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No Man's Sky - A journey about to end, another about to begin

Posted 03-09-2016 at 09:13 PM by jedidia

Some people might have missed it: No man's sky opened preorders last week, and got its fixed release date for June 21(or a few days later, depending on where you live). The opening of the preorders coincided with games journalists being allowed to play the game for the first time, so suddenly there's a whole lot of new information out there. Considering everybody had 30 minutes to play a game that is potentially infinitely playable, that doesn't answer too many questions, of course.

I have been following the development of the game, or what little detail was revealed about it, for over a year now, and feel compelled to sum up why I'm more excited about it than about any other game for more than a decade (no kidding).

For those who might never have heard about it, or only very superficially, here's the nutshell:
No man's sky shapes up to be a crossover between The long dark, Starflight and classic elite, set inside a procedural generator that went to the Chris Foss school of science fiction artwork.

In other words, if you like survival games, everything recited in the intro of classical star trek, trading and blowing stuff up in space and those fantastic covers science fiction books used to have in the 60ies that never had anything to do with the actual story in the book, you might take an interest.
But it still isn't quite clear how No man's sky will play. Part of this is by design, because what's the fun in exploring if you already know what expects you? In fact, after having watched and read almost every available article about the game over the course of the last year, I think it's easier to say what no man's sky isn't, because that has been pointed out quite clearly on several occasions.

In that spirit, let me describe what to not expect from the game, instead of the other way around, because I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on that, while I couldn't really say the same for the opposite.


So, No man's sky is...


...Not a physics simulation

I better mention this first, considering this is orbiter "of course it catches fire, it's a rocket" forum. The game does in no way attempt to be a realistic simulation of anything, except maybe of your average 50ies through 60ies area "Amazing Stories" collection. Or, as the conaisseur might say, this is likely going to be a Bat Durston.
The flight model for the spaceships has been described as "rather arcady" by lead developer Sean Murray himself, as well as by most journalists that played the game, mostly geared for fun. But after Elite Dangerous, I'm kind of aboard for a flight model that just goes for fun unapologetically instead of pretending realism and then slapping completely arbitrary limitations on top because "we liked it better this way".
The planets are mostly real scale, but they're single biome planets. There's your ice planets, your swamp planets, your garden worlds, your desert planets, your toxic planets etc. A bit surprisingly, there's no gas giants. Murray said in several interviews that everything in the game must in some way benefit to the game mechanics, or it isn't going in. Evidently, they couldn't think of a good use for Gas Giants. There's black holes though, although nobody knows yet what they'll do. Biology, geology and architecture are also influenced a lot more by artistic rules rather than sceintific. If they manage to capture even a fraction of the fascination of your average Chris Foss drawing, I think I'll be perfectly fine with that.
The whole universe is built on top of a fictional periodic table. According to Sean Murray, they started working with the real periodic table, but found that it restricted them too much in the crafting. In an interview, he also made a joke about how "people might learn something, and we can't have that!"


...Not a hiking simulator, either

For some reason that was never quite clear to me so far, many, many games journalists and other people were thinking of No man's sky as a kind of gigantic walking simulator, where most of the time you just walk around and look at pretty things. This notion has been thouroughly dispelled by the many people that had the privilege to play the game hands on last month. Because, reading through their articles, it seems that most of them died. A lot. Many while looking at pretty things, it is true, but noone said that you couldn't look at pretty things while freezing to death because your thermal shield failed at 150 Kelvin because you got lost because you didn't really pay attention where you were running to when those weird alien tiger-like thingies started looking at you hungry (did I mention this isn't a simulation? because otherwise it might be a bit weird that there's high-functioning predators running around at those temperatures).
Beyond that, there's hints of a hidden back story, the uuncovering of which will be part of the fun and motivation for exploration. The game is set up to ever so slightly encourage you to move towards the center of the starting Galaxy, where presumably we will find some profound revelation that we build up to during our journey there. The exact nature of the lore is probably the best-kept secret of the entire game. The only things currently known is that there is the mandatory precursor race that vanished mysteriously, leaving in their stead their self-repleicating robots that apparently got a case of religion and went a bit of the rails. Whether they went of the rails before or after their spiritual enlightenment is unknown, but it is known that the players have something to do with it. So the players, as far as can be guessed with current information, are actually their own race, and as far as I dare speculate based on my admittedly rather broad knowledge of stories about mysterious precursor races, their dubious legacies, will get the opportunity to unravel their mystery and correct some of their mistakes while they travel to the center.


...Not devoid of alien civilisations

According to the playtesters, there's now actual alien races present in the flesh, not just hidden behind cockpit windows. Intelligent races, not the gazillion animals the generator is capable of producing. In earlier interviews, Murray always said there were no NPCs. Turns out he said that because, yes, at that time there were no NPCs in the game. They wanted to put them in, but weren't quite sure how to make them fit. The way they finally made them fit sounds interesting. Individual members of entire civilisations in a game like this would necessarily have to be somewhat generic in character, we know that since the day we played Starflight. Since those early days we have come to grips with, and in fact many times might not even have noticed that, basically the races are the characters, and individual members just an iteration of that character with maybe a few variations. No mans sky handles it similarly, but they're putting a good idea on top of the concept, though one that should be fairly obvious on second thought: Language! Initially you won't understand a word of what they're saying, and as you gradually learn the language (or languages, it is not clear at this time whether they all use a common trade language or if languages must be learned individually) by attempting conversation and finding inscribed monoliths, that apparently will reveal more and more of the games lore as you are able to understand more of the language.
Improving language skills also seems to be a decently important part of the game, not just a gimick. It's tough getting a good deal when you don't understand each other, and word has it that if you rise in standing with a race, they'll provide you with free tech and gadgets and possibly even a few wingmen.
It's also been said by playtesters that the aliens have some amount of context awareness. Someone started playing with the lights in an alien home, and reportedly they started looking at him funny. As with almost everything in the game, this sounds intruiging, but we have no real idea as to how far it extends.


...Not Minecraft

No man's sky has been likened to "minecraft in space" quite a few times by various people, but it really isn't. Or, at least, it stops halfway. Nowadays it's difficult for any game using survival mechanics and crafting to not be minecraft, because let's face it, Mojang pretty much birthed the genre. The concept was around before (the oldest game of that type I remember is "Robinsons Requiem"), but has literally exploded into life since minecraft.
Except, most people think about building stuff when they're thinking about minecraft. And that's just the thing you don't get to do in No mans sky. Mining, yes. Crafting, lots. But building structures or vehicles? Nope, nothing of the sort. The closest you'll get is digging caves with explosive projectiles. This was decided because Hello Games evaluated every feature according to its value for exploration. Something is more likely to keep you on the move? good. Something's more likely to keep you in the same place? bad! Guess in which cathegory homesteading falls.
So, on the crafting side, there's upgrades for your suit, which will presumably mutate from a patched together spacesuit at the start to insane power armor at the end, Your "multi-tool", which seems to be what you get if you cross-breed a laser rifle and a swiss army knife, and of course your ship. By now we know that the ship as well as the multi-tool are exchangable, having a few thousand variations with different baseline specs, visuals and upgrade possibilites (what, you thought those things were not procedurally generated too? Even the bloody soundtrack and sound effects are procedurally generated!), but at this point no mention has been made that the same is true for the suit. Not that the visuals would matter for the suit, you're not going to see yourself. Ever.


...Not a multiplayer game

The game has a community component built in, in that discoveries can be shared among players, and that stuff you name will stay named that way for everyone. Some of the journalists immediately tested the profanity filter, and it is reported to work decently, but profanity filters are there to be broken, so there'll probably be some juvenile naming going on here and there. Word of god also has it that the community will probably have to pool the lore they discovered together to make actual sense of the backstory.
Beyond that community aspect, though, there's no direct interaction during play. Well, potentially there is, as you will be able to see up to five other players when you meet them. Problem is there's a lot more planets in just a single galaxy than there are humans on earth, so meeting anybody by chance is highly improbable, and meeting someone on purpose really darn hard work. As a consequence, the game is completely playable without any online connection whatsoever. It's not like elite dangerous where you can play by yourself but still have to be connected. If you're offline, you're offline. No DRM, no login, no nothing, as evidenced by the fact that the game is sold on my most favourite distribution platform, GoG.com.


...Not produced by Sony

This one has people pretty confused, especially the Playstation crowd. To be fair, they might as well thank Sony for it, because without Sony the game would only come out on PC. It wasn't actually planned to develop it for the PS4. It's just that Sony pretty much ran down Murrays door after VGX 2013 and told him pretty pleeeeease, we totally want this on the PS4. As far as I know, Hello Games at no point accepted money from Sony to help along with development, but they did take the marketing oportunities. In fact, being on the main stage at E3 was Murrays condition for brinnging the game to the console. I'd guess us PC players can thank Sony for at least 6 to 12 months delay because of that, but it's not clear. There was also a flood involved at one point...
The other thing Hello Games makes liberal use of is Sony's QA department, and that might be a very good thing. I have no idea how they would have gone about playtesting this beast on their own. They do have automated bots that fly around in the universe, take pictures and report on odd behavior, but unsupervised functional tests can only do so much to a piece of software.


...Not cheap!

It costs a full 60 bucks. Apparently, some people were surprised at that. Astonishingly, many were outraged. I always thought that they might shelf it over for 50 bucks initial price, but didn't really believe it. The game has been in development for almost 5 years, without early access money, without kickstarter, and certainly without DLC being sold for more than the game itself long before the game is finished (looking at you, Star Citizen!). In fact, if Murray remains strong in the force, he might keep his promise and there'll never be any DLC. Other people have promised such things only to break them after a few months, but from the interviews I saw Murray strikes as the compulsively honest type. His own head of marketing had to forbid him to use the word "boring" when describing any content related to the game, because Murray used to talk pretty freely about what he thought didn't quite work with the game while it was in development. In fact, Murray has mostly been busy with explaining what features will not be in the game and what people should not expect of it, while being pretty secluded about what is indeed in there (which is why I can pretty comfortably write about what it isn't, but not necessarily about what it is). The reason, he says, is that it's part of the fun of the game to find that out, butt also because the man doesn't like talking about features he's not sure they can get to work. Most journalists, needless to say, hate him for that. What's interesting, though, is that this practically lead to all-out fan-generated hype, for which everyone's blaming Murray. Seriously, just give the man a break. Can't anyone see how bloody uncomfortable he is with interviews, How it broke his heart when he couldn't give a release date for 6 months after E3, but didn't start to just promise stuff because he knew that it would break him even more if he couldn't keep it? During the year and a bit of change I was following the development I came to respect Murray as some sort of anti-Molineux, really, telling people the state of things right now, rather than all the stuff they're dreaming about putting in.


So... think it'll be any good?

I don't know. Nobody knows. The journalists that had the opportunity of a hands-on were positive about the experience through the board, but they played for 30 minutes to an hour in a single solar system. Not enough time to get a feel for whether the game has the staying power necessary to make its sprawling universe worthwhile. For me, it is primarily a significant technical milestone in the history of procedural generation, and I'll buy it just for that, and I haven't shelved out full price for a game since Knights of the old Republic. No, not the MMO, the actual original.
Whether they really manage to put a game in there that can make use of that glorious technical achievement , I cannot say. I have dabbled a bit in procedural generation and have become aware of the challenges that present themselves if you want to actually give any meaning to your procedural baby. Our very own Artlav, here on OF, is kind of a pioneer in the field, and has been asking himself that question over and over again.
Best case, June 2016 will go down in the history books as the moment an odd dozen brits proved that you could set an engaging game inside a completely procedurally generated universe that offers continuously new experiences. In the worst case, we'll get the prettiest Noctis there ever was. The truth will probably be somewhere in between.
To quote Sean Murray from memory, and probably connecting two different quotes: "We're trying to make this the best game we can, but we don't know if we'll succeed. Maybe it will be boring, and people will hate it. I'll let the players be the judge of that". Sean, here's my 60 bucks to you lot, for trying the impossible. We'll soon know the measure of your success. (well, 70 bucks actually... Swiss prices )
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    Mandella's Avatar
    Welp, now I'm interested.

    I kind of agree with you about Elite: Dangerous. And Star Citizen, well, less said the better I guess, but this one sounds like it might just have enough fiction in the science to make it an interesting game.

    Thanks for the heads up and mini-review!
    Posted 03-12-2016 at 05:36 AM by Mandella Mandella is offline
  2. Old Comment
    jedidia's Avatar
    Quote:
    Thanks for the heads up and mini-review!
    Not a review, just a summary of the currently available information
    Posted 03-13-2016 at 12:25 PM by jedidia jedidia is offline
 

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