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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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No Man's Sky   PC (Steam) 

The Universe in 15 Gigabytes    4/5 stars

Back in 2016, upstart British Indie developer, Hello Games, released their incredibly-hyped Universe Sandbox game, “No Man’s Sky,” to nearly universal disdain. All the hype and excitement had set a bar that the just-released title simply couldn’t clear, reversing the developer’s reputation from Indie Darling to Promise Breaker, and making both the developer and their so-called magnum opus into a joke amongst the gaming community.

Fortunately, Hello Games didn’t just lie down in a ditch and give-up on their project. Instead, “No Man’s Sky” received update after update and overhaul upon overhaul over the years, with the most recent update dropping just weeks ago in April of 2024. Through their continued diligence and effort over 8 years post-launch, Hello Games has delivered on (nearly) all of their promises and transformed “No Man’s Sky” from a joke and a pariah into THE biggest and most impressive space-exploration Sandbox in the history of gaming.

Presentation
“No Man’s Sky” is built in a custom, proprietary engine that incorporates nearly all of the procedural generation algorithms from the last 50 years of computer science. Yes, EVERYTHING in “No Man’s Sky” is procedurally generated, from the 18 quintillion planets to the alien flora and fauna on said planets to the strange and emergent soundtrack. Normally, I’m not a fan of procedural generation, as it frequently leads to situations where environmental layouts are either nonsensical or outright dead-end linear gameplay. “No Man’s Sky” avoids the pitfalls of typical procedural games primarily by its obscene scale, which allows the player to simply leave the current area and go somewhere else if the algorithm didn’t quite deliver.

The game’s scale really can’t be understated, as the player starts on a random planet in a random star system somewhere in the Euclid Galaxy. However, the environment on the starting planet as well as available resources are all up to chance. Will you start your astronaut career on a Paradise Planet with a beautiful climate and a plethora of life forms? Or will you start on an Infested Swamp Planet overrun by toxic gasses and biological horrors? Or will you start on something else completely different? Who knows! But I do know that you won’t stay on your starting planet for long, and that first moment of breaking through the atmosphere and seeing the planetary surface recede below is awe-inspiring. Regardless of a planet’s type, each one is an absolutely enormous sphere covered in an incredible amount of procedurally-placed things to investigate. Indeed, it’s rare to explore much of the surface of any given planet simply because there’s SO much surface that it’s easy to get lost. If you find something interesting, plop down a craftable marker, or, believe me, you’ll never find it again.

Technically, “No Man’s Sky” is really impressive for what it aims to be. All the procedural generation is fast and seamless, though the engine does have some quirks relating to Level of Detail, with environments and objects visibly shifting around if approached too quickly. Likewise, there are moments where the game’s frame rate will grater for no good reason. Another technical oddity is the fact that the PC version of the game doesn’t include native Xinput support, but instead employs Valve’s SteamInput API to map controller buttons, complete with the correct GUI icons. Unfortunately, some of the controller mapping choices are less than ideal, and changing them within SteamInput is incredibly cumbersome and difficult to do.

Over the years, “No Man’s Sky” has also gained a ton of functionality via major updates and content drops. However, this constant drip-feed of new stuff being added to the experience shouldn’t come as a surprise, since “No Man’s Sky” is secretly a Live Service game. Yeah, it’s a low-key Live Service game that isn’t particularly pushy about its premium currency AND that is playable offline, but it’s a Live Service nonetheless. However, in spite of being a quasi-online experience that would be much more fun with a full team of friends, the vaunted multi-player features are still quite minimal, focusing mainly on completing procedurally generated missions from a specific multi-player hub area or the entire community working independently to meet various cumulative thresholds. Neither of these cooperative elements are particularly engaging, and are, in fact, quite disruptive to following the game’s variety of main missions and side missions, none of which can be completed as part of a group. Yes, the overhauled multi-player features make it much easier for players to find each other in such a vast, procedural universe than at the game’s launch, but once players do meet up, there’s still nothing productive for them to do together.

Story
“No Man’s Sky” is not a game with strong writing or a gripping narrative. Indeed, there are only a handful of important characters, and they’re all left rather vague and undeveloped. Instead, “No Man’s Sky” tries – and succeeds – at translating the majesty and scope of the universe into an emergent kind of story. Having ONLY that kind of emergent story, however, didn’t work particularly well at launch, leaving players feeling rudderless and directionless in a vast, uncaring universe, so over the past 8 years of its life, Hello Games has added two critical mission paths to the game that do a good job of steering the player toward every facet of gameplay while simultaneously setting up some grand mysteries to unravel.

It’s very hard to discuss the overarching plot of “No Man’s Sky’s” critical mission paths while remaining out of spoiler territory. However, these paths will lead the player to contact with various cryptic aliens as well as a network of vast, space-station-sized machines known as the Atlas that serve an unknown purpose. Unraveling the mysteries of the game’s universe is an enjoyable experience, while the vague writing and unimposing narrative allow for “No Man’s Sky” to mimic science-fiction touchstones, like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in tone, combining some of the weirder and fringier aspects of sci-fi with more conventional and tropey sci-fi, like “BattleStar Galactica” and “Star Trek.” The result is a sci-fi universe that feels familiar, yet unique, which is really hard to pull off.

While “No Man’s Sky” is technically an ‘infinite’ Sandbox that players could just fiddle around in forever, from a more practical perspective it does have a narrative end. This ending, for me at least, came after roughly 60 hours of gameplay. Additional side-questing took me up to the 80 hour mark… and waiting for the other MJ Crew members to finish saw me continuing to fiddle around with base-building and random exploration up to the 120 hour mark. But, honestly, once the main missions and developer-designed side missions are over, the infinite procedural content simply doesn’t hold up enough to capture my interest indefinitely.

Gameplay
“No Man’s Sky” is, at its heart, a Survival Crafting game. While the player starts off with an upgradable space suit/jetpack combo and multi-tool, and quickly finds their first starship, every piece of technology in the game can be upgraded in a variety of ways. There are expansion slot upgrades that add extra capacity to bigger technologies so they player has more room to add their own mods over time. Each dedicated subsystem within one of the overarching tech devices, however, can only support three mods, requiring the player to pick and choose, replacing older mods with better performing ones. However, there are a handful of rule-breaking mods that can be crafted (never found or bought) that arbitrarily don’t follow the three-mod maximum, which can be a bit confusing.

Upgrades and mods are crafted from, naturally, resources, which can be mined, harvested or otherwise collected from planetary environments. Once a player has accumulated some in-game money, called Units, it’s possible to buy nearly everything from Galactic Trade Terminals instead, however, the available merchandise in a given star system is random and unpredictable, whereas planets can be scanned from space to at least give a hint about what valuable natural resources can be found there.

In addition to the crafting aspect, there’s the survival aspect… which is actually entirely optional. Indeed, “No Man’s Sky” has quite the variety of granular difficulty and QoL settings, and one of my personal favorites was the one that completely turns off the need to keep recharging life support systems with oxygen or hazard protection systems with their fuel sources. With the settings I chose, once my technology was built and installed, it would run indefinitely without pestering me for fuel every two minutes (aside from starship engine systems). I likewise disabled ‘breakage,’ meaning that my built tech and mod systems never randomly fell apart after warping or getting into a shoot-out with hostile robots. Personally, I don’t think I would have enjoyed “No Man’s Sky” as much as I did if I’d have been forced to babysit all of my technology to the degree that is the game’s default or – heaven forbid – the ‘challenging’ settings that make the survival elements even more intrusive and overweening.

Once you have your bearings and the beginnings of a modded-out space suit, multi-tool, and ship, what is a lone astronaut to do? Look around, of course! In its original state, the primary gameplay mechanic in “No Man’s Sky” was scanning things with the space suit’s visor: Animal, vegetable, mineral – it doesn’t matter, it all can be scanned and uploaded to Hello Games’ massive database of discovered objects. Some players – specifically Chris – can find infinite joy in just scanning things and giving them stupid names before uploading them to Hello Games’ database, but I was never particularly intrigued by this gameplay mechanic, since minerals and plants all cough up the same handful of resources when mined, while animals are mostly just there to look interesting… though there is a rather opaque and not-very-well-tutorialized farming system that allows players to cultivate select varieties of alien plants and a wide variety of wildlife in order to obtain unique resources used for crafting or cooking… Unfortunately, the cooking system is also opaque and not-very-well-tutorialized, meaning that a lot of players – myself included – will either not realize it’s there or just ignore it.

For me, the meat-and-potatoes that kept me engaged with “No Man’s Sky’s” Sandbox were unravelling the narrative-tied mysteries of the game’s critical mission path, upgrading all of my equipment to be top-tier, and a mechanic released in the game’s 8th major content drop: Freighters.

Freighters are massive starships that can house numerous normal starships and a fully-functional (and fully modular) player base. And best of all, players can simply fly into any freighter they come across in space and offer to buy it from its current captain. Owning a freighter then further unlocks the ability to recruit alien frigate ships, which can be dispatched from the freighter to run the game’s equivalent of daily missions, bringing back tons of Units and rare resources in the process. I had gotten a rough start building a base on the first Paradise Planet I discovered when I purchased my first freighter… and building a stationary base on a planet I was destined to leave far behind just felt pointless once I was at the helm of a mobile base.

Of course, there are still ways for players to engage in static locations, such as becoming the overseer for an alien settlement and helping them fend off attacks from hostile robots while building their economy, happiness, and population. Plus base-building on planets allows for a lot more variety than freighter bases… though this variety is something of a double-edged sword, as it’s necessary to unlock blueprints for each and every buildable thing by exchanging Salvaged Data Modules… and even after 120 hours, I still haven’t unlocked all the buildable stuff.

All in all, though, “No Man’s Sky” is a very busy game with lots of interlocking systems working both visibly and under the hood. Players are free to interact with the three major alien races in the galaxy, learn their languages one word at a time, and run missions for them and their guilds. It’s also possible to join up with space pirates and become a raider, attacking civilian freighter fleets and stealing their stuff. Maybe a player wants to become a salvager who explores derelict freighters overrun by “Alien”-style biological horrors.

It’s… a LOT to take in, and a lot to experience, and while it’s all enjoyable and interesting the first few times, the limits of the game’s procedural generation do eventually wear through to the surface. So, while it is incredibly fun, interesting, unique and engaging while it’s new, “No Man’s Sky” does suffer from repetition, and ultimately ends in a rather dull, repetitive loop of the same stuff over and over.

Overall
“No Man’s Sky” is a massive, breathtaking space Sandbox that does an amazing job at giving the illusion of the infinity of space, while at the same time couching itself in enough familiar sci-fi tropes to be accessible and immediately interesting. Hello Games promised us the sun, moon, and stars when they released the game in its unfinished state in 2016, but sitting here in 2024 after 8 years of constant updates and overhauls, it feels like they almost delivered upon every one of those promises. Almost, is the key word, here, as, while “No Man’s Sky” is impressive in its scope, interlocking gameplay systems, and guided narrative, it still falls flat as a multi-player experience, with team members typically pursuing their own goals completely independently from each other in completely different planets or star systems. While I would definitely recommend the up-to-date version of “No Man’s Sky” to any sci-fi fans out there who want to experience the wonders of space exploration, I would not recommend it to a group of friends who enjoy experiencing stories or thrilling gameplay moments together.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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