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No Man's Sky part 6: Mako Effect

Posted 04-15-2017 at 07:02 PM by jedidia

So my laptop died very unexpectedly of... I'm not exactly sure what, but the fan and power led are the only things I can say with any certainty are still working. Meaning I currently can't code and much less play No Man's Sky, because I don't want to swamp my wife's Laptop with a few Gigabytes of dev-tools, and gaming is just simply off the table on this thing.

So I'm a bit bored at times right now, and I thought "if you can't play No Man's Sky, why not write a bit more about it?". Because so much has happened since the release, aka "That moment when everybody realised that Hello Games released the game unfinished without any warning".

No Man's Sky has effectively been in early access product since that moment, and continues to be. An early access game that was sold fr 60 bucks, which is a lot but not unheard of. Elite Dangerous feels like an early access game in every aspect except visuals, and even had its own little controversy about updates that most people thought would be included in the base game, but were moved over to the next season, i.e. put behind another paywall. And then there's Star Citizen, which... well, let's rather not talk about the business model of Star Citizen.

There have many theories been surfaced about why No Man's Sky was released the way it was. Some citing community pressure, some citing pressure by Sony, some just outright leapt to the conclusion that the whole thing was an elaborate scam and Helo Games were evil bastards.
I have not seen the obvious reason mentioned in any games media or youtube or reddit thread, which confuses me to no end. Namely the reason that hello games simply ran out of money because the game took way longer to develop than anticipated. Which is no surprise to anybody that has ever dabbled in procedural generation, really. The fact that they didn't give out any warnings that the game was released in the state it was is a more grievious matter. There's the fact that they couldn't release the PC-version before the PS4 version, coupled with the fact that you have to call a game officially finished to get PS4 approval, but still... some indication that promised features were missing from the game should have been possible, and it is understandable that people got somewhat upset about that (not to the point some of them did get upset about that, but that is another and mostly unrelated story).

But enough of the bleak past. It is now more than half a year later, so let's have a look at the pretty sattisfying present and the potentially glorious future.

In the months since release, Hello Games has patched the hell out of the game, as well as released two signifficant updates, fixing many issues I personally had with the game and introducing quite a few large features. Bafflingly, most of these features are not the ones left out of the game, but after the second update there seems to be a clear line towards that goal. They're just adding a bunch of stuff first that will give those features more meaning.

Let's talk about the little things first: I had four major issues with the game, two of which have been fixed by now. One was the casual difficulty, preventing any true memorable situations from emerging, and the other was progression, which means you neither had to nor could work towards specific goals, other than buying a larger ship, the value of which was questionable.
The difficulty issue was fixed already in the foundation update, which introduced survival mode, which is quite a different animal from the casual walk in the interstellar park of the original game. It's enhanced by Permadeath mode in the recent Pathfinder update, which offers the same difficulty as survival, but whipes your save on dying. I'm questioning the usefullness of that in a game where you can easily sink 50+ hours into a "playthrough", if such a thing even exists in No Man's Sky (it does, but nobody seems to find it particularly satisfying, including myself), but there's probably a crowd that asked for it.
In any case, survival mode is not as difficult as you might have heard. You'll definitely die a few times before you figure out the mechanics of it, but once you're through that, proper preparation and caution will make untimely demises very rare, and usually limited to the occasions where you didn't excercise above mentioned caution and preparation. Which is, then, the major and all-deciding difference to normal-mode: Actions have consequences, and if you don't think about what you do, you'll get yourself in trouble. Which makes the gameplay a whole lot more engaging and immersive, at least for me.


Then there's the other issue, progression. That is, mostly the tech-progression, which was just ridculous before pathfinder update. Tech was lying around everywhere, and you ended up with a dozen nifty gadgets that you had no space in your suit or multitool or ship to build them in, and after a few hours you just started to discover the same tech over and over again. There was, quite frankly, no point to half of the tech most of the time because you accumulated them at such a fast pace that you didn't even care, and could survive just fine without most of it.
That system has seen a small, but very effective overhaul: The locations that previously just threw random tech at you, like broken machinery, abandoned buildings and the ubiquitous terminals at shelters, now instead give you a certain amount of "Nanite Clusters", which is a secondary currency you can use to purchase technology blueprints at space stations. The introduction of a second currency for just this purpose is a bit iffy in terms of worldbuilding, but it makes sense mechanically, as the common currency is easy but tedious to obtain in large uantities. Making tech purchasable with the same currency would just have added to the mining grind, further detracting from exploration. The way it's done now feels quite natural in terms of game mechanics, though not quite so much in terms of a consistent reality.

The tech traders at space stations offer a very limited amount of tech, usually specialised in one area. Soon you'll have a few systems noted as selling advanced ship weapons, basic suit improvements, aso, and you might find yourself backtracking every once in a while, or hold in a system and go on extensive Nanite hunts on its planets to buy that one tech that would be really handy, and you don't know when you'll come across it next time. There's also the factor that you'll need higher faction standing to purchase higher-level tech, so at least those relations now have a little bit of meaning.
In other words, it introduces much needed small goals you can now actually work towards, and which ask you to do different things than "mine emeril for 3 hours" because that's the quickest way to get money, appart from abusing the static economy "glitch" in space stations, where you can run around between different ships, buying low from one and selling high to the other, without ever leaving the station. This issue, by the way, has not been addressed yet, as the "economy" in its entirety has been left untouched so far.

So that's two things out of the way, and with these two issues fixed No Man's Sky is now able to provide for an excellent early game as well as very solid mid-game, at least if you're the explorer type. But if you aren't, you should not consider this a game for you in the first place.

But what about the headline features of the two updates, base building and ground vehicles?
The basebuilding part is interesting, but not very complex. Don't expect minecraf, space engineers or empyrion in this respect. It's very comparable to base building in Subnautica actually. Parts are a bit more granular, so you have a bit more freedom for creativity, but on the other hand it's also less complex, because there are no demands on structural integrity, power supply etc. Everything just works and never breaks, no matter which environment you build it in.
Probably the major effect from basebuilding is that you suddenly have quite a lot of things to do during the early game. You hire different specialists to extend your base in several areas, and they'll send you on small fetch quests to get stuff they need to research new blueprints for base parts. These can be as specific as "go to these ruins I've marked on your map and bring back the data you find there" or as general as "I need such a quantity of this resource, you should be able to find it on most planets orbiting a red star". It's not much, but it gives lost players some sense of purpose and direction early on, which is a good thing. Oh, and you can also buy a giant freighter and build your base in there if you have the money. Doing so will even enable you to keep different ships around, which makes a lot of sense since the pathfinder update also reworked the ship attributes to what was promised during early development. There's otherwise not really much point to the freighters yet, though. I hope they introduce something like trading licenses for freighter owners down the line (along with a dynamic economy) that allow you to shift to more trading and less mining during the "end-game".

And then of course there's the new big one, wheels. Which I totally love. Let's take a moment and remember the title of this post. It wasn't picked by random. If you are thinking about whether or not to get this game, there is one question you must answer at this point: Did you, or did you not, like the Mako sections in the first mass effect? Because No Man's Sky with ground vehicles is essentially an inexhaustable amount of almost planet sized Mako maps. The handling is kind of similarly finacky at times too, because that's what you get when you don't optimise terrain by hand to be driven on, whether you're Bioware or Hello Games. And as a result of that, the vehicle behavior is of the less credible variety. There's no vehicle damage, because that would just mean that you blow the thing up every kilometer or so. There's an easy teleport functionality that lets you port the vehicle to your position if it's within a certain range, because otherwise you'd get stuck in a ditch and have to walk home more than you'll actually reach your target. But the driving models are fun enough if you find a planet reasonably suited for driving, and resources are a lot easier to get now since the vehicle provides complete environmental protection. I'm not quite sure if I really like that last one. I think there should still be some need to consider the planets environment when deploying your wheels, although mitigated. But I can't deny that I enjoy extended offroad trips on alien planets a lot, and usually come home from them with lots of resources, many new discoveries and the one or other interesting experience.

I admitted this freely in the past, and I see no point in turning back now, I loved the Mako sections of the first mass effect. The only real complaint I had for the game was that there were not more of them and that their maps were way too small. This is of course not a very common oppinion - most players hated the Mako segments and found them pointless - but I really wanted more of them. Now I have. In fact, I now have a pretty much infinite amount of Mako maps, and I don't have to bother with shooting people in the head between them. I'm one happy camper these days! (It would be nice though to see more of the other core gameplay aspect of mass effect in No Man's Sky, which was talking to people... but we might indeed get more of that sort in the future, just read on).

Of course, the whole thing might not be nearly as attractive to somebody that does not like the sound of "Mako-Mania". And that's perfectly ok. The game probably isn't for you, then... at least not yet.

Because while a lot of things have improved, including performance, graphics and many other small details I haven't mentioned, No Man's Sky is still an early access game, and very much feels like it in several areas. The tacking on of features has left a perceptible mark on consistency, in that the various crafting aspects of the game are very disconnected from each other. Base building requires a lot of specialised resources and products that are unused in the other crafting trees, although you can clearly see areas where the two could perfectly overlap. The vehicles feel a bit tacked on because their questline is not tied into the rest of the base building, and there's two new resource types that you'll need only once or twice to build a single vehicle related upgrade. None of the base and vehicle resources are purchasable, although there's no apparent need for such a distinction. In its entirety, the poor excuse for an economy the game has feels even more haphazard now than ever.

But as I said, there's a thin line through these two updates that makes me think that this state is temporary. That there will be an update that addresses these issues and ties all these things together better. I especially expect that there will be an update that finally introduces actual faction dynamics and probably also fix the economy, because dynamic factions and economy were features that were mentioned several times during development, and because you can see the sum of the changes driving the game towards a more intimate and localised style of play where such things get very noticable.

I'm not sure how many updates down the road this "coming-together" will be delivered. What I'm farily certain is that the next update will contain a storyline, or at least multiple short stories if they can't make the big one in time. This assumption is based on two things: First, Hello Games has indeed hired a writer some two months ago. And second, the quest line you do to get all the vehicle parts is fundamentally different from all the other base quests in that it actually is a short story that plays with the lore that was in the game before and offers a new perspective on Vy'keen history (specifically on the mythological Hirk, the closest thing No Man's Sky has to a memorable character), all the while going to a pretty dark place at the mid-point. And it's packed full with foreshadowing of things to come, and of the future role of the travelers (the players). If they don't follow this up by introducing actually playable story content that feels more meaningful than what you get from Nada and Polo (which is not bad in itself, it's just that finding out that the scenario's "Morgan Freeman" was plain wrong in some pretty important assumptions and not being able to do anything about it is a very unsatisfying conclusion for a playthrough you might have put 100+ hours into), they might as well not have bothered with this one.

Besides that, there's also some indication that there might be more blam in the game's future. There's now a total complement of 5 fully upgradeable weaon systems for both ships and multi-tools, and I don't see that much point in those unless there's also more varied things to shoot at than pirates and sentinels. I'm not neccessarily keen for a more action-oriented gameplay, but I would definitely welcome it if there would be more dept to the current fights than "kill as quickly as possible while shoveling iron into your shields".

All said and done, I'm enjoing the game a whole lot more now than at release, and I was one of the odd ones out that did not really think it that terrible when it released, just a bit empty and very rough around the edges. It's now quite a bit less empty, though not necessarily much deeper, and while the roughness around the edges persists or even increased in certain areas, those edges have been pushed a lot further out. If you found the game interesting but just too empty for prolongued play at release, you should definitely give it a go again (make sure to start a new game... the new progression does nothing for you if you already have fully upgraded assets). If you found it an unplayable catastrophe at release, you'll probably never enjoy it ever. And if you found some intruiging things but wanted more consistency and dept to the game world, or at least a story, I think you'll get that in the next 2 upgrades or so.
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