Maybe you’re wondering why I spent so much time with this game. Shamus, if you hate the game so much then why not just play something else?
I love procedural worlds. I mean, obviously. I love expansive exploration. The only reason I stopped playing Skyrim was because I’d basically exhausted the world and had too many of the dungeons memorized. It took me years to kick my Minecraft habit, and all it would take is one good modpack to get me to relapse.
No Man’s Sky provides more explorable space than any other game. There’s tons of variety. I enjoy seeing what’s over the next rise, on the next world, and in the next system. If the gameplay could have been upgraded from “aggressively disappointing” to simply “kinda dull” I’d have been able to enjoy it for months.
Let’s say you’re playing one of those tabletop games that NERDS like so much. The setting is great. You’re really happy with your character. The story is pretty interesting so far. There’s lots of laughing and fun around the table. Everything is great except…
Except for Donny.
Donny is a jackass. He’s loud, abrasive, argumentative, and entitled. He eats more than everyone else, he never chips in for food, and he’s always knocking things over and spilling stuff on the game pieces. He starts fights when he’s bored, which is whenever his character isn’t the center of attention. A couple of girls used to be part of the group, but they left because Donny was such a creep towards them. He throws tantrums when the dice don’t go his way and he watches YouTube videos on his phone at full volume when other characters are having an intense conversation that doesn’t involve him.
Sure, you can ask, “Why are you still going to this group if Donny ruins everything? Why not do something else with your Friday nights?” That’s a fair question. Although a more incisive question would be, “Who the fuck keeps inviting Donny and why can’t we get rid of him?“
Yes, I can quit playing No Man’s Sky. In fact, I’ve done so. (I was wrapping up my time with the game just as this series started.) But it’s tragic. Yes, quitting the game solves the problem of being annoyed by the game, but a better solution would have been for the game to stop being so annoying. There are things I love about No Man’s Sky. There are things many people love about No Man’s Sky. Everyone loves exploring these worlds. But like I said last week, the game is engineered to create disappointment.
But not everything is bad. After three weeks of constant negativity, it’s time for me to be positive. Or at least try to. Look, I’m not making any promises, I’m just saying I’ll try to be nice. The updates did manage to get a few things right and I want to list them here in the interest of encouraging more of this sort of thing.
In normal gameplay mode, your survival is basically a foregone conclusion. It’s very hard to get killed and the game does very little to push back against mistakes. In survival mode, this is no longer the case. Every single planet will try to kill you in some way. If the weather isn’t deadly, then the robotic sentinels will attack you on sight and hound you relentlessly across the surface. You’ll consume resources at an accelerated rate, meaning your shield against toxins / radiation / hot / cold will crumble quickly in extreme environments. Worst of all, the accelerated resource consumption means you must constantly be looking for more stuff just to keep from dropping dead.
Now, this sounds like it would be a horrible mix with the restricted inventory system, but it’s actually an improvement on what we had before. See, in normal mode all of your goals are long-term. You were always looking to the horizon, to the next big upgrade. And like I said last week, most of these were eventually disappointments. But survival provides you with much more immediate goals.
I don’t have enough fuel to take off. I see some plutonium about half a kilometer from here. If I can get out there without melting in this acid rain and without getting ganked by any of the bloodthirsty dino-possums and raptor dogs, I should be able to take off and escape this hellhole.
I think it’s a bit like The Long Dark. Intense at first, but after a few hours of running in place and facing the same hazards again and again, it gets to be monotonous. I don’t know that this is the ideal game style for the No Man’s Sky planetary procgen engine. But it is a viable game with mechanics and a proper gameplay loop.
You might remember that at launch space combat was so pointless, broken, and frustrating that I dedicated an entire column to the problems. Those are mostly fixed now. You can run from fights. You can communicate with pirates and pay a ransom to avoid being attacked. The shooting feels a little better and there are a variety of weapons for you to try. When there’s a large-scale engagement outside of a space station you can tell what the sides are and who you’re shooting at. It’s much easier to see and pick up the “loot” dropped by other ships. The AI pirates no longer slam comically into the freighters they’re supposed to be shooting at.
The AI is designed to focus on putting on a good show rather than trying to win. AI pilots do almost no damage to each other. They just fly in loops and generate lots of Star Wars style pew-pew lasers to make the battle look impressive. The two sides will be stuck in this stalemate until you weigh in. Your ship is the only one that can really deal (or receive) fatal damage. This means you can have a space battle nearby that generates lots of fireworks and makes for a good show, or you can jump in and join one side or the other.
It’s not going to be mistaken for a deep-sim space combat game. It’s still pretty shallow, but it looks good and the game is clear about what’s going on and what the stakes are. A lot of work has gone into fixing this, and it shows.
Call Your Ship
In the original No Man’s Sky, you’d jump out of your spaceship, walk half a mile, then realize you needed to turn back because your pockets were full. So then you had to turn around and hike back over the ground you’d already covered. Not only was your adventure over before it got started, but you spent half your time looking at the same patch of land.
Now you can summon your ship to your position. This costs fuel, so it’s not something to be done casually. But still, it cuts out the worst bits of exploration and lets you focus on the less worse bits.
In survival, having your ship take off is really expensive, so having it waste a launch to come to your position is something you’re going to avoid unless you’re in a really tight spot. Which makes sense, since all the environmental dangers would be nullified if you could just leave whenever you wanted to. Also, once you reach the mid-game you’ll be able to carry enough fuel to splurge on decadent luxuries like doing the occasional ship-summon. This is one of the too-rare bits of the game where it feels like you’re making progress.
The game now has quests. On a space station you’ll find an agent with job listings. Kill X pirates. Kill X predatory animals. Kill X sentinel robots. Retrieve an item. Travel to a remote outpost in this solar system and repair the machine. It’s all pretty shallow, but it works as a way of giving you something else to do while hunting for the rare resource you need to build your next upgrade.
In Skyrim, you’re often accomplishing multiple things at once. I’m clearing out this bandit camp as part of a quest, but at the same time I’m also earning XP towards leveling up my skills and I’m winning the favor of the local Jarl so he’ll sell me a house and I’m collecting crafting materials I’ll need later and I’m gathering loot to sell for money and I’m looking for books to complete my collection and I’m hunting for rare knickknacksThe Stones of Barenziah. Because I hate myself. to complete some other quest. The various mechanics work together and all of them encourage me to engage with the main gameplay loop of looting and leveling.
In No Man’s Sky, far too many of the mechanics work against each other and – aside from learning alien languages – they’re all in conflict with the stupid inventory. But the quest system finally gives us something that has a little bit of synergy with the gameplay loop. Many of the quest types simply encourage you to do the stuff you’re already going to be doing: Land on a planet, harvest some stuff, and shoot anything that tries to stop you. It’s not enough to make No Man’s Sky as engrossing as Skyrim, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Surprisingly, the quest system hasn’t been designed for maximum inconvenience. I realize this comes off as obnoxious snark, but “inconvenience” is such a huge part of the design of the game that this really is unexpected. You can take a job in one system. (Say, destroy 10 sentinel robots.) Then you can do the job at your leisure along your travels as you move from one system to the next. Then you can turn in the quest in whatever system you like.
Like I said in earlier entries, the base building is pretty good. It’s a lot like Fallout 4, in that you build your home from modular parts that snap together like a habitrail”Habitrail” is actually a brand name, but I think we need to hijack and genericize it. We really need a word for “environment created by connecting modular rooms and winding tunnels”. Doom 2016, No Man’s Sky, Fallout 4, and dozens of top-down strategy games use it.. It’s really easy to make something attractive and functional, and it makes for a good alternate activity when you want a break from planet-hopping.
The game allows you to jump back to your home planet from any space station, which keeps it fun and easy and helps solidify the gameplay loop of collecting treasure and hauling it home.
Base building is not perfect. Basic things take a lot of materials, which means they take up a lot of inventory space, which means you’ll spend a lot of time fussing with containers.
On the upside, windows make your base look fantastic. On the downside, the game seems to leverage this to make you work to obtain them. In our universe, glass is made from very cheap stuff, but in the universe of No Man’s Sky windows can only be constructed using huge volumes of magical ice crystals.
As a warning: The game promises you that you can move your base whenever you like, and that you’ll get “most” of your building materials back. This is a lie. You get half, rounded down. If an item required 5 rare things to construct, you’ll get back 2. I guess in the NMS universe, 40% qualifies as “most”. Anyway, make sure you really want to move your base, because it’s a lot more expensive than the game lets on. This penalty also applies when tearing down an item to re-locate it within your existing base, so don’t get click-happy and misplace that landing pad or trade kiosk or you’ll be setting yourself up for some expensive grinding to correct your mistakeIt’s better to just save-scum when building expensive stuff..
Building your base is tied to an annoying linear questline, and the game withholds a few important building pieces until you’ve progressed through a lot of it. This means they won’t be available until you’re basically done building the place. Given the penalty for deleting stuff, this is pretty obnoxious. You can’t build the base you want until you’ve finished building the compromised version you had to settle for because the game wouldn’t give you access to all the parts.
I’d suggest starting a game in creative mode (another great addition in these updates) where building is free, and using that to plan out your base before you attempt to do it for “real”.
Yes, there’s a lot wrong with the building mechanics. But there’s a good idea under the hassle and plenty of room for it to be refined.
The Atlas Quest is much improved. Previously you made a journey from one Atlas station to the next, and at each station you’d be given an “Atlas Stone”. At the end of the journey you’d turn in the 10 stones you collected and get whatever passed for a conclusion. The Atlas stones didn’t stack, so the further you got in this quest the more it exacerbated the inventory problems that made the game such a chore to play.
In the update, the Atlas gives out “Atlas Seed” recipes instead of stones. The recipes actually form a chain, so that each new item requires the previous Atlas seed as a crafting ingredient, along with a measure of some element. These elements get rarer as the quest goes on. What you end up with is this mystery orb that you add to after each visit, using the materials you gather along your journey.
It’s far from perfect. The big problem is that one of the steps requires some material only found around blue stars, which means you must complete Polo’s entire “questline” before you can obtain it. Perversely, this isn’t the final step. Step #7 requires stuff that you can only obtain with the final tier (tier 3) warp reactor, but the next 2 steps require stuff from tier 2 stars, and the final step requires stuff you can get literally anywhere. I can’t imagine why these requirements are so backwards. Again, it feels like someone was just throwing things together randomly and not thinking about how the player was supposed to progress through the game.
Also, I think the Atlas Quest is still broken. Or maybe it’s just confusing. Sometimes I’d arrive at an Atlas interface and not get any text. Nothing would happen. I’d get a blank screen, leave, and it would give me the location of the next Atlas station anyway. This game is such a pile of random broken stuff it’s tough to tell the difference between when it’s malfunctioning and when it’s just being really coy.
The ending seems to be broken as well. The final Atlas Seed is called “Heart of The Sun”. The interface indicates you’re inserting this thing into a machine to get the ending, but then when it’s over I’ve still got it in my inventory. Some players report getting a certain reward item for completing the quest, but I never got that. The game told me the quest was complete and the Atlas stuff was removed from my quest log, but I didn’t “get” anything. I’m not saying I should have, I’m just saying I can’t tell if it’s broken or if this is the intended behavior.
A lot of people faulted the game for telling its “story” through nothing but text boxes. No animated characters. No voice acting. No lip sync. No cutscenes. No branching outcomes. I’m not going to complain about that, but I will say that if you’re falling back to 1985 technology for your storytelling then you ought to be able to make it work without the whole thing glitching out or breaking, particularly a year after release.
I realize this post is supposed to be about “Good Things”, but here we have a good thing wrapped in a bunch of bad (or at least questionable) things. I’m doing what I can to be nice, but I’m not going to pretend I didn’t notice all of these problems. My point is that I like the idea of building up an Atlas seed using elements gathered along your journey, thus creating a link between the Atlas quest and the planet exploration gameplay. It’s a solid design choice, even if it’s weirdly structured and possibly bugged.
The Music is Really Good
Did they add more music in one of the updates? It seems like I got more musical variety this time. I dunno. For such a long game, I’m pretty impressed at how rarely I found myself thinking, “Oh, this track again?”
Okay. We’re done talking about No Man’s Sky. Probably for good. Onward.
 The Stones of Barenziah. Because I hate myself.
 ”Habitrail” is actually a brand name, but I think we need to hijack and genericize it. We really need a word for “environment created by connecting modular rooms and winding tunnels”. Doom 2016, No Man’s Sky, Fallout 4, and dozens of top-down strategy games use it.
 It’s better to just save-scum when building expensive stuff.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
The game was a dud, and I'm convinced a big part of that is due to the way the game leaned into its story. Its terrible, cringe-inducing story.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
The Witch Watch
My first REAL published book, about a guy who comes back from the dead due to a misunderstanding.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.