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No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update

No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update

Written by Sean Colleli on 12/9/2016 for PC  
More On: No Man's Sky

I’ve discovered that playing No Man’s Sky is a lot easier, psychologically, if I imagine that I’m astronaut Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s novel The Martian. You really have to deal with this game using Watney’s unique blend of sardonic weariness, snarky sarcasm, and, above all his “F-you” determination in the face of long odds and certain disaster. This is easier since Hello Games added the Foundation Update, which lets you build bases, grow crops (botany!), buy space freighters, and generally do a whole lot more exploring and crafting than you could with what was released at launch. Make no mistake, though: No Man’s Sky still isn’t what I would call fun in the traditional sense. Whether intentionally by developer Hello Games or not—I surmise a bit of both—the game will still fight you at every turn with a litany of small, cumulative inconveniences, bugs, and otherwise head-scratching game design decisions.

Once you accept that No Man’s Sky intends to be mildly, consistently a pain in the butt from moment to moment, it’s easier to play. This is still not the game we were sold on, one that you wander through breathlessly, gaping at all the amazing things to see and do. This is a game that you fight, a game you struggle against. The Foundation update doesn’t fix this game by a long shot, but having more nuts and bolts to play with does let me appreciate what No Man’s Sky is at this moment in time.

I’m not going to bury the lede by rehashing the questionable marketing tactics of Hello Games and the insane amount of hype generated by them. Suffice to say the game we got in August was essentially an early-access alpha with a $60 price sticker. The technical accomplishment of generating a literal galaxy of stars and planets using algorithms was pretty impressive, but there wasn’t much to do in that galaxy. The gameplay loop consisted of mining space rocks so you could sell them for money so you could make your inventory bigger so you could mine even more space rocks. That loop is more or less the same after the update, but now there’s an actual use for all that loot.

The first thing you’ll notice booting up the game is that there are two new modes: Creative and Survival. Creative lets you base-build and explore to your heart’s content with unlimited resources. Survival ratchets up the hostility of pirates, makes resources scarcer, and turns environmental hazards and storms into a nightmare. I’m sure there are gamers out there who would relish that challenge, but in my opinion No Man’s Sky is annoying enough as it is, so I stuck with my pre-existing Normal mode save. None of the update’s features are right in your face when you start, aside from the quick-access menu that lets you recharge equipment without having to page through your inventory.

Having something to invest these minerals into makes the game far more compelling, albeit in a “don’t think about it too hard” kind of way. Once you locate an abandoned habitat you can set up shop and build very basic structures using common elements. The base-building controls are surprisingly intuitive. The base comes equipped with a portal that lets you—and your ship, inexplicably—warp instantaneously back to the last handful of space stations you visited, which cuts down on travel time immensely. To actually do something with your base however you need to seek out and recruit specialists. These guys can be found hanging out at the space stations in each star system. While this new feature is like water in a procedurally generated desert, it’s also where the game’s annoyances start to reappear and accumulate.

Each station is controlled by one of the three species-specific factions in the game: the cybernetic wannabe Daft Punk Korvax, the warlike “low-rent Klingons” Vy’keen, or the industrious reptilian Gek. Gek specialists are farmers and architects, the Korvax are naturally scientists, and the Vy’keen are—what else?—weapon specialists. There are only two random hirable specialists at each station, so you can visit several star systems (running through expensive warp drive fuel as you go) looking for a scientist, but continually running into farmers and arms dealers instead. These space stations are the mercantile hub for an entire solar system; I feel like they should be bustling with activity and I should be able to hire an entire crew at just one station.

When you do get your base staffed with eccentric aliens, you run into another issue: building the upgrade tree. My farmer, for example, might need glass for a greenhouse module, but to get glass I need to construct a specific material for my scientist, but first my scientist needs something I can only get from my architect, so I have to run an errand for him. It’s like playing the convoluted trade sequence from a Zelda game over and over again. Once I had a sizeable farm for growing my own rare elements and a bunch of tech blueprints it was pretty sweet, but getting there was a slog.

Every task is some vague fetch quest. My specialist sends me off to gather an obscure plant or rare element that can only be found in a toxic or freezing environment on a planet two star systems over, or they want a randomly generated loot item, so I’m wandering around a planet opening treasure chests until I find that elusive Gek Charm. It boils down to so much busywork and wandering about, to the point where I was hoarding innocuous loot for fear that I’d need those Vy’keen daggers later (spoiler: I did). This brings us to the notorious No Man’s Sky inventory, and here is where I’ll get into how this game could be improved with future updates.

The inventory was the only feature in No Man’s Sky that was profoundly broken at launch. YouTuber Noah Caldwell-Gervais said it best in his meditative review: “Everyone complains about the inventory and with good reason, because the inconvenience is both arbitrary and counter-productive. The scarcity is not environmental. You are surrounded by mind-boggling riches every step. It’s just that you’ve got these little tiny pockets in your suit and you can’t carry s---.”

Hello Games addressed this problem to some extent with this update, but they’ve just made it more convoluted when it should be simpler. You still have to spend inordinate amounts of money on incremental suit inventory slots and bigger and roomier ships, but you can also build storage crates onto your base. These crates are only a half-solution; you have to work through several fetch quests before you get the blueprint to make one. Once you do, it has a measly five inventory slots. I uttered a dry, bemused chuckle when I saw that. These crates are easily three meters on a side, and while each slots stacks 1,000 of an element, five slots is still too small. You can build up to 10 of these crates, so you end up with a row of what looks like giant space washing machines in your base, each storing different loot you have to memorize and walk up to in order to retrieve.

This solution is, at best, a Band-Aid. I hesitate to say Hello Games has intentionally delivered a backhanded solution after all the fans complained about the inventory, but that’s what it feels like. The storage crates are a lot of work and inconvenience for such marginal benefit. If Hello Games truly wants to alleviate this issue the inventory system needs a complete overhaul. Upgrading your suit and ship shouldn’t be so ludicrously expensive, and tech upgrades shouldn’t take up valuable inventory slots at all. I should be able to craft one giant storage crate with a hundred slots and transfer loot between my three inventories at will.

The addition of star freighters also doesn’t completely fix the inventory. A starting freighter will run you roughly eight million space bucks and it can haul a decent amount of cargo. Some of the interior can even be customized and staffed like your planetary base. I’ll admit, I got tingles the first time I coasted into the hangar of a freighter and hopped out of my little starship to go have a chat with the captain. Once you get past the novelty, however, you realize that freighters are just another glorified storage bin.

Starting freighters have around 11 to 13 inventory slots that stack 1,000 units like the storage crates. But to access those stored goods you need to land inside the freighter, walk up three flights of stairs, and ask the captain to access your supplies, like you’re checking out a big, cosmic safety deposit box. The kicker is that, as of this update, storage and redundant base-building is all freighters can do. You can’t pilot it, engage in epic capital ship battles or even warp it system to system; you need to summon it from the ground or a space station to just make the thing move. Hopefully these things will be added later because having a star destroyer is kind of pointless if it’s just a giant pantry.

More of a problem than half-baked features is that No Man’s Sky is still terrible at giving you a sense of purpose or even direction. So much is still vague, confounding, or flat-out obtuse. I had to do a lot of hunting on the No Man’s Sky subreddit to make heads or tails of some aspects of the update, and I actually had to use my phone’s notepad app to write down what elements and doodads my base staff wanted me to go hunting for. Skyrim's came out five years ago; there’s no excuse for No Man’s Sky to mismanage quest info like this. The starmap is still a pain to navigate and it’s light on useful info as well. I don’t care if a solar system has a yellow G-type star, I care about what faction owns the space station there and what elements are present on each planet.

The only actual log you have is still the fairly useless diary of systems, planets, and life that inhabit each. If I’ve visited a planet, I want an efficient breakdown of all the stuff I can find there and the ability to mark that system on my map for quick, easy travel. A clearly segmented line that indicates my path through the galaxy would be a big help. Why not flesh out the mostly useless travel diary with more practical info and link it directly to the starmap? This would establish an at-a-glance database of all the systems I’ve seen before, and let me warp back to them through my base’s portal at will. That’s one crucial difference between a good open world game and a tedious one: walking a path the first time is joyous exploration, but walking it the tenth or hundredth time to sell more space rocks is a chore.

There are still miscellaneous technical problems. At one point I couldn’t transfer warp cells out of a storage crate until I rebooted the game. Some rare resources can’t be grown or farmed but are necessary for the most common and useful crafting recipes. The game still insists on using that pace-smashing letterbox effect whenever you meet an alien or hit a milestone. You can still accidentally jump out of your ship, clip straight through a mountain and fall into the abyss if your ship’s autopilot decides to park right up against the scenery. Making the ships handle better than a refrigerator would be a good idea, as would letting players fly close to the freaking ground and even crash if they want to. A top-down camera view would make landing so much easier, as once you punch that “land” button it’s still an automated process that screws up with frustrating regularity.

In some ways it feel like Hello Games has missed the point with this update. They fixed some technical concerns and dumped a bunch of busywork into the game, but bases and starships are very short on meaning. It’s not enough to have something to do—in a game about the universe, at the very least, your job must have a greater purpose, your quest must be fulfilling.

The game is only better by virtue of having more stuff to do before you realize that there still really isn’t a point. No Man’s Sky still has the same insulting ending. To spend so many hours grinding toward the center of the galaxy only to be dumped into a new, functionally identical galaxy makes me feel like I've been trolled. For someone who claims to be so steeped in classic science fiction literature, Sean Murray did a terrible job writing one for his passion game. As I listened to the fourth-wall breaking characters Nada and Polo and the Atlas about how their universe might all just be a computer simulation, I got some of that old existential Heinlein-esque wonder, but it never goes beyond surface-level navel-gazing. No Man’s Sky needs a real “My God, it’s full of stars” epiphany at the end if it ever hopes to aspire to its literary heritage.

There are still very few things of awe that are genuinely cool to stumble upon. No crashed freighters stuffed with riches, no enormous creatures, no extensive ruins or alien temples, no narrative theme to the galaxy. No Man’s Sky still feels largely indifferent to the player’s presence and more than just a touch passive-aggressive. That might be the case in the real universe, but that isn’t how you make your space video game compelling.

It’s difficult to summarize my feelings about No Man’s Sky and its Foundation update. I’m conflicted. I feel like all I can do is complain about this game, and yet this new update has me compelled to play it every night like nothing in the initial release ever did. It took me roughly a week to see everything new that Hello Games has added—and that’s disappointing. But in that week I also more than doubled my playtime from around 14 hours to over 30. I still feel that No Man’s Sky falls far short of its asking price. Hello Games sold what amounted to an early-access alpha for full price, all the while insinuating that the game would include far more content than it actually did.

Regardless, we finally have our answer: No Man’s Sky has not been abandoned, and Hello Games has laid the foundation for grander things to come. No Man’s Sky feels less like a proof-of-concept and more like an actual video game now, albeit a sorely incomplete one. If you took that painful, shameful full-retail plunge back in August like I did, No Man’s Sky might just be worth another week of your time. Whether it will ever be worth any more than that, only time and space will tell.

No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update No Man's Sky - A deep dive into the Foundation Update

About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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