Notes On A Patch: Is No Man's Sky a better game now?
Back in September, when I was deep in the throes of my obsessional relationship with the peculiar No Man's Sky, I wrote a Supporter post describing my dream patch notes. Clearly, when so many people have chosen to invest their misplaced personal anguish into the game, the spluttered response would be, "Well, pffpffpffff, how about NOT [MAKE A GAME UNLIKE THE GAME I WAS EXPECTING]," or some such. But rather than trying to look outraged, I hoped to lay down the details big and small that I'd want in order to improve a game which - despite all it lacked - had me in its hooks. So, now there's been a big update! How many of my wishes have been granted?
The troubling number of hours (I'd estimate maybe 100) I spent with a game that really wasn't very good came to an immediate end, as predicted, the moment I got my 48-slot ship. I bought it with my saved up hundred million units (I actually got it at a snip, making the moment all the more anti-climactic), switched No Man's Sky off, and hadn't loaded it since. Buying that ship was my invented end game. I was so woefully let down by the abysmal Atlas narrative that I lost any desire to follow a path to the centre of the universe/galaxy (the game really can't seem to make its mind up there). So instead I decided getting that biggest possible ship should be the target, and once it was met, well, there was nothing else to do beyond repeat the same actions I'd already repeated countless times. In truth, all this latest update needed to do to get me playing again was announce a 49-slot ship, but alas, it has not. Indeed, while it's introduced a bunch of new features and fixed a few old ones, it's managed to leave my tick list of desires horribly unticked.
It makes sense to go through my fantasy notes line by line and comment. So let's get started.
– Got around to recording a line where the AI says “Life support systems at 75%” instead of “Life support systems low” because they’re not low, they’re at 75%.
A strong start, perhaps somewhat boosted by my flippantly putting this one first in my list. They pretty much did this one. Not anything so expensive as having the lady say four different lines, but rather replace the one with the notion that the numbers are falling.
– Tweaked ship controls so you can now see where you’re going at all
A big fat nope. There does seem to have been a slight tweak in-atmosphere controls to let slowing down mean you make a sudden dip to lower ground, but it's next to useless. It's still absolutely abysmal, and this strikes me as the most egregious failure of the new update. Not being able to see what you're flying over, let alone not being able to stop or fly backward, are atrocious, and that it's still the case months on seems of huge concern. The bloody ship can fly backwards in space, why can't it do it just above the ground?! This, of all the things wrong with NMS, is what's bothering me the most in my return.
– Now allows crafting without requiring empty inventory spaces
NIIICCK-NURRRKKK. While there's some notion of stacking now available (although not much), it's still the case that to combine two items in your inventory that, when combined, form only one item, somehow takes a third inventory slot to perform. Again, this seems like such an obvious top-of-the-list item to fix in any update, adding a little combination window in the crafting pop-up and resolving the issue in the most obvious way possible.
– Interaction with aliens no longer takes an ice age before options appear
Oof, three in a row. You still have to watch the text crawl onto the screen, despite its not even being legible, and then another inexplicable pause, before it'll generously consider giving you the options of what to say. Even when trying to trade on stations, utterly needlessly making you sit through the same nothingness for no damned reason before you can find out they don't have any Omegon to sell you, or their colossal ship somehow only has 12 slots for storage.
– Updated procedural generation systems for following:
This one had sub-sections. In order then...
> Flying creatures now sometimes don’t have otter heads
They still always have otter heads.
> Not every single planet has the exact same giant shell plant thing, nor those green glowy light plants
They all still have the giant shell plant thing, but at least you can now harvest the ubiquitous glowy light plants!
> Added more than four possible ship designs to land in any one space station
> Buildings on planets now procedurally generated, rather than mystifyingly all built to one precise design
– Anomolies no longer charge you 50,000 units for blueprints you’ve already got
I've not checked this one out, but it does afford me the opportunity to mention that the game has decided to forget which blueprints you've already got, and now declares each and every one of them to be a new discovery. I thought, "Hooray! They've added some new ones!" until I realised that no, they've just messed up the bit where it told you you've already got it.
– You can now scan sodding stalactites
– Surface scans do anything at all, including identifying shop points
They do not. But impressively, they've managed to make them more dreadful! It will now tell you, wildly at random, of a key spot to head to for resource gathering! From outerspace you can see a symbol appear on a planet, in one specific spot, alerting you to a must-visit location that... oh wait, no, it randomly points you to one of the literally hundreds of thousands of mineable resources found on any one planet. For no reason at all. (However, they do now show you where occupy-able bases are located, thank God.)
– Aluminium in the ground now counts when mined
In all the playing I've done, I've not encountered aluminium for some reason. But I can confirm that underground gold now finally counts. Maybe a tiny tick?
– Sometimes there’s a star system not previously occupied by one of three alien races
– You can bloody well sell your previous starship because what the hell were we thinking?
Ludicrously, no, this is still impossible despite being a clanking great arse of a false impediment to progress. Even if they paid wildly discounted prices, RPG store style, it would at least be something more sensible than just abandoning a perfectly good ship worth 30,000,000 units to rust on a space station.
– Pirate ship loot no longer evaporates because that’s the stupidest thing we put in the game
As far as I've been able to tell, it evaporates far, far faster. Sigh.
– The Atlas storyline now finishes with something that makes the morosely repetitive journey even vaguely worthwhile, along with a hand-written apology to everyone who previously slogged through it
I'm still waiting by my letter flap.
– We’ve bothered to put the red/green dots on flora as well as fauna because we’ve decided we hate you slightly less
– Updated space combat so it’s something other than the worst thing ever implemented in a video game
They claim it's been "improved", but I absolutely cannot discern any improvement whatsoever, other than the photon cannon not being entirely worthless in fights. It's still cumbersome, frustrating and utterly impossible to out-manoeuvre enemy craft. It's bad to not improve it, but it's really bloody weird to say they have.
– Scans start immediately, not after a completely arbitrary two second delay
I'm not sure if I'm imagining it, but they do seem a little faster to complete. And scanning birdies (with otter heads) is now a cinch.
– Ship weapons can now mine giant floating lumps of rock on planets, like they can mine giant floating lumps of rock in space
A big wobbly no. And yet this one's another no-brainer. Of course it wouldn't gain the same results as meticulous land-based hand mining, but for a massive loss in yield it should obviously be possible.
– Five more maths puzzles
I've found the planets I've visited across multiple star systems to be dramatically less built upon than before. This could be coincidence or bad luck, or it might be by design, but I've yet to find anywhere to even offer me a maths puzzle. So I don't know.
– Some sort of point
Again, I ended flippantly, and as I've discussed at enormous length in many articles, I found lots of point in just exploring what is there, experimenting within it to find its limits, and enjoying the process of landing somewhere new and exploring. And that lasted a really long time. And then it stopped. And going back, despite being able to build and expand a base, recruit aliens to work in them, and buy my own freighter (with an inaccessible inventory seemingly designed to just make the game feel worse), nothing has actually been expanded in the core game. Other game modes have been added, of course, lifted straight from Minecraft's earlier additions to its vanilla mode of play, but neither offers the game what it most desperately lacks: purpose.
Obviously any update is welcome at this point, since Hello Games opted for that most sinister of anti-coverage tactics, The Silence. And as they heavily emphasise, this is apparently just the start of additions they say they're going to make. But for me, there's a real issue with such obvious, front-and-centre core issues either so far being ignored or even worsened: it makes the desire to return much harder to find. A game that had me play compellingly for a month just has no grip on me at all this time out, despite there being a little bit more for me to find in the vast emptiness of its universe. Aspects that I suffered through to get to the game I wanted to play before now just feel like reasons not to bother. Struggling to see the ground below my ship as I explore was a pain in the arse before, but an incentive to switch off and play something else today.
Hello are obviously in a pretty pickle at this point, presumably not feeling like they could survive the PR disaster of even considering charging for added content at this point, yet having to fund their staff, office, and sundry costs to produce these additions and fixes. "But the game sold a kerjillion copies, they're rich now!" Well, we've no idea how dreadful a deal they might have signed with Sony, and no clue about their financial situation before. Let alone that those riches would have otherwise been invested into the next project, and even more ideally, to be enjoyed by the people that earned them. No Man's Sky must be a bitter pill for Hello, a team trying to work on a game that at least a part of them must absolutely hate by this point, in an environment of hostility like no other. Hell, I wonder at even this article - would I be leveling such direct grievances at another 10-man indie team? But when you promise the universe, loudly, on the telly, for year after year, you rather invite the consequences of that. I don't envy them one bit. I still wait NMS to be a lot less annoying to play.
This update isn't enough to woo me back in, because any of the elements they've added are still hidden behind the frustrations that have worn me out. So why aren't they fixed? Well, as a rule I've learned over the years, if a fix seems obvious and simple to implement, then it likely isn't. Where I say, "Just give me the ability to hover or fly backward on planets!" they might say, "Every time we code that in the game just prints out the letter E." Who knows.
There's a wonderful game inside No Man's Sky, but it has yet to be realised. I've found moments, like my daft joy in carving sculptures, or the time I found the perfect planet, but most of me just repeats that refrain, "Give me six months, a staff of three and a decent budget, and I'll write you a story that'll make the game essential." That's what this game so desperately needs, beneath the fixes that are still so wanting. Neither has showed up so far.
Disclosure: Alec did a bit of writing for No Man's Sky prior to its release but we don't hold that against it.