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Everyman's Hype Prerelease Review

I know quite a bit more than I did in my previous entry about No Man's Sky, part of that from watching illicit streams from lucky Playstation 4-owning punks who managed to score a physical copy early from retail stores that aren't real good at enforcing release dates, and part of what I learned was just from the game being so close to release that its secrets can hardly be contained.

The general flow of gameplay in No Man's Sky.

[Important note: A patch has been announced with significant changes, what follows does not reflect the changes announced in the patch because I have yet to see it in action.]

I don't really consider this a spoiler, per se, because it is just the meat and potatoes of the game, not the dessert.
One of your three character sheets, the other two being your ship and multitool.
I had updated my last entry a little to reflect what I have learned, but here it is again in a more succinct version:
  • Primary progression takes the form of upgrading three forms of equipment: your environmental suit, your multi-tool, and your ship.  Each of them have a number of available "slots," and the number of these slots can be upgraded by finding opportunities to get better ones while you explore.
    • Your exosuit is what you walk around in planets in, and commonly takes upgrades related to surviving hostile environments (heat, cold, toxins, and radiation) and scanning while on foot.  It will also be your primary inventory where you will be holding things such as mined minerals.
    • Your ship is what you travel the stars in, and commonly takes upgrades related to travel, strengthening your ships' defenses, and enhancing ship weaponry.  It will be your secondary inventory, but surprisingly your ships' slots have no storage capacity advantage over your exosuit.  Get used to refilling that landing thruster a lot: it's a real power hog.
    • Your multi-tool is the only tool you use while on foot, and commonly takes upgrades related to operating in modes of self-defense, mining, and terrain deformation.  Although the multi-tool slots look and work identically to those in your exosuit and ship, it has no actual inventory space, so you cannot actually store things such as minerals in your multi-tool.
  • Secondary character progression exists in the form of elements, money, blueprints, reputation, and knowledge of languages.
    • Elements are primarily mined from the planet surface with your multi-tool, although you can also find them in space while flying around and get them from trade and some dialogue encounters.   Elements are used to recharge equipment (such as your suit's life support), craft components which you can use to upgrade your equipment, or simply sell for money.  Get used to dealing with elements a lot, it will be your primary inventory-sorting activity.
    • Money is spent when trading and earned primarily by selling things or exploring.  In the plays I saw, most money was spent enticing aliens on stations to sell the player their ships, but you can also buy minerals and such with it.
      • In the version I saw played, there is a bit of unbalanced money making to be found by recovering "atlas stones." I hope that is nerfed on the release day patch to about ten times less value: still enough to be excited about, but not to the point of utterly capsizing the economy.
    • Blueprints are used to build components for your equipment.  While upgrading equipment increases the number of available slots, the blueprints are responsible for what goes into those slots, and can be thought of as the more powerful form of upgrades.  Blueprints are earned via exploration, perhaps most often by breaking into alien manufacturing plants and solving a dialogue puzzle.
    • Reputation with the major alien races is earned based off of your past dealings with them.  Having a high reputation grants you certain options and privileges with those aliens that a low reputation would not. 
      • Note that the space sentinels are not a race so much as a universal peace enforcement mechanic.  They'll attack you if you disturb the peace (e.g. by being violent or exploiting a planetary environment overmuch) and they do not have a "reputation" system so much as a wanted meter.
    • Knowledge of alien languages will most often by learned by discovering "monoliths" on alien planets, but you can also learn them by conversing with helpful aliens or completing certain dialogue encounters.  You learn languages as "words," which means those words are translated when speaking with aliens or performing the many common dialogue encounters.
  • For the most part, your primary goal is to explore.  Yes, you technically have the goal of reaching the center of the universe, but going straight there will cause you to miss countless opportunities to upgrade the things listed above.
    • What's at the center of the universe?  As it turns out, what you learn on the way is much more important than what you find when you get to the center.  Flying straight to the center would be like skipping to the end of a book without learning anything about the characters and why that ending matters to them.
  • Put it all together, and you have No Man's Sky in a nutshell: explore the universe, collect minerals, upgrade your gear, learn alien languages, interact with many dialogue challenges, and learn about the universe so you have a reason for it to matter when you get to the center of it.
So that's the game.  Feel less hyped?  Well, if so, what is No Man's Sky missing?

Here's a few things off the top of my head that might be bothering you:
  • This isn't Minecraft, you won't be able to "move in" to this virtual universe, it's about being a virtual nomad, not a virtual resident.
  • This isn't EVE Online or a game from the X Universe, you won't be able to build a grand space empire, because again: you're a nomad, not a resident.
  • This isn't Elite: Dangerous.  Although it has a lot in common, progression is much more casual in No Man's Sky and the acquisition of wealth is more vestigial because your goal is to explore, not make money.  Depending on how you look at it, that might be for the better.
  • This isn't Destiny or ARK, a point I am making because there is virtually no multiplayer cooperation or competition: you are not only a nomad, you are a solo nomad.  That is going to be a deal breaker for those who really wanted to play with their friends.
That said, I still look forward to playing No Man's Sky.  It looks like a really fun romp through a procedural generated galaxy.  It is just that, in its current iteration and given their current design roles, a fun romp through a procedural generated galaxy is all that it is. 

How No Man's Sky ends up a "limited" example of a virtual world.

Why make a big deal about No Man's Sky being merely a fun romp through a procedural generated galaxy?  Well, here on Digitally Staving Off Boredom, I tend to want to talk about the progression of the artform when it comes to compelling virtual worlds.  To make a virtual world truly compelling, I feel that there must be emergent gameplay elements that are related to a greater overall purpose behind the player's activities.

In No Man's Sky, nearly none of the procedural aspects of the generated galaxies, planets, flora, fauna, rocks, and such really matters to the gameplay.  "Procedural aspects" refer to content decided upon procedurally by the game engine from available choices.  E.g. the color of a planet.

Lets say you end up discovering and naming a cat turtle alien.  Temperment is the largest impact: maybe you can feed it will dig up a buff for you, and that's something... but not enough.  Aside from cosmetic things, that cat turtle won't be any different fron another critter of similar temperament that you may find.  As such, most procedurally generated aspects of the cat turle lack purpose.

But is our cat turtle emergent?  Technically, yes, because its appearance came about in ways that even the developers themselves could not have anticipated.  However, I find this to be weak emergence since the procedural aspects of our hypothetical cat turtle have almost no gameplay impact whatsoever.  Weak emergence is not the same as no emergence... barely.

Why is this a problem?  Because what I said about the cat turtle applies to nearly all emergent aspects presented by No Man's Sky, everything from rocks to galaxies.  The procedural aspects of these actors rarely ever have gameplay import, it's 99% cosmetic fluff.   

For awhile, that will suffice, the cosmetic procedural aspects are cool.  However, because purely cosmetic things lack a gameplay purpose, the players' minds will eventually boil it down to being samey to them, and so they will move on to something else, bored.  

In this way, the lack of purposeful emergent content is more than a missed opportunity: it's a serious detriment to the long-term enjoyment potential of the game.

But I found some hope, one crumb of something deeper, in a rather unlikely place...
Relish these, for it is the main worthwhile purpose you will have behind your activities in No Man's Sky.
...I will not say that the virtual world in No Man's Sky lacks any form of purpose because it has a book at heart.  As you explore, you encounter dialogue puzzles and learn an alien language, and I think of this as finding pages from a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

As far as having a purpose is concerned, books count because the elements of the narrative can resound to a reader with a drive to see it to completion.  People buy books for this reason, books have this purpose to them, and a game can borrow that kind if purpose by integrating a book.

As far as emergence is concerned, there are aspects to be found in the dialogue puzzles.  The players' choices are not decided, so there is the emergence of their choices in the context of the playthrough.  Where the player finds the pages of the book (the dialogue segments) is not decided, and neither is what alien words known when the page is found.   Put that altogether, it's not a very powerful example of emergence, but still technically emergent

Finding and interacting with those dialogue puzzles gives No Man's Sky meaning it would otherwise lack.  Because the purpose of a book exists and is combined with the emergent elements of what the engine presents, something of greater significance exists in a dialogue puzzle than any procedurally derived cat turtle alien.  Thus, there does exist a thin but valid example of meaningful emergent gameplay elements at work in No Man's Sky.

However, books are limited things.  Even in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, when you have read the text in the book, you are done.  This puts a time limit on how long the procedural generated universe of the game has a point.  It did not have to be this way; the player could have been given an emergent purpose of far greater scope than to find the scattered pages of a book and read the story found within.

In the end, I have to give No Man's Sky a "limited" virtual world scope rating despite having an engine that surely could have supported an unlimited scope game.

PC version delayed to August 12th, now confirmed.

Previously, the plan was that the PC version would release on the 9th for most parts of the country and the UK version would release on the 12th (which is ironic since Hello Games is a UK-based developer).

I find this delay suspicious because it is ideal to get hyped-up people to buy PlayStation 4s (which is good for Sony) and prevent the PC version from being pirated for a few days longer (which is good for Hello Games, their publishers, and distributors).  Yet, there are definitely signs of technical issues why this delay may be necessary.

Judging by the fact that the Playstation 4 version I saw played had some crashing involved (fairly rare, but it happened) perhaps a few more days will make a big difference.  However, they have had many months to get those bugs out of the way so I am just expecting them to attempt to patch out a couple of the most obvious bugs that streamers have stumbled upon.

I have no idea if the PC version will be worse or not.  While I have speculated that it is a bad sign they have only been demoing the PlayStation 4 version, counterbalancing that is the fact that Sony's hardware is notorious for being hard for game developers to harness (although that is more of a PlayStation 3 era complaint).  It is entirely possible that the PC version will turn out to be the better version after all.

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