Saturday, 20 August 2016

Whiskey Reviews: No Man's Sky

Platform: PC
Release Date: 12 August, 2016
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £39.99 (Steam)

No Man's Sky is the sandbox space exploration game that's been subject to so much carefully manufactured hype that there was no way it could ever live up to our crazy, wild imaginations. But does it live up to the trailers? Lets find out.

If the video didn't tip you off, or you couldn't watch it, then the answer is a resounding no. No it does not live up to the early trailers. Lets dive into the meat of it and pick the bones clean to figure out just what's weird alien wheat and what's just chaff.

Lets start with the obvious negative aspects before we go any further. The most immediate issues with the game upon booting it up is the graphical options that can't be disabled. There's vignetting, simulated scanlines, chromatic abberation, and what the internet has already taken to calling the Instagram filter effect that cannot be disabled via the options menu and will have to be modded out of the game if you want to get rid of them. Thankfully those mods already exist if you're so inclined. It's worth noting at this point that with those “features” listed above active the game gave me headaches after just an hour or so of playing, but with them modded out the headaches were gone.

It's a shame Hello Games felt the need to smear their work with those effects because the game has some stunning visuals every once in a while. I say once in a while because the standard texture work, even on maximum settings, is average at best. Water and land are a repeating texture that's tiled over large distances but that's not something you'll notice from ground level. What you will notice however is the textures don't really hold up to close scrutiny, becoming blurry and indistinct if you deign to press your space-face up against them.
On planets like this you expect Ariel to swim by.

When the terrain (and sometimes weather) align into an incredible alien vista of blue hills beneath an orange and black sky with multicoloured plant life and alien creatures wandering around you'll forget about the slightly wibbly textures and appreciate the overall visuals the engine is capable of making. It's especially impressive for a game that's entirely procedurally generated. It's a shame then that these same effects can have the opposite effect of a beautiful vista – indistinct, fuzzy floating black particles can be seen blowing off the terrain via wind but it's a cheap effect, distracting and looks plain ugly. These particles are so prevalent that you'll see them on almost every world you encounter and if you're hunting for species to scan, seeing one flit across the floor can easily be mistaken for a fast moving shadow and send you spinning around looking for a non-existent alien bird-thing.

That said, the procedural generation isn't always on point. It's understandable that there's a few hitches here and there because of the sheer scale of the game (18 hojillion planets or somesuch, my math may not be on point) but on my journey to the centre of the galaxy I noticed the procedural generation got more and more janky as I approached the core. Out on the rim a floating plant or misaligned stalactite was an oddity but nearer to the centre it wasn't uncommon to see entire buildings either floating over crevasses or merged with a hillside in a way that made their contents inaccessible.
The best parking job this side of Alpha Centauri.

I vaguely recall an interview with Sean Murray (one of the developers) where he said the planets would become more interesting towards the galactic centre. I took this to mean we'd start seeing creatures like the giant dinosaur type things we saw in those early trailers and gameplay. That desire to see something cool is the driving force keeping you moving forward in No Man's Sky. The unchanging nature of the wildlife and preponderance of barren planets and repeated flora will chip away at that desire from very early on. By the time you're ten or twelve hours in your desire to push forwards is more an act of defiance – you're no longer looking for the next cool thing but are determined to have not wasted the last twelve hours and will be damned if you don't reach the centre now.

It's not just a lack of variety in textures and flora that will disappoint. For a game that can take, at minimum thirty to forty hours to finish there's also a severe lack of progression. Early in the game you'll be discovering new blueprints, ships and multitools with alarming regularity but depending on your level of dedication to discovering those things they'll run out quickly. I had every blueprint in the game within the first six hours of playing and once I set my mind to getting the inventory upgrades and a maximum size ship, it only took a couple of hours to achieve each of those objectives. So that's ten hours, a quarter of the bare minimum play, to unlock everything. Once you realise that the alien outposts you're investigating aren't going to yield anything useful you begin seeing them as a waste of time. Planets are no longer about exploration, they're about quickly harvesting resources to get your hyperdrive fuelled up so you can keep moving.
One of my favourite moments - that's a bay, the radioactive dust storm reduced visibility at sea level to zero.

A more promising progression path is the four alien languages in the game. You can meet and interact with the Gex, Korvax and Vy'Keen but you'll also find the mysterious Atlas language scattered about monoliths throughout the galaxy. Each language has dozens of words to learn and even with several hours spent on a language rich planet didn't yield every word for even a single species. Slowly uncovering these languages fills in alien words in conversations, which along with a brief description given by your character, are the basis for how you choose to react. For example, you may only know the words 'die' and 'oxide' and the alien looks like it's dying. You could make a couple of different assumptions based on that; either the alien is poisoned by oxides and needs something else, or it needs oxides to heal itself. Applying your own knowledge of the universe, that oxides refuel your life support, will let you choose to heal the alien properly and gain the reward.

The three alien races are also unique: the Gex are feeble traders with delusions of grandeur, the Vy'Keen are powerful anti-Sentinel warriors with a militaristic society, and the Korvax are electronic life forms that see the Sentinels as some kind of holy protector. There's a lot of lore hidden throughout monoliths, plaques, and alien encounters and those opinions have been shaped over time via small nuggets of information about each race. It's an effective storytelling tool for a galaxy sized game world and if you get invested in learning more about each race it can be a very entertaining distraction from finishing your journey.

What's not unique however are their ships. You can upgrade your ship either via repairing crashed wrecks or straight up buying one from any alien that lands on a landing pad either on planet or a space station. The only defining characteristics of each ship however are the visuals and inventory size. You can get a little bit of individuality by building different blueprints to modify the weapons to fire faster or hit harder, or to get an extra couple of hundred light years out of the hyperdrive but they all handle the same both on planet and in space. It doesn't help that ship controls are a kind of novice type control scheme – hitting left/right will turn the ship, up/down will climb or dive. You can roll the ship but it has no effect on the controls and is completely unnecessary in any manoeuvre. Additionally those dive controls I just mentioned don't do much on a planet, you have some small control over your altitude but the ship is more or less locked into a narrow altitude range so if you had dreams of blasting through the alien Grand Canyon while making an imaginary radio call to Biggs and Wedge you'll be disappointed. There's not even the option for an advanced control scheme.
This mostly water planet was a rare treat. Not even a Kevin Costner in sight.

That's a lot of negative and not a lot of positive so far so lets turn our ear to the music. The music in No Man's Sky is excellent at standing out at the right moment, normally you won't notice it while exploring but take a pause to enjoy the view and it'll pop to the front of your mind. It's hard to describe what tone the music is going for, it's not exactly mysterious or atmospheric but it's not poignant or inspiring either. It is however pleasant and welcome when you notice it, never breaking the mood and sometimes enough to make you linger on the view a little bit longer to enjoy another few bars of the track.

We've touched a lot on the broad strokes but not on the core gameplay loop yet, the much maligned survival mechanics that have a lot of people on the fence about buying the game. Well, despite how much your exosuit voiceover will nag you about low life support or shielding it's never a huge issue. Common resources refill your basic functions and thirty seconds of lasering plants can provide enough supplies to keep your life support running for an hour. Hazard protection however requires a more active approach to survival, getting caught in a firestorm, blizzard or radiation storm will require you to either have a huge pile of silicate supplies to keep replenishing your protection every couple of minutes or for you to find shelter. Hazard protection can be augmented by crafting heat/cold/toxin/radiation filters that will act as an additional bar of protection and lengthen the time you can spend in adverse conditions.

Black holes look like they'll vomit up a space baby at any moment.
Managing your starship resources is similar to the personal survival mechanics. The two main fuel resources, plutonium and thamium9 are present absolutely everywhere in the galaxy. Thamium9 in particular can be found in any small asteroid you blow up and every single solar system is chock full of them. Your hyperdrive, the means to move to new solar systems, requires a more in-depth crafting process to create fuel but again the components are fairly common and any given solar system will have more than enough for you to refuel the drive full with only a few minutes effort. Late game you'll probably just keep a stack of these basic survival/crafting supplies on your ship and only set down on one in every fifty planets you pass to replenish your stores.

In addition to the survival/travel gameplay there's also the discovery and exploration aspects. You can scan almost everything on a planet, from mineral formations to plants and animals. Only the fauna count towards completing a planet and so the rest is mainly fluff to earn you a few extra credits and opportunities to name things after dicks. You can name a lot of things after dicks; entire solar systems, entire planets, entire regions on planets, entire species, entire plants, entire rocks. One-hundred pecenting a planet however isn't as easy as it first appears: checking the planetary info screen might reveal it only has seven distinct species and opening your analysis visor will highlight animal activity nearby as grey dots. Moving closer will make the animals appear and mark them with either green (discovered) or red (undiscovered) dots. The issue with completing a planet comes in when you're down to the last one or two species and only keep finding ones you've already scanned, or variations of species you've already scanned. Exploring different environments will yield different animals, for example searching at low and high altitudes, in and out of caves, near lots of plants, etc. Unfortunately the division of species between different features of a planet isn't enough to make that search for the final one or two from becoming an exercise in frustration.
If this were a Pokemon its cry would be "KILL ME, PLEASE!"

Overall, No Man's Sky falls several light years short of what we were expecting given all the hype and pre-release interviews and footage but it's expansive galaxy will no doubt generate at least a few exciting stories for you to share with friends, or wistfully smile about as you remember them later. The core gameplay is as shallow as a paddling pool but the size of the galaxy is an impressive achievement. With more variety and deeper mechanics, perhaps more quests or a reputation system that matters, it'd be an excellent game that'd be easy to recommend. Unfortunately the hype has coloured everyone's expectations of the game and even the most glowing recommendation is likely to result in a disappointed customer. For all its faults and shortcomings, I have had a lot of fun with No Man's Sky but I've also had a lot of frustration and long stretches of sheer boredom, particularly in the last twenty or so hours of my trip to the galactic centre. The game feels like a proof of concept, it's easy to see other studios taking this formula and building on it in the next few years and producing superior games. Keep an eye out for the Dongasaurus Rex, Lesser Spotted Dong, and Dongflibble, they're all out there in the galaxy somewhere just waiting to produce childish giggles.

Score: 4 planets out of 10 are named after dicks.

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