Revisiting No Man’s Sky

I gave 16 hours to No Man’s Sky when it launched before admitting that it was ultimately an amazing tech demo but extremely shallow game. Having recently reinstalled along with the several gigabytes-worth of updates, it’s time to revisit No Man’s Sky…

We all remember the hype-train leading up to the release; a relentless locomotive fuelled by the excitement of Hello Games’ lead, Sean Murray. And yet when it pulled into the station of expectation and we prised open the cargo, it was a shock to find they were mostly empty. To say No Man’s Sky had a troubled launch would be an understatement, but this of course, is common knowledge. During the launch week my own opinion on the game swung radically back and forth as I tried to balance the technical achievement against the vacuum of gameplay.

At first, I struggled to wrap my head around what it was. Hello Games had successfully created an amazingly beautiful, infinitely sized, eco-galaxy for us to explore. You could land on a planet knowing that the discovery was likely to be yours, and yours alone. And yet, the game mechanics forced us into spending most of the time staring at an inventory system rather than the incredible vistas. We were given constant and relentless reminders that our our hazard suit, life support, weapon, mining laser or one of my ship’s modules were running low on resources.

The objective of No Man’s Sky was simple; to reach the centre of the universe, but with very little else to hold my attention, I found that this one goal wasn’t enough. The procedurally-generated universe was an incredibly impressive feat, but it wasn’t long before the ‘repetitions’ generated by the code became less and less transparent. Rather too quickly, it became obvious that despite being an mighty achievement by a developer best known for Joe Danger; as a game, No Man’s Sky had very little to offer.

But that was two years ago.

The installation process had finally completed and once I launched the game, I was given the option of continuing from my previous save. I already knew that the No Man’s Sky that I was about to experience would be long evolved from the version I had played previously. It was only right to re-experience the game from the start.

Familiarity. I was reintroduced to a procedurally generated alien world with an immediate need to fix my broken ship and yet, something was radically different. I could see myself. The third person perspective brought so much more to the experience than the ‘floating camera’ used at launch. Actually being able to see your character anchored to the planet’s surface was much more tangible. Furthermore, to watch your character witness an amazing sunset from an incredible vantage point is somehow much more evocative than watching it through his (or her) eyes. 

The UI had been given an overhaul. Tapping up or down on the D-Pad would bring up a tidy set of icons at the bottom of the screen providing streamlined access to a range of items. A torch is one of the most useful so you can continue exploring throughout the night, but there are also a variety of construction or utility items. More on those later!

It wasn’t long before my ship was all fixed up. I also stopped to admire a myriad of extra detailing that seemed to have been added to the ship model. I have a vague memory of the ships being fairly basic looking in the vanilla release with very little in the way of texture detail. I shrugged it off, believing it to be the minimal look Hello Games were going for. The enhancements to the detailing bring an air of realism, without losing that sense of colourful, 1970s sci-fi artwork that Sean Murray referenced so much when discussing the aesthetic of No Man’s Sky. The vivid, almost psychedelic colour palette has been a staple of the game’s aesthetic and is still very much in place.

I’d been wallowing in the dirt of this planet for a while. It was time to jump behind the cockpit, engage the engines and aim for the stars. It was still mightily impressive. Being able to leave one planet behind that you had just explored at a micro-level (on the surface and beneath within it’s subterranean cave network), break through it’s atmosphere, enter the zero gravity expanse of space, fly towards another astral body and land on that surface with no loading screen or texture pop-in? It’s incredible.

It isn’t Bioware, Bethesda or Epic who did this. It’s Hello Games; an indie game developer based in Guildford whose logo is more fitting of a developer creating edutainment for seven year olds. Instead they are pioneers; futurists with an incredibly strong vision and a tendency to push the possibilities of procedural generation far beyond anything that we have seen before. Perhaps it is because of the small size of Hello Games that they are able to take such risks in the name of art and technological achievement.

After a few hours, I headed towards the third planet in my starting system. My ship cut through the layers of atmosphere and I looked down at the surface of the planet below as I broke below the clouds. Immediately, I knew that I would be staying here for a while. My ship glided over a lush, rolling landscape peppered by a huge variety of foliage, and occasionally separated by azure-crystal lakes.

I picked a suitable landing spot and jumped out of my ship. Despite wearing a hazmat suit, I doubt that it was required. The air was clean, and the conditions on the planet were perfect. As I explored the surrounding area around my ship I looked ahead and noticed huge, floating landmasses breaking the horizon line. Above me, the rings of a neigbouring planet arced across the sky.

These days, it seems every game ships with a ‘photo mode’ and it’s easy to see why. It’s the perfect marketing tool for developers, giving every player the potential to create beautifully lit, artistic compositions with built-in and controllable depth of field. With the focus on exploration in an infinitely large universe, where it is very likely that you could be the only person to ever see the scene you’re currently looking at, it was strange that this mode was missing on release. Photo mode has now been implemented into No Man’s Sky and is quickly accessible using the D-Pad. All of the usual features such as UI hiding, depth of field, camera settings and various filters are there, as well as the ability to move the sun! I’m not sure about that last one to be honest, it takes something away from ‘capturing the moment’ when you can make magic hour happen with a click of your fingers (or R3).

Within minutes I had made a decision to settle here. After scouting the area for a location with a suitably picturesque view, I dived into the base construction options. In no time I was throwing down floors, walls, doorways and roofing like a space age Bob the Builder. It was surprising how easy it was and I was glad to see that the system allowed for much more customisation than placing simple pre-fabricated rooms.

I stood on my makeshift veranda a few hundred feet above sea-level, and looked out towards the lake glistening in the distance. It was a decent start, but I had lofty aspirations of improving this to Tony Stark levels of residence. Eventually, it would become a multi-tiered, glass-fronted penthouse with a top-floor private apartment, complete with landing pad. For now, I was happy with a room with a view…

As I admired the view I looked again at the clouds, changing shape dynamically as they drifted across the sky. Visually, they were the one element of the scene that could do with a little more work. I imagine that volumetric, voxel-based, procedural clouds are incredibly difficult to render at high resolution in realtime, but looking at the game’s website, Hello Games have already shown the commitment to improve them across all platforms.

My home planet was so visually impressive that I chose to share a couple of screenshots across Twitter and Instagram. Unbeknownst to me, this would lead to my first No Man’s Sky multiplayer experience. Seeing my post, another player wanted to visit my planet with an aim to set up residence here too. With the theme tune from Neighbours looping in my head, I invited the player to my session and within a couple of minutes I was no longer alone on the planet. I watched from my vantage point as the player scouted the area in the same way I had done on my arrival. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be a thankless task, as he would later realise that his base and location couldn’t be ported back to his own session. However, he had the ‘address’ of the planet should he decide to plot a route across the universe to get here.

No Man’s Sky now has a much more detailed mission system. Visiting an orbiting space station gives you access to a variety of faction missions, separated into tiers of difficulty. The mission types seem to be fairly standard ranging from killing a number of wildlife (which made me feel incredibly guilty) to travelling to a neighbouring system to deliver a package. The latter introduced me to another game mechanic which wasn’t present at launch; dogfights in space! 

I had been beset upon by a small group of space pirates, presumably wanting the package I was carrying (or wanting to stop me delivering it). Initially, the fights were very much a game of ‘chicken’, as my ship and an enemy ship headed towards each other, lasers ablaze. As we passed each other, I would frantically manoeuvre my ship to try and be the first to realign my target within my sights.  On this occasion, I emerged from the battle victorious. My shield had held almost as well as my nerve, and I was able to complete the mission successfully. With confidence high, I would later throw myself into my second space battle after seeing a rather large bounty on a passing pirate. It would prove to be a lesson in exercising caution. I managed to escape with my ship intact, but my tail very much between my legs.

Inventory storage space was a huge issue two years ago. I remember constantly trying to shift and stack items between my suit’s storage and ship’s storage. Often I would be clueless as to how useful or rare an item might be, but found myself forced into selling it just to clear inventory space. As a way of alleviating the inventory issues, a third inventory type has been created through the introduction of Freighters.

Having read about these gargantuan ships, I assumed they would be an accessory that I could only dream of owning. Nope… an alien rewarded me with his after a few short hours of play time and I suddenly found myself in charge of a freighter. I could walk around it, upgrade it, build extra rooms, house a multitude of ships in the freighter’s hangar and most importantly, I could beam all the crap that I was collecting directly to the freighter from a planet’s surface. Of course, this doesn’t entirely fix the problem – I still spend a considerable amount of time shifting items out of my suit’s inventory – but it certainly helps.

At this point, I’ve almost invested another 16 hours into No Man’s Sky. Two years ago, this was more than enough for me to decide that I had experienced all the game had to offer. Ironic, considering the infinite universe laid out before me.

And now? 16 hours doesn’t even scratch the surface. Hello Games have not only put things right; they have shown an incredible amount of commitment to their players. Players who put their faith in this tiny developer and expected them to deliver the undeliverable. It’s taken a little longer, but the game now meets and surpasses those expectations. No Man’s Sky isn’t for everyone. It clearly requires an amount of patience and maturity, but for those willing to take the leap, No Man’s Sky offers an experience quite unlike any other.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting No Man’s Sky

  1. The following paragraph stands out for me, because this is essentially how I see No Man’s Sky:

    “I stood on my makeshift veranda a few hundred feet above sea-level, and looked out towards the lake glistening in the distance. It was a decent start, but I had lofty aspirations of improving this to Tony Stark levels of residence. Eventually, it would become a multi-tiered, glass-fronted penthouse with a top-floor private apartment, complete with landing pad. For now, I was happy with a room with a view…”

    I too invested around 20 hours at launch and felt much the same, but you could see the foundations of the thing they wanted it to be, it just needed more work. I think Sean M knew what the future would hold and what they would launch with, but being thrust into the spotlight, he didn’t know how to handle it and said things he probably shouldn’t. Branded a liar, went silent. They’ve made the ultimate come back though.

    The biggest issue I faced was performance, despite spending about 5 of those 20 initial hours trying various things, I could not get the game to run smoothly at all, which really spoiled my enjoyment of it, even in those early days. I have tried multiple times after updates for the game have been released, but it took a GTX 980 I was given to bring it even close to working at 1080p for me. By this point I’ve been heavily invested in other games, but I still think No Man’s Sky is going to be the ultimate time sink at some point, maybe soon if this new update in summer 2019 is anything to go by…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Dan!

      I own it on PS4 and it runs pretty well – I’m sure the visuals take a bit of a hit compared to PC though. I’ve just bought a gaming laptop and I’m half-tempted to check the Steam price as I’d love to see it running with the crisp fidelity of a GTX 1070.

      NMS is a game that is constantly on my shortlist to play more of. As you mentioned, I think it could be the ultimate time sink and is a perfect game for anyone into video-game photography.

      Ive still yet to build my Tony Stark residence 😉.

      Like

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