July 30, 2018 by Tim

So, like many people last week, I reinstalled No Man’s Sky, a game I had not touched since probably August of 2016. I must have deleted my save, so I had to start over, but really that was fine. So much had changed, I hear, that a slow, fresh start would be good to help me learn the ropes.

And then I picked “Survival” mode.

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Survival is a mode they apparently added in a previous update, and next to the menu’s description of Normal mode as a “chill” experience, seemed like it would be a nice change of pace from what I remember of NMS. After all, I like Survival sims!

I froze to death thirty-seconds after the game started.

I’d barely had a moment to admire the beauty of the ice planet they’d started me on before my suit was squawking at me about environmental hazards. As I’d not touched this game in two years AND they’d recently renamed all of the elements, I had no clue what I was doing. In the process of examining my inventory to try to understand my predicament, my little spaceman crumpled over and went gently into that good night.

When I respawned, “Generation 2” as the game called it, I had a little bit more information. My suit required sodium to protect me from the freezing temperatures, and it was critically low. I needed to find sodium, so I started running.

A navigation marker told me my ship was way off in the horizon; it may as well have been on the other side of the planet. But I decided I’d run in that direction anyway. In my haste, I stumbled down a cliff and took some damage. Ferrite and Carbon were plentiful, but none of the planet’s strange rocks or plants seemed to contain sodium. I could just make out my ship in the distance when I collapsed and died from exposure a second time.

Generation 3 was marginally more successful. Running and some clever terrain navigation got me to my ship just as my suit protection expired. I jumped in, hoping it counted as a “safe” enviroment. It did. I sat in the cockpit as my suit recharged, and contemplated the wasteland of icy death that surrounded me. I had to repair my ship in order to get off this planet, but I could barely even keep my suit functioning for more than a minute at a time.

The next thirty minutes was spent hopping out of my ship, running in one direction until my protection was depleted by half, and then turning and running back to my ship. Recharging and then investigating in a different direction. These small exploratory excursions yielded no sodium, and I began to become convinced that I’d spawned on a planet without this particular resource.

Finally, after deciding to travel further out, past the point where I could safely make it back to my ship, I found my first sodium plant. It glowed yellow, and now I knew what I was looking for. I recharged my protection, and breathed a sigh of relief. I’d taken my first step towards surviving this shitty planet.

And then my life support started beeping.

No Man’s Sky was always a fascinating project; the idea of running around on procedurally generated planets, discovering stuff no one else might ever see… even once you started to see the seams beneath the code, and the illusion wavered a bit, it was still an increcible experience. But it also never really felt like a game, before. Rather, it was just that: an experience. Something you did for a little bit, and then grew bored of.

And I’m not saying they’ve fixed everything with the game; they’ve made a lot of improvements, but there are still some underlying problems. However now they’re problems that are at least somewhat tolerable thanks to the additions since launch. Survival was, to me, the most “game-like” that No Man’s Sky has ever felt.

Whereas the only drive in the game at launch was “what’s over the next hill?”, Survival keeps that sense of exploration while also forcing you to make decisions and prioritize, presenting challenges to overcome and be mindful of. Normal mode is still probably great if you just want to relax and hang out, but I think Survival mode is the only real way to play NMS now. The first ten minutes are brutal if you’re not sure what you’re doing, but there is an exhileration associated with conquering your shitty starting planet.

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