This week on the Diecast we talked about No Man’s Sky NEXT, the massive patch / overhaul that rolled out a week ago. I was peeved that people were claiming that the patch “fixes the game”, when none of the core problems had been addressed. As I said on the show, “It’s the same damn game!”
But I put a few more hours into it and I don’t think that’s quite fair. It’s not the same game. It’s a very different game… with most of the same problems.
If you’re new to the site, you may want to go back and revisit what I said about No Man’s Sky a year ago when I did a four-part analysis on the state of the game as it existed in the summer of 2017. In particular, The Disappointment Engine post illustrates how so many of the mechanics work to frustrate the player.
Before we can look at where the game is now, let’s jump back and look at where it was at launch two years ago.
No Man’s Launch
Back in 2016 this started out as a very fussy, annoying, shallow game. You had just a few precious inventory slots available to work with, and you needed most of them just to get around. You needed to gather one resource to power your mining laser, another resource to keep your life support going, another to power the takeoff engine on your ship, another to power your ship to fly between planets, and still more to make the jump between star systems. Some of these resources had to be crafted into other things with pointless levels of intermediate recipes.
That was basically it. The whole gameplay loop was just a treadmill of harvesting stuff so you could fly to a new planet and harvest the exact same stuff. There was a mild progression system where you could gradually upgrade your equipment and ship, but there was a ton of grind between moments of meaningful progression. You’d spend hours and hours gathering the same trivial resources and refilling the same equipment just to keep going, constantly opening your inventory to shuffle things around.
Sometimes you’d find treasure in the world in the form of ultra-rare resources, but since your pockets were always full you couldn’t really take it with you which means there was no reason to go looking for it.
Imagine a version of Skyrim where you can only carry 11 items, and your armor and weapons take up 9 of those slots. Sometimes you’ll find a stack of ten valuable items, but who cares? You can only take two of them with you. Why even bother looking for treasure? But if I’m not going to look for treasure, then… what am I striving for? The whole thing was a self-defeating loop of busywork.
And then once you sunk a few dozen hours into the game you’d finally reach a major unlock and gain access to a new batch of star systems only to discover they’re basically indistinguishable from the ones you’ve been staring at for hours.
Some people claimed it was a good “zen” game where you could just relax and enjoy the journey, but that made no sense to me. I could see how travelling around in No Man’s Sky could be about low-key exploration and wanderlust. Sadly, the mechanics work directly against this idea at every turn. It’s really hard to get into a “zen” state with the computer beeping at you “INVENTORY. FULL.” every ten steps. It’s hard to enjoy the journey and exploration when I have to keep stopping to shift some stuff from my main inventory to the ship inventory and puzzle over stack sizes to free up more space in my pockets. It’s like a highway where there’s a traffic light every five car lengths. That’s not my idea of a zen experience.
It was a shallow game where the central gameplay loop worked directly against the one thing the game did really well.
So now it’s been two years. What’s changed?
The New Hotness
The game now has many routes of progression! You can do the Atlas quest. You can work for Polo. You can do the random stuff Artemis tells you to do. Your terrestrial base is no longer tied to a pointless linear quest, so you can build the place you want. Or several of them. You can own a flagship and frigates and send the frigates out on timed missions. You can build inside your flagship to make it a swank hangout and build up your fleet.
This isn’t brilliant content or anything, and there’s not a lot of synergy between the different layers. But it does form a coherent sense of progression and give you a reason to explore that great big expanse of stars and planets.
Space stations feel like proper space stations now. Previously a space station would have one small room with one guy and a commerce terminal. Now it looks like a mall, with people loitering in the open area in front of the shops.
You can now customize the look of your character. You can choose a race, a head, your outfit, and color everything. Even better, this feature is designed to be easy and fun, rather than yet another grind. Rebuild your character at any space station for no cost. All of the characters are genderless aliens of some sort. Some are cute, some are amusing, and some look strange. There’s a lot of variety so you’ll probably find something you like.
The planets are a little more interesting now. While every planet is still a single-biome deal, they have local differences in topology rather than being a single homogeneous landscape. You get highlands, lowlands, and coastal regions. Also, the landscape on the ground now matches what you see from space, putting an end to the days when you’d aim yourself at the middle of a continent, descend towards the planet, and then find yourself staring at a vast ocean once you emerged from the clouds.
Multiplayer now works, although I haven’t tried playing with anyoneI’m on GoG and all my friends are on Steam, and I don’t even know if cross-play is possible..
I would say the people praising the game are basically right in the sense that No Man’s Sky is now “fixed”. It’s a proper game at this point, with both short-term and long-term goals. From here, the biggest thing you could do to improve the game is to remove the stuff that doesn’t work. We don’t need more features, we just need to remove the stuff stopping us from engaging with the features we already have.
Give Us Some SPACE
The starting inventory is MADNESS. It’s not just “a little too small”, it’s massively undersized in a way that kills the player’s ability to engage with the best parts of the game.
As designed, your typical end-game starship has about 48 slots. With that many slots, you can reasonably behave like a typical open-world adventurer: Go out into the wilderness. Get yourself into some trouble. Find some cool loot. Load up your pockets with treasure, take it back to town, sell it, and use the proceeds to buy yourself an upgrade or two. Rinse. Repeat.
When the NEXT patch came out, I started a new game and immediately used a save editor to give myself a 48 slot starship. Here is one of the adventures I had:
I landed on a planet with searing rainstorms, where the local sentinel robots were incredibly aggressive. So I had to sprint from one cave to the next to take shelter before the rain boiled me. There were these clusters of glowing spheres that the sentinels guarded jealously. Sometimes as I was running through the torrent I’d find a nest of spheres and pick up a couple, even though that would immediately summon the killer robots. It was a mad dash across the planet, blasting robots, cowering from the storms, swiping treasure, and scanning the occasional bit of wildlife when I got a calm moment. When it was over my cargo bay was bursting with glowing spheres, I’d managed to 100% the wildlife scans for a nice bonus, and I’d even hit a couple of progression milestones for killing sentinels and surviving in extreme conditions.
It was the most fun I’d ever had playing No Man’s Sky.
And yet, that adventure would not have been possible if I’d been playing the game as intended. With the intended early-game inventory I would have landed, picked up a couple of spheres, and then I’d be full before I even lost sight of my ship. What then? Just LEAVE after being on the planet for sixty seconds? Is this really what the game designer wants us to do? Or do they expect us to wander around on a planet for no reason, passing up piles of loot we can’t take with us?
It’s not like this would unbalance the game! My hour-long adventure netted me about a million space bucks in glowing spheres. That’s comparable to the other ways of making money at that point in the game. The only difference was that this was fun and exciting and gave me a reason to explore these planets on foot.
Get Rid of the Busywork
The other thing that needs to go is the busywork “gameplay” of constantly gathering up all the different kinds of fuel. It’s not that you have to gather stuff often, it’s that you need to do so constantly. Your gear in No Man’s Sky is like a car that can only hold enough gas to drive four blocks. Don’t worry, the game designer put three gas stations on every bock. Sure, that makes the scenery incredibly repetitive and the constant refilling keeps you from enjoying the journey, but on the other hand… um. What’s the point of this feature again?
In No Man’s Sky, the space between planets is filled with this homogenous cloud of space-rocks. If space were actually filled with rocks like this, then space would be opaque. It’s complete nonsense from a scientific standpointYes, any game with faster-than-light travel is scientifically nonsense. But there’s a difference between compromises made in the name of fun and things that look blatantly absurd for no reason. I won’t complain about artificial gravity on spaceships, but I would complain if my spaceship propelled itself by flapping its wings., it looks ugly having all these space-turds floating around you all the time, and the rocks block our view of the gorgeous scenery.
The thing is, the only reason those rocks exist is because you might run out of fuel while you’re flying between planets. If you just made the pulse drive free, then you could get rid of the absurd cloud of rocksPlanets can now have rings. That’s a great place to stick the space-rocks for players who enjoy asteroid mining.. This wouldn’t even change the balance of the game. Right now you stop, shoot rocks for two minutes until you’re topped off, and then continue on your way. The process adds nothing to the game.
When the game was new, the busywork gathering mechanics existed because that was the only “gameplay” NMS had to offer. Now we’ve got real gameplay systems and lots of long-term goals. You can spend dozens of hours upgrading your ship, your gear, your fleet, and your base.
All the refueling mechanics do is distract you from the fun stuff. It’s trivially easy so it doesn’t make for a challenge to overcome. It adds to the fun-destroying inventory pressure and it distracts you from the parts of the game that are actually interesting. This is like a shooter where you have to stop after every room and spend five minutes piling up boxes to make a staircase so you can reach the next room. Yes, it makes the game much longer, but at what cost?
To be clear, I think some of the fuel mechanics are okay. I think having the player stop for warp fuel makes sense, since it pushes to you stop and explore the planets. Having the player need to find / craft ammo works well enough. But the mining laser should not need to be refueled. It’s already got the heat mechanic to throttle usage.
Likewise, I’m not suggesting that the player’s life support systems be limitless. I’m just suggesting that it would be better if it recharged automatically when you reached your ship / shelter. Stopping to open the inventory every few minutes so I can shove resources into the life support system doesn’t add anything to the game, particularly when those resources are all around me, all the time.
Overall, It’s Better
I gave up on this game last year. I didn’t think anyone at Hello Games knew how to design gameplay mechanics. But with the NEXT update they really do seem to be improving. Gradually. I don’t know if they got help, if they’re listening to feedback, or if they’re learning as they go.
There’s still a lot of strangeness in the system, but most of it is leftover nonsense from the early versions of the game. The interface is still vastly more complicated than it should be, and I don’t see any way to fix that. The vehicles are still as pointless as ever, which is a shame considering how much work went into them. The language-learning mechanic progresses so slowly that it’s pointless, which is fine since the game ignores the language barrier when it’s convenient. There are still bugs and oddities.
If you’re looking to try the game yourself, I strongly recommend this save editor. When you start a new game, use the editor to give yourself some breathing room in terms of inventory space. It really does make a massive difference. Even if you’d prefer to try the intended experience first, keep the editor in mind. It might salvage the game for you once the interface blues take hold.
 I’m on GoG and all my friends are on Steam, and I don’t even know if cross-play is possible.
 Yes, any game with faster-than-light travel is scientifically nonsense. But there’s a difference between compromises made in the name of fun and things that look blatantly absurd for no reason. I won’t complain about artificial gravity on spaceships, but I would complain if my spaceship propelled itself by flapping its wings.
 Planets can now have rings. That’s a great place to stick the space-rocks for players who enjoy asteroid mining.
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