The Bold New Age of Space Simulators
It feels a smidge strange to describe Star Citizen as niche. The long-gestating rebirth of the Chris Roberts-style space simulator crossed the $100 million mark late last year. That “mark” is crowdfunded dollars, too, meaning there’s $100+ million of demand from a PC-exclusive audience eager to return to the stars with Roberts at the helm.
If you sit Hello Games’ similarly themed indie title next to Star Citizen, it somehow feels more ambitious than Roberts’ offering, if only in terms of a very simple distinction: No Man’s Sky is targeting mainstream audiences.
Put simply, the space simulator isn’t a mainstream genre. Hell, the term ‘simulator’ is synonymous with a high barrier of entry, steep learning curve, and games from the genre are aimed at a technically minded player base looking to experience what it feels like to fly a jet. Pilot a chopper. Control a submarine. Launch into space.
You get the gist.
To give you an idea of how hardcore simulators can be, I recall being a stupid kid and testing my printer’s half-life in a single job by churning out a 534-page manual for attack-chopper simulator DCS: Black Shark. To this day, I still can’t look at a tree without feeling guilty.
Unlike Black Shark, Star Citizen doesn’t require you to memorise 30-odd command inputs to get your ship off the ground, but it’s still hardcore in terms of the manual control a player can exert over a spaceship. Add first-person shooting, trading, a persistent world, and the ability to seamlessly enter and leave the surfaces of planets, and Star Citizen ups the ante in terms of what it has to offer in terms of an as-realistic-as-it-can-be sci-fi experience.
Step over into the No Man’s Sky universe, and you can have a similar experience, albeit in an infinitely more accessible way. For starters, it’s multiplatform and, at least as far as Sony is concerned, it’s something of a flagship indie product for the PlayStation 4 (sorry Xbox owners: no No Man’s Sky for you). PC players can get lost in the sim-lite game on the birth place of simulators, while PS4 owners can also have a taste of space-simming, too.
Players searching for depth in terms of nuanced control over spaceships should definitely warp over to the Star Citizen galaxy, or the Elite: Dangerous universe on PC. Granted, Xbox One players can get their hands on the joystick of Elite: Dangerous, but it’s at the expense of a greater level of manual control. Let’s take a moment to break that down.
In Star Citizen, you need only look as far as the default key bindings for an idea of how overwhelming that level of control is for a first-time pilot. Out of 99 potential keys on a standard keyboard, only 27 are left without a particular function. Oh, and that doesn’t include mouse input and buttons, as well as the reality that left ‘Ctrl’, right ‘Alt’ and ‘Caps’ are modifier keys that extend keystroke functionality beyond those initial 72 keyboard input options.
To aid in making that somewhat less intimidating, players can learn a list of basic voice commands to help make that depth of control more intuitive. The same is true of Elite: Dangerous on PC. Short of investing in expensive and near-comprehensive flight sticks, players can make use of hardware they likely have lying around. In terms of a practical example, a game pad’s joysticks can be used for pitch, yaw and thrust controls, while the triggers and buttons can be used for dogfighting. Keyboard and mouse is useful for having access to deeper systems control, as required, and a microphone can be used for basic commands.
For No Man’s Sky, the execution of its accessibility is in the simplicity of how it plays, which isn’t to say there’s a lack of depth beyond this. From what I’ve played, the controls are incredibly intuitive, whether flying, dogfighting, or traversing the surface of a mathematically spawned planet. It all controls like a straightforward shooter, even if the depth of the design goals err closer to hardcore than mainstream.
The lay-gamer might accuse simulated experiences of being boring, particularly if, say, the concept of flying a commercial plane across continents in real-time reads like a yawn-worthy affair. In No Man’s Sky, by design, about 90% of what you encounter should be relatively rudimentary. In my experience, this translated to two out of the three planets I visited being covered in pea soup fog, which made aerial reconnaissance for points of particular interest damn near impossible.
By embracing the mundane, Hello Games hopes to dazzle with the remaining 10% of planets that it promises will be truly special. Still, when dealing with trillions of potential planets, that leaves a lot of space for billions of locales to be less than stellar. Where No Man Sky differs in comparison to Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen is in its unique and stylised visual presentation. While Star Citizen seeks to create realistic graphics in CryEngine, No Man’s Sky looks to mimic the inherent visual appeal of vintage sci-fi novel covers to create spaces that demand to be explored.
Like Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, pilots in No Man’s Sky are able to seamlessly travel from space to planet surface, and back out again, without dealing with loading screens. Where No Man Sky differs from those two former titles though, is its depth comes from a gameplay loop that revolves around player curiosity and linking game mechanics across four core pillars.
In basic Hello Games terms, these pillars translate to trading, fighting, exploring and surviving. It’s a deliberate oversimplification that’s designed to paint a picture for an eager player base that’s still trying to figure out what No Man’s Sky is all about. Even after half an hour of hands-on time with it, I am still trying to figure that out in many respects.
That said, it’s clear that Hello Games has put a lot of time into creating a game that’s simple to learn and fascinating to plumb. Even breaking down those four pillars in terms of my experience reveals a surprising amount of complexity.
For instance, trading could be interpreted as exchanging items with a variety of alien races for mutual benefit. In No Man’s Sky, however, trading with an alien merchant isn’t as straightforward as browsing wares in a Fallout fashion. Instead, you’ll have to either spend time learning individual words of alien dialect to make sense of what’s being said, or guess the correct response to something that might be deemed culturally inappropriate and result in you missing out on a sweet terrain-deforming firearm that’s ripped straight out of the Red Faction weapon design manual.
In terms of exploration, this can take place on any number of trillions of planets. Or in space. Or in the elusive cave networks that undermine the surface of particular planets. Fighting could mean aggressively attacking defending planetary sentinels and dealing with the consequences of a GTA-like renown system. Alternatively, it could mean inadvertently attracting the wrath of those same sentinels because you were forced to mine planetary resources key to your survival.
Fighting could also mean defending yourself against an interstellar interloper who attacks you upon leaving a planet’s surface, and must be destroyed before you can warp away to your next destination. It could also mean attacking a fleet of space traders. Within these combat systems, survival is implied, but survival is a component that’s also faced every time you land on a planet that’s too hot, too cold, or too hostile in terms of its procedurally generated fauna.
On top of this, as far as I’m aware, there’s not even a core storyline: simply a Journey-like motivation to travel from the edge of space to the centre of the universe. Except Hello Games doesn’t want you to do that, which is why, if you allow it to happen, you’ll be distracted a trillion times along the way. This is the whole point of the game: sating the fundamental curiosity of knowing what’s over the next hill, on the next planet, or orbiting the next sun.
Sure, this exploration is part of the gameplay formula for Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, but it’s almost the entire point of No Man’s Sky. Where Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous provide simulated space adventures, No Man’s Sky shoots traditional simulator tropes out of the airlock in favour of a gameplay loop that revolves around encouraging and rewarding player curiosity.
If players find that No Man’s Sky is lacking in terms of the technical component, there are multiple options in Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. But for those curious about what it’s like to travel the stars without having to feel like they have to go through flight school first, there’s No Man’s Sky.
Nathan Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Track him down on Twitter.