Saturday 3 December 2016

No Man's Sky: A Review

I tried to post this to Steam, but unfortunately it seems their system can't handle one more negative No Man's Sky review, so I'm posting it here instead.

I've liked the idea of No Man's Sky since I first saw the incredible teaser trailer. Unlike lots of other people though, I didn't get too hyped up after that. I came to the game ready to accept whatever it was, with no preconceptions based on whatever the developer may or may not have promised. I'd been told it was slow, and chilled out, with an emphasis on exploration... and that sounded fine to me. So I finally picked it up.

First impressions: WOW. What a beautiful game! I'm immediately in love. The first two hours I loved exploring the planet I'd been placed on. Yes, the drones that are constantly pestering you seem a bit annoying, and the resource collecting wasn't fun, but I was too enamoured with how cool it looked and felt to care. I felt like I was walking around in my own private Ralph McQuarrie painting.

I was excited to uncover mysterious things around the planet, from base camps to ancient relics that taught me the language of the aliens I encountered. I wanted to explore everything, unlock everything, learn everything.

The next day I eagerly booted up the game to get back to where I was, except now I found the initial sheen had faded. Yes, the game was still beautiful, but I found I needed more for it to be fun. For the next three hours I found myself, not just disliking, but actively hating the game.

I have no idea what people think they were promised in terms of features, and I really don't care about that. This game isn't fun because it's lacking in features, it's no fun because it's completely unbalanced. Imagine playing MineCraft except you're constantly running out of space to store the ore you mine. And there's annoying drones that follow you around everywhere and attack you. And there's randomly generated plants that attack you as you walk past them. And the interface gets in the way of everything you try to do.

None of this is fun, it's all irritating.

What pleasure there is in No Man's Sky comes from doing what it is clearly at its core: Exploring beautiful alien landscapes with progressively more advanced technology. That's it. The rest of the features of the game feels like an attempt at making it more interesting by inserting annoyances.  Yes, annoyances.

Let's talk about each one in turn:

As you wander about exploring, every planet in the entire universe has these little drones that may attack you and pull in their friends until you're overwhelmed. The good part is that you can usually ignore them, or jetpack away from them, the bad part is that they actively get in the way of what's fun about NMS: Exploring beautiful alien landscapes.

These digital gnats are the present and the same on every planet. Who owns them? What do they do? Why are they present everywhere, even planets you're supposedly discovering for the first time? Aside from being annoying pests that are NO FUN to fight, they actively homogenise the galaxy. The beautiful alien planets are little less special, a little less alien, because wherever you go... there they are. The exact same annoying drones. ON EVERY SINGLE PLANET.

The same can be said for the tentacled plants that attack you as you walk past them. You discover a weird alien planet that, literally, no other player has ever seen before... and there's the same plants that are on every other planet. Why? Because the developers thought the player needed some sort of challenge? They're not challenging, they're annoying, and they damage your immersion in the atmosphere it's trying to create.

One of the best things about NMS is the beautiful imagery, the fact that each planet is a little bit different. You can wander over a hill and find a genuinely beautiful vista, or into a cave filled with glowing wonders. Make no mistake, this is a game where its beauty is a big selling point. Exploration of beautiful things is basically what this game excels at, and does better than any other game. Unfortunately it seems only half the dev team got this memo. The aliens and base camps that populate every planet are ugly, dull and almost entirely the same!

Again, the atmosphere this game is trying to create; the exploration of infinitely different planets, is damaged by this bland design choice. There's no diversity or anything interesting about what you discover.

On top of this, the camps themselves are ugly. I want to discover encampments that look as different and interesting as the rest of the alien planet. And I don't want to fly into a space station only to discover that internally it looks the same as every base camp on every planet. It's soul crushing, and it makes me hate this game.

If you want me to chill out and enjoy exploring things, dev team, then give me things that are worth exploring. Make me feel there's something new to discover. Not just a single alien sat in a room on their own who will give me an item when I talk to them.

Imagine a version of MineCraft where you're constantly having to return home to store TINY amount of the resources you need. Only to discover that, even at home, you can barely store enough. In NMS you're constantly having to keep topping up resources instead of being able to stockpile what you've taken the time to plunder.

By limiting the player so severely on what they can carry, the game actively pushes against you exploring. Once again it seem to be unsure of what it wants to be: Everything about the core experience of the game is exploration, and everything that's been tacked on that core is pushes against you being able to enjoy it.

Having the patience and temperament to explore a planet and mine it to oblivion is actually punished. Every trip around a planet consumes so much energy that you're constantly having top up fuel, leaving little time or space in your inventory, to do much else. This means that even taking the time to explore and mine feels unrewarding.

As the game is so heavy on trying to push you towards resource management, you'd think at least that aspect of the game could be enjoyable. Nope, the user interface makes EVERYTHING you have to do a chore. And a confusing and messy one at that.

Why can't the progress through this game be more clearly sign-posted? Why can't it clearly and succinctly explain what everything is? Why can't it make the chore of upgrading and resource management less of a chore? Upgrading technology is confusing and again, there's little sense of reward.

Other sections of the UI are just as bad. It literally gives me a headache just thinking about it. Consider how you earn credits for "uploading" the name of every planet, creature and outpost you discover. Instead of making this a pleasurable experience that feels rewarding for having collected so many items, the game forces you to manually upload each one INDIVIDUALLY.

This tedious task sums up everything that's wrong about the UI perfectly, and maybe even the game itself: Nothing, except the core exploration of planets, is pleasurable to do... and the game does everything it can to even make that unpleasurable.

The game is beautiful to look at... and it should be beautiful to play. Unfortunately it's almost like a bunch of extremely average developers were handed a piece of genius planet-building technology. If only the beauty of its core technology extended to the rest of the game experience.

The developers can add bases, space battles, online play, virtual poker, whatever other features the moany public insists this game is supposed to have, but it's never actually going to be fun to play until they fix the turgid, bland, unrewarding core experience.

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