There are some spoilers for the story of this game in this blog, which is a line I never expected I'd have to say for what this game was before, so that in itself is a positive I guess. Consider yourself warned either way.
You know, expectations are a weird thing. Something that's actually pretty good can wind up disappointing, and conversely, something kinda shitty can seem sort of decent, all depending on what you expected of it before you even touched it.
Sure, you can pull yourself back and remind yourself of the "objective" quality of something, but it's still hard to shake the emotional sentiment inherently tied to what you expected. Humans are weird like that. Going into No Man's Sky's release last year, while it seemed like the entire gaming community's collective hype for No Man's Sky were snowballing out of control, I personally had only a mild interest in whatever it was shaping up to be. It seemed neat, but I've been around this block before; I remember Spore, I remember other disappointments. My husband says I'm too cynical - which is probably true - but it does have the benefit of insulating myself from disappointments in media sometimes, so when No Man's Sky turned out to be a bare bones space-exploring simulator that wasn't even especially good at doing the whole space-exploring thing, let alone not living up to the developer's promises, it was a bummer, but hey, I had plenty of other games in my life. All of that FFXIV wasn't going to play itself. I made a commitment to myself at that point to observe how the game would evolve over the coming year, and check back in when it was a more reasonable price.
Then it wound up crowned as Giant Bomb's Most Disappointing Game of 2016, which must've been an even bigger bummer for Hello Games.
But first? You need the most important bit of context that is key to understanding my perspective on No Man's Sky in 2017: the hyper-specific way I enjoy these sort of "simulation/creative/survival" games. No Man's Sky is essentially a variant on being space Minecraft (which is a really rough and over-used comparison but it gets the point I'm trying to make across) and the way I personally enjoy more sandboxy experiences the most is when those creative, free-form mechanics are used in service of a larger goal.
This has always been my problem with the modern incarnation of the Sims, for instance. I've always thought those early Sims adaptations on the PS2 were killer, and The Sims Bustin' Out is my favorite Sims game. Why? Because it uses the core gameplay of the Sims within a proper structured story progression. You're still playing the Sims, you're still designing homes, progressing a career, making friends, taking care of your Sims needs and eventually starting a family, just like you do in any good Sims game, but you're doing that within the traditional structure of a game. "Repair the house!" And so you use the existing Sims mechanics to clean up and renovate the house over the course of a chapter of gameplay, which you can do however you want, since it is a more "creative" game after-all, you're just doing it within a light structure. Similarly, I actually play Minecraft off and on a lot, because that game, despite being the poster-child for "creative" gameplay, actually has something that sort of resembles an "endgame" with actual "bosses," and it's fun for me to slowly use all the existing loose gameplay mechanics for a bigger eventual purpose. Direct objectives with open-ended gameplay is a great way to keep things fresh while maintaining some sort of structured challenge.
Again, to be very clear, I like and respect "creative" and "sandbox" gameplay, and under no circumstances am I arguing "I just want a clear linear gameplay experience like a normal damn game!" I'm just saying I like those kinds of freeform gameplay not existing just for their own sake. It is not mutually exclusive to have "sandbox" gameplay and also things like a story, or bosses, or an "end" goal. Happily, I feel like more developers are realizing this lately. So when No Man's Sky added a proper storyline, I instantly knew this could hit my weird, hybrid "freeform, but structured" desires.
- Thanks to multiple content patches, No Man's Sky is a pretty good time - for about 40 hours.
Hello Games has had a bit of an up-and-down reputation with the fanbase of No Man's Sky, and it's hard to argue that roller coaster of sentiment wasn't at least somewhat deserved. The initial release of the game is notorious at this point for what can only be described has chronic over-promising, and some of their expectations (like that, since players were so unlikely to ever run into each other, this wasn't a possibility they evidently needed to plan very seriously for) were absurd. What the game initially released to be is, in retrospect, shockingly thin in terms of content.
The question "But what do you DO in No Man's Sky" achieved near "What is Firewatch"-level meme status, especially around these parts. The answer at first was basically "Well, you fly from system to collect resources to fly to more systems, exploring copy-pasted buildings for basic number puzzles that constantly repeat, and occasionally find monoliths that give you a ponderous, pretentious bit of text that is trying desperately to sound deep to conceal the fact that the game itself isn't, at all." Okay - maybe that came out a little more harshly than I intended, but I stand by my words. There wasn't exactly much of a game to No Man's Sky at first, and even as an exploration game it wasn't much to write home about. The good news is, after a year of constant work, No Man's Sky is finally something that resembles a fully-featured product.
The Foundation update from last November added base building, farming, recruitable NPCs, teleporters from bases and stations, numerous new kinds of resources, freighters, a bunch of bits and bobs of tech you can build and deploy on the fly, and more. The Pathfinder update from March added multiple planetary vehicles (each with different specializations - like a speedy dune-buggy like thing with little inventory space, up to a massive hulking tank), more base customization, increasing the complexity of ship types, a currency you collect through various means and use at a blueprint trader on every station, online base sharing, giving serious meaning to faction-standing, and yet more. The most recent major update, Atlas Rises in August, introduced crashed freighter sites to dig through, fleshing out the trading system between different system economies, tons of UI improvements and various quality-of-life stuff, the ability to edit planet terrain, ship combat changes, a system of what are essentially stargates, and most important: a decent, relatively lengthy storyline.
There are so many other little things I'm leaving out, too. Low atmosphere flight, different game modes, the ability to see other players (finally!) represented as a Fable-2 style orb, more biome diversity, deployable equipment, more ships, a mission board allowing you to do randomly generated missions for various rewards and new factions, etc.
And sure, at its core, No Man's Sky still has all those original, irritating flaws, and the broad gameplay loop remains incredibly similar, albeit with a lot more added steps. Dialogue with NPCs, along with the various little logic puzzles you find out in the wild, sadly repeat with inexcusable frequency. Stations all look more or less then same with slight changes to a single room. Yet, there is so much more now, that those flaws can be something you just push to the side a little bit. Unlike before, they're not all you have. Not to mention, the music is superb. These things don't carry the game forever, but at least now, you can have fun with No Man's Sky to a comparable length of other games on the market.
- No Man's Sky is still a bad "forever game." Which is almost unfair. Almost.
At a certain point in my playing of No Man's Sky, it dawned on me; "Holy shit, is nearly everything I'm doing and enjoying not something from the original release?"
It's almost comical how little would be left if you removed everything added in the year after release. Of course, most importantly, a lot of this stuff is fun! Yes, being reductive, much of No Man's Sky can be boiled down to "explore planets to gather the resources you need to explore more planets." Personally, flying to a new system, exploring, harvesting resources, and moving on to a new place is a fine loop, it just needed more. More reasons to be harvesting resources, more people to interact with, and in more ways, good-feeling combat interspersed throughout, and a broader story goal on top of it all. Humans are built to recognize patterns. It's not really fair to criticize a game just because you recognize a gameplay loop. We design clothes in repetitive, easy to understand patterns, music works this way, narrative, broadly, tends to have the same overall structure, and games especially can be boiled down to some variation of "Enter an area, conquer the challenges in that area, be rewarded, and move on to next area. Rinse, repeat."
To be the kind of game No Man's Sky kind of advertised itself as, though, it still needs more. It will probably always need more. On the one hand, it's unfair to complain "this game lacks content to keep me entertained infinitely!" The content systems and variety the game has now is perfectly defensible, I think, compared to most of its peers, with some exceptions. Something I think No Man's Sky could learn from, say, Minecraft for instance, is adding more meaningful combat challenges and combat-focused content that feels good, and worth doing. Minecraft is actually really good about providing "dungeons" and "strongholds" that provide fun rewards and are a great way to put your resources to work, and break the monotony of exploration. Combat mechanics in No Man's Sky are actually incredibly under-utilized. But even still, 30 hours of chill space-adventuring times is worth the $24.99 ask for a used copy at your local Gamestop. (IS THE CHECK IN THE MAIL, GAMESTOP?!) On the other hand, a sprawling, infinite experience is sort of what Hello Games is selling as their vision, here, so they're practically asking for it to be held against them.
Creating a game that you can explore for a literal lifetime carries the implication, to me, that there is enough there to make that endeavor, if not worthwhile, at least tempting. Which it just isn't. For a game selling itself on its endless procedural generation of ever-new sights to see, No Man's Sky is actually quite limited in the things you will actually witness.
There are some rare exceptions. Sometimes you'll find a larger settlement than most, maybe you'll come across a creature that is massive and awe inspiring, you might see a planet with truly bizarre flora, but for the most part, once you've seen a weird, randomly generated monstrosity, you've seen them all. There's actually a surprisingly small amount of individual parts that create the flora and fauna of No Man's Sky, which makes wanting to sightsee way less interesting, since I just lose hope of seeing something truly unique.
This is a common failing of procedural generation. Or at least, on relying on it to the extent No Man's Sky does. A design here and there may be accidentally impressive, but there is nothing designed about it. The value of actually hand-crafting animal or structure designs cannot be understated. The lack of well-designed-by-hand content is especially noticeable in the series of little numbers, logic, and language puzzles you'll come across in random structures on planetary surfaces, as well as NPC dialogue in stations, which I've had repeat multiple times on the same station. It's easy to just ignore these problems when you enjoy the game as if its a single player, campaign-focused thing. Afterall, there's nothing wrong with a lot of heavily-similar-but-not-quite-the-same wildlife when you're not looking so close. It's not as if wildlife plays much of a part in the actual gameplay. But if you ever dared to explore the galaxy for hundreds of hours, I hope you have a high tolerance for this "riddle" right here:
- The storyline recently added through Atlas Rises is pretty good, and maybe the most meta thing ever. Or it's just all in my head.
Thanks to the recent updates, Hello Games has done a good job of giving various mini-objectives in a quest log that actually looks like it came from a real video game. Up until the new story added in Atlas Rises, these are mostly smaller side-narratives from people at your base, or contextual objectives based on your most recently acquired blueprints, but that doesn't mean they don't have value. All of these smaller pieces of interaction with the NPCs you recruit to work, combined with the flavor text summarizing the events in the log that capture your characters perspective on the matter, do a good job of something No Man's Sky up to this point desperately needed: proper world building, fleshing the people and places out more than not at all. Giving it character and more personality.
Exploring can be more meaningful when you're doing it to help someone, or when you really want to build up your awesome greenhouse, or whatever.
Each of your base specialists actually have really endearing personal stories too, with the only major negative being that I would just love so much more of them, instead of feeling so abruptly "over" after a half dozen or so quests for them. The aging Vy'keen warrior. The Gek obsessed with plants. The Korvax, broken from the Convergence, who decides to start his own little mini-convergence with a beacon and a few other bits and bobs - which is honestly adorable and it's a shame how suddenly it's over, with any further interaction with him dead-ending in a repeatable text that may as well say "fuck off, there's nothing more here." Like the rest of No Man's Sky, it's good, but the unique content here runs out a little too soon.
Atlas Rises however, boasts a major new "main" storyline, which is probably the most impressive addition to the game so far. After jumping to about three different star systems, you'll receive a mysterious transmission, desperately asking to be found. After eventually scanning the location of these signals down you meet a Traveler, one of an enigmatic group of people the normal folk talk about almost in mythical terms, who is ecstatic to finally meet another person. Introducing himself as Artemis, the first major "arc" of the story revolves around trying to meet face-to-face. Except, try as you might, you never seem to find each other. Then, Artemis suspiciously disappears entirely, just as you were getting close.
Continuing this very loose summary, you eventually run into two other fellow travelers - Apollo, a trader type who only seems to care about how rich he could get off the prospect of finally meeting another traveler, and -null-, an odd entity seemingly composed entirely of weird computer parts, who knows far more about the nature of existence in this world than anyone should. -null- reveals later on that Artemis is long-since dead, and you've merely been communicating with fragments of some memories broadcasting from his grave. There is a way to revive him, but it involves placing him in a simulated existence. A simulated existence, it turns out, within the simulated existence you are already inhabiting. All that you are, all that you have interacted with, is an ever-evolving simulated universe, in a series of simulated universes. You can be in the same position as another fellow traveler, but because you're not truly inhabiting the same space, you can't see each other. Sound familiar?
Part of why I love the story that now exists in No Man's Sky, not strictly in Atlas Rises but also in all the little bits of exposition you receive here and there surrounding the Atlas Rises narrative, is how much it feels like a meta-commentary on the development of the game (the Atlas representing the "developer") and the people playing the game (the travelers) and how the game itself has evolved with those two forces almost in opposition to the other. The simulation that Atlas has created is inherently flawed. It tries, over and over, to reset and re-tool its simulation so it doesn't break itself down, so the people inside of it are satisfied, and yet those pesky travelers, those anomalies, can never leave well enough alone. The Atlas simulation is death by uncanny valley. Nothing ever seems quite right, even to the simulated nobodies populating stations and outposts, and the slightest curiosity exhibited about the nature of their existence seems to cause everything to melt down.
There is not a ton of wild twists and turns to the story of No Man's Sky or anything - it finds its themes, sticks with them, and that's that - which is why I'm so hesitant to talk at length about it despite how much I enjoy it. I personally choose to interpret the story of No Man's Sky, the history and evolution of the Atlas and its mysterious simulations, as an analogue for the evolution of the game itself, which gives it a delightful extra layer I found really fun to read into. Even setting that aside though, which is something that may not have even been intentional, I really think what they've added here is a lot of fun, and is a great central pillar the rest of the game's content can support and grow around. I hope they continue to add narratives like this in the future.
- In the end, No Man's Sky is a fun, relaxing space-exploration game now, if you have modest expectations.
No Man's Sky is better the further away it develops from its original bare-bones state. Whenever I came across a monolith or a puzzle terminal with the old original text boxes and fonts, it practically felt like an accident or a bug or something, because it feels so unrepresentative of the game as it is in its modern form, yet they remain in the game for whatever reason, so separated from all the other improved aspects of it. Like some old MMO that has had so much new shit bolted onto it over the years, and whenever you wander back into an old zone it feels like you've gone back in time.
Something I've picked up in reading discussions on this game in the aftermath of me seeing most of what No Man's Sky has to offer, is that a lot of people, mostly defenders from the earlier days of the game's post-release period when it had been all but abandoned aside from the die-hards, seem to think No Man's Sky is wrong for trying to more fully flesh itself out and become more of a feature-rich game-game. The Time Magazine review last year is headlined with the scorchingly contrarian hot take of "'No Man's Sky' Isn't What You Wanted. Thank God." On that same track, I went back to read Alex's review from last year, and even he seemed to poo-poo the idea of playing No Man's Sky as a "game" and instead that he "loved" it for being more or a pure, isolating exploration experience even if nothing else. While that opinion is slightly more understandable in the immediate aftermath of the game's initial release, personally, I think this opinion has it completely backwards. Not to mention, it's aged poorly as Hello Games has made No Man's Sky not only a dramatically better "game" with more direct objectives, more content variety, and systems in service of other systems that I feel it desperately needed, but also a better exploration experience with absolutely no sacrificing the latter for the former. It can be both.
In comparison to its present form, No Man's Sky's original state is an extraordinarily dull exploration experience, even leaving the whole "traditional video game structure" debate aside. Which, by the way, is the main reason No Man's Sky has improved so dramatically and has experienced a minor boost in popularity in the last month or so. But I digress.
My experience with No Man's Sky is not most peoples' initial experience with the game. Like Brad's time with Mass Effect 3, my experience comes much later, after the developer has taken steps to compensate for the biggest flaws from release. In fact, just over the time of me playing it, Hello Games released multiple patches including even more adjustments to the game, such as giving all ships a Manueverability stat that gives each ship class noticeably different handling, and an "Upload All" button that makes reporting scanned discoveries about a million times less tedious. Every indication is that No Man's Sky will continue to be improved on moving forward.
This is the best possible time there has been to play No Man's Sky, but you should go into it with checked expectations. The way I played No Man's Sky was to slowly go through the Atlas Rises story while doing all the base-building quests I could, crafting anything that seemed interesting to me, talking with all the NPCs along the way, picking up side missions here and there, but never getting obsessed with seeing everything. Because you can't. And honestly? You shouldn't. No Man's Sky can still be a pure exploration experience, but I think I like it most as a tale of simulated existence with each person having a unique version of that path, and as a meta-commentary, through Atlas' repeated failures in maintaining the simulation, on the game's development overall. Then stopping after like 40 hours, just as it's getting tired.
It's a shame that most people seem to have abandoned No Man's Sky by this point, since if this was a 20-dollar game just released on the PSN, without all the hype pushed by Sony, and carried by a sixty-dollar price tag with a disc release, the conversation surrounding this game would probably be very different. Again, hype is a weird thing.
All that aside, No Man's Sky has a special quality to it, and even if some design decisions inherently hold it down, I really think if you like science fiction themes, or even just a Minecraft-lite crafting and gathering experience in a sci-fi wrapping, it has earned being worthy of your time. It remains imperfect, but in my book, it's the winner for 2017's "Most Improved."
|If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4 / 5|