Did You Hear About That Nutter Who Dropped $4K on “No Man’s Sky”?!

Did You Hear About That Nutter Who Dropped $4K on “No Man’s Sky”?!

No Man's Sky Atlas image

People who know me both online and IRL know that I’m a pretty big fan of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky.

Actually, that’s something of an understatement.

I’m about 330 hours in so far (405 planets across 128 systems). I’ve been rather prolific on Twitter, sharing experiences and evangelizing the game (out of a sense that unhappy players don’t quite “get” it), I’ve been a denizen of the related Reddit subs since Launch Day (9 August, 2016) and have gained some note there, and I’ve made several posts about No Man’s Sky here since launch: A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: No Man’s Sky, My Skylake Gaming PC Build, Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades. My wife and my 10 year-old daughter are pretty tired of hearing NMS anecdotes, I’m quite sure.

In a nutshell, it started out like this. I first heard of No Man’s Sky in the summer of 2015. The previews looked pretty amazing and, as I had a PS4, I was excited for its release. Not long after, I grabbed Elite:Dangerous, which I had been following with interest for some time, when it landed on the Mac (I wasn’t a PC guy…at the time), and was amazed by its realism. Comparatively, my impression of NMS at that point was that it would be less of a “whole scope” universe simulation than E:D; it seemed from previews that NMS wouldn’t be presenting an “I can fly from point A to point B across the galaxy without ever breaking frame” environment and I wondered if that would make for a much “smaller” experience. Months passed and I was spending time in E:D, mining, fighting, but became frustrated because the difficulty of amassing assets in order to upgrade ships was, to me, a huge barrier and I eventually lost a good deal of interest. I wasn’t having much fun and as a result I pretty much stopped playing.

Months more passed and No Man’s Sky was released. I purchased a digital download of the game for PS4 on day one and began playing. I fell in love immediately.

photo of computer desk with iMac on the left and a gaming PC on the right

I recall waking up on my genesis planet and walking about the lush alien landscape in a sort of wonder. I had to make an extremely long trek in order to find the elements needed to repair my initial ship so that I could venture onward. Along the way, walking through the trees, boosting up cliff faces with my jetpack, gazing at planets hovering on the horizon, running around with the various creatures skittering about the landscape, I experience a feeling of incredible immersion and the scale of the thing reality sunk in. I could explore every inch of this massive planet if I wished. And there are over 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky‘s procedurally-generated universe. My earlier concerns about NMS feeling “smaller” than Elite:Dangerous were certainly for nought.

Blake holding a GeForce graphics card

The PS4 I played with was in my den entertainment center with a few other consoles, tied to the wall-mounted screen. After just a few days in, I wanted to get as deep into the experience as I could, so I pulled one of my Mac’s displays off the desk to clear a space in the basement computer room, bought a 32-inch curved 1920×1080 display, and plopped it and the PS4 down next to the Mac and started playing. This turned out to be a great move — so much nicer than playing from the couch across the room. I ran like this for a couple of weeks, getting up well before dawn to get some time in before heading to the office most days, and it was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I wanted to take things farther, to get all that I could out of the game. I decided to build a high-end gaming PC specifically to play No Man’s Sky.

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Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades

Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades

Doctored 'Rescue on Fractalus' game box cover

Regular readers are surely aware that I’m rather addicted to the space exploration game No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. I recently detailed my love for the title and gave an account of the high-end gaming PC I built specifically to play No Man’s Sky to the fullest, after having fallen in love with it on the PS4. And while there are those who may look askance at me for cherishing a game that’s not in any way retro, I make no apologies! Recently, however, a particular video comparison came to mind that I believe all of my readers can get behind.

No Man’s Sky provides a universe featuring over 18 quintillion planets to explore, which is made possible by utilizing procedural generation to create the nearly infinite number of worlds. It’s not the first game that has offered up procedural planet generation, however.

In 1985 Epyx released Rescue on Fractalus by Lucasfilm Games. It is a game that puts the player in the role of rescue pilot negotiating a hostile alien landscape in search of downed comrades. What made the game special was the mountainous procedural landscape through which the player would fly. This fractal landscape may appear extremely primitive to the modern eye but they were very impressive at the time, generated by the modest 1MHz, 8-bit CPUs of the day.  I used to spend hours playing the game on my Apple IIe 30 years ago, imagining I had descended onto LV-426 in a bid to save my shipmates from the terrible fate of becoming alien host cocoons. It was pretty awesome.

Because of certain similarities between the two games and the 30+ year span of time separating them, I thought it would be interesting to set them side-by-side, so to speak, for a quick and dirty comparison. (Game maker Jeff Minter also invoked Rescue on Fractalus in his recent blog post about No Man’s Sky.)

Here I have captured a bit of gameplay of both Rescue on Fractalus and No Man’s Sky. For the former, I chose perhaps the best looking version of the game, the original Atari 8-bit release, which is running in an emulator (Altirra) on the PC. For the latter, I chose a planet in the system I am currently exploring (consisting of five planets and one moon) that features no flora or fauna to speak of, in order to present a more or less base No Man’s Sky planetary state for the comparison. (More verdant worlds are out there, however.) The elevations on the shown planet are about half as tall as the tallest I’ve seen in game. Rescue on Fractalus is being rendered in the Atari’s 160×96-pixel color graphics mode (obviously enlarged dramatically in the emulator) while No Man’s Sky is running at the 32-inch LCD’s native 1920×1080-pixels — 135 times more discrete pixels than the Atari is pushing.

What a difference three decades, on both the hardware and software front, make. Not surprisingly, bringing out Rescue on Fractalus for this video has me playing it again after all these years. Both of these games are definitely worth spending some time with.

UPDATE [11/15/2016]: I’ve just learned over at the RetroGamer mag forums that someone is working on a PC (Windows) remake of Rescue on Fractalus entitled Fractalus (video). Looks interesting — give it a whirl.

My Skylake Gaming PC Build [Updated]

My Skylake Gaming PC Build [Updated]

A month ago I shared my feelings about Hello Games’ space exploration game No Man’s Sky. (Spoiler: I loved it — and still do, about 150 hours in.) In the post I mentioned that parts were in the mail for a high-end gaming PC build that would allow me to enjoy NMS at 60fps with adjustable POV angle as well as mods. Well, the parts arrived, I built the PC, and I wanted to check back in with a brief report. (Apologies for two non-retro-related posts in a row.)

With the exception of the retro-recreation of my circa 1996 5×86-based PC that I put together three years ago, this is the first PC I’ve built in 18 years. The last was an AMD K6 233-based machine sporting (originally) the ill-fated 3dfx Voodoo Rush board (later a Voodoo II). I assembled it in 1998. I went with Asus for the motherboard on that K6, the recent 5×86 rebuild, and this Skylake gaming PC. They know how to make a motherboard.

It’s an Intel Skylake Core i7-6700K 4.0GHz + Nvidia GTX 1080 system running on the Z170 chipset (full parts list here). The tower is on the floor and on the desk is a curved Samsung 32-inch 1080p display plus a 7-inch secondary display that I use to monitor CPU load and temperature so I can see what kind of a workout games are putting the system through. The curved primary display adds to the “cockpit” feel of the setup to a surprising degree. One detail I’m particularly happy about is that I was able to put the 10,000RPM, 6Gb/s SATA WD VelociRaptor that booted my old Mac Pro back to use as a data drive in this build. The system is running Windows 10 Pro 64 and gaming is really all I’m using it for; in all other regards I’m an OS X (/ UNIX) guy. I pulled the ten-year-old 30-inch Apple Cinema Display off the desk in order to make room for the new system, so it’s down to one external screen on the iMac.

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A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: “No Man’s Sky”

A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: “No Man’s Sky”

[ It is worth noting that this post was written about the launch version of No Man’s Sky, prior to any of the major updates to come. ]

Earlier this month Hello Games released their much anticipated space exploration / survival game No Man’s Sky for the Playstation 4 and Windows PC. The game was five years in the making by Sean Murray and his small team and just might be the most highly anticipated title to come along in as many years. The promise of No Man’s Sky was a ticket to a procedurally generated universe with infinite worlds to explore. Well, 18.4 quintillion planets (2^64) — entire planets, every inch of which you could explore if you so chose. The media hyped the game incredibly, building up a massive fervor in the months prior to its release. (When, earlier this year, Murray announced that the game would be delayed several months, both he and the reporter who broke the story received death threats.) And then the release came…and so did the haters.

Many review sites who, in previews of the game months earlier, referred to No Man’s Sky in messianic terms were now giving it 6/10 ratings. Particularly vocal hardcore PC gamers were screaming that the online aspect of the game was less than they felt Hello had promised — there was no true multiplayer. People were finishing the storyline quest (which one has the option to ignore at the outset) in a week or two and writing off the game as too short, with too little substance. And the PC launch was, unfortunately, fraught with performance issues. There was much vitriol.

Not everybody felt “cheated,” however. There were some who felt…amazed. In awe. Immersed utterly. Emotionally moved. I count myself among those fortunate individuals.

Playing No Man’s Sky is the best and most breathtaking gaming experience I have ever had in my life. The sense of the infinite and of limitless discovery is tremendous. I am just lost in this game.

“Game.” Is it a game? It certainly seems more of a pursuit, a hobby, even a passion than a game to me. Inserting one’s self into No Man’s Sky is to begin a potentially endless adventure, visiting world after world after world that no eyes have ever seen before. Worlds placid, worlds violent. Worlds teaming with beautiful and fascinating life both plant and animal. Dead worlds, as well. You can never know what’s waiting down below when you drop into atmo.

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