After a year of major content updates and gameplay changes, the original sins of No Man’s Sky still permeate the design. There are a lot of little problems, but if you trace the problems back to their roots you’ll see they basically all stem from a couple of really bad ideas: The Inventory System, and Polo.
Polo is certainly the less harmful of the two, but let’s discuss him first.
Seriously, Screw This Guy
Polo is one of the very few named characters in the game. He and his partner Nada appear randomly along your journey. Sometimes you’ll warp to a system and there will be an “Anomaly”, which is what the game calls Nada and Polo’s brutalist styled doom sphere / space station.
In a forum, some internet rando claimed the anomaly is scripted to appear about every two hours. I have no way to confirm that, but it feels about right.
Polo has a series of 16 challenges for you to complete. Although in typical No Man’s Sky style, the game doesn’t tell you what the challenges are, what the rewards will be, or what order they come in. You just show up and talk to Polo. He’ll comment on your journey, and if you’ve completed the latest challenge he’ll give you a reward.
This would be fine if Polo was just dispensing bonus items, but one of the things he gives out is the final tier of Warp reactor. There are four different colors of star systems in the game. In order these are Yellow, Green, Red, Blue. Each tier has new exotic resources to harvest, and each tier requires a warp drive upgrade.
The final warp drive is Polo’s very last reward for his very last challenge. The game has three different overarching goals: The Atlas Quest, the journey to the center of the galaxy, and the (newly added) Artemis storyline. I don’t know about the last one, but to finish either of the first two you will need this warp reactor. Which means Polo is effectively part of the “main quest”.
Each time you randomly encounter Polo, he’ll require you to have reached some milestone on your journey. Kill X spaceships, destroy X robots, save up X galactic space-bucks, survive an accumulated X hours in extreme weather conditions, scan X alien animals, learn X alien vocabulary words, etc. He presents these milestones to you, in order, whenever you stumble onto one of his outposts. You don’t know what his next challenge will be, so you can’t prepare for your next encounter. If you run into him and discover you need to invest a bunch more time to meet the next goal, then you need to continue on your journey, grind out the requisite tasks, and then wait for him to show up againOr you can backtrack, depending on how your travels go. I’m a bit iffy on when his space station disappears and it’s not documented in the wiki..
As icing on the cake, his entire design is really goofy and dissonant. He’s written like he’s this peace and love idealist who hates violence, but literally half of his 16 rewards are weapons. The story is written in this unconventional first person as narrated by the player character, and tells how the player and Polo become fast friends. It feels so disconnected from everything else and the friendship feels so unearned I found it off-putting. The game keeps telling me I’m dear friends with this unhelpful little pain in the ass. I realize that the problems with this game are so profound that complaining about ludonarrative dissonance is really petty, but it really did stand out.
So what’s wrong with Polo?
If this was part of some labor-of-love indie project with a shoestring budget I might call Polo an “interesting experiment” and a “worthy try”. But this is a $60 AAA gameAs of this writing, NMS is STILL $60. For contrast, Doom 2016 came out the same year and was better reviewed, and it’s come down to $30. But NMS is still asking launch-day prices. and this is one of the main characters. I’m less eager to hand-wave shortcomings like this with the excuse of, “It’s an indie effort.” I’ll forgive wonky audio or amateurish lighting if I’m watching a student film on YouTube, but if I just paid $60 to take my family to the movie theater then I expect a certain level of professionalism for my money. Even ignoring the issue of presentation and production values, Polo suffers from a terminal case of needing to, “Show, don’t tell.”
This is a bizarre way of doling out rewards in an open-universe sandbox. “Go anywhere! Do anything! Find things that are fun for you! But in order to make progress you have to jump through these specific hoops, in this specific order.” Just… what? This is the antithesis of everything else the game is trying to do! It’s basically engineered to create frustration and bottleneck your progress on other tasks.
Polo only recognizes one achievement per visit, even if you’ve completed a bunch of them. If I’ve completed challenges 4, 5, 6, and 7 but got stuck on #3, then once I complete #3 I can’t turn in #3 through #7 all at once. I have to turn in #3, then wait a couple of hours for Polo to show up so I can turn in #4, then wait a couple more until another random encounter lets me turn in #5, and so on. And remember, you don’t know have any way of knowing what’s coming (unless you read the wiki) so you’re more likely to “waste” one of these rare visits just figuring out what you need to do.
Many of his early gifts are a waste. He’s hard to find, the story doesn’t tell you he’s important, his challenges are often daunting, and his early rewards are often useless or underwhelming. It’s like the game is teaching you that this guy isn’t important and he’s not worth your time.
His reward doesn’t even make sense! The final warp reactor is obviously not a rare secret super-technology in this universe. Why can’t I just go into the parts shop and buy this warp reactor like all the other technologies in this game? It’s clear there are literally billions of people living in these blue star systems. They come and go as they please. Apparently everyone has this warp reactor but me. So why do I have to jump through all of these hoops for this strange little taskmaster?
His milestones are dissonant. Like I said, he’s written as this lifeform that cherishes life, but he rewards you with guns and his tasks require you go out of your way to shoot down other ships. Alone this is a minor problem, but with everything else it sort of adds to the sensation that the whole thing was slapped together without any thought. For example, he could have given away shields instead of guns, and his ship combat milestones could have been swapped out for any of the other non-murder ones.
So the game inadvertently teaches you that Polo is a waste or that his rewards are optional and not very good, which means you might not spend time doing them. Which means you’ll run into a wall later when the game casually gives you a goal that can only be completed with a maxed-out hyperdrive. Maybe you’ll shop around for hours before giving up and looking at the wiki, only to discover you’ve got dozens of hours of Polo-grinding before you can return to the task at hand.
Polo is a microcosm of everything wrong with the overall design of No Man’s Sky. An undocumented linear progression of arbitrary tasks that bottleneck progress, glazed in a layer of earnest but sophomoric writing.
As bad as all of this is, you can deal with Polo by just keeping the Wiki open in the background and making sure you plan your activities so you don’t get stuck on any of his tasks for too long. That’s annoying, but it’s not enough to ruin the game. The task of ruining the game falls to…
The Stupid Inventory System (Again.)
You might remember my long tirades last year about the No Man’s Sky inventory system. The inventory wasn’t just annoying, it actively inhibited the one good thing the game had going for it. But in case you missed it, here’s a quickBy the overly verbose standards of this site, anyway. overview…
Imagine you’re playing Skyrim or Fallout 4. You leave town, hike across an empty wilderness, and plunge into a dungeon. Halfway through looting the first room, your inventory is already full. Your first instinct is, “I’ll take what’s valuable.” Except, it’s all valuable. Every dungeon has a couple of rare resources that are hard to find. You know you’ll need them later. You can ignore them now, but ten hours from now you’ll be able to forge yourself a sweet new weapon except you’ll need the thousand units of the Unobtainium that’s currently right in front of you. You won’t be able to find this particular dungeon again. You’ll have to voyage around for three hours to find the next batch of it, and the whole time you’ll be thinking back to the thousands of units you left on the floor of this dungeon because you couldn’t carry it.
Your inability to plan for the future aside, you also really need money. Which means you need to take some of this other loot with you. But your gear (and the materials to keep you going) take up 90% of your carry capacity. So what do you do? Excavate this dungeon a spoonful at a time, running between here and town to make some trivial amount each trip? If you do that, you will spend a vast majority of your time hiking back and forth (boring) and not exploring the dungeons, which is the one thing this game does right.
This was a game about exploring and collecting resources on vast worlds where your pockets were full two minutes after leaving your spaceship.
“No problem for me! I don’t have the reflexive hoarding instinct. I’ll just ignore the loot and do the dungeon anyway. I’ll still level up.”
That might work in a Bethesda game, except in No Man’s Sky building upgrades is how you level up. Imagine doing the dungeon, except all the “loot” you’re leaving behind is actually piles of XP.
This is what made the game so maddening at launch. Almost every single system of the game tied into the inventory: Materials to build upgrades, items to sell for money, items to grind reputation with factions, quest items for the main storyline, and the half dozen or so materials needed just to fuel your suit, your tools, and your ship. They all took inventory space. It was the one thing everyone hated about the game at launch, and the one thing that needed to be fixed.
Well the designer addressed this problem, and the result is perfectly indicative of the weird-ass approach No Man’s Sky has always used with regards to game mechanics. The solution is awkward, convoluted, frustrating, and doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Originally you had two and a half inventories: Your exosuitYour pockets., your starship, and your multi-toolWhich held upgrades, but not items.. My original complaint was that all of your upgrades used inventory slots. So if I wanted to upgrade my exosuit with a radiation shield so I can explore an irradiated world, then I need to give up one of my too-few inventory slots to do it. The same thing applied to the spaceship. To solve this, Hello Games didn’t just give us more inventory. Instead they gave us more kinds of inventory.
Now, I’m going to suggest that you NOT read this next bit. This is long and it’s not totally required to understand what’s wrong. But I’m leaving it here for the curious. If you find yourself thinking, “It can’t be as silly as Shamus is making it sound”, then come back and read this. If you’re willing to take my word for it, then just jump down to the section titled What a Mess.
An Explanation of the Five Different Kinds of Inventory, Their Sub-Inventories, How They Differ, How They’re Connected, and Holy Shit This is Already So Stupid.
When people demanded “more inventory space!” I think Hello Games misunderstood. HG seems to think that what we really wanted was more different kinds of inventory. The updates have added new inventory groups and sub-screens. Here is what they are and how they workOr don’t, in a few cases..
Single items still don’t stack. Materials are stored in stacks of 250. You can transfer items from here to your starship from anywhere in the game, but if you’re far away from your starship you can’t transfer them the other way.
In the wilderness you’ll sometimes find a single-use upgrade station that will let you buy one additional slot of space. The cost to do this increases every time.
You start off the game with no cargo slots. Then, thanks to a known bug, it stays that way. You walk up to an inventory upgrade machine, pay a huge pile of money, and then nothing happens. According to the forums, most people do this twice. The first time they assume they clicked on something wrong or selected the wrong kind of upgrade. The second time they realize they’ve been ripped off.
Like the exosuit, you can add one additional slot to this for an ever-increasing fee. (Assuming you’re not suffering from the ripoff bug.)
Like the exosuit, you can add new slots to this, one at a time, for an ever-increasing fee.
You can’t upgrade or change this inventory except to get a different ship.
In all other cases, the player’s main inventory is considered the “hub” of all inventories. If you hit “transfer items” in any other inventory, then the items move to the player’s pockets. However, the Exocraft deviates from this. If you transfer away from the craft, it goes to the ship.
There’s an odd bug with these where you can’t transfer an entire stack of 1,000 items into your main inventory, even if you’ve got enough room for the resulting four stacks. You have to manually transfer it in groups of 250.
This space can’t be upgraded, but you can build more vaults. (Up to 10.)
What a Mess
Suit, multi-tool, ship, exocraft, vault. That’s five different kinds of inventoryThere’s also a freighter you can buy, but as of this writing I haven’t messed with it., three different stack sizes, multiple different ways of managing upgrades, several different behaviors when transferring items, and a couple of interface bugs. Some inventories you can’t sell from, some you can only access when you’re close to the container, some you can access at limited range in one direction and unlimited range in the other, some can’t stack items, and some share space with upgrades. You can move between the four main inventory types with the top menu but then move through the sub-inventories with a control on the side.
Let me tell you a story about this new inventory system…
The game now has quests. Some quests give you trade items as a reward. Typically you get either 3 or 5 items. These are automatically dumped into your main inventory, where they cannot stack, instead of going into your starship where they would stack nicely in groups of 5. If you don’t have enough free slotsBECAUSE YOU NEVER HAVE ENOUGH FREE SLOTS. then the “extra” items vanish forever. If you’re turning in several quests at once then you need to talk to the agent by holding the interact button for 2 seconds, then click through his useless three dialog boxes of blather, then click on the completed mission, then click to get your reward. Then you have to exit the entire dialog, open your inventory, and shift all of those single items over to your starship where they will take just 1 slot instead of 5. Then you can talk to the agent again, skip his dialog again, and turn in the next quest, and so on, until all your quests are accounted for and everything is packed in your starship.
This is a preposterous amount of hassle and clicking for what should be a completely trivial transaction. I assumed these trade goods were important, because otherwise why would the developer make them such a pain? If you’re supposed to sell them for money, then why not just pay the player in money? Indeed, some quests do exactly this.
I had a vault where’ I’d stored a bunch of these trade goods, anticipating the moment in the game where they would become useful or important. Then I looked on the wiki and saw they were basically just vendor trash.
So I had a vault with five stacks of ten items. All I needed to do was get them out of storage, walk downstairs, and sell them on the galactic trade network. Here is what I had to do:
The Interface Shuffle
Because they don’t stack in my main inventory, I couldn’t hold all 50 items from the vault at the same time. And I couldn’t just dump a single stack of 10 into my main inventory. No, I had to click on a single free space in my personal inventory, request a single item from the vault, then move to another free slot and repeat, again and again, until my inventory was full. Then I closed the vault, opened my inventory, and sent all the trade goods over to my starship so they would stack. Then I closed that and re-opened the vault (opening the vault requires you to hold the interact button for two seconds) and filled my inventory again. I did this several times, until I’d fully vacated the contents of the vault into my starship.
Then I walked downstairs to the trade interface and discovered that this trade kiosk – unlike all the other trade kiosks in the game – wouldn’t let me sell directly from my starship. So then I had to open the inventory, move a handful of items from my starship to my backpack, then open the trade interface (opening the kiosk requires you to hold the interact button for two seconds) then click through the splash text, then select “sell”, then sell those items. Then exit out of the trade interface, re-open the inventory, and transfer the next batch. I had to do that over and over again, until I’d successfully cleaned out my starship.
All told, it took me several minutes and easily over a hundred mouse clicks. I probably spent over a minute just holding down the “interact” button and waiting for the stupid interface animations to complete. All of this hassle, just to sell five stacks of items!
In a Bethesda game, you would simply take in the excess inventory and then slow-walk to the shop. It’s silly, but at least it wouldn’t require several minutes of interface shuffle. And let’s be clear, if your interface is being compared unfavorably to a Bethesda game you have made a mistake of epic proportions.
What is any of this for? What does any of this senseless bullshit and hassle add to the game? The developer heard the fanbase cry for “more inventory space” and they “obliged” them in the most insane, wrong-headed, sadistic way possible. They gave you more total space to store stuff, but then also multiplied the number of items you had to carry and made a byzantine set of rules and behaviors for dealing with it all. People wanted more inventory space because they wanted to spend less time shuffling items around and more time playing the game. So Hello Games granted their request in a literal sense while making the actual problem much worse. This is griefing disguised as game design.
Let’s go back to that first E3 reveal trailer that set the world on fire:
Did anyone watch that trailer and think it was going to be a game about sorting items, managing stack sizes, and juggling items between different storage containers? Why was inventory management given such focus? Why, after a year of updates, has it been expanded into the most complex system in the game?
The crazy thing is that the fix for the inventory problem is pretty simple. There was no need to mess around with cargo screens. All they had to do was make the inventory bigger.
Since the update I’ve played through in regular mode, and then I played in survival difficulty. After two days of slamming my head against the inventory screen in survival mode I downloaded a save editor and cheated myself the largest ship possible. The result was I was suddenly playing a completely different game. I could adventure around on a planet for more than five minutes without feeling like I was wasting my time because my inventory was full. I could gather loot, fill up, and then go back to “town” and unload. The interface was still an abomination, but at least the lack of inventory was no longer preventing me from engaging with the best parts of the game.
It wasn’t like this trivialized the game, either. Even with this massive cheat in place, NMS is still a long, long game. This didn’t let me take any major shortcuts or skip large parts of the game. All it did was cut down on the hours I spent opening my inventory to fuss with things so I could focus on the exploration.
Despite my egregious cheating, inventory space was still a bit too tight! I think what I gave myself would make for a pretty good starting inventory, with more space being added as the game progressed. But still, this massive improvement didn’t require doubling the number of inventory systems and making them all operate under slightly different rules.
It really is shocking how hard Hello Games worked to do things the wrongest and least satisfying way possible.
 Or you can backtrack, depending on how your travels go. I’m a bit iffy on when his space station disappears and it’s not documented in the wiki.
 As of this writing, NMS is STILL $60. For contrast, Doom 2016 came out the same year and was better reviewed, and it’s come down to $30. But NMS is still asking launch-day prices.
 By the overly verbose standards of this site, anyway.
 Your pockets.
 Which held upgrades, but not items.
 Or don’t, in a few cases.
 Or maybe they do? I’m not sure how to interpret these vague numbers.
 There’s also a freighter you can buy, but as of this writing I haven’t messed with it.
 BECAUSE YOU NEVER HAVE ENOUGH FREE SLOTS.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Shamus Plays WOW
Ever wondered what's in all those quest boxes you've never bothered to read? Get ready: They're more insane than you might expect.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?
What is Piracy?
It seems like a simple question, but it turns out everyone has a different idea of right and wrong in the digital world.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?