No Man’s Sky

This week’s article of Fixing Gaming will focus on a much-needed aspect of modern gaming: Depth in gameplay and story.

Depth, or

“Why I Returned No Man’s Sky”

CLONING PROBLEM

In the games industry, we’ve reached a difficult time: how do we continue to innovate? Every new game comes with a litany of cloned features from the games before them. It’s to the point where “retro games” like Shovel Knight are starting to seem more innovative. That’s not to say we can’t build on the mechanics of the past, but simply “copy-pasting” them will never get us anywhere. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at No Man’s Sky:

EVERSPACE

Everspace is a game about flying in spaceships, travelling the cosmos in an attempt to do… something. Right now, the game is in Early Access, but it’s been in development for about a year or so now. Within this brilliant little gem, we see an amazing return to form with space-shooters and aerial combat, where controls are decent and the mechanics are tight. I feel each explosion and am left breathless by the gorgeous views. Occasionally, I’ll mine for materials by shooting at rocks and crystals, or upgrade my ship by collecting storage containers floating in the endless abyss. Occasionally, I’ll stumble onto environmental hazards, like Ion Storms and Black Holes, and the dogfights will be even more intense while I desperately cling to the last few seconds of shielding…. oh wait, I was talking about No Man’s Sky earlier, I wonder why all of this came- OH WAIT, NO MAN’S SKY DOES SOME OF THIS, BUT WORSE.

Sorry, let’s go back to talking about mechanics in No Man’s Sky:

OUT THERE: Ω EDITION

Out There is a game about flying in spaceships, travelling the cosmos in an attempt to do… something. Right now, the game has been out for a few years, with a new edition on PC. The whole game takes place almost as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style series of choices. The only gameplay aspect is to make choices and choose what planets to gather resources from. The resources in question are your typical crafting game elements, along with different types of fuel and metal for repairing. My one complaint about the game is that the inventory for your ship is very arbitrary, and leads to a lot of wasted materials. On the left, you’ll see what I mean; each ship kind of has a specific set “slots” for things, and every addition to your ship replaces one of these slots.

The second part of the game focuses on the idea that you’re the last remaining human surrounded by foreign (alien) beings. You cannot understand these alien races, but over time, you’ll learn words that help make interaction easier. They did a really good job with this, and I felt as though I was still just getting by throughout the game. Wait, wasn’t I talking about a newer gam- NO MAN’S SKY DID ALL OF THIS, TOO?!?!

Sorry, let’s try this one last time…

SPORE

Spore is a game where you (eventually) fly around in spaceships, travelling the cosmos in an attempt to do… something. Whereas most games of this nature were very complex and time-consuming, Spore decided to focus on the individualization of the aliens you were controlling. It preached infinite possibility and a clear moral choice system that meant killing=bad and dying repeatedly=good. There was so much variety out there in the universe, once you got to that stage, and I always felt as though I was meeting never-before seen alien life.

However, this isn’t without it’s side-effects. Some creatures looked… odd. When you’re drawing your creatures from a pool of parts, they don’t always mesh together in the most perfect way. Generally, you’ll see an alien and wonder why they have the exact same mouth as an alien you met on the other side of the universe. It feels very much like every alien was taken from a bunch of Mr. Potato Heads that got caught in the Sci-Fi dimension. Again, this sounds way too familia- OH YEAH, NO MAN’S SKY, DOING IT AGAIN.

Why do I point out these similarities? Here’s my actual review of No Man’s Sky:

NO MAN’S SKY

No Man’s Sky bothers me on such a core level, not because it’s bad, but because it feels rushed. They took the whole mantra of Early Access and combined it into one Oozing Mess that just globs onto whatever mechanic it feels would “be what the kids are into these days”.

RANDOMIZATION

Let’s get started on the planets. In the three hours I spent playing the game, I landed on three planets. Each one felt surprisingly samey, as if I’d gone to three different Minecraft worlds and spawned in the same biome. I barely saw any alien life, and when I did, it looked identical to the alien life I saw on the previous planets. The alien life, of course, looked as though it forgot the difference between hands and feet, which is (at least) better than the “horns for heads” aliens people have been seeing. The Mr. Potato Heads must have shipped with too many miscellaneous parts instead of the basic ones, because i don’t see how some of these creatures could have been fed, much less gone on to become fully functioning adults.

Spore did a better job, and it was a game that came out ages ago. How, you may ask? Simple: it’s what they focused on. Spore made sure every creature was still mostly able to emote and seem lifelike. It followed the individuality of creatures, and everything worked better because that was what the entire game is all about.

But where individuality is concerned with No Man’s Sky, I find myself easily bored by the same plants and minerals of the “random planets”. One time, I was in a cave so filled with stalactites that they were merging into one another. I thought that maybe the brush tool got stuck without the artist realizing it, but then I remembered that the game itself produced the nonsense. The game’s algorithm couldn’t even make rocks form correctly. That’s the level of “procedural generation” we’re working with here. MINECRAFT got it right when it was still called Cave Game.

I’ll end this segment on this note: once everything is alien, nothing is. If there was a spark of humanity in the world, some kind of Earthly Planet, with normal beings like us, the exotic places would actually feel exotic.

SPACE EXPLORATION

Let’s move on to the space aspect for a bit. When I blasted off into the stars, I’ll admit it was really cool… for about ten seconds. Then I started to see space rocks loading in as I flew around, and weird flying mechanics made my spaceship feel about as agile as a pre-WW1 submarine. Now, before all the staunch protectors of this game start whining, “Oh, but technology simply hasn’t reached the point where we can render every rock in a sector of space”, let’s take a look at Everspace again. It manages to not only out-graphics No Man’s Sky, but manages to render an entire sector of debris, hostile ships, black holes, ion storms, and more without breaking a sweat. It’s still in BETA, yet this game struggles with textures I could have made in MSPaint. Already feeling myself losing interest, I moved on towards one of the space stations, all of which appear to have the same model and interior decorator.

Lo and behold, they have the same space stations that exist everywhere in Out There. Not only that, but they decided that if they were going to take that aspect, why not bring the weird alien language thing, the weird inventory thing, and multiply it all by three!

MECHANICS

Now instead of one alien language, you have to juggle three alien languages (which, in all honesty, why not have 18 Quintillion languages, one for each planet?). Instead of a ship inventory, you need to manage a suit inventory, a ship inventory, and a multi-tool inventory, all of which use the same shitty mechanic form Out There where a small shield module takes up the same space as four tons of Iron ore. They even decided to bring in the resource management, one of the most despised mechanics of Out There, and complicate it further by having about ten different “recharging” materials. Let me show you how annoying this is:

“Say I want to get enough materials to fully charge all of my stuff. I also want to make a few Hacking Chips to fetch my ship when I need to. I fly down to a bland planet, where I manage to get enough Iron and Carbon to make a few Chips, and then find some Thannium-9 to fuel my Pulse Jump (read, faster flying gimmick) ability. As I finish off my list of fuel with Plutonium, I find myself hampered by a full inventory. Well, now, let me check… nope, all of the stuff in my inventory is fuel and chips, which I just spent thirty minutes building up.”

— Weary Explorer A-230385

How could we fix the above? Have all fuel materials be labelled and stacked as “Fuel”. Or better yet, give us more inventory space than that of a small Fiat.

The shooting mechanics are also pretty bland. I felt more impact with a Halo: CE Plasma Rifle than the blaster attachment on the Multi-Tool, and the Plasma Rifle felt like I was shooting spitballs at the enemies. I felt as though HelloGames realized they needed some kind of threat in the world, and decided to patch it in at the last second. In all honesty, this is the one game in which I would’ve been cool with just exploration. Instead of combat, have environmental hazards. You have no way to fight back against animals, and have to run away instead. It would be really cool to feel as though I’m in danger, instead of feeling immortal because I have more than enough health to get blasted by fifteen sentinels at once.

Each of the mechanics would be fine if put in the spotlight. Look at Everspace, and Out There, and even Spore. But putting it all together leaves everything lacking.

This article was originally entitled “Depth”. Why is that? Because that’s what needs to be “fixed” in this game. This game, with it’s five hundred mechanics implemented with varying degrees of success, has the size of a universe and the depth of a pothole. No, scratch that, the depth of a speed bump, going so far against depth that it’s barely a jostle in the sea of gaming. What’s the point of having 18 Quintillion worlds if each barely has the immersion of a puddle of water? Why not condense the experiences of every one of those worlds into a solar system? Maybe then we’d have enough to work with. Right now, the planets feel so tiny and unsubstantial that I don’t feel a part of the universe. The aliens have conquered the planets, and it all feels like I’m Luke Fucking Skywalker wandering around Dagobah. I’m stuck down here doing mindless tasks while a “wise mentor” keeps batting me over the head telling me to do stuff I’ve already done fifteen times.

FIXING NO MAN’S SKY

Start the player as an explorer, not a survivor on a crashed ship. Remove the refueling elements, the crafting elements, and the weird inventory management. Let us gather basic trade goods on the planet, and nothing more. The point of the game should be to make just enough money to continue your exploration. The coolest part of this game, aside from the cookie-cutter planets/creatures, is discovery. Finding a cave should give you a sense of awe, where you find even more alien life that’s primordial and ancient. Let us discover vast ruins, crumbling cities. Explore the language system in more depth, and make combat nonexistent. Add more environmental hazards, and make space seem more dangerous. Allow us freedom of movement (let me fly as close to the planet as I want to, not at some predetermined ‘safe height’), and make each hazard feel deadly. Make trading more about customizing yourself and your ship, and allow us to name our ship. We can name beacons that were placed by an advanced civilization (without asking, of course), and we can’t change the name of our own ship? Reduce the number of planets. Why make 18 Quintillion randomly generated worlds when you could make a few million worlds better defined? Finally, work on the graphics a bit. You don’t have to make it run like Crysis on a Windows95 PC, but you can at least sharpen them a bit.

Oh, and ADD MULTIPLAYER. Why not allow us to go off with our friends, exploring and discovering life as a team? Don’t be another dishonest developer. You kept hyping us this multiplayer aspect, and nothing came of it.

CONCLUSION

No Man’s Sky is “the survival exploration” game that the genre has been threatening. A ton of indie mechanics all bunched together and given a mega-donation by Corporate Sony. It was an over-hyped and under-tested game that not only didn’t deliver on it’s promises, but nearly failed to run on PC. I returned this game because after the first two hours, I was ready to throw in the towel on this game “that my grandkids will still be playing”. People say that this is the best game ever, and they can have their opinion, but let’s see No Man’s Sky in a month. Hell, let’s see the hype train in a week.

Chris
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