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No Man's Sky Part 4 - technicalities and gameplay

Posted 08-26-2016 at 09:20 AM by jedidia
Updated 08-26-2016 at 03:14 PM by jedidia (Wrote faune instead of flora... facepalm)

In this penultimate post, I'll go a bit into the technical aspects of the game, what it achieves and doesn't achieve.

The procedural engine, and planetary graphic in general:
Of course this is the most important thing to discuss, it's the heart of the game. Set the gameplay of NMS onto any kind of limited map like a minecraft "level" or so, and you end up with a catastrophe. Not because all the gameplay would be terrible in itself, but because all the gameplay is built around you having tons and tons and tons of stuff to explore.

So, how does it hold up? Well, it's a mixed bag, to be honest. Let's mention the terrain engine first, because this is where NMS excells. Like, the produced terrain blows pretty much anything out of the water that has gone before it, being first truly 3-dimensional terrain engine on planet sized spheres that I know of.
Truly 3dimensional in this case meaning that the terrain is not just surface, but overhangs, caves, and all kinds of completely alien rock formations. And floating islands and boulders. I'm not sure whether that was hard to optimise out of the engine and they decided to like it rather than trying to get on top of it, or if they genuinely liked and wanted them. I personaly am a bit torn about them, but can definitely forgive them because the game is not about realism in any of its aspects. But I definitely like barren worlds with weird alien rock formations that make you feel like you just landed in a scifi book cover from 40 years ago.

On the other end of the spectrum are the plants. Not the flora in general, just small plants and organic scenery, especially flowers. I'm not sure if there's more than four or five flower models in there that just get recolored.

The actual flora has some decent variety, though. You'll see patterns, you'll see repetitions, you'll see familiarity, but quite often the context to the surrounding terrain and especially the color palettes will bail them out. In fact, this is probably what can be said overall about the engine: It does have frequently repeating patterns (because of course it does, that's the very definition of an algorithm), but the combination of those patterns produce a very wide variety of individual holistic impressions. I.e. you'll see a lot of familiar stuff on planets, but most planets will still manage to give you a vibe unique to them.

Caves and under"water" landscapes are a bit of a different matter. They all look very cavey and underwatery, if that makes any sense. Like, why would the ocean on an alien planet with toxic rain and giant funghi growing all over the place look similar to a terrestrial ocean? just so's I feel like I'm actually underwater, I guess, but in my opinion they should just pull through with the alien crazyness.

There's glitches of course, like tree branches going through each other when they're standing too close, objects being halfways placed over each other, the occasional (unintentional)floating or burried building, etc. The whole gamut of slipups that you can expect from a procedural engine that tries to emulate art is there, and if you're the kind of person to get completely taken out of an experience by stuff like that, this game might get you to rage-quit. If you're more about taking in the whole instead of the details, on the other hand, it does a very good job at making you feel like being on an alien planet as imagined by E.C. Tub or the likes. And that just so happens to be what I was looking for.

And then there's the critters. Let me put it this way: If you don't mind the mundane, can laugh without annoyance about the hilarious and still be impressed by the awesome, you'll like it. So far I haven't seen the critter engine mess up completely, but there is a lot of repeating patterns here. Not every creature will be "wow, look at this!", most will be "huh, this looks vaguely familiar". There will be rare creatures where you'll either laugh your but off and start loving the engine for its quirkiness, or feel trolled by it.
And then there's the rare creatures where you either go "awwwww, that's so cute!", or "This is actually darn impressive, let's have that appear in a movie!".

But as much as the engine excells visually, that much it is also an imbecile in terms of physics. Like, there's no discernible physics governing anything being put together in this engine. Is that water I'm swiming in? Probably not, it my insulation says it's about 50C below freezing outside. What liquid could that be? what would all that fauna on this planet actually consist of? Why is it so cold anyways, when this is the moon of a planet that is too hot for me?
You can't start thinking about that stuff. You'll get a headache. There's just simply no physics there, at least not any I could relate to. This is a pitty and robs the game of some context, but it generally is really good at distracting you from this stuff if you let it.

All in all, the E.C. Tub reference above might be a fitting testing point: If you know the adventures of space tramp Earl Dummarest (or really any other hack-scifi stories from the golden age) and enjoy the crazy worlds he ends up on (minus the sex and corruption), there is a good chance you'll feel perfectly at home on NMS planets.

All in all, the engine is not revolutionary, but is putting a few significant things to the test. It's the first engine that tries to let its output look artistic, and overall succeeds at this goal. It's as far as I know the first engine that uses cube-maped voxels for spherical terrain generation, and shows that this approach can beat the crap out of noise-generated heightmaps.
What it probably shows the most, and every developer of procedural engines should take note of that, then it's that a good procedural generation for your color palettes will do wonders for your variety. Most engines I've seen use predefined color palettes to color in the procedural terrain to ensure some sanity and consistency. After seeing no man's sky, I am absolutely convinced that writing a separate and good generator that produces the palettes is the only way to go.

The engine is not really "every atom procedural" as advertised in the first trailer, though. Appart from the terrain, it still relies heavily on mixing, recoloring and scaling hand-made content. It does the recoloring really, really well, but in the end this is still the same technology that was employed by spore, it just has more resources available.
They did spend considerable effort on procedurally animating the beasties, but the results seem to be pretty mixed. Generally it works well, but there's also quite often a "huh, what's it doing now?"-moment.

The sound:

Why does barely a review mention the sound? Oh the sound... The sound is probably the biggest success of this game, from a gameplay as well as from a technological point of view.
The sound engine is, like most anything else, procedural. It uses an audio library of sounds and samples recorded by the band "65 days of static" specifically for the game to arrange a fluent, unintrusive ambient soundtrack on the fly, changing in mood and atmosphere according to the surroundings with the player barely noticing. Like, you fly in space and suddenly start bobbing your head to some catchy synth fragments and wonder "when did this start? The last time I conciously noticed the soundtrack I was down on that barren planet and playing some sombre piano parts".
As with everything, there's repetition and familiarity here, but generated soundscapes (for that is what the soundtrack truly is) do a perfect job matching, underlying and enforcing the visuals. And it has a number of cool drum solos ready to throw at you during combat. Really NMS, you know how to please me!

And then there's the first time I walked around in a cave. After a while, I suddenly stoped, looked around and saw that yes, the cave has indeed gotten wider. Wait a minute... if I have to visually confirm this, where did the impression come from? There was only one possibility, so I walked back the way I came, listening carefully. And yes, the echo of my footsteps was indeed subtly changing with the width of the tunel. I was pretty stuned there for a moment. Like, this would in fact have the potential to change something in gaming. I want sound dynamically interacting with the environment in all my games, please? I didn't even know what I was missing until I stumbled around in that cave!
Unfortunately, that element finds only very limited use. Rain sounds pretty cool, if you listen closely enough you'll hear it change not just when standing inside a building but also when you stand close to it, and when submerged in liquids the whole ambient sound gets a nice muffled quality as well as that it gets eerier. Not only your footsteps change in caves but also your mining beam etc gets an echo, and these details are really great for the immersion. But the game concept overall doesn't really allow to make the most of such effects, other than just being really nice ambient. With the right concept, that sound engine might be able to support a small game mostly on its own, I think.

Gameplay and interactivity:

And here things get a bit uggly. See, one of the main things I hoped NMS would do was to finally make use of the possibilities of a procedural engine to create emergent gameplay. That doesn't really happen, because the connection between generator and game mechanics are virtually nonexistant. The generator is only capable of producing static content, without any apparent feedback loop from the game itself. Stuff that you mine gets removed from the game, that is about the only element of interaction I could find.

But even appart from that, the generator is parameterised in what can only be described as a lazy (or very, very rushed) way: Basically, you get the feeling that there's a generator for the planet, and that works reasonably well, and then there's another that places the actually playable content, and that one is seems to have no idea, nor any interest, whatsoever in what the planetary generator is doing.
This leads to the previously described problem that while the planets can very well have significantly varied visuals, the playable content is the same on every planet.
To aleviate this, the developers have decided to present almost the entire game content in a perfectly linear fashion, which works kind of, but significantly shrinks the possibility space. Like, If I discover a Gek ruin, I will get the next text in the history of the Gek. If I discover an abandoned building, I get the next text in the traveller-"plotline", and that one even just starts repeating itself when it is done. If I find a Lifeform, I'll get the next interaction from the list for that race, etc. The text snippets you get are generally well written (although localisations are abysmal from what I've seen in german streams) and do provide a lot of atmosphere, but there's no piecing the parts together and searching for missing parts in certain locations as is common for the genre.
This goes, in many ways, completely against the non-linear exploration driven aproach that this game has otherwise, and all other space exploration games had before it. Essentially, I don't think the game actually has much replay value, simply because you'll not just get served the exact same content, but also in the exact same order, no matter where you are and what you do.

Mining is kind of ok, but only if you are not materially enclined. The game throws valuable resources at you in ridiculous amounts, so the temptation to just stop exploring for a few hours and grind for a new ship is very big if you're that kind of player, and if you give in to that the game will be exceptionally boring. Making rare resources actually rare but easier to mine might go a long way to fix this problem.

But balancing in general is way of. Survival even on extreme planets is either too easy if you have decent tech, or just annoying if you don't, because all that means is that you have to recharge your hazard suit with the common resources that are usually lying about in abundance, so it can become more of a chore than of an adventure.
The sentinels are the most inefectual police force I've ever seen, not calling for reinforcements adequate to the players loadout, and waiting an awful amount of time until calling for backup, and even if you somehow inexplicably fail to destroy all of them before the get around to calling in the heavies, you run faster than most anything in the game already without any upgrades. Add to that that they have an attention span rivaling that of my 4-year old son when he has to clean up his room, and you end up with a complete non-challenge. The challenge is keeping up a decent wanted level even if you want to. Just popping behind a rock for a reload can at times be enough to let them lose interest and going back to busines as usual.

Spacecombat is kind of fun, but missing any depth. The flight model feels very freelancery when controlled with a mouse, though there's some strange control decisions. Like, if you change direction you'll lose some speed and drift a bit, which is nice, but then that speed doesn't go up again unless you punch the engine, which is rather uncharacteristic for the arcady flight model. The generous auto-aim might be necessary for a PS4 controller, but when playing with the mouse you find yourself wishing for a "shoot at your mousecursor"-scheme without autoaim a la freelancer (or, rrather, a la Star Trek: 25th anyversary, which is the actual inventor of that kind of mouseflight). That you can only recharge your shields by popping into your inventory to throw some iron or titanium at them also doesn't help things.

In general, this game is in dire need of quick-inventory slots and a more streamlined resource tree. In my opinion, if you'd only allow tech to be charged with actual products (which you can craft or buy) as opposed to raw resources which you just pick up, let those products stack in the inventory to a certain degree (currently only resources stack, making products more or less useless), and then giving the player the ability to trigger those charging actions via quick-inventory slots, you'd have already solved several serious issues with the handling of the game.

Trading is also a bit weird. Technically there's a perfectly servicable trading interface with terminals as well as with NPC ship captains, but the fact that noone, not even the station, ever has decent amounts of something and that most resources are fairly abundant on planets or in asteroids makes that near-useless too. I'm not talking about the variety of items and resources that a station stocks, that seems ok, but just simply the amount of it they stock. You can't ever buy something in large enough amounts to ever be useful for crafting, which might be apropriate for the really rare resources like Omegon, but for the rest it's just unexplicable and ruins most of the value trade could actually have had in the game.
Make even common resources somewhat more uncommon and let the stations and NPCs stock a lot more of it, and trade might even come to feel like an integral part of the game.

The only thing left for me to do here is a short summary and kind of a verdict, stay tuned for that in part 5.
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  1. Old Comment
    Artlav's Avatar
    And floating islands and boulders. I'm not sure whether that was hard to optimise out of the engine and they decided to like it rather than trying to get on top of it, or if they genuinely liked and wanted them.
    My bet is the former.
    It looks like they are slicing a 4D function, which would inevitably produce both closed off caves and floating pieces of land. The latter are nearly impossible to get rid of with anything less that a regression to a 3D slice (the kind i have in Spaceway).
    Posted 08-26-2016 at 01:04 PM by Artlav Artlav is offline
  2. Old Comment
    jedidia's Avatar
    Yeah, I suspected something along those lines.
    Posted 08-26-2016 at 01:25 PM by jedidia jedidia is offline

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