads a few dozen times thanks to a shrinking timetable and a lowered budget...

Then, of course, the Thing releases and, to quote The Dark Knight's Joker, EVERYONE LOSES THEIR MIND.

Find the right echo chamber and this thing comes across as being Gaming Nirvana. Find another and it's an unscrupulous lie of a feckless product peddled to ignorant sheeple by a grinning goblin in plaid shirts, another case against succumbing to mouthpiece devs or to the allure of the Auteur Designer. It's both perfect and broken all to shit, unforgettable and barely good enough for torrenting, filled with potential and utterly barren. It simultaneously redefines gaming forever and is good enough for a passing reminder while playing other broken would-be transcendental experiences.

It's also a lot like 2008's Spore. As in, it's big, ambitious, shallow, and hamstrung by its excessive reliance on procedural generation. Before I go on, I'll just take a minute to clear up the exact meaning of that weird, Eldritch term that a lot of misinformed would-be devs like to interpret as the Game Design equivalent to a Shake-n-Bake packet. Shake, add water, bake for a couple years and bam, Instant Game!

If only, right?

So you've got individual assets. You've got enemy models, music tracks, a terrain map - but putting all these things together into a cohesive whole is a lot of work! Your next best option is to turn to something along the lines of Perlin Noise and seed generation, in order to not only create height maps on the fly, but also populate a 64-bit seed with all the possible permutations the total sum of your art assets can allow. Plunk in some directing rules so your planets and creatures remain aesthetically pleasing, and you're basically done!

In Spore's case, Maxis wanted to create an entire galaxy from scratch; from the lowliest of all paramecia floating in a dewdrop to entire arms of their ersatz Milky Way. In-between these two extremes waited similarly-generated creatures, evolved beings, civilizations and complex networks of solar systems managed by individual sapient species. That's billions of stars, each housing two or three colonized planets, and each planet housing a few billion folks represented in numerical form, as was the case with prior SimCity titles. Each individual alien you saw going about its business on your Playskool planet represented several hundred million individuals, in terms of numerical value. 

That sounds like an incredibly deep system in theory, but the entire gameplay could be resumed to your first vertical climb from microbial existence to your helming your own Galactic Federation of Planets. Basic gameplay hoops could only be shyly iterated upon, the end result coming across as fairly shallow. Once you'd proven able to terraform other worlds, you had little reason to do it more than once.

No Man's Sky has the exact same problem, but pushes through its initial vertical even faster. What was a wading pool in Will Wright's Game of Life is a puddle in Sean Murray's paean to seventies' Sci-Fi book covers.

You awaken on one of the Euclid galaxy's estimated eighteen quintillion possible planets with a computer voice informing you of your personal hardware's status. You're alive and your mobility aids are intact, but your scanning device and mining tools were both critically damaged in whatever crash preceded your awakening. Checking your inventory, you find that your scanner needs 25 Iron units to be repaired, whereas your mining tool needs 30 Carbon units. Your ship's systems are similarly totaled, each subsystem needing its own resources in order to execute essential repairs. Lucky for you, there's an entire goddamn ecosystem around you, waiting to be strip-mined for resources!

So... Okay. 25 Iron units. You click and hold on a rock until your laser either disintegrates it and converts it to raw molecular Iron, or until it overheats and makes you lose five or so seconds. 30 Carbon means you're gonna do the same with that tree-like thing, over there. Then there's your ship and the six Carite Sheets it needs to repair its Pulse Engine and Launch Thrusters (so more mining Iron) and the Plutonium you'll need to even fuel those thrusters, and...

Let's move on a little, okay? If you're not lucky, you'll start your game on a planet where Heridium and Plutonium are either rare or just insanely spaced apart on the geographical level. We're talking two forty-minute walks with breaks to let your Stamina meter recharge.

Let's just say you were lucky, though. You've fueled up, you've taken off, you reach for the stars, spot the icon relating to the system's Space Station, and Pulse Drive your way over there! Space debris warps around you like in that scene from Spaceballs where Lord Helmet engages Ludicrous Speed, and then 65daysofstatic's Asimov crops up in your speakers, drenching your neon-colored docking sequence in glorious Indie Rock goodness. You land, speak to your first alien (or attempt to, seeing as you don't know their language) and somehow manage to get basic bartering intentions across. You then return to your ship, take off, pick a different planet in the same system and then let atmospheric re-entry roar in your speakers, even as the game seamlessly turns the curving plane of the continents and oceans into the seemingly flat plane of the planet's close surface.

Once there, you can land, scan your surroundings for new botanical or animal discoveries, rename them if you so choose, and reap the spoils of your efforts as a pan-galactic nature conservationist.

Oh, and you're almost out of Plutonium, so you'd better make more. You also need more Units (the game's currency) to afford a better ship at the space station, 'cause your dinky sixteen-slot Rasamama ain't cutting it. To make Units, you can either try and catalog every plant and animal species for every planet you'll come across, mine and sell resources, play Stock Broker and game the galaxy's economy for your benefit, loot every system's numerous asteroid belts for precious minerals, or just act like a space dick by shooting other galactic wayfarers on sight to nab their inventory. You can try and pillage the land on the surface if you'd like, but most planets are patrolled by Sentinels; essentially one-eyed robotic watchdogs that inexplicably exist on nearly every single world you'll come across. They'll leave you alone in most cases, or can prove to be utterly paranoid in others. Expect to be able to strip-mine an entire cave system without anyone noticing, just as you're likely to be attacked on sight for having dared to reduce a twig to life-sustaining Carbon molecules. Hello Games cribbed from the Grand Theft Auto series and implemented a Criminality system, wherein attacking innocent lifeforms or abusing the ecosystem counts as a simple offense, while repeated assaults can end with cruiser-sized Sentinel Destroyers shooting you down mid-Pulse Drive use.

Recent patches have added more mechanics to this basic framework. You can travel and discover, attack and increase your overall wealth, or choose to pitch a tent at one of several deserted Colony Bases. Then, using fairly Subnautica-esque tools, your single pressurized pod can slowly be turned into an inhabited arcology growing its own food, recycling its own air and serving as a handy trading and storage post for some of the rarer or more valuable resources or components you'll come across. You can also build and pilot rovers to assist in your traversing bigger distances than you could on foot. Once you'll be filthy rich, you'll be able to hire your own freighter for off-planet base construction and on-demand storage options.

The problem is, unless you're the type to love exploration for its own sake, none of this remains particularly engaging. I like to think of No Man's Sky as a game of First Times, since your first liftoff is eminently more satisfactory than your two thousandth, just as your first Lubricant or Mordite farm is more of a milestone than your twelfth. Several of these First Times require inordinate amounts of grinding, with their free alternatives requiring even more investment in both time and capital. If you follow the game's hazy plotline and attempt to reach the center of the galaxy, you're likely to skip a lot of hassles simply by virtue of freighters or intensive money-making schemes not being essential to your journey. That means there's a ton of mechanics on offer, but most of them are almost certainly useless to the core experience.

Then, there's what happens once you do reach the center of the galaxy. You'll find no spoilers here, but suffice it to say the game's final reward is disappointing. The game wants to tackle large Existentialist themes and turns out of its core conceits into an exercise in hoarding that's only really possible thanks to the game's later updates enabling base-based storage solutions. Prior to the Pathfinder update, you had to spend most of the late game carrying a large mount of specific McGuffins in order to fulfill certain conditions. I mean, I do get that traipsing through an entire galaxy on your lonesome is bound to trigger deep questions, but reducing that to an exercise in gameplay feels rather hackneyed - even if the game's sparse plot and lore-building tries to account for it.

Thankfully, like Spore, No Man's Sky natively supports mods. The game's ritualized grind can be shrunken down to easily-manageable tasks, the planet-generation algorithm can be revised, the game's spaceflight controls can be made more snappy or responsive, and long road to a worthwhile ship-and-multitool combo can be shortened or lenghtened as desired.

The overall consensus is that this is a bad game, born out of deceit and betrayed promises. I'm a bit more open, in that I consider it as an honest effort by a team that bit more than it could chew, and the first severe PR showing for a lead developer who clearly had no prior experience with cameras or the succinct delivery of dev diary points. There's a time where you have to stop promising, and instead present your project - whether it's a book, a work of art, a song or a game - for what it truly is. An avowed sense of vulnerability or weakness matters much, much more than appearances of tight control; especially if the ambitions voiced are inordinately large.

If I haven't talked about the lore that much, it's mostly because it's intricately woven with the experience of playing the game. As I've said, the final revelation isn't as impactful as it could've been, unless you're the type to figure your mind's been blown as soon as someone brings up Existentialist liner notes. The road that gets you there might be fun for some, seeing as you start being while unable to communicate with the game's four races, the more you'll explore, the more you'll find monoliths ripped out of 2001: A Space Odyssey that are packed with snippets of language and lore. The Vy'keen, Gek, Korvax and Atlas are all an assortment of stereotypes about space-faring alien species, ranging from the burly Klingon-esque types with a foot in honor-based cultures, nosey Ferengi-esque beings more focused on turning a profit than having profound interpersonal contacts, and dispassionate scientists ever-more focused on the collection of data. The more you understand them, the more efficiently you can seal deals. Understanding comes through hunting for these abovementioned monoliths.

So, yeah. More grind. 

If anything, I'd advise that you try it out - if only for these First Times I mentioned. It remains an impressive technical feat, but its initial bounty of wonders dries up fairly quickly. If you're willing to keep pushing, No Man's Sky delivers on a drop-by-drop basis. It expects you to put the work in that's needed for its wider expanses to become readily and easily accessible, and the glowing orb of the Galactic Core is only a single button press away.

As to whether or not that's enough to motivate you, I can't answer that one for you.
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