No Man's Sky Next - Review (Rebooting The Galaxy)

Platform: PS4, PC, Xbox One
Developer: Hello Games

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My screen is bright white. A text prompt says “Initialize” with a corresponding button, I press it. An AI voice breaks the silence telling me it’s initializing my suit. I hear “life support systems activated” as the white light begins to fade and the camera pans to reveal a lightly raining, gritty green planet with massive fungi. The AI tells me my scanner is damaged and that my shields jetpack and multi-tool are online. The camera pans a little further to reveal a damaged ship. I must repair it. As I set off on my journey a toxic storm arrives wiping out my shields and nearly killing me before I bolted into a cave. I have been immediately thrown to the wolves. All I can do is wait out the storm - with a smirk on my face.

Planting the seeds of unreasonable expectations
I have always loved Sci-Fi games. It’s a love that started on a PC at a childhood friend’s house. It’s the winter of 2003, I have just trudged the snow to see my buddy’s new PC game. The game was called Freelancer and it set my imagination on fire for what a Sci-Fi game could be.

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Freelancer was an “open world” game in that there were several star systems you could travel to and explore. You could almost say it was an open galaxy game. Freelancer gave you the power to freely explore and become a space pirate, merchant or even galactic authorities. To top it all off you could do all of this online with real people.

The game was fun, had a lot of depth and was ahead of its time, but I wanted more. I wanted to land on planets, walk around space stations, and engage in a battle that starts in space moving into a planet’s atmosphere and then ultimately ending on a planet’s surface. I wanted to call a planet my home and claim a system with my friends. In the back of my mind I knew this was too ambitious for a video game and after many years of waiting I gave up on the idea.

Warp to E3 2014; I was watching Sony’s press conference when a lone developer nervously walked onto the stage to show off the game he and his tiny team had been working on - No Man’s Sky. I watched as the player moved out of a cave system, scanned plants and animals, swam through water, and then as if by magic jump into his spaceship and fly right through the atmosphere straight into space. There were no load times or levels. It was seamless. The planet was planet sized and the galaxy, galaxy sized. Everything was procedurally generated in real time. Their game was set to scale to reality. All of this accomplished by a team of 10 or so people and some hella good math skills. 

This stage announcement and trailer reignited that spark of imagination I had all of those years ago. The interviews and trailers that followed only fueled the already high expectations I had for No Man’s Sky; but my hype was beyond reasonable amounts as I and the gaming community would soon find out.

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Marketing vs Reality
For anyone not in the know, No Man’s Sky launched with a resounding thud. It became the poster child for marketing spin vs reality. The game barely resembled what was seen in trailers or interviews. It turned out to be quite frankly, in my opinion, boring. The marketing for the game was so disingenuous that Sony, who helped fund the game’s marketing, dropped No Man’s Sky like a bad habit after the game’s release. The developer Hello Games, along with it’s lead designer Sean Murray, went media silent after the backlash. This sent a ripple throughout the gaming community and made the game itself practically radioactive.

The game had essentially no story. There was no multiplayer. It was very buggy. All of the planets looked dull, bland and too similar. The most egregious part, there was no driving force for anything. The only meaningful game mechanic that tasked you at all was the inventory system. Even that was a complete headache and fun killer. Imagine playing GTA and having to stop to get gas every 10 blocks and you were only driving to reach the other end of the map just for the sake of driving. There was a lot that need to be changed. 

    

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What’s Next 
Many gamers felt that Hello games had taken their money and ran. I can’t blame them for feeling that way since the devs themselves refused to answer any criticism from media outlets and customers alike. Little did we know Hello Games decided actions were better than words. They quietly bunkered down and went to work to release a string of major updates that moved the game closer toward what was promised. 

The first of these updates, the Foundation update, brought new planet biomes, new modes, base building and the ability to purchase a capital ship. The Path Finder update brought visual updates, online base sharing, land based vehicles and more varied ships with specializations. The Atlas Rises update finally brought a centralized and focused story along with exotic planets, exotic ships and portals that allowed you to jump directly across the galaxy to different worlds. These updates slowly turned the game around and began to make it a much more enjoyable experience. This was all leading up to Next, which didn’t disappoint.

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I don’t think I have ever been highly excited for a game update before. My excitement for the Next update matched my excitement for the game's initial launch. I tried to temper my expectation, but dammit I wanted the Sci-Fi game I had been dreaming about all of these years. I did a ton of preparation beforehand; making sure that I stored all of my inventory in storage units because an update this big had the probability of wiping the slate clean. My base was on an Earth-like planet with an abundance of resources. I saved my game one last time and powered my machine off until the update was live.


Redux the universe
Once my update had downloaded I booted the game up ready to pick up where I left off. Little did I know the Atlas had other plans. My base was gone. The planet that my base was on had been completely reworked with better visuals, vast oceans, tall mountains, islands and complex wildlife. This was like a completely new planet - it was interesting. I didn’t really care about grinding for cash to get that S-class capital ship anymore. I just wanted to explore the planet I was on.

The Next update brings true multiplayer to the game. You and three of your friends can band together and space cowboy up the galaxy any way you see fit. It was pure glee standing on a planet looking up at the sky watching my buddy break into the atmosphere of the planet I was on to give me a hand mining some materials. It’s a feeling that can’t be matched by any other game I can think of. No one else had ever been to this planet besides me and now I get to share it.

Next also brings practically unlimited base building (when they say near unlimited they mean it. I saw a player build a base tower that was so tall it was almost in orbit). You can now build a base almost anywhere on any planet. This gives the player a lot of creative freedom. My favorite base I have seen so far is one that was built in a large underwater cave. The creativity of gamers is astounding. One only needs to look at r/NoMansSkyTheGame to see the evidence of this.

Next makes some changes to capital ships. You can now have an armada of ships. Along with your main capital ship you can employ frigates to send out on expeditions. These frigates specialize in one of five areas - combat, exploration, trade, industry and support. Choosing the right frigates for each expedition can vastly improve your chances for success as your frigates can be damaged during their mission. When one of your frigates gets damaged you’ll have to repair the damage.

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Next redefines the crafting and resources aspects of the game.This one threw me for a loop when I jumped in after the update. The resources that I had relied upon heavily before were either gone, reimagined or obsolete. Another significant change to crafting is the refiner mechanic. You can now craft various refiners (portable, medium and large). These refiners can be used to refine materials into more potent versions of themselves or new materials all together. I’m not quite sure what it is I like about using the refiner so much. Maybe it’s the additional hard work and accomplishment for gathering the materials to refine in the first place. Resource deposits seem to be actual deposits in the ground now instead of towers of materials. You will need to use your terrain manipulator to mine deposits instead of your default mining laser.

Next brings an optional third person viewpoint and character customization. Character customization is a nice addition allowing you to choose one of five races in the game - Traveller, Anomaly, Vy’keen, Gek and Korvax. You can communicate or show off your new character through new gestures or snapping a quick selfie with the photo mode. Speaking of photo mode, No Man’s Sky is supplying all of my wallpapers from in-game screenshots. With all of the graphical tweaks you can truly take some awe inspiring photos.

Next introduces some smaller quality of life changes that add up in significant ways. You will now have more diverse base parts to choose from with the ability to have multiple bases. Procedurally generated tech upgrades can be used to upgrade your exosuit, multi-tool or ships. The analysis visor has been upgraded to be more useful in finding points of interest, and pinpointing your exact planetary location with coordinates. Space stations have been given an upgrade to feel more like a marketplace with a new layout and additional NPCs. You can now find and excavate ancient ruins to discover valuable treasure. Once you have a capital ship, multiplayer co-op missions allow you and your friends to team up to earn some valuable rewards or tons of credits.

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Next has also exploded the size of No Man’s Sky’s community. Sales are off the charts and it’s Steam reviews have gone from negative to mixed. The community of both old and new players has been rallying around the game on Reddit. r/NoMansSkyTheGame is full of pictures of planets, group photos, creatures, scenery and stories of random encounters. 

One of my favorite random encounter stories in particular, involved a player who was new to the game and found themselves on a very inhospitable starting world. You first have to do a couple of tutorial missions and repair your crashed ship to leave any planet you start on. The player’s starting world had extremely high temperatures and almost constant firestorms. The player found themselves stuck in a cave unable to make any more progress due to the storms. Just as they lost hope and were about to quit or start a new game another player warped into their system (you have to ability to join a random player’s game at the home menu). The stranger was further ahead in the game and thus had plenty of resources. The stranger helped the stranded player by gifting some resources and assisting with the ship repair. They never communicated except through emotes. Once the player’s ship had been repaired the stranger left the system to continue on his journey. The once stranded player left a thank you note on Reddit for the stranger who had helped him.


Final Grade  
No Man’s Sky has achieved something I didn’t believe possible - redemption. Not in the eyes of all, but for many this is true. While not everything is perfect and there are still it’s share of bugs, I’m excited everytime I boot my PC up to explore, build and have fun with friends. No Man’s Sky Next update gets a 5 enchiladas out of 5. 

I am excited to see how Hello Games continues to improve the game and what the future might hold. I’ll certainly be there for whatever comes next.
 

Follow Ryan on on his YouTube Channel: Colenado Gaming.

Detroit: Become Human

Platform: PS4

Developer: Quantic Dream

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Detroit: Become Human is set to be very polarizing. On one hand Detroit has to contend with not being a traditional game; it’s more of an interactive create-your-own-story. On the other hand Detroit centralizes around a plot that has shades of the current culture war - race, inclusiveness, collectivism, individualism, income inequality and automation replacing human workers. The heart of the story depicts the android struggle of finding its own “humanity”. For the most part Quantic Dream crafts a good narrative with some minor stumbles here and there.

 

 

 

Gameplay

Gameplay and controls are pretty straight forward, there are no intricances or learning curve. Movement and combat are the least engaging part of Detroit. Movement is handled by the left analog stick with the camera being controlled by the right stick. Movement can be very stiff. This is mainly due to the semi-static nature of the camera angles the game uses. Most of the time you are able to rotate the camera or tap R1 to change angles, but as the player you never really feel in full control, which can slightly break immersion during intense moments. This drawback doesn’t effect the experience too much, but it is definitely something Quantic should address in their next endeavor.

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The right analog stick also serves as the main mechanism for contextual interactions. When the character needs to interact with the environment the player will be tasked with flicking or rotating the stick in a particular direction. This includes opening doors, looking at evidence or just picking up objects. This method is mostly intuitive, but the novelty wears off later in the game. I found myself just wishing a simple button tap could perform the action I wanted.

R2 serves as a special vision to highlight interactable objects or GPS. Holding the button down will greyscale the screen and highlight points of interest in yellow. Use this sparingly to truly experience the world.

QTEs (quick-time events) take center stage for combat. The player will be prompted to press one of the various face buttons or move the right stick in a certain direction. Occasionally the player will have to physically move the controller by either jerking the controller left and right or flipping it up vertically 90°. Moving the controller can be hit and miss; oftentimes my controller movements wouldn’t register until after a few attempts. This happened so much so that I questioned how this method passed QA.

Overall the controls are serviceable. Detroit’s use of QTEs didn’t bother me as much as I anticipated. For the most part controls worked, excluding controller movements.

 

Story

Story is the main course of the experience in Detroit. The story unfolds through the actions of 3 protagonists - Connor, Kara and Markus. On the trio’s journey each of them will make decisions ranging from insignificant to potentially fatal. Each decision carries the threat of major ramifications on the overarching story-at-large, as each chapter can branch out into multiple endings. Choice matters.

The decisions the player makes not only affect certain plot points, but also the feelings of the companions around each character. The choices you make will influence these companions positively or negatively. The player will receive visual feedback on whether the decision they made was liked or disliked by their companions. It’s nice to be able to see where you stand with the other characters, however, this could have been better achieved through facial expressions and body language. Not knowing precisely where you stand with a companion would have added another layer of tension and drama to the story. Instead, I found myself making decisions based on an influence meter, not really the best mechanic for immersion.

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Androids in Detroit really imitate humans. They walk, talk and even, in some instances, behave like humans. They also look just like humans. Androids are differentiated from humans by a LED ring on their right temple. This LED will change color from blue to yellow to red depending on the situation the android is in. Androids are also identified by special clothing that they wear that marks their model number and name. On the sleeve of each android is a bright blue armband, which reminded me of Nazi occupied Poland. It was the armband symbolism that tipped me off to what the themes of this story were going to be.

Androids are in some ways segregated from regular society. Several establishments have “no androids allowed” signs and android specific waiting areas, Androids even have a designated spot at the back of buses. The bus thing was a little on the nose for me. I get the imagery they are trying to invoke, but it’s way too obvious. The back of the bus sentiment isn’t the worst offender in this regard though. Detroit has a literal Underground Railroad in it’s world, I’m not kidding. Concerned citizens smuggle androids North to Canada where they have more favorable android laws.

All of this symbolism conveys the point they are trying to make; I just wish they had come up with a more original plot device to set the events of the story in motion. You are meant to see these androids as slaves. This plot device is used as a catalyst to get the player to empathize with the androids and see humanity in them. This kind of falls flat when they carbon copy one of the most horrific human experiences in history.

This sets up the biggest point of contention in the story - do androids deserve human rights? This questions hinges on empathy. Does the player see themselves in the protagonists? Detroit does it’s best to answer “yes” to these questions and I mostly agree. I empathize with each of these main characters, but with one caveat. By the end of the story I still saw them as machines and AI.

I believe this is mostly due to the first arc. You don’t see enough of Connor, Kara or Markus exist on their own without servicing a human. Showing them with their own interests, hobbies or pursuits would have gone along way to achieving a more grey area of Android humanity. Adding a playable human character that has to wrestle with the moral choices of hating androids or accepting them is an opportunity that I believe was missed.    

 

Visuals

There’s no other way of saying it, Detroit: Become Human is a beautiful game. The graphics on display are top notch, even more so with a 4k and HDR capable tv.

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Environments really shine. Everything from the bustling trendy areas to the poverty stricken slums looks genuinely lived in. I often found myself stopping to just take in the world. Everything was painstakingly hand crafted and it pays off big time.

The facial animations are spot on. Quantic Dream has a knack for capturing human emotion and they flaunt that expertise. There are some really great mocap performances to be seen from Valorie Curry, Jesse Williams and Bryan Dechart.

 

Final Grade  

There was a lot to like in Detroit: Become Human. The value proposition is moderate. There is some definite replayability, seeing the other possible endings, but it can be somewhat of a chore to slog through the beginning again. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time not being a paragon in a serious game like this to go back and just be a dick.

Overall I give Detroit: Become Human a solid 4.5 enchiladas out of 5. Even though I had my gripes with it, the game was thought provoking and left an impression after it was over.

Follow Ryan on on his YouTube Channel Colenado Gaming.

The Bedtime Story - A Game of Don't Freeze!...Tag

by Ryan Cole
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For full transparency I worked with Brandon Serowski (the developer) in the past and participated in the Alpha and Beta testing of the game.

Indie games have a special place in my games library. These games can be a very welcome breath of fresh air among the safe bets that large studios tend to make. They often surprise you with unique mechanics, creativity or just good old fashioned challenge. The latter is what The Bedtime Story brings.

The Bedtime Story transports you into the shoes of a frightened little boy who has lost his comforting companion, his teddy bear. This is how the game begins - no parents, no lights, no bear. Only the comfort of a flashlight with a very limited battery.

Dark and alone I awoke in my room. With a little exploring I managed to find a few pickups and a couple of locked doors. Wondering what to do next I looked around a bit until I saw the chalkboard. At first the controls are written up there, but then something else happens. This is where the tone of the game is set.

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As I am looking up at the board a slight chill runs up my spine when I see the words “let’s play a game...tag”. The words “Stay in the light” are then written out as I stare blankly at the board wondering “what the hell should I do”, then with a thunderous crack of lightning and a familiar creaking sound a door swings open.

This is the only direction you are given as the player. The controls, the game you are playing, an open door and a small hint to “stay in the light”. I’m left wondering what awaits in the dark.

Sound is a very important aspect of this experience. Headphones are recommended as you'll use them to pick up on audible cues. Trust me, you'll need to listen carefully. There's something lurking in this house.

Light plays an equally important role. Your flashlight battery is very limited and only stays on for a short amount of time before it needs to recharge. Exploring proves vital as you can find additional batteries of 2 variants, yellow and red. One grants you increased time limit with precious light while the other increases the range at which the light pierces the dark.

Exploration also gets you access to other pickups, such as keys and lamps. Keys will obviously unlock doors to additional rooms for hiding in or scavenging extra batteries. Lamps play a more vital role in last second survival. Once you figure out what these bad boys do you’ll try to pick up every lamp you see (not all can be picked up). Lamps are your most valuable and scarce resource. Use them wisely.

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This game is about trial and error, mostly error. With the minimal amount of guidance the player has to figure out the rules of each game. This approach may not be appealing to everyone, but it’s hard to beat the feeling of winning one of these games. I experienced a huge amount of glee when I finally bested my foe in the first game “Tag”.

The visuals on display are what you’d expect for a game built with Unreal Engine 4, but when you take into account that this was made by a solo dev it becomes even more impressive. The atmosphere and light for the most part are great. Light from standing lamps could use some additional work as they look more like cones of light instead of a light source fighting back the dark. Objects look crisp and clear although it does get a little redundant with a lack of variety in furniture.

All in all I give The Bedtime Story  4 Enchiladas out of 5.  If you have a PC pick up The Bedtime Story on STEAM, because at $2.99 the value proposition here is very high.

Ryan is a console and PC game enthusiast who has recently been trapped in Fortnite. You can find Ryan’s playthrough/developer interview of The Bedtime Story on his YouTube Channel Colenado Gaming.