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No Man's Sky part 2 - To be starflight, or not to be?

Posted 08-20-2016 at 04:59 PM by jedidia
Updated 08-21-2016 at 10:23 AM by jedidia

As mentioned in the previous post, No Man's Sky falls squarely into the long dead genre of space exploration games. And already the first misunderstanding of that genre has poped up in the comments, and I see that I need to be more precise:

Elite is not a member of this genre. The classical Elite predates Starflight by 2 years, and has fathered its own (more popular and longer enduring) genre, traditionally refered to as "Space trading games".

So I find myself in need of clarifying what the genre of space exploration games actually was before moving on, and really, there's no better summation than the very first message you got when playing starflight, containing your mission assignement:

1. Seek out and explore strange new worlds
2. Boldly go where no man has gone before
3. Establish contact with any sentients
4. Capture and bring back non-sentient lifeforms
5. Record alien lifeform data
6. Bring back alien artifacts
7. Bring back any valuable minerals
8. Keep from getting brutally killed
Space exploration games have emphasised these aspects very differently at times, and thusproduced a wide range of gameplay still using the same core concepts.
The clear emphasis in starflight was to explore planets, mine for resources to upgrade your ship and seek for aliens and artifacts containing clues about why stars in the galaxy suddenly started to spontaneously combust (SPOILER: It was because you were unwittingly using the babies of a type 3 civilisation as hyperdrive fuel through the entire game... )
Star Control II put much more emphasis on finding and negotiating with alien species to form an aliance to prevent a galactic holocaust.
Nomad walked kind of a middle line between space trading games and space exploration games, with exploration still being the core of the game (though fading out the planetary exploration somewhat), but increasing your reputation in the galaxy being a major focus.

No Man's Sky, the topic I actually want to talk about, turns the planetary exploration and resource gathering up to eleven, While keeping relations with alien species at an interesting, though ultimately gameplay-wise mostly insignificant level. This insignificance is one major issue with the game, but I'll come to that later.

The premise:

No Man's Sky breaks with one unifying tradition that the genre has always had: That you have a home port, a staging base for your exploration, and ultimately the place you needed to save in the end game.
No Man's Sky can do this because its universe is virtually unlimited, so it can allow you to just progress through it and basically make that a central pillar of its motivation and narative.

The premise of No Man's Sky sounds cliche at first, but quickly becomes interesting: You are crashlanded on a planet, not remembering a bloody thing. The interesting thing about this is that it isn't used in the standard way, in which you slowly uncover a tragic and significant past yadda yadda (in fact, you can find hints fairly early in the story that you literally might not have a past... But I'm practically at the beginning of the narative, so I can't comment too much about its quality). Instead, it is used to create a "Stranger in a strange land"-scenario. You know nothing about anything that's going on. You meet sentient aliens, but do not speak their language. You find the planets sparsely populated and run down, space trafic fairly active, but nowhere a hint of any actual centres of civilisations. You find annoying drones called sentinels that start shooting at you if they see you mine too much resources or wantonly killing the local wildlife.

And there's a seemingly godlike being calling you to follow it, as well as two intrepid space travelers that randomly pop up in your way in a mobile space station being strangely supportive, even more so if you can provide them with interesting data.
And the little detail that the developer told you that the aim of the game is to reach the center, for which you have a nicely laied out route from the start.

To tell you the truth, I haven't yet got half a clue how it all connects, or even if it all connects significantly. I have met interfaces from the godlike entity twice now, and while the game conveys you the inner dialog and emotions of your protagonists, I didn't understand a word of what it was actually saying. From what I gather about the story so far it's pretty high concept, tending towards Philip K Dick territory rather than towards traditional space opera.

Also, I'm jetting around on planets looking for monoliths to learn the language in order to maybe understand a word here and there of what it's actually saying the next time I meet it.

While doing that I'm also meeting the spacefaring races of the galaxy, do a bit of resource gathering to improve my spacesuit in order to survive on more hostile planets and a bit of trading because I can't find everything I need. This is the part where no man's sky switches into full starflight overdrive (starflight II to be precise, the first part didn't have any trading), and the part where no man's sky either excells or utterly fails, depending on what you want.

Exploring planets, crafting and survival:

Space exploration games always had some grind in them. Whether starflight, star control II or any other members of the genre, there's a lot of time spent on planets looking for resources to improve your stuff in order to meet objective 8 of the list at the beginning of this post. This is usually aleviated by the fact that this grind is packed into the actual adventure you're supposed to have with the game. The genre has always employed the full palette of scifi tropes: Worlds with extreme heat, with radiation, corosive wheather, deadly storms, or wildlife that wants to eat you up. You know, all the stuff that makes for good adventures and interesting situations in novels.

NMS takes this and runs with it, fleshing out the concepts with proven mechanics from survival games. While in Starflight going to an extreme planet was more or less "pray that I find what I need before I get fried", NMS allows you to do something about it by crafting spacesuit upgrades to protect you from different environmental hazards. Basically NMS has extreme cold, heat, radiation and toxicity, and... liquids? Yeah, for some reason you need a special breathing apparatus in order to breathe in liquids of undesript kind, while a toxic atmosphere seems to be no problems. A result of the excessive gameification of the universe probably, but we'll talk about that later.

The thing here is that while these are survival game mechanics, NMS isn't a survival game. It merely uses these mechanics to flesh out the time-honoured tradition of the genre that a planet by itself can be perfectly sufficient to kill you.
In order to craft the upgrades you first have to know how to build them, and then get the resources. And here's where people start to complain about grind: Depending on your playstyle, it is very probable that you will discover technologies at a very fast pace... Far faster than you will be able to build them or even really use them. If you you go "I have a new tech, let's build it!" every time you get something new, this game will kill you. There's nothing fun about hours of flying around shooting at various kinds of rocks or searching your arse of for this one particular thing you need to build a new thing. Every once in a while you will have the urge to do it, and every once in a while it is fine, but if maxing out your equipment is one of the major motivations for you in a game, this is not the game for you.
Keep exploring other stuff, you'll eventually find yourself in the oportunity to build what you want.
The same goes for buying new starships: They are expensive, and you don't get any money back for your old ship, you can't even transfer your installed upgrades. Keep exploring, you'll eventually have enough money to buy the ship that you want.
Here the difference between space exploration games and space trading games becomes most glaring, and NMS is no different: Your stuff is not the core of the game. You don't play the game to get more stuff. You play the game to see more things, have more adventures, and every now and then you'll focus on building something that you'll need to do this specific thing that you wouldn't even be strictly required to do.
In short, if you tend to be materialistic in terms of how you expect a game to reward you, NMS will utterly and completely let you down.

The techs you can craft on their own seem pretty uninspired and unoriginal at first. You have a mining beam in your multitool, which you can upgrade with improvements. You can build a boltcaster (combat focused instead of mining focused) and a grenade launcher into it, and improve those. Similarly your ship has a pulse engine, a photon cannon and maybe a phase beem, and you can upgrade those. But it'll always be a photon cannon, a phase beam or a pulse engine. It won't ever become a tachyon beam or a neutron cannon or what have you. Basically, the things you start with are the things you'll have the entire game, except you can make them better.
This seemed a bit dissapointing at first, but I can now see why they did it that way.
As mentioned above, the rate at which you discover new tech will outpace pretty much any other progress you make. You do not want to always build the latest tech right away because that gets you into the grind. And therefore, all those improvements you can build for your stuff can stack up. There's no tech that will ever become useless because you discovered a better one. You can still build it, it still brings you the same bonus, and thanks to a pretty intricate (and completely undocumented) system of adjacency bonuses between upgrades, there's even a decent amount of complexity and optimisation you can do in your equipment. All in all, the crafting system has been thought out pretty well, although it doesn't seem this way. Because in an actual survival/crafting game, this would be extremely uninspired and shallow. In NMS, it perfectly fits the context of discovering stuff, and then discovering some other stuff, and then suddenly having an "oh look, here's the stuff that I need to build that thing I found yesterday!" moment of awesomness, and that's the way it's supposed to work. Of course, if you have been doing nothing but explicitly searching for the stuff to build this thing you found yesterday in the meantime, you will probably have a huge amount of frustration built up by now.

The often criticised inventory managment goes a very similar direction. I never really had problems with my inventory size, because I didn't go out farming and hoarding resources to build and max out all my stuff. Instead, I just went exploring, and while doing that found lots of opportunity to increase my inventory space. I collected what I needed to move on on the walk, which is not grindy at all, and every now and then took a break, looked at my accumulated tech, looked what I could build, or took the odd time in between to mine an ample resource deposit I came accross for profit, until I eventually had enough money to buy a better ship. If I would have just been hunting around making money to buy that ship, it would have been a pretty boring affair.

The creatures on the planet offer not much possibility to interact, in the best tradition of the genre. Mostly they're just more interesting scenery that can be scanned and named like almost everything else, and if you scan every species on a planet you even get a substantial monetary reward for it. Not substantial enough to make it more efficient than grinding for Gold on a planet that has lots of it, though. Again, this isn't that kind of game.

There is a basic interaction element in that you can feed most creatures, and depending on their behavior they might follow you around and protect you in case of an attack (not very useful, since they won't be able to keep up wwith you jetpacking over the terrain), they might point you to uncommon resources or parts of broken machinery and the like lying around (Not useful at all, my scanner can do that better), or poop out other resources in return (of some limited use... Some creatures literally poop the most rare resources in the game, but in such limited amounts that it would take quite a while in order to gather a useful amount). Predators are a bit different since they mostly will try to eat you up. They usually do decent damage so shouldn't be taken too lightly, but they generally have very limited hitpoints and come at you in limited numbers, so the threat is mediocre at best.

Interacting with alien species

While the aspect of planetary exploration is turned up all the way when compared to other games in the genre, the discovering sentient life and interacting with it part is somewhat toned down. And to my chagrin, I don't think it's actually relevant for "completing the game" or whatever you want to call it. But it's still fun and interesting, and it usually helps you with other things. But there is no ultimate payoff to this activity, just the experiences you have while doing them.
There's also the issue that there's only 3 sentient species in the whole galaxy. Depending on your playstyle and your luck you will come accross them in short order. Me, I'm 40 hours in and still haven't met the 3rd species, but this is rather exceptional.
So there's not much to discover in the ways of strange new civilisations, but there's a whole lot to discover about those three. By now I speak Gek somewhat broken and have somewhat of a picture of their early history. I dabble around in the language of the korvax and learned enough that they're kind of a synthetic distributed hivemind in the vain of the Geth from mass effect and worship the entities that that asked me to follow their path at the beginning of the game. I'm still pretty much in the dark what the hell the sentinels are up to, which could be considered a foutth faction, though the only interaction with them is either ignoring each other or shooting at each other. I've discovered some disturbing possibilities about the identity of the players, which seem to be a breed all on their own. So the galaxy remains sufficiently mysterious for me to be intruiged by it. It is a bit sad that none of all this seems to tie into game progression (in stark contrast to other space exploration games, where interacting with alien species is usually a cruical element in the narative), but for me it's the most interesting thing to explore in this galaxy that doesn't make that much sense to me yet.

Despite there being only three sentient races, they do have a lot of content around them, more in fact that I have seen in any other game of the type. Content almost exclusively presented as text, it is true, but I don't mind the reading. When interacting with a member of a species, you usually get a description of the situation, a line or two of dialog of what the other is actually saying, and a few choices of what you want to do. The dialog that is spoken is, of course, in the language appropriate for the NPC, and you can only read the words you already know in plain english. Without that you can in some situations make an educated guess, or just a plain wild guess. By now I have had encounters with some Gek where I almost understood every word of what they were saying, but also the odd encounter where I still barely understand a word. So these interactions do get more and more clear the more you learn the language (which you do by, surprise, exploring), and if you enjoy that kind of thing it can be quite satisfying.
Sometimes the proper action to take can not be directly taken from the words of the NPC, but require some cultural knowledge, which again you gather from the various ruins and memorials littered around the planets. If this would tie in directly with the games narrative, it would be great. As it stands, it's great for people that like exploring and learning for curiosity's sake, as almost everything in the game.

We'll cover the space aspect of the game in part 3, and after that we'll look at the game's technical achievements and shortcomings in some depth. If you got totally hyped by the things described here, you might still want to hold of on buying it until I'm done. Which won't be today, because really, I have to get back to the bloody game!
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