action-adventure games

No Man’s Sky Review: An Emotional Roller Coaster

No Man’s Sky: a game with 18 quintillion planets, all of which are unique and fully explorable.

It’s quite the tagline, and thanks to some extremely impressive tech demos and convention appearances it’s little wonder that No Man’s Sky has generated an unprecedented amount of hype over the past year.

To put the scale of this thing into perspective: the number of grains of sand on the Earth is estimated to be around seven quintillion. That’s not only beaches — think all the world’s deserts, too. Now double it, and add in a few quintillion more for good measure.

That’s how many individual planets there are in No Man’s Sky.

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But, of course, scale doesn’t necessarily mean depth of gameplay. Close parallels can be drawn between No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous, which is similarly gigantic but has been criticized as having gameplay that feels a mile wide but an inch deep. (At least during early stages of development.)

So let’s get down to business. While the PC community chewed its fingers down to the bone waiting for the Steam release on August 12, we’ve joined the legion of PS4 players who are already planet hopping. Here’s our review of No Man’s Sky, and a tour of the emotional roller coaster you’ll be on during the first hour of play.

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That Minecraft Feeling

Remember that feeling of giddy excitement and curiosity you had the very first time you played Minecraft?

Of course you do. We all do. It was one of those seminal moments in gaming for many of us, and we can happily confirm that the first 10 minutes of No Man’s Sky lives up to that exceptional sense of wonder given to us by its predecessor.

And, like Minecraft, very little is explained to you in No Man’s Sky. You’re stranded in a strange new world, and left to figure things out for yourself.

This leads to…

Utter Confusion

What am I doing? Where am I supposed to go? What’s all this stuff? Am I supposed to collect it?

Who knows. Certainly not you.

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But slowly and surely, you start to put all the pieces together and figure out how to repair your semi-broken ship. You’ll see what’s needed, and begin setting out across your own unique starting planet to gather it all.

And that’s when you’ll be hit by the first sense that you’re really, really small.

Abject Wonder

The sheer expanse of the game slowly starts to dawn on you, which comes with a wave of both wonder and terror. Much like staring out at our own Milky Way here in the real world, there’s something a little unsettling about realizing just how miniscule the scale of you and your operations are in context.

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And just as you get to grips with the enormity of your own world, your mind will creep back to the fact that there are 17,999,999,999,999,999,999 more floating around above your head.

And you’ll get to explore a tiny proportion of them …

… right after you fix this stupid spaceship.

Boredom

The grind is strong with No Man’s Sky, and once the initial wonder has worn off that’s when ennui sets in. (It does start to become obvious that it’s all algorithmically generated after a while).

You’ll plod around mindlessly collecting … well, stuff. Will you need the stuff later? Can the stuff be traded? At this stage, it’s a mystery.

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Despite there being a lot of stuff — some of it living and roaming around — there’s not a whole lot to interact with. And very little interacts with you. One of the problems here is that it’s quite easy, and not a lot threatens or interrupts your endless grind.

Except the “survival” aspect. Which brings us onto …

Annoyance

No Man’s Sky is billed as both an exploration and survival game. Unfortunately, in its present state the latter gets in the way of the former.

The exploration aspect is hugely enjoyable and very thrilling on a deep level, so it’s somewhat annoying to have all the fun jarringly interrupted by the constant need to top up your carbon or whatever. It gets mundane fast, and never eases up.

The exceptionally tiny inventory is also frustrating, and you’ll find yourself grinding to a halt often as you have to spend a few minutes rejigging everything in your quest to get spacebound.

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Once that ship is up and running, however …

Mind-Blown.

That sense of excitement and wonder you felt at the very start of the game? That’s nothing compared to the emotional suckerpunch that hits you when you leave your starting planet for the first time.

The sense of scale really is every bit as awesome, in the truest sense of the word, as has been hyped for all these months. It’s an unprecedented marvel, and to think that it was achieved by an indie game design team of just 10 people is nothing short of staggering.

It may not be living up to the hype right now — and really, how could anything live up to the hype that has surrounded No Man’s Sky? — but there’s a real sense that the excitement for the very idea and potential of this game is justified.

No Man’s Sky: Closing Thoughts

Typical first-day bugs abound. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and at times it feels more like a tech demo than an actual game. A better balance (and more variance) in gameplay elements is needed, and perhaps slightly more structure would help.

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But as you first break through the atmosphere and experience first-hand the scale and beauty of No Man’s Sky, you’ll smile to yourself.

This is probably going to change everything.

Have you had the chance to play it yet, or had you eagerly awaited August 12 for the PC launch? Do you agree that it’s a game changer, or see it as simply a weak Minecraft-in-space?

Share your thoughts in the comments below. See you at the center of the galaxy!

Learning From The Best: Action-Adventure Games

Zelda in Ocarina of Time

If there’s one video game genre that can be difficult to explain in a nutshell, it’s action-adventure (AA). This genre is broad and often combines elements of other games, making it arguably the most diverse genre.

Two games that feel completely different can both fall into the action-adventure category, as you’ll see from our examples. Two common traits of games in this hybrid genre are: a) the problem-solving nature of adventure games and b) reflex-testing gameplay of action titles.

The following are elements that make our favorite AA titles so compelling.

1. Game Mechanics That Build Upon Themselves

Every designer knows that gameplay, not graphics or story, is the heart of AA games. Since these kinds of games tend to last many hours, you’ll want to keep players hooked from start to finish by giving them diverse ways to interact with the world. Introducing new play mechanics, weapons, and abilities that build upon those you have introduced previously will keep your players curious and entertained.

Despite being two decades old, a great example of this is the classic Super Metroid. This game is famous for its challenging gameplay that combines exploration, shooting, and puzzles. The introduction of new weapons and abilities that allow you to access new areas is the reason similar games are now referred to as a “Metroidvania.”

2. Enemies That Don’t Get Old

Enemies have always been one of the most important elements of a game, especially in action-adventure. We’ve all played a game that became dull simply because it kept tossing the same bad guys our way. If you’re making a game where players will find themselves facing some form of enemies often, there needs to be variety so things don’t get dull.

One game that did a good job of this is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. While we admit that most of the regular Uruks can be killed in the same way, it’s the leaders that stand out. Bosses like the Warchiefs have their own strengths and weaknesses that you can learn by interrogating other Uruk leaders. This means that you are forced to approach them in different ways depending on if they’re vulnerable to fire, fear wild creatures, flee when weak, etc.

3. A Compelling Story

There are acclaimed AA games that don’t emphasize characters or deliver a captivating story. However, the best AA titles charmed us every step of the way because we cared about the main character and their goals. The heart of story is conflict – specifically characters enaging in conflict—e.g Man versus Nature, Man versus Man, Man versus Society. Allow your player to control a character—or characters—who must overcome obstacles. String those obstacles together sequentially and with increasing difficulty to generate a compelling story. These are fundamentals that will keep your player engaged to the end.

In addition to a providing a great world and solid gameplay, Red Dead Redemption delivers an excellent story. The more you explore the Wild West and its colorful cast of characters, the more you grow attached to John Marston and his desire to put the past behind him. The jaw-dropping ending in this game is a huge plus as well (no spoilers here).

4. Fun Places To Explore

Good AA titles commonly allow players to explore different areas as part of adventure. Nobody wants to run around the sameforest for countless hours—eventually we’d like to see caves, towns, mountains, etc. Great action-adventure games also make sure that those different places deliver something valuable – both to continuing the story and providing utility to the player. This of course means that the level design also had to be on point.

A great example of this is Ocarina of Time—a game that needs no introduction. From deserts and lakes to icy caverns and forests, you see a good amount of environments in Link’s first 3D adventure. Ocarina of Time’s world is compelling because all the areas feel like they’re truly connected and are part of the same place. The fact that you unlock new objects as you explore and that those objects provide you with new capabilities make for a true classic in game design.

Many Paths & Choices To Take

Telling a story linearly is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there’s alibrary of good action-adventure titles that give players a single path to follow and are still extremely compelling. That said, games that also provide a variety of side-quests and objectives can make for an even more engaging structure.

The Grand Theft Auto series delivers on this premise—e.g. the player can follow the main story and can also go on a great variety of side quests and activities. Likewise, 2015’s MGS V: The Phantom Pain is a good example to check out. Kojima’s latest entry in the series received praise from fans and critics alike for offering missions that can be approached in a variety of ways. Allowing your players to solve problems in a variety of ways will satisfy your players’ natural desire for autonomy and further connect them to your game and characters.

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