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No Man's Sky part 3 - Space, and all the other missing stuff

Posted 08-21-2016 at 09:31 AM by jedidia
Updated 08-21-2016 at 12:06 PM by jedidia

Looking at NMS solely as a representative of the genre of space exploration games, it pretty much goes the usual way. Space is there to segregate things, eat up your precious fuel and allow occasional space battles. Starflight made it a bit more exciting because space was also usually the place where first contact with unknown species happened. In NMS, there isn't really such a thing as first contact. You're a lone traveler, not a representative of a political entity, and while you don't seem to exactly belong into that galaxy, its inhabitants seem accustomed enough to your kind to not make a fuss about it.

NMS instead tries to flesh out space with mechanics from space trading games, and falls flat on its face. It's not that space would be completely horrible or anything, but it is, in the end, scenery. Scenery completely filled with rocks no less, just to make sure that you won't get stuck in the game because you ran out of fuel.
Which is where we have to start talking about the various aspects of the game that are simply missing from it, although they should have been there. Not according to the hype, but indeed according to interviews with Sean Murray.

Space, as many other aspects of the game, is completely static. The planets are just hanging around in a 3-d coordinate system, not making a move. There's a space station hanging somewhere in the system, usually close to one of its biggest planets, and there's big trading ships warping in and out, between one and 4 at a time. These look fantastic and it would be a pitty if they weren't there at all, but they're glorified scenery in the manner of the giant freighters from Elite: first encounters. Unmoving, unknowing, unacting.
They do have a small purpose in that they carry cargo containers that can be shot for loot, and carry gun turrets that can shoot you, but as there's no way of telling even course details like what species they belong to, and considering their overall structure seems undestructible (you can only shoot the containers and pick up the loot) and you can't scan in advance what you'll get, there's really not much point.
The only "dynamic" thing that's going on is that there are small craft flying between the space station and the planets. There's ships flying around on planets too, and I think there's a pattern where there are ships flying around between different "settlements" on a planet, and ships shuttling between the planets trading post and the space station.

All of this is a problem when your product was supposed to ship with planets orbiting their sun, with dynamic fleets of trade ships warping in, launching their smallboats to trade with the space station and fly down to planets to trade with the trading posts, which all should actually affect the economy in the system.
All of this simply isn't there. The planets are static, the freighters are static, the economy is static. It's possible that some things change when you move to another system and come back, but prices won't change ever while you are in a system, even if you're flooding the station with a particular resource, which is an exploit that ultimately motivates people to go grinding for valuable resources in order to make money, and then finding the game boring. So this is an instance where shortcomings in the game motivate you to play it in a wrong way, which is never a good thing, and NMS has it in spades.

But there's more. Or, should I say less?
Not only was there supposed to be dynamic systems with dynamic trade, there was supposed to be dynamic factions. Faction relations were supposed to be meaningful and impact gameplay. There were supposed to be big-ass battles going on in space between waring factions, capital ships warping in spawning fighters spewing death on the unsuspecting enemy and clashing with other capships and even the space station, with the possibility for the player to join in for one side to improve reputation with one faction and decrease it with the other.
All of this landed on the cutting room floor when the game was put together for launch. Which is an even bigger issue when this particular feature was showcased and played on the E3 main stage. I think the outrage against the devs currently is somewhat out of line, but I'm not surprised that people are upset. People banking on the more space-tradey aspects of the game to flesh out the exploration simply didn't get what was promised to them.

Me, I'm still perfectly happy with having the most starflightesque experience in a long time, and let's face it, space combat was more horrible in starflight than it is in NMS. But that's me, and not a lot of other people, and the fact that there is a big chunk of the game just missing without comment certainly puts a dent in Hello Games' credibility.
It was clear from the start that NMS wouldn't be Eve or X or any of the more complex space trading games. That was the hype talking. But the game doesn't just deliver under the expectations in that area, it simply doesn't deliver at all. And more annoyingly, it more or less seems to pretend that it never got your order in the first place.

If it were the only chunk missing from the game, I could leave it at that, but it isn't. There's a lengthy post on Reddit about all the things that were mentioned in interviews and didn't make it into the game in its current state. That list is nitpicky, including trivial things that can easily be seen as being cut from the game because it doesn't provide any actual gameplay benefit or just not working as well as expected when connected to other parts of the game. Other things are actually in the game, but nobody had reported observing them until then. In general, whenever I hear someone complaining about all the missing stuff, there is generally a complaint in there where I think "dude, this is totally in there, go and explore!".
But there are also very legitimate grievances on that list, among others the whole missing space trading aspect discussed above.

But there's stuff missing on planets. The problem, in essence is that first trailer shown at VGX 2013 (Correction: The scene described was actually in the E3 2014 trailer), which I won't link here, because it really isn't representative for the game. I'll just go into the major planetary aspect of the trailer, as we've already covered space.

In short, the trailer shows a jurassic park-esque planet with a dense forrest and giant dinosaurs standing in the water, apparently grazing, and then some oversized Rhino-looking animal bursting through the trees, shoving them aside and making them tremble by its passing.

Sadly, practically no concept that can be inferred from that scene seems to have made it to the game. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining that this specific planet isn't anywhere, or those specific creatures. I know how procedural generation works. The thing is, none of those mechanics are in the game.

So far, I have not found any giant creatures, or heard of them being found. The largest I discovered or saw discovered on streems cap somewhere around the 5 meters mark. Certainly not small, but also not a space Brontosaurus.
They might be in there, only exceedingly rare, but the big picture of the stuff that clearly isn't in makes me seriously doubt that. Again, I'm aware of how procedural generation works, so I know that the maximum creature size is essentially just a limit on the scaling factor somewhere in the engine settings.
But here's the thing: The larger creatures in the game currently don't have collision boxes. You can't interact with them, you can walk through them, and they can walk through stuff, including your ship. I haven't tested if I could shoot them, but I would not be surprised if I couldn't.
Is that just a bug? I don't think so. There is no indication that the fauna has any dynamics that are seen in that first trailer. What would happen if too large a creature walked into a dense conglomeration of entirely static trees, or more seriously, would spawn in one? Right, it would get stuck. So you take the collision boxes out to make it work somehow.
But now you have the issue that this becomes painfully aparent if you have too dense vegetation. What could you do? You limit vegetation density to an amount that this occurence is relatively rare. Because, as I said, practically everything from that trailer scene is missing: The giant dinosaurs, the shaking trees, and also the dense vegetation. Don't get me wrong, there are appreciably dense patches of vegetation, but nothing that comes close to the forrest in that trailer.
Something with all of this code governing object physics didn't work out. But why didn't anybody ever talk about it?

There's a few other things that didn't make it into the release build. Most glaringly, the planets and systems in the galaxy don't have any interconnecting tissue whatsoever. If you use an Observatory on a planet, you will get a location of a ruin on that planet. Any locations you get on a planet will be on that planet, you'll never see anything that has any connection to the wider surroundings. There's no breadcrumbs through space, and that seriously robs the game of a lot of emergent gameplay. Basically, the only motivation you'll ever have to visit a certain planet is because you want to visit that planet. There will never be a clue or a trail leading you to things on other planets.
This is especially annoying because the flavour text for observatories clearly shows that this was supposed to be in there. They were supposed to point you to a location on other planets, even in other systems. It's possible that this is simply a bug, but with all the other stuff missing from the game it's impossible to tell.
This is where NMS ultimately comes up short to its old cousins in the genre. The breadcrumb trail is the central narrative mechanic of any space exploration game I've ever played, and it is so because it works wonderfully in the genre. There is a bit of that in that you get waypoints from one Atlas interface (the godlike entities mentioned in the last post) to the next, and there's a trail to to the galactic core, but that really isn't enough in terms of connective tissue in the galaxy.

Because of that missing tissue, you can basically find anything on any planet. Only the rarer resources have specific planet types they might crop up on, but other than that, every planet is litered with the same things: Ruins, Memorials, Monoliths, Outposts, Abandoned shelters etc. Don't get me wrong, that stuff still provides a lot of content, but exploration does become very formulaic if you know that you can find the same combination of things everywhere. You decide what exactly you want to do on that planet (meet aliens, research artifacts, mine resources, search for tech) and you have pretty much a standard way to go about finding those things on every planet you'll be on ever.
It's not as bad as it sounds if you can keep your imagination alive, if you can find excuses to visit cool planets anyways, but the game itself doesn't exactly incentivise this behavior through its mechanics, which is one of the biggest issues I personally have with it.

One last post to go, where we'll look at the game from a technical aspect and look at the capabilities of the procedural engine and the technical issues in more detail.
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