I’ve long been on record (well, I’ve long said it I promise) that my favorite game ever is still Star Control II, and I’ve been waiting for a game to recapture what I loved about it. (You can download the “Ur-Quan Masters” for free — a 100% original code port of Star Control II; go spend a few days playing it after you read this)
No Man’s Sky isn’t QUITE going to replace what I loved about SCII, but it comes as close as anything has in a long time.
Let’s back up. Star Control II is a space exploration game with a huge number of stars and planets. The first time I played it, I found out that, if you dilly-dally and just wander around searching all the stars, rather than following hints and clues left by chance alien encounters and random artifacts found on planets, that you will surely die, having lost the game after, say, 72 hours of painstaking gameplay, since the main story arc of the universe continues, whether or not you’re paying attention. Even after rolling back to a save game from 12 or 24 hours prior to dying my first game was unsalvageable — I had to restart.
No Man’s Sky doesn’t seem to do that to you. But you DO have a sense that the universe is still chugging along while you hop from system to system and planet to planet. And, while I haven’t finished it after, say, 10 hours of gameplay, NMS DOES seem to have a compelling story arc, AND it lets you literally just while away your time throughout a nearly endless universe.
And that’s pretty much all you do.
And it’s pretty cool.
Yes, there are aliens and outposts EVERYWHERE — some nicer than others — some humanoid, some not, some apparently androids… none of the planets feel truly “undiscovered”. Other similarities include animals and plants and mining and sentries and artifacts and languages you have to learn and upgrades and mysteries that you may never uncover and lots of awesomesauce. Except NMS has 20 years of improved technology behind it, compared to SCII, and a cutting edge planetary generator that is pretty awesome, even if some people expected better.
Star Control II made me want to get into video game programming more than any other game. Sure I’d already written a (horrible) asteroids clone back in high school (some day I’ll find the source code for that… it’s on one of these floppies… somewhere). But SCII was the most balanced game I’d seen and it was simply enough made that it looked approachable. I’d spent time studying the 3D modeling in doom and figured it wasn’t worth my time… by the time I got an animated cube spinning in front of me, I tired of the matrix manipulation and the constant bounds checking and accidental inversions that plagued that sort of development at the time. Now, of course, you can just describe a polyhedra and send it to a GPU, but at the time the math hadn’t been built into silicon. Trust me, it was daunting.
The “randomness” of the worlds isn’t very high. The important parts boil down to a few things: How hospitable is the planet (temperature and toxicity), how much flora and fauna there are, and how angry the local aliens are. The rest is straight landscape… water, land, and caves make up a pretty reliable system, but there’s not REALLY a lot of noteworthy variety, at least not yet. People have complained about gorgeous but repetitive color schemes and easy-to-get-lost-in caves due to the lack of real on-planet variety. But these are complaints when compared against hand-crafted easy-to-navigate arenas people have been weaned on in video games. It actually IS easy to get lost in a cave or in a forest IRL (actually, I have yet to encounter anything forest-like in NMS, but others have, so I’ll see).
These are all trade-offs I’m willing to take for the vast expanse of the universe. Of note, many people are complaining about it crashing a lot… that absolutely would bother me… but on my ancient gaming rig (the case is, what, at least 15 years old — the GPU over 3), it runs just under 1080p, looks great, and doesn’t hiccup at all (if you don’t count how the procedurally generated landscapes come to visibility… but that seems to happen with everyone).
There are other complaints floating around that don’t bother me. A fairly restrictive inventory and upgrade path for your suit, ship, and handheld-mining-tool (gun), which doesn’t bother me at all… compare this to say, EVE Online, which took it to the other extreme and I far prefer the NMS version. Space combat isn’t “all that”… well, yes, I agree, but it’s not a space comat game. SC2 had fun combat, but it was of the cheap-arcade easy-to-master style that was more like a fun android game. Elite: Dangerous is the go-to space battle game now, right? Meh… I only wish I could run away from fights, but even losing your spaceship isn’t so bad in NMS, as you get popped to the nearest space station with a brand new one awaiting you. For combat I miss X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter and Wing Commander.
Other games have other mixtures of these basic elements that I love… Mass Effect was a pretty good spiritual relative of SCII, but it wasn’t a clear hit for me… the game play was too linear, although you did have the sense of the impending lose-everything ending, but the openness was really an illusion. There are myriad others that try certain aspects… Sins of a Solar Empire, Kerbal Space Program, anything Star Wars or Star Trek related… but nothing hits quite right.
And No Man’s Sky still doesn’t. But it’s close. Very very close, and it’s easily worth my first-run money (a rarity). I expect to be disappointed when the very loose “Atlas” story line is exhausted, but who knows. And maybe they’ll add other story lines in over time that are more universe-shattering? I doubt there will be a game again that you can actually, you know… LOSE, at least not of this caliber, but for now I’m engrossed in an infinite-as-necessary universe…
and I’m having a grand time.