I know that dumping on No Man’s Sky was all the rage a few weeks ago, and the only thing worse than showing up for a pointless dogpile is showing up late for a pointless dogpile. So I want to make it clear that nothing I’m saying here should be taken as a personal attack and I don’t have anything against the developers. Hello Games made a game that was hotly anticipated by their fans and then ended up disappointing a lot of them after release. I can’t hate them for that. I did the same thing earlier this year.
In fact, I’m hoping they made enough on this game that they can give it another try. I really do think that they have something special here. Imagine if the first iteration of Minecraft had been really awkward, frustrating, had a terrible building interface, and was constantly limiting and undermining your creative abilities because the developer thought the game should be focused on combat. I wouldn’t want the idea of a cube world to die on the vine. I’d want it to get another chance to become the creative, engaging, meme-spawning classic that was embraced as a hobby by millions worldwide.
So I think there’s some value in picking apart the mechanics of No Man’s Sky and understanding why they don’t work. Lots of people (including me) have said that the space combat in this game sucks, but I think it might be more useful to dig into the details of why it sucks. Space combat isn’t just the victim of a couple of unfortunate design choices. It’s a chain of conflicting goals and bad decisions that comes up with new ways to annoy you as you play.
Space combat is pretty shallow. If you have something “valuable” on your ship – and there’s no clear indication of what that threshold is – then at some point you’ll get a warning message that pirates are scanning you. There’s a pause, and then the computer informs you that the pirates found valuable cargo. (The computer knows this HOW? Does the ship computer somehow know the exact threshold of booty that will provoke an attack?) Then another pause and a message informs you that an attack is imminent. Then about seven ships will materialize and pull you out of warp and engage you.
Note that it always happens this way. In all my 100+ hours with the game, I never had an instance where pirates scanned me and then left me alone. So they only scan you when they already know they’re going to find something. This reveals the artifice of the system to the player. As soon as you hear the first announcement from the computer, you know a fight is inevitable. Also, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like an announcement that you’re going to get a random encounter in 30 seconds.
A better system:
- The computer occasionally warns you that you’re being scanned for valuables, regardless of what you’ve got in the hold.
- Eliminate the second message stating that they plan to attack you based on what they found. It’s not needed and it makes no sense anyway.
- Sometimes they will leave you alone, based on a dice roll. The more treasure you’re hauling around, the more likely the attack will be, but there should always be a bit of random noise to the system to keep the player guessing.
Of course, this fix would only work if space combat was a fun addition to the game, which it isn’t, because…
The Fighting Doesn’t Work
In a proper space-fighter game, you can weave around to avoid enemy fire. A good pilot can win an engagement while barely taking a hit to their shields. Fights are sometimes a game of brinkmanship where you decide how much temporary shield damage you’re willing to absorb to get your hits in.
In this game, I never found any way to avoid enemy fire. You’re slow, your hitbox is big, enemy fire is fast-moving, and you’re vastly outnumbered. I’d weave all over the place, constantly changing my heading and velocity the way I’ve done in countless other space combat games, but it never seemed to make any difference. I was constantly pelted by enemy fire, to the point where it felt like the best strategy was to just tank the incoming damage while I lined up the shot.
In a space combat sim, having your shields go down means it’s time to re-route power from weapons to shields and take evasive maneuvers until you recover. In No Man’s Sky, it means you need to OPEN UP THE SODDING INVENTORY SCREEN and click on the shield generator, then choose a resource from the little pop-up to use for repair / recharge. And no, the game doesn’t pause when you do this. This is the worst of all possible designs. It breaks the flow of the action, it requires frantic menu-clicking and making complex decisions about resource expenditures while you’re getting pelted with laser fire, and it forces you to stop flying your ship in the middle of a fight.
“I’d better repair my shields before they go down! Hmm. Titanium is easy to collect and I’ve got tons of it, but I’ve got just a tiny sliver of zinc left. So if I use the zinc I’ll free up an inventory slot. Er, is this zinc coming from my personal inventory or from the cargo hold, because the stack sizes differ and OH MY GOSH I AM OVERCOME BY THE WHITE-KNUCKLE EXCITEMENT OF COMBAT.”
Also, how am I repairing a SHIELD with METAL? What’s the metaphor at work here? Am I supposedly taking this raw ore and smearing it on the outside of my ship like sunblock? Apologists will defend nonsensical features by claiming realism was compromised for “fun”, and they’ll defend miserable mechanics by saying it “makes more sense this way”. But this fails no matter which excuse you go for. This is both eye-crossing nonsense and a total chore.
Is this supposed to be exciting? Frustrating? You can’t really claim this is a challenge for the player to overcome, since…
The AI Doesn’t Work
Even ignoring the shield repair problem, the combat feels awful. I’ve flown a lot of ships and tried a lot of different approaches, and I’ve never been in a proper dogfight where I could maneuver behind an enemy and stay there. They’re faster than you and they have a tighter turning radius. Which means most fights come down to you chasing after them until they’re a speck in the distance, then they loop around and the two of you charge at each other head-on. If you juke around, it will throw off your aim without impeding your foe’s ability to hit you with their giant laser blobs. So again, it comes down to a mindless fight where you tank damage rather than avoid it. This isn’t dogfighting, it’s jousting.
So winning the fight comes down to having enough repair resources in the hold to get you through the fight. It’s a battle of attrition. And there’s no reason to participate in it because…
The Reward System Doesn’t Work
When you destroy a ship, the bad guys drop some loot. But unlike every single fight on a planet, your spoils don’t automatically rush towards you after the fight. Instead the foe drops a colorful little packet that you must physically fly over to pick up. I’m sure you can appreciate how unreasonable it is to ask the player to look for a glowing speck while moving at high speeds through a hail of laser fire against a backdrop of stars. This is made more difficult by the fact that the loot is dropped not when you deliver the killing blow to the foe in front of you, but after their ship is done exploding. By this point the loot is behind you and finding it amidst the chaos is unlikely.
But wait, it’s worse!
But even if you’re That Good that you can pick up these parcels in the middle of a fight, they aren’t terribly rewarding. You’ll get a couple of units of some mineral that you could easily have grabbed off the surface of the planet for only minimal effort and basically no risk. Even if you’re an ace pilot with a maximum-upgraded ship that kills every single foe in a single pass and grabs every single dropped packet, you’d still be gathering resources far more slowly than you would by simply wandering around on a planet and firing your handheld mining beam at random. And that’s before you add in the expense of repairing your shield due to all of the non-avoidable damage.
But wait, it’s worse!
Sometimes you’ll weave around and successfully grab a packet, only to have the game tell you there was nothing in it. I should point out that ALL fights on the planet yield resources that are instantly beamed into your inventory whether you want them or not. But here in space, not only do you sometimes get nothing, but you have to manually fly around to pick up your packet of nothing while people are trying to kill you.
The Interface Doesn’t Work
Most of No Man’s Sky has a horrible interface. But when it comes to space combat, the interface simply doesn’t exist. In a proper space combat game, you have buttons to select your next (usually closest) target. You can see what faction the enemy ships belong to. You can see what kind of ships you’re up against. You can see what kinds of damage you’ve done to them. You can see the state of their shields and their hull. You can see how far away they are and how fast they’re moving.
There’s nothing like that in No Man’s Sky. You’re fighting dots in the distance, and the only thing you know about them is the health bar that appears over the ship in the hud. Most fights will end without you having any idea who you’re fighting against or what their ships looked like. Are these ships different from the ships I was fighting in a different system an hour ago? Are there different classes of ships like bombers, fighters, and interceptors? Do some systems have more powerful ships than others? Based on how the fights feel I’d say no, but there’s no way to prove it because the interface has nothing to say to you.
You might be looking at these screenshots and thinking, “Hang on Shamus, I can see there’s some kind of ship display on the right side of the cockpit!” Okay, it’s true that the right-hand screen is a ship display. But I hasten to add that it’s a display for your own spaceship, and that it contains no useful information. I guess you can use it to remind yourself the shape of the ship you’re flying, since the game doesn’t have any external camera views.
Sometimes you’ll find a bunch of fighters attacking a freighter that’s issuing a distress call. There’s nothing in the interface to tell you who either side is. Who owns the freighter? The Gek? Korvax? Vy'KeenYou CAN find out by parking at the nearby space station, jumping out of your ship, and walking inside the trading post to see species of the alien who seems to be running the place all by their lonesome. That will tell you what race inhabits this system, and thus who owns the freighters. I think.? Who owns the attacking ships? One of the other alien factions? The “space pirates”? You don’t know.
The Freighter Engagements Don’t Work
If you help out the freighter you’ll improve your standing with whatever faction owns this system, but the game doesn’t tell you how much reputation you earn for doing this. Which I guess is fine, since there’s no way to see your current standing anyway. And it doesn’t seem to make any difference what they think of you. It certainly doesn’t impact barter prices. And even if you’re just super-interested in making them like you for some reason, there are far easier ways of gaining reputation that don’t require several minutes of tedious ship-jousting.
So when you see a freighter giving a distress call what it means is that the game is offering you a chance to wade in and burn a bunch of resources in a prolonged fight between two unknown parties for a reward you don’t need. And even if you’re interested in the reward for (say) roleplaying purposes, the game doesn’t tell you how much of a reward you get and there’s no way to prove you’re getting anything at all.
The enemy uses the same brain-dead AI for attacking freighters as attacking the player. Once I sat back and watched a freighter attack in progress. The pirates (or whoever they were) charged directly at the freighter until they bumped into it. Then they would pivot in place until they were turned around, and flew directly away to prepare for the next pass. Sometimes they would get stuck in the ridges of the structure and bump around like a trapped housefly until they broke free. Other players have reported ships flying through the freighters.
Sometimes they wander away from the battle for no particular reason. This sucks because being “under attack” by pirates prevents you from warping away, and you’re “under attack” until they’re all dead. And if you’re defending a freighter, you don’t get your meaningless little reputation boost / pat on the head until all the enemy ships are destroyed, even if one of them got lost and quit the battlefield.
The final thing to just ruin the space combat is that it’s mandatory. Once the pirates scan you, your choice is to either fight and kill them all, or quit the gameOr, I suppose, warp to another system. But then you’re just delaying the inevitable. They’ll gank you again as soon as you try to go anywhere.. You can’t flee the fight, and in fact running away is the fastest way to get yourself killed because your foes are faster than you and they don’t miss. You can’t invest in stealth upgrades to slip by them undetected. You can’t upgrade your ship speed or pulse drive to outrun them. You can’t cut a deal, or win faction approval, or pay the locals to defend you, or anything else to tie this part of the game to any of the others.
I know I’ve been dumping on poor No Man’s Sky for a few weeks now, but I did all this to make a point. The fact that space combat doesn’t work isn’t a single flaw with the game. This isn’t something that could be addressed with a conventional patch. This is a whole chain of decisions, mistakes, bugs, and cut corners that all exacerbate each other. This type of complex design flaw isn’t just part of space combat – it permeates the entire game.
To me it looks like they finished their planet-exploring technology and then figured out what the gameplay would be like. A bunch of popular systems from other games were tossed into this one, but the systems either don’t work together and sometimes they even undermine each other.
I imagine all of this happened towards the end of the development cycle, and the ship date arrived before they finished designing the “game” part of the videogame. You’ve got mining-style resource gathering, which is undone by the Destiny-style interface, which doesn’t work with the half-baked Freelancer combat, which has no connective tissue with the Spore-style creature showcase, and none of these systems interact with the “learning alien languages” gameplay or the quest to reach the center of the galaxy. It’s just random systems dumped into a single game, most of which work against the one thing the game does well.
Hello Games has been diligently patching the game, fixing bugs, fixing performance issues, and otherwise polishing what they shipped. But the core problems will remain, because the really serious issues go right to the heart of the design.
Breaks my heart.
 You CAN find out by parking at the nearby space station, jumping out of your ship, and walking inside the trading post to see species of the alien who seems to be running the place all by their lonesome. That will tell you what race inhabits this system, and thus who owns the freighters. I think.
 Or, I suppose, warp to another system. But then you’re just delaying the inevitable. They’ll gank you again as soon as you try to go anywhere.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
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.
Best. Plot Twist. Ever.
Few people remember BioWare's Jade Empire, but it had a unique setting and a really well-executed plot twist.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.