No Man’s Sky

I’ve been wrestling with whether I should get No Man’s Sky for almost four years now. To their credit, Hello Games has put a lot of work into upgrading it over the years, but I worried it was one of those games that looked great visually and conceptually, but didn’t have much substance or gameplay underneath it.

Recently I heard they did another big update, and I was looking for a mouse-and-keyboard game to play on my PC on my “controller-rest days” in between playing Horizon Zero Dawn on the PS4 (which I restarted a little while ago). So I finally pulled the trigger and bought No Man’s Sky on Steam yesterday. It’s on sale right now.

I’ve only played a couple of hours, but I’m enjoying it so far.

I started a “Survival” game, as opposed to the “Normal” game which was described as a “chill exploration experience,” which sounded kind of dull. I generally prefer to have obstacles to overcome in my games.

Toxic planet #1, the ugly one.

The game started me on a toxic planet with a busted scanner and a robotic voice saying “toxic protection falling.” You can survive for a few minutes of real game time before dying, unless you find sodium plants to power your environmental protection suit. I died five or six times on that first planet.

Fortunately dying is largely consequence-free, except it moves you back to your last save point. After about an hour I got to a point where I had to travel too far away from my save point and couldn’t find any sodium along the way, so I gave up and started a new game.

Toxic planet #2, the pleasant one.

I started a second game and got another toxic planet, except this one had more of a blue sky than a sickly yellow sky, so it had more pleasant scenery. (Based on what I’ve read about the procedural nature of the game, I assume your starting planet is random each time.) This time I had a better idea what to do so I’ve been able to survive for a couple of hours without dying yet.

I’ve been following along with a tutorial-style quest that has you gather materials to repair your ship, then it had me leave the scenic but toxic hellscape of my starting planet and fly around in space for a while following signals (and in my case, shooting down some kind of pirate ship with a bounty) and refueling by mining asteroids.

Then, sadly, the game led me back to the same toxic planet I started from, where I landed in a different place, and now it wants me to build a base of some kind. (Incidentally, apparently the ecosystem and geology is uniform across the entire planet’s surface.) That’s where I left off. Hopefully said base will protect me from the constant bombardment of toxicity and save me from having to constantly scour the landscape for sodium plants, which are not very abundant, don’t seem to regrow, and they only power your suit for a minute or two before you have to find more.

Anyway, it’s fun as a survival game on the ground. When you’re in a spaceship, it’s very similar to Elite Dangerous (almost “how do they legally get away with copying so much of it” levels of similarity). The story hasn’t really grabbed me yet, but there isn’t much to the story yet besides “you better gather and build stuff if you want to survive.” The immediate needs of staying alive from minute to minute supersede thinking much about the reasons why you’re there.

I’m a little worried about what I’m going to think 10 or 50 or 100 hours from now though. I’m not sure there’s a lot of replay value here. For example, the gameplay on my second planet was identical to that of the first planet, just with different-colored scenery on the screen.

Like many survival-style games, I’m worried that once I learn how to survive, I’ll have mastered the game and there won’t be much more intellectual challenge to be found. You end up just repeatedly following an unchanging mental checklist of steps to get to the winning condition. Unless survival games can continually ramp up the obstacles for you to overcome (storms, disasters, monsters, finite resources, etc.), you can get to a point where there’s no more game in the game. That’s what happened to me with ARK.

I think they’re expecting that the endlessly random procedurally-generated worlds will provide an exploration incentive to keep coming back, but I’m not sure that’s enough of a hook for me. This is what I worried about for four years with this game. Hopefully I’ll be proved wrong with time and it will turn out to be more like a RimWorld situation, with endless random variations that provide endless “emergent” gameplay scenarios.

But regardless of that, it’s an enjoyable distraction for now.

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