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Impressions: No Man’s Sky

Before its release in August 2016, the hype train for No Man’s Sky was insane. Something like 17 trillion different planets in a vibrant galaxy full of procedurally-generated lifeforms. Do anything, go anywhere! Reality hit people hard, including me, even though I did not buy the game at release.

I did buy the game a week or so ago though, and I can say that after a year of actually substantive updates, No Man’s Sky is almost ready for its debut. Mostly.

The first hour or so of gameplay is not that great, and can be worse depending on the randomly generated planet you start on. The vast majority of planets have hostile weather that necessitates the constant recharging of suit protections, driving you to seek shelter in your ship or a cave or farming Zinc from plants. Your ship needs Plutonium to lift off the ground each time, and your Life Support systems can only be charged with Thamium9. And you have to juggle all of these competing element requirements with a micro-inventory that gets worse before it gets better.

That’s really the summary for the game: No Man’s Sky gets worse before it gets better. Mostly.

After getting a few upgrades here and there, especially getting a better ship, the game opens up tremendously. You still need all the survival elements, but you have the space and cash to stockpile a few stacks. Then there is the forward momentum that comes from the primary quests, assuming you did not choose to free-roam. Things progress quite nicely, especially after unlocking your base and assorted goodies like Exocraft, e.g. vehicles.

Here’s the thing though: the core gameplay loop is incredibly tiny. On each non-lifeless planet, there will always be the following: Life Pods, Habitable Buildings, Trade Posts, Crashed Ships, Monoliths. All of them will look the same, although there are a few different types. All of them will be randomly scattered around, but the scattering itself will be very uniform across the entire surface of the world. By all measures you can actually fully upgrade your Exosuit before leaving the original planet you spawned on (assuming you somehow got the cash).

Planets are literally the size of real planets, but everything you could really ever need on any individual one of them will exist within 10km of wherever you land. Each star system has a Space Station, and each Space Station is set up exactly the same way. You can accept “missions” from an NPC there, and these missions are essentially Radiant Quests ala Skyrim. Kill X number of Y, collect Z resource, kill some space pirates, deliver this item, etc. As you increase your reputation, more lucrative quests unlock, which feature harder to find Z resources, or tougher pirates.

Some of the gameplay elements remain half-baked. Early on, you will find many rocks that contain Deuterium, which you are unable to mine. After unlocking Exocraft, e.g. vehicles, you can finally mine them. I was pretty excited… up until the moment I realized Deuterium is only used for Exocraft upgrades. Once you install the ones you want, the element has no purpose anywhere else in the game. The same applies to another element that comes from “raiding” (read: blowing up) protected silos. Why would you ever mine Deuterium or raid the other element again? It not being used for anything other than the thing it was needed for seems comically short-sighted.

It’s not obvious at first, but No Man’s Sky is more of a game about economics than anything else. Each plant or creature you scan gives you Units. Some elements exist only to be mined and sold as vendor trash. Completing missions gives you Units, and unlock better missions that grant more Units. Some of the base-building requires specific elements, but for the most part its Iron which is everywhere. Pretty much the biggest reason to have a base at all is so your can start a Farm, which lets you “grow” special elements. That you then turn into unusable-but-very-sellable items. So you can eventually buy a Freighter for 186 million Units… to have more inventory space. For Units.

I’m at over 50 hours at this point, and I have no idea why I still find this fun, but I do.

The key, I think, is to temper your expectations. This is not Minecraft in space. This is not 3D Starbound/Terraria. I’m not even sure if it’s all that good for Explorers, given that procedurally-generated terrain/plants/creatures generally all look the same after a while. That said, I do find the Primary quests to be interesting, and I very much enjoy the ability to just fly around and do whatever. Want to stop what you’re doing and warp to a different star system? You can. Want to just make a bee-line to the center of the galaxy? Go do that. Want to make the perfect farm so you can mass-produce Circuit Boards and sell them for 1 million Units apiece? Yeah, I’m on it.

No Man’s Sky has gotten a lot of updates since release, and it seems as though more might still be on the way. I ended up buying my copy for $20, and at that price I feel like I got my money’s worth already. In a few months, it might even be cheaper with more content and better gameplay loops. We’ll have to see.

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Post-Break

Cyber Monday now behind us, it is time to take stock.

First, I did not buy a PS4. The loss of the +$50 Gamestop/+$60 Kohls gift cards was simply too great, psychologically. Well, that, plus I could not find a normal $200 PS4 deal to save my life. There was a slight chance of some late shenanigans involving Office Depot selling $100 Gamestop gift cards for $80, but why go through all that trouble – especially having to go outside – if none of the $200 deals are around? Having said that, apparently Gamestop sells Amazon gift cards, so one could imagine someone going through the hassle of stopping by multiple stores in order to achieve a 20% discount at an online retailer.

Second, I have been playing No Man’s Sky and it has consumed my life. I’m 30 hours deep already.

Third, I did end up buying a phone. Specifically, the Moto G5 Plus from Amazon. I waffled on the Honor 6X because ~$150 seemed like a lot for +1GB RAM and +16GB space over my current 5X. Well, the G5+ comes with 64GB internal memory and 4GB RAM straight up. Yes please. I played the holiday pricing game a bit too close though, and missed the $180 deal for a new phone, so I settled for an Amazon Warehouse resell for like $160. There aren’t supposed to be any scratches on the screen itself, but you never know until it shows up.

Finally, I took all this week off. No particular reason, other than I had to use time lest I lose it. My original plan (beyond normal IRL errands) was to give FF14 it’s one last huzzah before they take another $15 from me. While it’s still possible, No Man’s Sky makes it unlikely. We’ll just have to see how the rest of the week goes.

Expensive August

Things are shaping up to be an expensive August, games-wise.

Tomorrow August 12th we have No Man’s Sky releasing. I won’t be there on Day 1 for multiple reasons, the primary of which this is one of those games I need to see other people play first. The premise? Super cool. But what about the gameplay itself? I am not especially an Explorer type, so if the moment-to-moment fun isn’t there, I’m going to be disappointed. Or not, having not actually purchased the game yet.

August 23rd is the surprise (to me) release of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Kinda snuck up on me there. As I mentioned last year, this one is a Day 1 purchase, Day 1 Embargo tags be damned. At the time of this writing, DLGamer is offering a preorder for $42, which approaches the point at which it almost doesn’t matter that it’s a preorder. I’m expecting Human Revolution 2.0 and anything more than that will be gravy.

Finally, August 30th is Legion, of course. As I have mentioned in the past, I am buying Legion at some point. Whether that point was going to be halfway through the expansion for half price as I did with Warlords of Draenor, or earlier, I had not decided. Note the past tense there. I have been very impressed with the Audio Dramas (or specifically the transcripts), the Harbinger series, the Illidan thing, and so on. While I understand that those things often bear no resemblance to in-game experiences, it is enough to get me excited just the same. This is the first time since Wrath, really, that I feel like there is a narrative worth exploring here.

Okay, so maybe there are only three games in August I’m looking at. Still, it has been months since I’ve felt the need to buy something Day 1, and now there are three options coming out.

Is Fandom is Broken?

No. The answer to a question in a headline is always no.

I was made aware of the “Fandom is Broken” article from a Twitter push notification, which immediately reminded me that I should really delete the app. Then I read the article. Which starts off with, of all things, a “lesson” from the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle.

“This isn’t really a new thing – way back in 2012 I named Annie Wilkes the Patron Saint of Fandom after the childish, ridiculous uproar over the ending of Mass Effect 3. What I couldn’t have known in 2012 was that the Mass Effect uprising was just a preview of the main event; that tantrum happened under the auspices of being a ‘consumer revolt,’ which would be the same kind of language behind which terrorist hate group GamerGate still hides. And in the years since Mass Effect 3 it seems as if the crazy has been ramping up, and as the wall dividing creators and fans gets ever thinner with each new social media platform the number of voices being raised has grown.

The article gets worse from there, with a meandering diatribe vaguely conflating consumer entitlement with the rise (?) of Twitter death threats to game/movie/etc creators. But by far, the most puzzling element of the article is this part:

The corporatized nature of the stories we consume has led fans – already having a hard time understanding the idea of an artist’s vision – to assume almost total ownership of the stuff they love. And I use that word ownership in a very specific sense – these people see themselves as consumers as much as they see themselves as fans. This is what the “Retake Mass Effect” movement was foreshadowing. They see these stories as products.

Wut.

Of course these games/movies/books have been products. They have always been products. If there has ever been an inflection point at which “artistic vision” meant anything, it died the moment the creator cared about the people who consumed the art at all. Focus groups? PR departments? Franchise opportunities? All of that calls into question “artistic vision,” decades (if not centuries) before Twitter ever became a thing.

And, really, let me take a moment to say how much of a bullshit weasel-word “artistic vision” is to begin with. It conjures into being a sacrosanct defense that apparently renders the artist immune to criticism or critique. One should not point out the many plotholes of the original Mass Effect 3 ending, because apparently the half-assed nature of it was intended. And how do we know it was intended? Because the artist released it like that. So, ispo facto, that’s the vision. If you think it’s bad or could have been better, you’re entitled!

When Bioware released the expanded endings, however, that apparently isn’t “artistic vision,” so tainted was it by the unruly demands of the unwashed masses. Or maybe Bioware was just embarrassed enough from being called out on their bullshit and decided to finish what they started. Or maybe Bioware was just concerned about future Mass Effect: Andromeda sales.

That there is the rub, of course. Fans are more connected to creators these days not because of the means and mediums, but because the creators make themselves more available. And why do they do that? Because they want that feedback, they want to foster that investment, because they want to stoke the engines of the hype train to ever greater levels. Sometimes that works. Sometimes that doesn’t, as the creators of No Man’s Sky are seeing, as the hype train is late pulling into the station.

In any case, it is regrettable that death threats are being thrown about. Nobody really deserves those, and anyone who sends them should be punished accordingly. But… they are also largely unavoidable these days. If 99.99% of a given, million-strong fandom are perfectly rational people, that still means there are 100 people spewing bile directly into your Inbox. Which is a lot of people! And as long as Twitter continues being a platform basically dedicated to consequence-free instant abuse, I don’t know what the solution is.

I can tell you what isn’t the problem is though. It’s not the fandom.