What I’ve Learned from No Man’s Sky (After a Month and a Half’s Play)

No Man's Sky_20160918132026
No Man’s Sky_20160918132026

I’ve been playing No Man’s Sky about 70 hours now (picked it up a few days after release) and even though I had little expectations going in, there have still been a few odd things that have surprised me.  Especially the longer that I play and the better I get to know the game.

These are some of the biggest takeaways I’ve learned about playing this game:

Some of the Best Moments are in Leaving Your Ship Behind

No Man's Sky_20160817153114
No Man’s Sky_20160817153114

One of the hard and fast rules of the game is that there is almost no constant.  Almost everything will change or upgrade, as you move across the near infinite swath of planets, never settling in one place for too long.  A result of this – at least for myself – has been a tendency to cling to a my ship as something of a guaranteed safe zone.  After all, it’s the most reliable one around: with hostile animal life, the threat of sentinel attack, and hazardous storms in mixed form on every planet and moon.

At the same time, there’s something freeing – and thrilling – about leaving my ship behind and pouring my time into pure exploration.  Whether it be to hunt out that next question mark icon that appears on my HUD, or simply wander off in a new direction in search of whatever hidden elements the planet bears.  And this can result in some of the game’s best moments.  Be they stumbling upon multiple dangers simultaneously (fending off frenzies sentinels while a tropical storm threatens to kill you), getting lost in a network of underground caves, or happening upon whole new herds of animals in all their crazy, entertaining forms.

What’s more, multiple of the game’s most valuable elements (rare resources or hard-to-find animal life) may only be found not by ship-hopping from one alien outpost to the next, but by roaming free and far from the safe confines of your ship.  This also further enables some of the most visually pleasing moments in the game: discovering new horizons of jaw-dropping colors, skies lit by nearby planets in the system, or the greenish tinge of a sunset.  These are some of the most screenshot-worthy moments of the entire game.

It’s Not Really All That Much About Resource Management

No Man's Sky_20160917170310
No Man’s Sky_20160917170310

In the opening minutes of the game, the player is placed near a downed ship, on a habitable planet and tasked with gathering resources to make repairs.  This is a means of walking through the basic process in understanding how to recognize, acquire, and utilize resources in order to fix or make upgrades for your ship, exosuit, and multi-tool.

From this, I expected a Minecraft-like experience: of potentially hours devoted to nothing more than the continual collection of resources toward a specific goal.  After all, they’re necessary for practically everything.  Charging launch thrusters, feeding the pulse engine, maintaining life support, and utilizing your mining beam.

Turns out, that’s not so much the case – especially the further one progresses in the game.  Items like Power Canisters are a frequently found loot that make recharging a resource-free process – while upgrades will oftentimes require a lesser need for recharge all around.  What’s more, the most necessary resources are everywhere.  Every planet is guaranteed to have carbon, plutonium and iron (and heridium) in rich abundance.  And thamium9 (for your ship) is in almost all the asteroids.

Snazzier upgrades do require less common resources, but you’ll find what you need eventually.  There’s time spent collecting these kinds of elements – but it’s minimal compared to the amount of time you’ll likely spend doing other things in the game.

Set Your Own Goals and Learn to Live in the Moment

No Man's Sky_20160915165837
No Man’s Sky_20160915165837

One area in which this does veer closer to the Minecraft mentality is that there’s little in the way of guidance or parameters directing you exactly what to do.  Meaning that there are guidelines and there are rules, but to a large part, you really get to pick and choose how you want to proceed.

The upgrade system (expanding and improving your exotsuit, and multi-tool, and ship) often present the best guidance for that.  Be it saving up enough units to buy another slot for your exosuit suit, or hunting down transmissions in search of a new crashed ship that you could potentially acquire.

Or goals may be something else altogether.  That’s part of the game’s freedom.  Following in the Atlas Path in search of more Atlas Stones (or hoping to find those elusive Atlas Passes), tracking down a new black hole, or simply moving from system to system, discovering all that you can on all the contained planets and moons before moving onto the next.

The latter path in particular really enables some of the most important thinking when approaching this game.  It’s not one about rushing forward – it’s not necessarily about moving as quickly as possible to the end of the Atlas Path, or rushing headlong to the center of the universe.  Both ways of playing would mean missing large swaths of what the game is really about.  Slowing down, enjoying the little things, reveling in the inherent beauty of this universe.

Put another way, it’s not about the destination.

And almost without exception, every planet or moon I’ve seen has had viewpoints worthy of a picture or two.  An impressive feat as I have to remind myself that this was randomly generated by a computer, and not an actual location lovingly crafted by a developer artist.  Stopping to appreciate the way the whole landscape turns a sharp shade of pink at sunset, or how the planet’s water turns from purple to green to blue depending on the time of day, makes for some of the most visually exquisite moments I’ve encountered in all of gaming.

Progress is incremental

No Man's Sky_20160818193324
No Man’s Sky_20160818193324

The game has no strict bearing toward a traditional level-up system – instead, the closest that comes to it is upgrades for your ship, suit, and multi-tool.  They’re the most easily quantifiable means of measuring progress in the game.  And the further out I get, I know I would regret their loss in a reboot of the game – more than I would all the discovery of planets and star systems that I’ve made.

Navigating through the progress in each of these three arenas will come at a slow rate.  Larger and better ships are available to purchase from NPCs, but they may very well cost millions of units.  And like everything else, acquiring units can be a slow, three-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of deal.  It’s very in keeping with the game.  Every new exosuit upgrade purchased will increase the cost for the next.  Every new ship discovered – or multi-tool acquired – will similarly only add one slot above what you currently hold.  (And those upgrades in turn can be few and far between – oftentimes a hard-fought process.)

In the same vein, your relationship with the alien races around you will be small steps made at a time.  Each encounter with NPC will increase (or decrease) your standing that individual’s race.  Discovery of new words usually comes no more than two or three at a time.

What this slow progress means is that you appreciate the successes when they finally occur.  When an encounter with an NPC results in enough language understanding to enable a true reward from your response.  Or your standing with one of the alien races gets you a sweet deal on a ship purchase.  Or when you have enough room in your exosuit that you’re not running out of space every time you loot another outpost, or enough units saved up to buy improvements without it gouging your wallet.  Those incremental steps take build toward something big – and the bigger moments achieved are all the sweeter for it.

The Game Still Finds Ways to Surprise Me

No Man's Sky_20160911155207
No Man’s Sky_20160911155207

After 70 plus hours, there’s inevitably degrees to which one will start to see the edges – particularly the limits of what the random algorithms can spit out.  There’s still more than enough variety to keep me engaged (a dead moon with frenzied sentinels, but hundreds upon hundreds of gravitino balls that I can sell for a couple million units; or a steaming hot world with hostile animal life and sandstorms that will eat through my shields in only a matter of seconds) but redundancy and familiarity are also something of an inevitability.  Plants that look particularly the same, a fundamental recognizability to that one kind of crab creature, the repeat of structures and aliens encountered.

And yet, almost every time I think I’ve reached the edge – the game has run out of tricks – it throws out something new to surprise me.  Be it small – like that bouncing, plant-like jellyball animal with multiple jagged limbs – or grand – like the stunning pale green sunrises that came intermittently on a lifeless moon.  I’ve encountered floating squid creatures with a hundred dangling tentacles, Chinese dragon-like birds that waft around my ship as it flies past, purple lakes filled with dangerous radiation and glorious vistas of globular plantlife, beacon-like jellyfish that hang unmoving in the sky, and glowing red plants and rocks in underground caves that light up like a Christmas tree.

Every time I land on a new world, it’s a thrill to see just what concoction of factors will be at play here.  The surprising animal life (maybe I’ve stumbled into a whole nest of those hostile crab creatures and now I can’t seem to get away from them) the environment itself (maybe the atmosphere is so thin that it devours my shield in a matter of seconds), the weather patterns (maybe there’s frequent storms of intense cold that have me dashing from one shelter to the next), the sentinels (maybe they only turn hostile when you start gathering those rare and valuable resources) and so much more.

No Man's Sky_20160926202711
No Man’s Sky_20160926202711

I’m still many light years out from the center of the universe, and that’s okay.  No matter what milestones I reach, I’ve still a long way to go from this game.  Be it finding a great new ship that allows great jumps, or stumbling on a world of surprising new colors and vistas, it will be some time before I find myself tiring of it all.

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