Sunday, 7 August 2016

I've Played No Man's Sky Early, Here's What I Think

Never has a game, made by so few, been hyped by so many. For a game which, until very recently, no one had spent that much time with, No Man's Sky has also taken on deity status amongst those of us burdened with the need for space exploration.

 I have received a copy early, through entirely legitimate means mind you, and no I didn't spend over a thousand dollars on it. I just pre-ordered it and it arrived on Saturday (06/08). So I've obviously sat in front of my screen, mouth agape and slightly moist, shoving it into my eyes as fast as possible. Here's my opinion, if you are avoiding any details of this game don't read this. I can't include video because all the major hosters are removing anything to do with the game but I do have some screenshots.

BUUUN bun bun bunbunbunbunbbababababaaaabaaa

Please bear in mind this is merely one idiot's opinion on a game which still has a pre-release patch to be downloaded and therefore does not represent the finished product and who the hell am I to sway your mind.

**UPDATE** Also, since I wrote this, details have been released of the massive changes coming to the game after it's patch, meaning this is basically my thoughts on a Beta release

 First off, the game took no time at all to install. I don't think it even did install, one of the benefits of a procedurally generated game I guess.This was good for me, as I had just got back from a barbecue at 11pm so didn't have to wait.

The game is a cold open, literally in my case as I awoke in a frozen tundra, ship smashed to bits and only a small mining laser between me and freezing to death. A brief, minimalist tutorial walks you through rebuilding your equipment and getting used to crafting. I had a bit of a struggle with the crafting at first, but soon enough you get your scanning visor (used to scan animals and plants) and a scan pulse that highlights points of interest and resources nearby.

 Let's get this out the way. There is a lot of resource gathering and crafting. It is one of those games. Luckily, survival isn't too hard (provided you don't actively seek death by wandering out into a 90 degrees Celsius sandstorm at night and throw yourself off a cliff) and the resources themselves seemed plentiful enough to me even on the most barren of worlds.

Like this big gold nugget for example

 There are various types of materials; oxides, silicates, isotopes, elements, items etc. All the naturally occurring ones can be gathered by finding them in the world (plutonium comes in red crystals. elerium in large alien monoliths) and shooting them with your mining laser. The resources then pop out and you hoover up the bits like a Hungry Hippo. Some of these power your equipment, so your mining laser is powered by isotopes, and you can shove any item under the "isotope" category in it. Carbon from trees, plutonium or strange radioactive fruit all can be used in what I suspect is environmentalist propaganda. Your spaceship on the other hand, like the other crafting recipes, need specific materials. Your launch engines are powered by plutonium, but not carbon for example. This took me a little while to get to grips with but once you know what you're doing it's all quite intuitive.

 Anyway, so my space ship is repaired and fuelled and I am ready to get off that frozen ball of shit I started on. You hop in the cockpit, and hold R2 (PS4 controller obvs). Your ship rises up, eats some fuel and then you point the ship up. Boom, you're in space. Easy as that, any loading hidden effectively in breaking through the atmosphere. Space is pretty in this game, Lots of colours, the sky crisscrossed with the contrails of passing ships and space lanes. Asteroids littering the system, enormous silent freighters hanging in the abyss next to them waiting for a brave (see:stupid) pilot to try to crack open their storage bays and scoop up their bounty before the turrets coating the hull turn the would-be pirate to dust.

Big boys

 There are also space stations, vaguely sinister prisms and pyramids with a single docking port yawning open. This is where I met my first alien. Each of the stations seems to be pretty identical inside, something which is shared with much of No Man's Sky buildings. A hanger with various pads for docking ships and two rooms, one with a trade terminal and one with a save point. There are also doors which you need a pass to unlock but I haven't managed to open those yet. Some stations are busier than others, with ships landing on the pads, whereupon you can toddle up to them and start a conversation with the pilot to trade or buy their ship.So far I've encountered 3 alien species, each with their own look, preferred style of ship and language.

 Being able to walk into a room and chat to an alien was a surprise for me, I assumed for some reason that the only interaction with alien races would be through transmissions. Alien ships can be fairly regular features of the skies on some planets, but equally you can feel very alone. An interesting element of alien interaction is that, to start with, you cannot speak their language. You pick up words from stones embedded in the landscape of planets, which tend to teach you one word at a time, or buy providing a member of the species with something they want and you are sometimes rewarded with a few words of their language. This leads to memorable experiences. Alien factories and bases can be found on almost any planet. In the case of the factories, you have to blast the door down and then try to decode a terminal to get the crafting recipe or loot it holds. I broke into a factory and when I interacted with the terminal, the flavour text (the story is almost entirely given through text) told me that security devices were powering up and looking at me. I was presented with three options, turning off the alarm, disabling the heat sensors or cutting the camera feed. Luckily I had learnt the words "intruder", "visual" and "detection" so could guess well enough from the rest of the alien text that cutting the camera would work. It did. This can also go the other way, such as when a black market dealer offered to trade, but I only knew he was saying "units" (the in-game currency) I dutifully tried to buy his stolen with moeny, but was rebuffed as apparently illegal traders don't like traceable currency.

He's a sweetheart really

 No Man's Sky seems built around moments like these. Rather than a grand over-arching plot (though there is something in there about scattered alien monuments calling you to space) the game seems more comfortable in making itself about your exploration, the scrapes you get into and the ways you get out of them. Think of the story presentation of Destiny and you're somewhat on the way there.

 Once you get to grips with the basic mechanics you are let loose to find your way across the galaxy. Trading, like the rest of the game is simple. Find a trade terminal in a space station or outpost (they look like evil ball robots built into walls) and hold Square then press sell or buy. I built up enough to buy 2 ships every quickly just mining the more valuable common elements and offloading..Trading is also a way to acquire materials you are unable to craft or can't find nearby.

 It is in this loose ended exploration that the game really shines. It is an intensely atmospheric game. The difference between strolling across a verdant world, bristling with life and outposts as ships swoop over you and flocks of alien birds dance in the distance, to stumbling towards a shelter in a sandstorm on a mountainous world as the calls of hostile alien megafauna fills the night, to flying your ship over alien monuments on a barren rock world really has to be experienced to fully understand. Or a completely silent streamer I guess but that's the modern world and I will embrace it. Scanning plants, rocks and animals with your visor on these new worlds lets you upload them to a galactic database and also rename them. This is the only really touted multiplayer aspect, finding a world already surveyed by players. This could, I guess, break the atmosphere, as anyone who finds "Cooldog's World" and befriends a member of the "Big Space Dog" species or gets attacked by a "Horrid Tentacled Git" may attest.

The actual worlds themselves reminded me of the first Mass Effect game, with their random landscapes and scattered colony buildings. Though the worlds on No Man's Sky are much more pleasing to look at and mysterious.

 But also, therein lies the rub . Once you hyperdrive from one system to the other a few times. it becomes apparent that beyond upgrades or big discoveries (the centre of the galaxy holds something and early on are you called off the path there to visit an alien monument world) the game doesn't evolve significantly. I personally don't mind this, I was expecting a game to be more about exploration then upgrading your ship into a death-dealing laser cock fucking it's way through space or a space opera where the player is called upon to save the galaxy one last time. But I worry that other players are not expecting that. And sure, there will be a multitude of streams and reviews but my concern is that people will go into the game expecting something that it isn't It is a small passion project by a lovely man who made every effort to just show the game whenever possible to try and stop this from happening. When you watch E3 demos or when journalists are allowed to play it, Sean Murray of Hello Games just plonks the game on and goes "here it is". He's the anti-Peter Molyneux. A studio head who actively hid elements of his game and wouldn't talk about others, but my worry is that this "discover it yourself approach" which seems be a driving philosophy behind the game will be seem as deception by some. In short, he seems a top bloke and if he's reading this I am very sorry but your game is very good.

 There are some technical problems, again there is still a pre-release patch to come out. The game has issues with textures popping in, and occasionally the seams in the procedurally generated worlds will be visually apparent as hovering lines of nothing in the landscape where you can see through the ground.Sometimes buildings will float above the ground where the terrain has generated strangely, and the game has just flat out crashed on me twice. A strange reoccurring bug I'm encountering is when I discover a planet and first get out of my ship to explore it, about 20% of the time I am, for some reason, flung through the air and land heavily some distance away. Combined with the quite simplistic and (dare I say it) repetitive base gameplay this may be enough to turn many people off, in my opinion understandably but quite sadly.

I mean, they are alien fish, they may have evolved that way

 It is a clear work of passion, the design is beautiful, with colours and imagination and a crisp UI that just fits. Instead of achievements you get "Journey milestones", the music compliments the visuals very well, creating a relaxing and absorbing soundscape that can turn into an exciting soundtrack to an asteroid-dodging flight from would-be pirate victims as you plunge into atmosphere to escape the next. Turquoise grass waves in the wind as alien bird song fills a frozen forest, an overgrown factory drips and groans as the organic matter coating it reacts to your suddenly very small and alone sounding footsteps.

 The game won't satisfy everyone at once, and it doesn't try to. From a pure gameplay perspective it could be criticised and some will write it off, but I believe it is a game that really needs to be experienced. Explore your own galaxy and write your own stories and this game might just be one of the most atmospheric, relaxing and absorbing experiences you can have.

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