Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Friday, 13 January 2017

Now Playing: No Man’s Sky

There’s as much to be written about the controversy surrounding No Man’s Sky as the game itself. But I’d prefer to focus on the game, so I’ll try to keep this brief. No Man’s Sky promised the stars. Crafted by a small team with big ambition, it was an indie title marketed and priced as a triple A. The early previews were misleadingly scripted, and many features – most notably the possible inclusion of a multiplayer component – were not adequately explained or demonstrated prior to release.

No Man’s Sky rode a hype train like no other in recent memory. It was a game fuelled not by fact but by dreams and expectations. And when it finally released, and it failed to live up to those lofty expectations, the backlash was equal to the hype. ‘No Man’s Lie’ was a common and popular phrase and – based on the preview videos and interviews which were revealed to be a poor representation of the final product – not an entirely inaccurate one.

Did the developers intentionally seek to mislead? To lie? Or did they make the mistake of confusing what they wanted for the title, rather than what they could actually deliver? I don’t know. I didn’t play No Man’s Sky at release. I didn’t ride the hype train. But despite the negativity and controversy surrounding the game, it was still one I wanted to experience for myself. Which is why I picked it up at a 40% discount in the recent Steam sale.

This isn’t a review of the release build. And it’s not a review of the controversy. It’s a review of what I played. And what I played was surprisingly … okay.

No Man’s Sky is a space exploration game with elements of survival and crafting. The ‘goal’ of the game is to reach the centre of a procedurally generated galaxy. You begin on a randomly generated world with a broken ship, a limited inventory and barely any resources. Worlds will vary based on terrain, flora, fauna and environment. And every world, due to the random generation, is entirely unique – to a limited degree.

Some worlds may be barren and lifeless, whilst others will be rich with water, resources, plants and animal life. Some worlds may present environmental hazards such as extreme heat, cold or radiation, and traversing such worlds will be dangerous without the appropriate protection.

As you explore these worlds you’ll gather resources through the use of your multi-tool which serves not only as a tool for mining, but also for combat. These resources will be used to repair or refuel your ship, for trade to earn units (currency), to craft items or create various upgrades for your equipment.

These upgrades include improvements to weapon damage (multi-tool and ship), shield strength, hazardous environmental protection, mining efficiency and ship hyperdrive range. You’ll discover the blueprints for these upgrades as you explore or interact with various aliens throughout the game, although which blueprints you gain, like many elements of the game, will be entirely random.

You can buy new ships or locate and repair crashed ones. Ships will vary based on appearance and inventory size, but there’s no variation in terms of function or handling. There’s a ‘galactic’ marketplace for trade, allowing you to buy or sell resources, although every star system has a ‘local’ market, rather than a true galactic economy. You can also trade with other alien explorers by interacting with their ships.

There’s a fairly decent base building system in the game, allowing you to establish and expand your own personal outpost. You can recruit aliens to serve in various positions which unlock missions, new upgrades or base pieces to craft. This system wasn’t present in the game at release, and it’s important to note that it’s a big part of why I enjoyed playing No Man’s Sky in its current state.

There are three main ways to play No Man’s Sky. You can explore at random, with no set goal, although this isn’t something I’d recommend. You can follow the most direct path to the centre of the galaxy, although this too, isn’t something I’d recommend. And finally, you can choose to follow the ‘Atlas Path’ which is the closest thing No Man’s Sky has to a story, and it’s really where you want to focus your attention.

The early stages of the game serves not only as a tutorial, but to set you upon the Atlas Path. It involves travelling to giant, ancient space stations and collecting Atlas Stones. Once you have 10 stones, you’ll travel to a final station for your ‘reward’. I’ll talk more about that later, but the reason I recommend following the Atlas Path is because it gives you a structured and clear series of objectives.

This is also why I enjoyed the base building system so much. It presents you with clear objectives which give purpose to your exploration and resource collection. Direction in a game like No Man’s Sky is important. The ultimate goal may be to reach the galactic core, but you need ‘micro-goals’ along the way to keep you motivated and to feel that you’re achieving something.

The Atlas Path and the base building system facilitate these micro-goals but they can also be found within the upgrade system. Expanding your inventory, improving your equipment or purchasing new ships are all systems that serve to provide smaller, and more clearly obtainable goals. None of them, it must be said, are entirely necessary to progress, but without the desire to improve your equipment, acquire new ships or expand your base, there’s very little purpose to your exploration.

No Man’s Sky is a game to play at your own pace. You can race from one system to the next, or you can stop to explore every world. You can scan plant and animal life and upload your discoveries for units. You can also rename everything you discover – star systems, planets, plants and animals. Although, for some strange reason, you can’t rename your personal ship, which is the only thing I actually wanted to rename.

Every world has a sentinel force, and how aggressive these sentinels will be is also random on every world. Some attack on sight, whilst others remain completely passive unless you do something to piss them off such as massacring the local wildlife, stealing stored resources or breaking into secure locations.

Every star system has a single space station for trade and fast travel to your personal base. And every planet has various outposts and ruins. These, aside from some visual variation, are identical on every world. Ruins are the fastest way to learn new words from the alien languages in the game, and learning these make interacting with the three alien races a little easier.

You can increase your ‘standing’ with these races, although there’s little benefit to doing so. There’s also space combat in the game, although like many pieces of the No Man’s Sky puzzle, it’s rather basic and extremely limited.

‘Basic and limited’ are the two best words to describe No Man’s Sky. The galaxy may be massive, but the individual pieces are small. ‘Wide as an ocean but shallow as a puddle’ is another popular phrase when talking about the game. All of its pieces are serviceable, but they lack the depth that would transform No Man’s Sky into a truly impressive and engaging experience.

Every planet may be unique, but due to the limited number of world building assets, you won’t have to visit many worlds before you begin to see the similarities. This also applies to plant and particularly to animal life, which are randomly put together, once again, by a limited set of assets. And whilst random generation can have its advantages, and produce some rather cool looking planets, plants and creatures, it can also generate rather hideous and awkward monstrosities.

Some worlds look fantastic. Others look like ass. The problem with procedural generation, rather than hand crafted environments, is you never know what you’re going to get. Which, I suppose you may consider part of its appeal. But like I said, due to the limited assets the game has to work with, it’s not long before you recognise all the pieces no matter how poorly or appropriately the game cobbles them together.

As I’ve already mentioned, the ships in the game, aside from visual appearance, all function and handle identically. The ‘galactic’ market is a very basic system, with no multi-system trade or economy. There are only three alien races, and little variation in terms of appearance for each race, and interacting with them is limited to text and basic dialogue options.

Aliens never depart their ships. They never even move. They’re all fixed to a single spot and only animate if you move close enough. No Man’s Sky doesn’t just feel small, it feels lifeless.

Combat is also incredibly basic. It’s just a case of point and shoot and recharge your shields when necessary. There’s a poor selection of weapon types and also combat encounters – you’ll either be defending yourself against the odd pirate, or defending a freighter convoy.

But like I said, all of these things are serviceable. They work. And that’s the frustrating thing about No Man’s Sky. The basics are there. The potential is there. But it’s currently unfulfilled. I can’t help but imagine what No Man’s Sky could have been with more depth to combat, trade and exploration. But as I’m sure I’ve said before, I try not to review what could or should have been, but rather what we’ve got. No Man’s Sky may be disappointing in many aspects, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad game.

I played No Man’s Sky for nearly 60 hours so it must have done something right. As basic as it all may be, the systems do the job. Graphically, No Man’s Sky may be rather hit and miss, but when it hits, it offers some truly stunning sights. The fact that I took over 70 screen shots whilst playing is testament to that. And as someone who loves the idea of space exploration, being able to travel seamlessly from surface to star is something I never grew tired of.

I enjoyed the base building component. Sure, it’s kind of pointless but I liked doing it, even making sure my alien employees had their own beds and personal space, even if they never moved from their various work stations. Every so often I’d come across a world with something I’d never seen before. It became increasingly rare as I progressed, but No Man’s Sky could still surprise me on occasion, even over 50 hours in.

I liked the style of the game, the ships and technology. Visiting your first Atlas Station is a pretty cool moment, even if every subsequent station looks pretty much the same. And following the Atlas Path to see where it would lead, building my base and upgrading my ship and equipment gave my progression an important sense of purpose. It gave me a reason to press on, even when I’d seen nearly everything the game had to offer in terms of its unfortunately limited generation system.

And after nearly 60 hours of play, I can’t deny I enjoyed No Man’s Sky for what it is – but I also can’t deny that I’m disappointed by what it could have been.

So let’s talk about the ‘ending’ of No Man’s Sky. This is a game, I think, that you really need to view as being more about the journey, rather than the destination. Because the destination kind of sucks. I won’t spoil it, but completing the Atlas Path doesn’t really offer much in terms of a sense of achievement or accomplishment, nor does reaching the centre of the galaxy – which I didn’t actually do, for reasons I’ll explain.

After completing the Atlas Path, I gained the ability to locate black holes on the galactic map. These supposedly offer a ‘short cut’ to the galactic centre. And after completing the Path, completing my base and upgrading my ship and equipment to a degree I was happy with, I was ready to make a direct run for the core. But when I travelled through my first black hole, I moved only 1500 light years closer to the centre.

I expected black holes to cut ten or even twenty thousand light years every jump. But after travelling through more than 10, I realised that on average I wasn’t gaining more than 2000 light years on average. I calculated that it would take at least eighty black hole jumps to be in touching distance of the centre – and every time you jump through a black hole, a critical ship system is damaged forcing you to continually repair.

This wasn’t exactly ideal, so I decided to calculate how long it would take using conventional hyperspace jumps. But even with an upgraded hyperdrive, I estimated it would take a minimum of five hundred jumps to reach the centre. F**K THAT. 

I may have been enjoying No Man’s Sky, but that was a tedious grind I really didn’t need. Instead, I watched the ‘ending’ on YouTube and trust me, I’m really glad I didn’t bother. But hey – journey, not destination, right? Isn’t that what really matters?

There are lots of little design choices I could nitpick, and areas that I think could be improved (no ring planets? No visual ship upgrades? No surface map?) but this has already gone on too long, so let’s start wrapping this up.

In terms of performance, No Man’s Sky is pretty rough. On all medium settings I could maintain a fairly consistent 60FPS but it would often drop as low as 30 depending on the environment. But even on high settings, it’s hard to say No Man’s Sky is a particularly great looking title. It can be, on occasion, if every piece of the procedural generation clicks together in just the right way. When it does, it’s pretty impressive. When it doesn’t, it’s pretty f**king ugly. The soundtrack is consistently great though.

In many ways, No Man’s Sky reminds me a lot of Fallout 4, which may seem like an odd comparison, but hear me out. If you’ve read my review of Fallout 4 you’ll know that overall, I enjoyed the experience, but I felt it to be too shallow and limited to be truly memorable or engaging. I sank countless hours into building my settlements even though it was ultimately pointless. I enjoyed it in a strangely relaxing and mindlessly repetitive kind of way.

And that’s exactly how I enjoyed No Man’s Sky. It’s limited, basic, shallow and sadly disappointing in many aspects. But it still entertained me. I still had fun. I’m impressed more so by its ambition than by the game itself, but the game, despite what I’ve read online, really isn’t the worst. It has its moments. It’s okay. I probably won’t play it again.


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Steam Winter Sale: Damage Report

A small selection, but plenty to get stuck into. No Man’s Sky is a title I’ve been following for some time, but sensibly decided to wait for a discount. Is it truly the worst game ever? Spoiler: It’s not! I’ve actually already played it and have a review drafted. It’s the longest review I’ve written for some time. I won’t spoil what score I gave it though.

Despite Dishonored being one of my favourite games of the last few years, I can’t say I was too excited about its sequel. It just didn’t feel like a game that really needed a sequel. Like Dragon Age: Origins. I didn’t really think that needed a sequel either and look how that turned out.

But hey, I can’t not at least give Dishonored 2 a shot. Hopefully some of the patches have fixed its many reported release issues. I’ll probably play this last, just to give a little more time for further patches to fix anything that’s still broken.

INSIDE is a title I’ve only heard positive things about. It’s from the same developers of Limbo, which I thought was okay, but nothing particularly special. I hope INSIDE is a step up. This was actually a gift from a friend, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be nice about it.

And finally we have Watch_Dogs 2. I’m probably one of only five people in the world who liked Aidan Pearce, so I thought it was a shame he wouldn’t be returning for the sequel. That said, I’m totally open to a new setting, new characters and a new story. I thought the original was pretty great, so I hope this is as good, if not better.