My (Preliminary) 10-Hour Tale – No Man’s Sky

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“Oh, Mr. Conductor,” I say with exuberance, waving down a man dressed in a bright pink space suit and a tiny blue conductor’s hat. “Does the hype train get off at the next exit, my dear sir?”

“NO,” says the bright pink conductor of the Hype Train in a booming voice that reminds me of the unwavering density and blackness of the vast universe.

“THE HYPE TRAIN NEVER STOPS.”

Chugga-chugga, choo-choo, my friends. Man, very few video games get into the hype levels No Man’s Sky has generated. I didn’t even feel Fallout 4 or Fallout 76 got this much attention, especially considering this is the third such wave of excitement for the 70’s-sci-fi-book-cover space exploration simulator. Even the lead programmer and head of Hello Games had this to say:

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Nothing says despair and dread like a lower-case “oh no”.

His reaction is appropriate. At the game’s release in 2016, I bought into the hype train like crazy and spent the full $60 game for something that was very unpolished and most decidedly not multiplayer. This derailed the Hype Train quite badly for a lot of people, leading Steam reviews to put No Man’s Sky at Mostly Negative.

Fortunately, I don’t think Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games has much to worry about anymore with No Man’s Sky’s latest update called NEXT. How big and important was this update? When I downloaded, it came to about 6.7 Gb. Impressive, I thought, for a game that was about that large before the update. But what’s more impressive is what it meant for the originally single-player-only experience: No Man’s Sky is actually multiplayer.

And what’s more? The game looks even more incredible than it did before from both a gameplay and a graphics standpoint.

I mean, look at what the last three days did for No Man’s Sky:

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Wow!

It’s gone from Mostly Negative to Mixed. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game do that. And that’s 2000 positive reviews more than there were yesterday. I mean, just take a look at the patch notes for NEXT. Hello Games took their sci-fi adventure and flipped it on its head. Base building is nearly infinite, freighter armadas can be purchased and travel the stars with you, and even the basic building materials and recipes have been overhauled to the point where crafting and exploration is now an exciting venture instead of a mindless grind.

Admittedly, I struggled and panicked at the very start of the game; I was dropped onto a very radioactive planet with no ship and three-fourths of my radiation shielding gone, and had no idea what materials I needed to recharge it. I didn’t even have a scanner to search! But panic turns into resolve when you finally get your bearings, and following the mysterious storyline of the Atlas is proving to be very interesting.

There’s finally a reason to upgrade your blaster: biological horrors and sentinels show up in the worst places, and even caves are no longer safe places to hide. You’ll need to refine the raw materials you harvest from the worlds you explore, and refined materials are often more valuable than their components. Oceans are deep enough to fly under (this may be a bug, I’m unsure) and mountains are now continental in height. Artifacts can be found in hidden underground ruins and can sell for millions of credits, incentivizing exploration and discovery in a way the game hadn’t before.

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I made a dad joke! Do you get it? 1.3k people did!

With all that said, I did encounter two game-breaking day-one bugs that interrupted my play.

The first was a bug with the main quest; the quest wouldn’t allow me to warp to another system until I fueled my ship with antimatter. I would craft the warp fuel and fuel my hyperdrive only to have the quest reset and send me back for more antimatter. Good news: unlimited fuel. Bad news: no way to use it. I managed to un-bug the quest by purchasing another ship. I imagine it was something to do with the fact that I got a ship with a hyperdrive earlier than the quest assumed I would get one. Interestingly, I had a similar problem with earlier updates of No Man’s Sky.

The second occurred when only partially repairing some systems on my ship. The game didn’t like ‘partial repair’ so much that the next time I loaded my save game, the game initialized on a brand new world as if I’d started a brand new game, with no inventory, no ship, no upgrades, nothing. I fixed this with help from the No Man’s Sky Reddit and editing some junk code from my save file.

As of an hour ago, I’ve learned that both of these issues have been patched out, however. So as far as bugs are concerned, the only ones I’ve stumbled across are gone.

I thought I’d start out on normal mode, but to be honest, creative mode is looking really appealing. Check out this awesome cliffside base by ParagonHex:

I’ve played NEXT for about five hours now, and I have no desire to stop. I’ll have more to share in the coming days, but until then, consider this a tentative but glowing review of No Man’s Sky. I can’t wait to helm the bridge of my own freighter fleet and establish a sprawling base on a tropical planet. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to discover my first ruin and not get eaten by horrors.

Early Review: 9/10

My 10-Hour Tale – Endless Sky

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Release Date: October 2015

System: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)

As you walk down your loading ramp into the anchorage of the Helheim starport, the musky smell of fusion coolant and greasy off-world cuisine fills your nostrils. Filled with about two dozen similarly-sized if not similarly-designed freighters, you immediately sense anxiety in the air as your eyes scan the port for the delivery office. Dozens of cargo containers line the edge of the dock, makeshift homes for a crowd of miners looking to find their fortunes excavating this toxic volcanic world.

Good thing you aren’t looking for work yourself. Many of these young men have probably been waiting for weeks to get a mining permit or join a crew. It isn’t that the dangerous mining jobs are scarce; it’s no doubt the mountain of legal paperwork, performing physicals, and collecting hastily filled-out medical and insurance waivers that makes the entire hiring process run like molasses.

To your surprise, three young men in port authority uniforms approach, two of them picking up and carrying a large fueling hose towards your ship and one stepping towards you with a digital ship log in his hands. You’ve never seen a starport with such prompt ship service, especially one as busy as this.

“I.S. Faulknor, registration number 281-79-AS675. You’re Captain Elizabeth Oren, correct?”

You nod and reach your hand to shake his. His hands don’t move from the clipboard. In fact, his eyes don’t quite match up with yours.

“You have the twenty tons of medical supplies we requested from the Delta Velorum system, correct? I’ll have my men confirm your delivery logs. Follow me.”

The uniformed man turns without waiting for a response, walking roughly towards what you hope is the dock delivery office. You follow behind him, instinctively reaching to check that the blaster at your hip is still there. It is.

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Hyperspace! Weeee!

The uniformed man leads you through the crowd of desperate and bored miners. You notice that many of these would-be miners look a lot younger than legal working age, and give you, the sharp-looking and (some would say) good-looking starship captain, a look of curiosity and interest. At the very least, you’ve taken a shower in the last 48 hours – many of the miners looking at you look and smell like they never have. The stares get more pointed and even indignant as you follow the uniformed man past the city entrance gate and the long job lines.

You ask your new companion why delivery confirmation would be done outside of the starport. He doesn’t respond immediately.

“My… My supervisor is off-duty but said wanted to speak with you the moment you landed. Please follow me. You will be paid after you speak with him.”

You struggle to maintain a straight, unassuming face, despite the fact that the young uniformed man isn’t watching you. He picks up his step, looking over his shoulder every couple of moments, not at you, but for someone or something else.

The entrance of Helheim looks nothing like the bustling starport. Instead of sprawling lines and crowds, you see only a few tired people and rusting bots stalking the streets. Large refuse trucks collect trash, dirty government offices line the streets, and smokestacks of the refineries smolder down the road ahead of you. You pass alleyway after alleyway, each one dustier and more filled with heaps of slag and garbage than the last. Unsurprisingly, your young friend turns into one of these alleyways ahead of you, not stopping to check if you are still following. Before you can call out to him, you feel something sharp press against the small of your back.

“Captain Oren, I presume,” says a deep somewhat mechanical voice behind you. “I wouldn’t move if I were you. I have two snipers hidden up above on rooftops watching your every move, and we wouldn’t want any accidents to happen, would we? If you would kindly remove your blaster belt… with your blaster on safety, mind… and give it to me, I would be much obliged.”

You sigh, unclipping your belt. You ask the figure if he disarms all the pretty ladies this way as your eyes scan the street ahead of you. No one notices the exchange, least of all any police drones.

“Just twice,” replies the voice. “Once, when some ornery lass tried to swindle me out of some credits while gambling on Shorebreak. And once before that, when some smartmouth little lady tried to smooth-talk her way into a passing grade from her flight instructor… Shame those street smarts didn’t translate to the real world very well, eh?”

The moment you hear the words “little lady”, your eyes widen.

“Kaden…?” you whisper, straining to get a look behind you. “William Kaden?”

The sharp pain vanishes.

“That’s Instructor Kaden to you, little lady,” says the synthesized voice, the volume of his voice suddenly much lower. “Keep your eyes forward and don’t look around. I wasn’t lying about the snipers. Though, admittedly, they’re less for you and more for anyone else that might be following you.”

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You’ll see this every time you land on a planet, and planets will offer different services, such as starports for purchasing ships, outfitters for buying upgrades, and more.

Memories of your flight training on your homeworld of New Boston years ago fill your mind, memories filled mostly with pain and disappointment from your time under the tutelage of Instructor William Kaden, ex-Republic pilot and all-around hard-ass. Although you had graduated by the skin of your teeth, he had been the one teacher you had never been able to please or impress. The pain of him asking for your training pistol and your flight badge at the end of Kaden’s advanced flight class still stung.

Now someone – possibly William Kaden – is standing behind you threatening you with a combat knife and possibly your own firearm. Whether the man was bluffing about the snipers was irrelevant; attempting to disarm him and return to your ship is out of the question. Although, if this man really is Instructor Kaden with a voice-changer, you know you don’t have anything to worry about; William Kaden is – and was – one-hundred percent Republic lawman. But what would a retired Republic pilot and flight instructor be doing on a mining world at the edge of Republic space?

You ask him bluntly if he’s looking to purchase twenty tons of medical supplies.

“Afraid not, little lady. As I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, you’ve been shipping something a little more important than morphine and band-aids. Don’t know the grade of your ship’s sensors, but the crates were hermetically sealed and lead-lined. All the better you didn’t know. Let’s take a little walk, shall we? Don’t acknowledge me, now, eyes forward. Just down this first alley, that’s it. I’ve got a proposition for you that you might not want to pass up…”

*             *             *             *             *

The original Escape Velocity was one of my favorite Mac games growing up (yes, I still have my dad’s old Power Macintosh G3 right above me on a shelf now, it even has a Zip drive… remember Zip drives?) Later on, I fell in love with Escape Velocity: Nova. Absolute love. This game made you captain of your very own ship and gave you a galaxy full of opportunity and danger to explore. You start out in an admittedly tiny cargo shuttle, but you could eventually become admiral of your own fleet. Or, you could join one of the many factions in the game and accept their storyline missions to eventually unlock amazing ship types and ship upgrades.

While Escape Velocity: Nova remains available for both Macintosh and PC, there’s one thing it isn’t, and that’s FREE and OPEN-SOURCE.

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There are dozens of ships, from tiny shuttles to gigantic warships. Some can be bought, some have to be earned, and others have to be stolen.

Endless Sky is a single-player “2D space trading and combat” game “inspired” by Escape Velocity. The quotes are mighty hefty, because Endless Sky is basically nostalgia fuel for anyone who played EV or EV: Nova in the 90s and early 2000s. You might even call it a spiritual successor.

Just like its influence, in Endless Sky you can essentially be any kind of pilot you want to be. Set sail (or engine) as a raider who boards ships to plunder their cargo (don’t forget yer peg-leg and eyepatch, yarrr), or follow the law and become a mercenary who chases down pirate bounties. You can be a simple trader who goes from system to system trading ware like metals, luxury goods, and (yes) medical supplies. You can even land on pirate systems and accept smuggling runs that pay very well if you don’t get your delivery scanned and confiscated by policing gunships.

You can certainly play to your heart’s content in this sandbox space simulator. But like Escape Velocity, Endless Sky has a main storyline that the player can follow as well. There are even unique dialogue choices to help you decide what kind of captain you want to be. Unlike Escape Velocity: Nova, unfortunately, it seems like this storyline isn’t quite as complex when it comes to branching pathways and joinable factions.

Yet.

The game is still in an early state; while I’m hesitant to call it ‘Early Access’ since so much of the game is complete and ready to play, there are many items that lack graphics and tooltips, and many of the alien factions (of which there are many, owning systems that are accessible only by jump drive that enables travel between unconnected systems) are lacking any story connections or starting points. This makes many ships and items unavailable unless you attack and disable the alien ships yourself and steal their equipment. This, obviously, makes them hate you, which is never good if you ever wish to travel in their territory.

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If you’ve played EV: Nova, you’ll find the minimalistic UI very comforting and familiar.

If you can’t tell by my attempt at writing a storyline hook above, I’ve wanted to build a storyline in EV: Nova ever since I started playing the game. Now I’m feeling the same way about Endless Sky. There are quite a few mods available for the game at the moment, and modding seems very easy compared to modding Escape Velocity. (As you can tell, I have so many things I want to do that I obviously can’t do them all. I can’t say it’s the next thing on my list but making a storyline mod for Endless Sky is on there.)

The major strength of Endless Sky is also its weakness: it is a free, open-source game, being developed as a hobby by a single very busy developer. This means that, unfortunately, updates seem few and far between. As of now, it’s been more than six months since the last update. According to the Steam discussion board, the developer hoped that the end of May would mean an update to v0.9.9, but so far this hasn’t been the case. Communication is relatively regular, however, so I haven’t lost hope in the game’s development.

I would do better to explain how the game plays, but you know what? It’s FREE. I urge you to go play it for yourself. Relax. Go on some trading missions. Once you have a bigger ship, go blow up some pirates. Or be a pirate, either one. It’s worth your time, and updates are only going to make the game even more entertaining. Should it ever go on sale, this is one game I will be paying for.

Review: 9/10

 

My 10-Hour Tale – Planetary Annihilation: TITANS

First of all, I’ll say something that I’m probably going to say about a lot of the games I want to perform a 10-Hour Review on for Chains and Tales: I have a lot more than ten hours of game time with Planetary Annihilation. This is due to the fact that the original game (just Planetary Annihilation) came out before Planetary Annihilation: TITANS, and I played just under 40 hours of that. So, you could say I spent 10 hours playing with the big Titan toys. I’ll always be forthcoming about how much time I actually spend with a game, as I feel that reflects how much enjoyment and replayability a game has.

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PAT

Release Date: August 2015

System: PC, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)

The term ‘spiritual successor’ is usually a positive term in the video game industry. It usually invokes the idea that a game has taken the theme or mechanics that one game had and built upon them to create a more refined experience. One example that gets thrown around a lot on the internet is that Bioshock is the ‘spiritual successor’ to the game System Shock: both are first-person-shooter dystopian survival and exploration games with deep atmosphere and one heck of a plot-twisty end-of-act-two. Another is that Undertale is a ‘spiritual successor’ of Earthbound in graphics, gameplay, and the wide range and contrast of emotions the characters and story produce.

So, when I say that Planetary Annihilation is the spiritual successor to a game entitled Supreme Commander, I really mean it. Like, really really. I mean it so much that I think Planetary Annihilation might have ‘spiritually succeeded’ more than a few game mechanics directly from Supreme Commander. Fortunately for Uber Entertainment, there’s a reason they didn’t get sued or anything. It probably has something to do with the fact that Jon Mavor, the lead designer and programmer for Planetary Annihilation, was also the lead programmer for Supreme Commander.

On August 15, 2012, Uber Entertainment kickstarted Planetary Annihilation with a goal of reaching $900,000. They well-surpassed that amount, reaching $2,228,000 via Kickstarter and an additional $101,000 through Paypal. Having earned the title of the 11th Kickstarter project to reach over a million dollars, was the investment worth it?

The Steam review boards are ‘mixed’. Actually, they’re currently at ‘mostly negative’.

For the base game, I mean.

For Planetary Annihilation: TITANS, the reviews are glowing and positive.

Because I had the base game, I was given TITANS for free when it was released, I believe. Or maybe it was the other way around. It isn’t DLC or an expansion, I guess; it’s technically a whole new game in my library. Why the base game is still available when the more advanced and updated TITANS is around is beyond me. There doesn’t seem to be any difference besides the missing Titans and an appropriately lower price tag.

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“YOU’VE NOT ENOUGH MINERALS.”

What makes Planetary Annihilation: TITANS into a ‘spiritual successor’? Just about everything, plus planet-hopping! But we’ll get to that.

Planetary Annihilation is a ‘massive scale’ real-time strategy game where you play as one of the titular commanders. These commanders are gigantic mechs that can build basic buildings and feature anti-air and anti-ground weaponry for fending off basic-to-mid game threats. Your goal is to destroy enemy commanders until you’re the last one standing (or your team is; there are also team battles as well, if you don’t like fighting alone). If your commander is destroyed, it’s game over. Oh, and all commanders explode in a nuclear blast when they die, so that’s fun. When failing, fail hard, I always say.

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Legate Junius go boom.

Unless you have a pretty beefy machine, playing with more than eight computer players on a map can really start to lag, so I can’t imagine doing it with human players. But it’s incredibly fun to struggle for territory on a tiny planet against two to three other opponents… At least until you can get into orbit and rain down lasers from the sky.

There exist many different types of units, organized by the way they travel: vehicles ride on wheels or treads (strong but more expensive than bots), bots walk (cheaper but weaker than vehicles), naval units float on water, aircraft fly (but are very vulnerable to anti-air), and orbital units orbit in their own sphere above the planetary battlefield.  They all have their own strengths, weaknesses, and counters, although I’m a huge fan of aircraft if you can give them the muscle they need to puncture through enemy flak cannons and missile launchers. Every type of vehicle has their own builder unit, too, so it’s not like Starcraft where you have to rely only on ground-based builders for all the hard work. It’s another reason I love air constructors in particular: they can go and build almost anywhere. But they’re excruciatingly fragile. There’s no bigger bummer than twenty or more aerial constructors all being shot down by two or three tiny enemy fighters in mere seconds. Basic constructors can build advanced factories, which can produce advanced builders that can build even more advanced structures and units.

You know where Planetary Annihilation borrows from Supreme Commander the heaviest? The economy system. Just like each other, there are only two resources to worry about: metal and energy. Metal is mined from specific points on the map, and energy is created through generators that can be placed anywhere. You can technically spend more than you are making in Planetary Annihilation. This will, however, decrease the speed of your unit building and structure construction accordingly, and possibly do you less than no good. You will be tearing across planets trying to reach for and defend every single metal extraction point possible. Why?

Because bigger guns.

Meet the Titans.

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Good morning, sunshine! Zeus says hello!

These mean machines are bigger than mountains (especially when built on particularly small planets) and can wreck shop like crazy. My particular favorite is the Zeus, essentially a gigantic floating fortress with a giant ball of electrical energy in between its arms that can decimate entire bases on its own. Get three of these and you can say goodbye to any enemy commanders who are dumb enough to share the same planet. The star-like Helios can teleport entire armies from orbit and deal with any orbital defenses on the way. The gorilla-like Atlas jumps once, and entire armies (and hemispheres) fall down. The Ragnarok is a giant drill that burrows down into the core of a planet and drops a very potent explosive that evaporates the planet (not recommended for home worlds). They’re awesome. They’re expensive. They’re awesomely expensive, and, for some reason, oddly fragile against prepared players. Even Titans must be utilized strategically.

I’ll repeat this again: why Planetary Annihilation had to be re-released as Planetary Annihilation: TITANS instead of including these units in an update or $10 DLC package is still strange to me. So if you’re planning on picking it up, make sure it’s TITANS. Maybe it was a Kickstarter tier thing.

Even with the Titans, Planetary Annihilation ‘spiritually succeeded’ Supreme Commander. But did it succeed? I remember playing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliances and having a ball with the Aeon Illuminate’s experimental units, especially its flying CZAR fortress. Every faction in that game had four, making for very unique gameplay. But no matter what faction you play in Planetary Annihilation, you’re stuck with the same Titans as everyone else.

But then there’s the aspect that sets this game apart from its predecessor: it’s set in SPACE. There’s no flat map here. Scroll your mouse wheel, and you can go from ground level to a view of your solar system. If you’re playing on a map with multiple planets, all it takes is your orbital builders to construct a teleporter on another planet, and you can zip your units there to continue the fight.

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If you can’t tell, the tiny ‘1’ and ‘2’ are landing zone locations on a single planet. That’s a lot of zoom.

On particularly small moons, you can even build Halleys (named after the astronomer and the comet). These are giant rocket engines that can alter the trajectory of the moon to crash into another planet, wiping out all life (and opposition) on both orbiting bodies.

But my favorite way to ruin someone’s day?

If you can play a game with a metal planet somewhere in the system (think the Death Star, only ancient and covered in ‘metal deposits’), all you need to do is construct five ‘Catalyst’ buildings around the planet’s northern hemisphere to activate it as a planet sized superweapon. Think ‘Starkiller Base’ from Star Wars: Episode Seven (although admittedly without the actually star-killing). The speed with which the ‘Annihilazer’ recharges is insane. I’d love to see other human players all struggling for control over the thing while simultaneously trying to stop other threats like the Titans or nuclear weapons from destroying them.

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Does this make us the baddies? Surely not. Mega-laser pew pew!

Oh yeah, there are nuclear weapons, too. And anti-nuclear weapon defenses. Kinda lost them among all the talk of Titans and super lasers.

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Nuclear weapons are RAD! And very expensive if you plan on launching more than a few at the same time.

Planetary Annihilation: TITANS is a giant game of chess set in space, and it’s the kind of RTS that’s still really fun to play single player. Yes, as I stated in my XCOM 2 review, I am a wuss, and yes, I like to play where I have 5 times more resources than my enemies just to crush them with an Annihilazer. But – and dare I admit this – I even like playing this game when the computer has more than a fighting chance. And I didn’t even mention the Galactic Warfare game mode that plays like Risk across a map of the galaxy with army upgrades and unlockables you can find to use in future campaigns. While yes, there is Galactic Warefare, the one way it fails to succeed Supreme Commander is a lack of any story mode or campaign. This game was made for multiplayer. In fact, Galactic Warfare was a stretch goal for Kickstarter, and while fun, it’s not much of a replacement for a Starcraft story mode experience.

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Battle and upgrade from star system to star system. Fun to play, but simplistic.

Despite this, one factor of a game’s success I’ve noticed is its ability to maintain its price point through a long period of time. Planetary Annihilation: TITANS came out in 2015, and it still goes for $39.99 on Steam. That should tell you a lot. I’d say pick it up immediately, but the Steam Summer Sale isn’t too far away, and I bet it’ll be there.

So, is Planetary Annihilation: TITANS a successful ‘spiritual successor’? The more I use the term in this article, the less I like it. My judgement is clouded because I see both strengths and weaknesses in Planetary Annihilation: TITANS and Supreme Commander. And succession almost sounds like the previous game has perished, never to be played again. And that’s just not true. In fact, TITANS makes me want to pick up Supreme Commander again.

Either way, despite tight hard drive space, I’ve reinstalled TITANS at least a dozen times since I’ve owned it just to play a round. If you love RTS games, pick up Planetary Annihilation: TITANS.

It’s just fun.

Review: 9/10