Flat Frontiers – A No Man’s Sky feature

Good afternoon, dear readers! Welcome to my first “proper” blog post in quite some time. As evidenced by the title, I will be joining the thousands of online opinion slingers in talking about Hello Games’ controversial 2016 release No Man’s Sky.

There’s not much point digging too deeply into the controversy surrounding the marketing, hype and subsequently disappointing launch of No Man’s Sky in 2016: Anyone who has a passing interest in games or uses the internet will be – at least peripherally – aware of either the outrage, the resulting memes, or both. To summarise for those out of the loop: No Man’s Sky over-promised in marketing and under-delivered upon release, with many lies or half-truths told eventually being uncovered. The story is complex and has been covered by everyone and their mother – for my personal recommendation, check out the Internet Historian video.

Since the craziness of summer 2016, Hello Games have stuck by their game and added many promised features – such as base-building, multiplayer, animal companions – as well as additional content updates, graphical overhauls and a procedurally generated number of bug fixes. Much like Rare’s Sea of Thieves, which I wrote about last year, No Man’s Sky has clearly been a labour of love for the studio behind it and Hello Games have redeemed themselves in many people’s eyes.

I picked the game up during 2020’s lockdown and played for a few months in both single-player and multiplayer. After close to a year’s break, and with the arrival of the new Frontiers update I decided to reinstall the game to have a look.

With Frontiers players can now receive distress signals from villages in need as they travel the cosmos. You get one freebie upon login, and more can be purchased with collectible Navigation Data at any space station if you want to shop around a bit for a specific planet to call home. This initial interaction is nice and easy to do, although at 5 Navigation Data a pop the new distress beacons can require some grind unless you save and reload the game to get more use out of them. Still, through some mucking about and system hopping I eventually found an unclaimed settlement I wanted to settle down in.

When you find your settlement it is initially under attack by pesky Sentinels, which you must beat back with the game’s lukewarm combat. You shoot the slow hovering robots, they shoot you back, and you probably don’t take much damage if your shields are well upgraded. I understand that combat is far from the core focus of No Man’s Sky but upon coming back I’ve realised just how boring it is, an unchallenging means-to-an-end system. You fight off the Sentinels (although I didn’t in my first one – none appeared, a bug that HG have since fixed) and claim the vacant town. And here come the gripes, of which I have a few.

I’m starting with the most minor gripe; the rating system. In No Man’s Sky your multi-tools, ships, freighters and upgrades are rated on a “class” system, with C being the lowest and S being the highest. Settlements sort of follow this system; every Settlement I found unclaimed was C-class. Sod that, I thought, I want to find a good A or S class settlement; so off I went exploring the cosmos in pursuit of a higher class one, much like one would when looking for better ships or multi-tools. However, as it turns out, Settlements all start at C-class, but the game doesn’t tell you this. Unlike tools or ships, which start at an initial class then upgradeable, all settlements in Frontiers start at C-class and increase in class through things like number of citizens, their happiness, and productivity. So that hour or two flying about looking for a better leg-up to start were entirely wasted.

The next, more major issue is the timers. While some of these have since been reduced by Hello Games, nearly everything involved with settlement management comes with a timer attached. This did little to endear me to the new update; however, it did a fantastic job of reminding me it’s been a while since I played Warframe (a game known for its long timers on crafting an other activities). I supply building materials for a project, and the game goes “Cheers – now, off you fuck!” and slap a few hours timer on to inform me how long it would be until I could do anything else construction wise. Factor in that each new building had about 3-4 stages and you’d be waiting a day or so per building (at time of writing, the timers seem to be about 20 minutes per stage – a big improvement). Occasionally citizens will have disputes to settle, or ideas for expeditions and you’ll have to come back for those – I believe these launched as unmarked, random timers between about half an hour to two hours but are now sign posted by another cooldown timer – useful, but no less annoying.

While we’re on the subject of buildings, the other major issue with that system is lack of choice. Players don’t get to choose where the building goes or what it might look like – the game just plonks it in an available space around the settlement until you reach whatever the cap is for buildings. Additionally, settlements don’t actually let the player use their normal building system – which has had a great UI overhaul and a TON of new Frontiers themed building blocks added – to build anything within the settlement limits. There is a fiddly way around this involving placing a normal Base Computer nearby: However, I really have to question what Hello Games were thinking when they added the blocks that allow you to build to match your town, but don’t let you build in it by default!

The final nail in the coffin for me is the villagers. Residents of your settlement will wander round with little thought-bubble type things displaying what they’re doing, their mood etc. which is a nice little touch. You can converse with them too, but they only give you one or two sentences of repetitive dialogue which leaves them all feeling very two-dimensional superficial, like bland space-themed Sims. I feel nothing when I’m called back to defend the village from more Sentinels, or a couple of my numbers die on an expedition, because the game does nothing to endear me to any of the inhabitants. This system in particular would be a fantastic opportunity for some low-stakes emergent storytelling, but there’s just no purpose to a lot of it.

While I admire Hello Games for their dedication to the game, and the years of support they’ve given it, I can’t help but feel the problem with the Frontiers update stem from larger problems at the core of the game. When No Man’s Sky launched over five years ago, it had very few interesting features and was little more than a very dull, basic exploration game/ pretty screenshot generator (case in point – the featured image on this post). While there has been a vast amount of content added to the game, some of it is lacking sorely in depth. Systems like the Companion taming and breeding have some complexities, but don’t really affect regular gameplay. Similarly, the settlement generates you a little bit of resources every 24 hours depending on where your claimed village is located, but otherwise has very little benefit. The lack of player agency in terms of buildings and citizen interaction, the two things that should be the core focus of this update, make the settlement management fall flat. Like Sea of Thieves, No Man’s Sky is a game where you often have to pick a task or goal and go make your own fun. Unlike Sea of Thieves, which has increasingly diverse gameplay that will give you plenty of tall tales to tell by the end a session, No Man’s Sky almost always comes back to the casual exploration and occasional bit of resource grinding. Many of the added systems seem like a fleeting distraction from – or in Frontiers’ case, a begrudging interruption of – the “fly round, find pretty vista, take a picture” gameplay loop that the game prioritises.

It’s all well and good Hello Games adding more Stuff to Do, but it’d be nice to see some more fleshed out, interesting things added; whether or not that can be done without entirely changing the core of the game is not something I can answer. Ultimately, while I can and do enjoy No Man’s Sky as an occasionally relaxing, occasionally boring exploration game, in many ways it’s still suffering from the same problems that it did at launch. The game is as wide as an ocean – or rather, as wise as galaxies – but only as deep as a puddle.

So that’s it for now, dear readers! Thanks for reading my (overly long) thoughts on No Man’s Sky and its latest update. If you have any interesting thoughts or counters to what I’ve written, please feel free to hit me up in the comments below, or on my Twitter. Have a good day and take care!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s