Impressions

Exploring the cosmos with No Man’s Sky NEXT

At the center of every planet is a core, and that core is surrounded by other layers, from the mantle all the way to the crust. Video games, oddly enough, are very similar to planets. At their core, video games have a gameplay loop, and then on top of that are the game’s mechanics, and on top of that is the game’s presentation. If the core of a planet is unstable, the entire planet is in jeopardy– and the same can be said for video games. If your core gameplay loop isn’t up to snuff, then it doesn’t particularly matter how good everything around that core is. That is perhaps the most apt sentiment for my feelings toward No Man’s Sky.

Leading up to its launch in August 2016, I was extremely excited for No Man’s Sky. Space exploration on an unprecedented scale just sounded amazing to me, and it was– for about ten hours. Like most people, I dropped this game before too long. And like most people, I didn’t touch No Man’s Sky until the recent NEXT update, which brings along a multitude of features that were missing from the base game. But, unlike most people, I’m not entirely sold on this update. The issue isn’t particularly with the changes made, as I think they’re all for the better (to varying extents) and I’ve been having genuine fun with the game. I’m just not sure how long that fun will last, because the underlying systems of No Man’s Sky, where the game’s real issues lie, haven’t been addressed all that much.

As I talked about just a bit earlier, central to every game is its gameplay loop. This is the set of actions that constitute a game’s foundation, and are the blueprint for all player interaction with the game. Take, for example, the Metroid franchise. The gameplay loop there is something along the lines of: explore until you hit a wall. Once you become stuck, obtain a new item that will allow you to progress past that wall. Anything on top of that is a mechanical, systemic discussion; the gameplay loop is the very core foundation of a game. No matter what you’re playing, it can be boiled down to a very simple, one or two-sentence line of commands. Let’s look at another gameplay loop, but evaluate it more in-depth. Another survival-based, exploration-heavy title with a very similar loop to No Man’s Sky: Minecraft.

Minecraft spells out its gameplay loop right in the title. You mine resources, and then craft items with the things you mine to progress. That is the exact same gameplay loop as in No Man’s Sky. The only difference between the two loops is that Minecraft’s loop is expedient, whereas No Man’s Sky’s loop is full of obstacles to stretch the cycle out. Let’s imagine a Minecraft player and a No Man’s Sky player are destroying trees for use in building elements for their base. In Minecraft, you can simply go up to the tree and destroy it, collect the resources, and move on. In fact, you can cut down, five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, one hundred trees if you’d like with no repercussions. Then, provided you have the required amount of wood, you can build any wooden object without restriction and place it around your world; whether that is a door, a boat, a fence, a wall, a pressure plate, or any of the other myriad wooden contraptions in the game.

In No Man’s Sky, you can cut down a tree, maybe even two, three, or four trees before the Sentinels catch up to you. Sentinels are small drones that patrol the planet-side and will attack the player if they take too many natural resources. Of course this poses a conundrum; you need these resources to continue the fundamental gameplay loop, but there is an entity blocking you from collecting them. You have few options in this scenario. You can try and fight, but No Man’s Sky’s movement isn’t designed for combat. You can simply run away, and harvest more carbon elsewhere, or you could run over a hill, hunker down for forty seconds, and return to work when the Sentinel forgets that you were there. Now that you’ve danced around the Sentinels and acquired the carbon, you can start building base parts. Well, you can build base parts in theory; if you have the prerequisite blueprints, that is. You cannot craft things in No Man’s Sky based on what is in your inventory, but instead based chiefly on the blueprints you have. Collecting these blueprints is no short order either, as they’re usually tied to specific quest lines, particular NPCs, or salvaged technology modules. But, should you meet all of those criteria, then you’ll finally be able to craft whatever wooden product you need.

My issue with No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop isn’t that it is inherently more complicated than other survival games like Minecraft, but that the gameplay loop is bogged down by needless obstacles. Take the Sentinels, for instance. They are a resource in their own right, requiring combat technology to defeat. That is alright, except for the fact that in any other application, Sentinels just serve to bog down the collection of resources. Now, they do have a narrative justification, but narrative justifications don’t excuse shoddy game design. For instance, Superman 64’s crippling draw distances are a result of “Kryptonite Fog”, placed there deliberately to impede Superman’s heroic antics. When, in reality, this is just a side-effect of those developers’ technical incompetency. Don’t misconstrue my comparison to Superman 64 as a judgement on No Man’s Sky’s overall quality– the point is merely that you can justify bad design and technical limitations all you’d like, but that doesn’t obscure or rectify gameplay issues in my eyes. Crafting is another place where the gameplay loop is unnecessarily slowed down. Every recipe usually has another recipe nested inside of it, which can turn just about the most basic item into a multistep affair. And, when you get into building from blueprints, as I mentioned before, the process is complicated even further. Everything that should be a one or two step process is turned into a five or six step process which delays progression to the point where it just feels stunted.

That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy No Man’s Sky and its NEXT update, because I do. Remember, all we’ve talked about is the core of the game, which NEXT unfortunately doesn’t particularly address. Games, like planets, have a mantle and a crust on top of that gameplay loop, and NEXT adds to those two layers in a fairly major way, which are worth discussing in-depth.

The first thing you’ll notice upon launching No Man’s Sky NEXT is just how beautiful everything is. I’ve always found No Man’s Sky to be visually appealing, with its saturated colors and retro sci-fi design. However, NEXT takes this a step further by adding an extra layer of detail to everything, which truly makes even the smallest flower pop. The addition of a third-person camera does wonders for the game as well. I always found the first-person view in No Man’s Sky to feel a bit detached and hollow. Being able to see my character not only grounded the experience, but also lends the game a sense of scale that I don’t feel was present initially. It’s a simple change, but a very appreciated one nonetheless.

However, my favorite addition to No Man’s Sky is the base building. This was added in a cursory fashion in an update before NEXT, but the mechanic was rather limited. Now, bases can be constructed piece by piece allowing for much more freedom in design. The actual process of building can be likened most to Fortnite, and I found it mostly intuitive. At times, it can be needlessly difficult to place tiles in just the right place, but considering that building is not done under pressure, unlike Fortnite, I didn’t mind having to carefully adjust the camera to put down pieces. I’m a sucker for houses and bases in video games, so this naturally spoke to me. Assembling my base, even with the most simple parts, was very engaging, and gave me a goal to work toward throughout my time with NEXT. While I was much more engaged by the aesthetic side of base-building, bases can become quite substantive through the creation of technology panels that aliens can be recruited to run. Yet, this is far from a necessary feature, and one that I didn’t engage in myself.

This speaks to the expansion of player agency in No Man’s Sky with the NEXT update. You can engage with the universe of No Man’s Sky in a multitude of ways– whether you want to hunker down on a single planet and explore it to the fullest, or hop from galaxy to galaxy, you can, and have fun doing it. The introduction of portable technology really breaks down a lot of the previous barriers to player freedom. You no longer have to be confined to one place to do the lion’s share of your crafting anymore, making nomadic exploration much more viable. I’m always a proponent for expanding player choice, especially here in No Man’s Sky. At launch, planetary exploration felt like a one-way street; there was truly no good way to interact with the world around you. I just felt like I was walking through a space museum; I couldn’t have any sort of marked impact on the space around me. The simple additions of base building and portable technology change that though– now you can really become an explorer, not just a passerby. NEXT does a fantastic job of making the galaxy around you feel more alive and more interactive by allowing you to create the experience you want to have. And now, you can share that experience with a friend.

I’ve had run-ins with other players during my time with No Man’s Sky NEXT, but I haven’t actually gotten any friends together yet. And to be frank– I probably won’t. Perhaps the biggest strength of No Man’s Sky is the sense of individual discovery; the feeling of landing on a planet all your own and having to survive. Since launch, and to this day, No Man’s Sky has been tailored to single-player. Of course, every game is more fun with friends, but that is merely because it’s just fun to have your buddies around in most situations. But this game wasn’t designed around the multiplayer experience– that’s my problem. For those who’ve been waiting for it, I’m glad that this experience exists. But, from my point of view, multiplayer seems more like a bone for fans than a feature implemented because the game is legitimately stronger with three other adventurers.

No Man’s Sky is far more engaging now, than it was at launch. The game has been improved externally in a fairly major way; but the internals are mostly the same. The expansion of player freedom through new mechanics and enhancements to the UI make No Man’s Sky a much more enjoyable game, but nothing here makes substantial headway in terms of solving my issues with the core gameplay loop. To return to my opening analogy, this planet’s core is failing, and the everything is going to come down with it. After seven hours with the update, my interest is beginning to fade. Personally, it is just very hard to connect with a game that is fundamentally flawed, no matter how enjoyable the systems piled on top are.

If your only issue with No Man’s Sky prior to this major update was a general lack of features, then NEXT will have addressed your problems with the game. If you were hoping that the update would have rectified core gameplay flaws, then NEXT isn’t going to do it for you– at least not for any substantial amount of time. Additions like base building and multiplayer will let you squeeze a few more hours of playtime out of the game, but eventually that fun will run dry. At the end of the day, NEXT is just new content on an old foundation. What that’s worth to you is a personal decision. I’d recommend at minimum trying the update, as it is free, but don’t expect a dramatically new experience. One thing is certain though– Sean Murray and his team deserve significant credit for sticking with No Man’s Sky, and I’ll be keeping my eye on this game as it, hopefully, continues to grow and develop as the months go by.

Abram is an aspiring games journalist with a soft-spot for titles published by a particular company that starts with N, and ends with -intendo. When he's not playing, or writing about, video games, Abram is most likely ranting to no one in particular about various films he's seen, or breaking out the old colored pencils to do a bit of drawing.
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