I picked this up a year ago, but bounced off it; I’ve been playing it again after the new update. Overall reaction: it has a great premise, and it’s not bad, but it has a lot of design issues.

20180729054435_1

Mmm, donuts

First, the concept: you’re set loose in an unimaginably large galaxy.  Articles usually say it has 18 quintillion planets, but they’re translating programmer-speak; what’s clear is that there are 18 quintillion possible planets.  That’s the number of seeds that can be given to the planet generator.  It’s not clear how many planets are actually instantiated, but presumably it’s a shit-ton.

In practice: you start out alone somewhere, and you can explore all you want. Each world will in general look like a 1970s sf paperback cover, or progressive rock album cover, but it will be different from all the others, and populated by its own animals, plants, and minerals. There are also varied dangers– some worlds are toxic, and some have frequent dangerous storms.

This is a brilliant idea, and in general NMS captures what you would want it to: fantastic landscapes in lurid colors, weird creatures, a range of dangers.  Flying over a planet is fun, and flying into space is pretty neat.

You can name planets, plants, and animals. I advise you to buy a scanner upgrade, which will make this process rather lucrative.

It’s a survival game, which means there’s a load of resources and crafting. For the first hour you’ll be very conscious of oxygen (to keep you alive), carbon (to recharge your mining laser), and sodium (to keep you safe from toxic environments).  Once you repair your ship there’s a similar list of things you need to keep it going.

The designers apparently went to the same Designer School as (say) Deus Ex and Mass Effect 1, where they were taught that players love inventory management. So a major theme of the game is getting more damn inventory slots. You actually have three types of inventory, and the process is different for each:

  • Your suit. You can buy new slots at space stations, or get them for free by searching for drop pods on planets.  (Free-ish: you’ll need resources, which will hopefully be at hand, at the cost of some grinding. One suit required a resource I didn’t have, but I knew there was some on another planet.  I went there, got it, and flew back– only I had lost the location of the drop pod.  Fortunately you can just go find another one.)
  • Your multi-tool (used for mining, fighting, and digging). You buy new ones at a space station. (This is a bit hidden: there is a multi-tool merchant, but they don’t sell the tools directly. Rather, behind them on the wall is a display which you can interact with to be presented with precisely one tool you can buy.)
  • Your spaceship. You can find broken ones and repair them, but this requires loads of resources you probably don’t have. Or, you check out ships as they enter a base or space station; eventually you’ll find one with more slots than yours, and which you can afford. Remember to transfer any goods you had stored in the ship before trading.

Shamus Young, for one, complains a lot about this arrangement. He’s not wrong, but I do think he misses what they taught at Design School: you have to impose some limitations on the player in order to have a game. (If you have a fighting game, you can’t just have the player look at an enemy to kill them; it’d be no fun.)  It’s not fun to run into inventory limits, but by gum it is motivating. Every suit slot is good to acquire, and you really want to grind to make money so you can afford a spaceship with more slots.

You can also build bases. Look, here’s my super-high-tech wooden shack:

20180730005428_1

Nice balcony. In space, you don’t need support beams.

Bases are nice, but honestly this is one of many things Empyrion does far better. You can make quite a nice little base in Empyrion… or for that matter a huge sprawling base… without hours of questing or grinding. (Empyrion also has far fewer resources to worry about, and is far more generous about inventory. Offsetting that, it’s just one star system.)

NMS made a lot of people mad when it first came out, but I don’t care about that because I didn’t get it then.  I got it at half price– for that matter, it’s on sale right now.

It’s also made people mad because it just insists on making things cumbersome. Nothing is game-breaking, but the frustrations just keeps on coming:

  • The galaxy map is really hard to use. You have to use the mouse to move around, and it moves in a very weird unintuitive way.
  • You learn alien languages a word at a time. Neat concept, but it’s so damn slow that, at 30 hours in, I can’t understand any message at all.
  • You fly using the mouse, but it’s nothing so simple as “fly where you point”. There’s a circle on the screen, and if you move the mouse outside it you go that way. Only your ship overshoots so you have to correct in the other direction.
  • Every sales interaction starts with some flavortext you have to click through. It’s interesting the first two times… only. After that it’s annoying if all you want to do is see the price of a starship.
  • There are robot sentinels on every planet that attack if you mine too much. If you leave the planet, they send ships after you. You can shoot these down… only more will immediately show up. You can outrun them, but it takes forever. Tonight I wasted half an hour on this rigmarole, in a system where there was no space station to escape to. I had to reload from an earlier save.
  • Moving around a system takes way more time than it should. You have two levels of super-drive, but it can still take 2 minutes to get to a distant planet. I mean, fine, it’s space and space is big, but it’s not even as interesting as walking from Point A to B in Skyrim.
  • Some planets have toxic storms that last several minutes, and give you only a few minutes between repetitions. You can take refuge within your ship (and take the time to log discoveries or something), but it’s just not a fun idea at that frequency.
  • The designers are terribly fond of using keys to move up and down in menus, or switch between modes. It’s like they never heard of tabs or scroll bars.
  • Just about every interaction is on a timer, including opening boxes or accessing portable machines. There’s cases where a delay is appropriate (e.g. mining) or can take the place of an ‘are you sure’ message (accepting a quest). But much of the time it’s just dumb. Heuristic: if there’s no harm in doing something, do it immediately.

All of this is liveable, but it can make it feel like the NMS designers were themselves bug-eyed aliens who do not know how to make things easy for hu-mans.

Rather strangely, when you start a game you don’t get to choose your appearance. You start out as a man in a spacesuit. When you get to a space station, you can change your appearance then. At least it’s free and doesn’t require weird resources. (I’m kind of pissed that you can’t choose a female human. Yes, you’re in a spacesuit with an opaque helmet and a woman could be inside, but the body shape looks male.)

Edit: the last patch finally fixes this.  Still no face, but at least the body is female. Only took ’em two years!

I’m only partway through the quests, so I can’t say too much about them yet. I’ve read about how the Atlas quest ends, and it sounds mega-stupid, but I’ll give them some slack there… it’s hard to give any sort of satisfying ‘ending’ to an exploration game.

(Conan Exiles flunks this problem pretty badly. The main quest there is to find all the artefacts which will unlock the bracelet that keeps you in the Exiled Lands. You do this, unlock your bracelet, and… you walk into the distance in a very brief cutscene. Your character is deleted and you start over.  You don’t even get to leave with Conan. It’s, like, they had the youngest and dullest intern work it up the day before they shipped. Weirdly, your buildings are not deleted, and your next character can go and loot them.)

On galaxybuilding, NMS is decidedly weird. It’s an exploration game, where supposedly each planet is unmapped before you get to it, and you can name everything you’ve discovered. Only… there are alien bases and artefacts all over, there are space pirates and space stations and occasional planetary bases; there’s a galactic currency and market; there are guilds of explorers and traders; there is an army of sentinels cruising each planet. For that matter, all the planets and animals and planets had provisional names. Yet there is not a single city or densely settled world. Nor do you ever see another explorer doing what you’re doing– walking around gathering resources.

It makes no sense; it’s neither a fully settled galaxy, nor an unknown one to explore for the first time. I see why they did it this way: you want to be able to “go into town to sell your goods.” And a planet is more interesting if it has something on it to go see. Still, it would’ve been nice if they had some coherent story about all this.

On a deeper level, though the randomly generated worlds are marvelously diverse and quite pretty, they’re also kind of monotonous. Each has only one biome type, and if it has a dozen creature types that’s a lot. The planets are huge, but each part of it is the same as the last.

(In fact, I’m pretty sure that only the part you’re currently on “really exists”, and the region your base is on.  Based on my experience trying to find the drop pod I’d found before, I suspect that if you leave a region, you can’t really get back to it. And e.g. if an alien gives you a quest, they may be in a different place when you come back to them. I haven’t checked if they still look the same…)

Also weird: they’ve basically invented their own chemistry for the resources. E.g. you mine rocks into “ferrite dust”. The name is obviously based on iron, so why don’t they call it “iron”? Or at least “iron oxide”? Then they have things like “ionized cobalt”, “chromatic metal”, “condensed carbon”. You can take “tritium”, which in real life is a form of hydrogen, and refine it into platinum. Again, it’s no dealbreaker, but it’s kind of lazy.

Also also weird: there’s no attempt to model stellar systems at all. There’s no orbits– the planets just hang motionless in space. There’s no gas giants. And space is filled with rocks.

All in all: NMS provides an experience which few games are able to provide: an entire galaxy of weird planets to explore. And a loop of quests, resource extraction, and upgrades that makes exploration worthwhile.

It does seem like there’s a greater game that it aspires to but doesn’t reach. Empyrion has most of what I would have wanted: much richer base building; multiple biomes per planet; robust multiplayer. It’d also be nice if you could throw in the rich interstellar civilizations of Mass Effect…

More thoughts after finishing the Apollo quest here

 

Advertisements