challenging 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!

Tips For Keeping Gamers Challenged But Not Overwhelmed

Bloodborn screenshot

Difficulty has always been an interesting subject when talking about video games. Some people have no problem playing a single-player campaign on Easy or Normal mode. A lighter challenge they can enjoy the game’s’ storyline and world without running into a barrier or getting slowed down by the gameplay. Others, however, cannot gain satisfaction from a game if it doesn’t test their skills and push them to get better and better.

This is the reason gamers today still have respect for classic titles like Super Metroid, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and Battletoads. In fact, some of the most popular titles today are admired for being more difficult than the average game. This includes big-budget titles like the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne as well as indie favorites like Super Meat Boy, Cave Story, and Braid.

But for all these “hard” games that became successful, there were plenty that did the one thing that should never be done— frustrate the player into submission. The problem that every designer faces is finding a balance of difficulty that leaves the gameplay demanding yet rewarding. The following are a few ways you can avoid over-punishing your players to the point where they’re no longer having fun.

Frequent Save Points

There’s nothing more intense than working through a tough room or fighting a boss while knowing full well that if you die, you’re restarting pretty far back. While this can help suck you into the game even more, it can also serve to annoy players since they’ll have to repeatedly do the same thing over and over if they keep dying.

Samus in tube in Super Metroid 7

But with enough save points, players don’t have to facepalm every time this happens. The best part about saving is that it’s usually optional (unless you have an auto-saving feature), which means players who think they’re good enough can skip it. The ones who don’t want to spend time traversing a tortuous corridor just to reach the boss that keeps killing them don’t have to because there’s save point just outside the room.

Let Players Keep Things After Death

For some gamers, losing tons of times is all part of the process and not a waste of time at all. Each death helps them figure out what they’re doing wrong, bringing them one step closer to adapting and overcoming the challenge. For other players this isn’t enough.

They hate the idea of losing anything they earned. For example, you gain a bunch of experience points exploring a dungeon but then suffer a dumb, careless death and lose it all. It can get annoying never feeling like you’re progressing or advancing your character. Thus it might not be a bad idea allowing players to hold on to items, currency, etc. even after they die.

Don’t Slow Them Down

If there’s one thing all of us gamers have in common, it’s the urgent desire to jump back in after failure. We recognize our defeat and are ready to try another option that may be the key to overcoming the current obstacle blocking our way. The sooner we get back into it and see if we learned from our mistake, the better. It’s the reason why long tutorials are frowned upon; we just want to play!

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