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Should You Come Back For No Man’s Sky: Foundation?

by Matt Miller on Dec 01, 2016 at 08:36 AM

No Man’s Sky is one of the most talked about games of 2016. Leading up to its release, many had established astronomical expectations about the title. At launch, the game fulfilled some of those expectations with a massive galaxy to explore, but left many disappointed in other regards, including the absence of a meaningful late-game loop, the inability to explore true multiplayer experiences, and several other lackluster game elements. For myself, my original review in August expressed wonder at the massive procedurally-generated alien universe, but bemoaned the focus on resource gathering, inventory management, and a lack of crafted content. 

Hello Games has remained mostly silent since the No Man’s Sky’s contentious launch, and a few days ago it responded to the gaming community not with words, but instead with a hefty free update called Foundation. The update adds a significant number of new gameplay features, and I spent the last few days acquainting myself with its revised gameplay.

Foundation is a broad-reaching update that includes gameplay changes (new scanning and stacking options), new modes (survival and creative), extensive crafting options (base-building and farming), and graphical improvements (motion blur and improved terrain), among numerous other additions. A remarkable number of game aspects are improved, and I give enormous credit to the developers for implementing such a significant update just a few months after launch. If you’re considering a play of the new content, I’d strongly recommend perusing the official patch notes, which do an admirable job of highlighting the many improvements. While most of this new content doesn’t dramatically change my opinion of the game, these new features establish a firm foundation of systems on which the game can continue to build with subsequent updates. 

When launching No Man’s Sky, players are now presented with three distinct modes. Normal offers a “chill exploration experience,” and is essentially an enhanced continuation of the original. Survival is challenging mode of limited resources and punishing enemies. Finally, Creative mode borrows from Minecraft’s similar structure, and lets you play the game with unlimited health, free building costs for any structure, upgrade, or product, and no need for resource management. Players can maintain a save game on each of the three modes.

In Normal mode, if you have an existing No Man’s Sky save, your character and possessions remain untouched, but you now have extensive new options for crafting, freighter purchases, and several other features. After an absence of a few months, it took me a while to remember the rhythms of what minerals I needed for space fuel, how to prepare for a warp to a new system, and even how to best navigate my spaceship, but most everything comes back after the first hour of play. 

Several quality-of-life changes are immediately apparent. Planets can now be scanned from orbit to determine what major resources can be found there. Quick access menus allow refueling without pausing out of the action. Craftable products can now be stacked, a much needed addition as the game moves into deeper crafting mechanics. In each case, these changes streamline play and keep the focus on exploration and discovery.

The base building and freighter purchase options in Normal mode are both meaningful ways to let a player invest in the No Man’s Sky universe, and provide a sense of ownership. There’s also a wonderful new feature that lets you teleport between your home base and various space stations you have visited, which greatly eases the challenge of getting around. In particular, I like the base crafting UI, which makes it easy to assemble a sprawling planetside home, presuming you have the resources on hand to fund such an endeavor.

Unfortunately, the price in time and in-game money to engage with this system is very high. Bases have a slowly unfolding arc of yet more new resources to gather, and just like before, it can be a laborious process to find a location in the universe that has the resources you need. For instance, I might require minerals from another system to build the science terminal in my base, but once it’s built, I need to find and hire a scientist to operate that terminal. They only appear on certain space stations, and I have no apparent way to track where those stations might be found, unless I happen to remember a previous location that included that alien race.  

Similarly, freighters are a great way to give players increased inventory space, not to mention an awesome giant ship to call their own. But the price of acquiring a freighter is high, and requires significant unit farming for all but the richest in-game avatars. 

Survival mode may be a great addition for some players, but I found its focus on resource gathering missions and frequent death to be tedious. Missions start with multiple suit and ship systems already damaged, and then drops your character on an inhospitable planet. All of my time in this mode was spent taking desperate trips outside of a shelter, gathering a few minerals as my character started to freeze, and then rushing back to safety. This process must be repeated again and again; some may find joy in the rote work, but it didn’t work for me.

Creative mode is an appealing way to try out many of the game’s new elements, especially building out a base without first needing to find the necessary resources. In most ways, this Creative mode is breezy and simple, but I was confounded by the need to still hunt through solar system after solar system to find specialists to man my base’s specialist terminals. 

In my original review, I noted my eagerness to see Hello Games create more crafted content to fill up the massive and impressive universe that No Man’s Sky has to offer. Even after several hours of time with the Foundation update, I still have a lot to see. For instance, the update promises significant changes to space battles, but I never encountered those changes during my hours of play. 

Nonetheless, the new additions to No Man’s Sky do little to address my own most pressing need within the game. The endless search for new resources to gather is what ultimately pushed me away from the game, and Foundation does little to change that. If anything, it doubles down on the strategy. Why am I building this base in the middle of a desolate planet? Who or what might antagonize me, beyond random sentinel robots and ticked-off fauna? How is the universe changing and growing in response to my actions as a player? In the absence of answers to these questions, I’m left with little purpose behind the monumental effort involved in crafting and investing in the game universe.

I realize that No Man’s Sky is a freeform experience that, by its nature, seeks to defy traditional structures. I am perhaps old-fashioned in my gaming tastes because I want more structure, but one way or the other, Foundation leaves me with two strong impressions. One, Hello Games is doing excellent work to flesh out New Man Sky’s focus on freeform play. And two, until there’s a deeper reason for me to engage with that content, the game still leaves me with similar feelings that I had at launch. I marvel at the sci-fi grandeur of this universe, but can’t escape the sensation that my role is in fulfilling a never-ending stream of secondary objectives.