No Man’s Sky

Game CoverDeveloper: Hello Games
First Release: 9th August, 2016
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Steam

A traveller wakes up by a shipwreck on an alien world. A message is left for them by an entity called Atlas, and sentinel drones patrol for unknown reasons. It’s time to fix the ship and go exploring.

Procedural generation is the core of this game. Every planet is a bit different. Animals are constructed from putting together basic parts, there are different plant selections, different climates, and so on. The art style looks rather like old science fiction landscape covers. It’s somewhat realistic, but much brighter and bolder.

My first planet was an idyllic world with green almost-grass, reddish-orange trees, and lovely weather. As I woke up next to my broken spaceship, I was told something by the exosuit voice that I couldn’t understand, because the voice is difficult to pick out and it didn’t have subtitles. This fortunately becomes less of an issue after that, as the suit voice is just reinforcing things shown on the screen.

Image Caption: My starting planet. The foreground has green grass, and a larger tree on the right with red-orange leaves. The distance has patches of brown earth and more grass, with a forest stretching into the distance. The sky is a pale green colour. At the top, there’s a black curve, which acts as a compass.

The game prompted me to fix the ship. After a long journey for minerals, and an encounter with angry crabs, I got it done. But I still left the ship behind, as planets are made for walking. This became easier when I realised I could call the ship from certain locations, so I didn’t need to worry that I’d wander too far. I quickly got the hang of the different things I could find, like ruins with alien backstory, and drop pods to upgrade my suit inventory. I looked for new animals on the way, to find all the species on the planet. It is a little strange that I was discovering things on a planet packed with alien outposts, where spaceships were flying above me. These things already had names, and there were logs from travellers who’d been here before me. But my traveller liked to think they were the first to discover it, so I wasn’t going to argue.

Just when I was wondering where I’d find the last few creatures, I had a stroke of luck. As I crested the rolling hills, I spied a flock of majestic penises bouncing along on their testicles. It’s said that players given an open creation tool will always make genitals, but it’s maybe time we cut them some slack. Procedural algorithms are no better. It was also at this point I decided that naming everything after what it resembled was a bad idea.

Eventually, it was time to head into space. This was an odd experience, as space was a thick coloured cloud with asteroids everywhere. The controls were like trying to fly in treacle. Planets were all very close, making it feel more like a pretty menu for the planets than being in space. I do give credit for it being a seamless experience, as I could go from space to the planet’s surface without obvious loading screens. It just didn’t feel like space.

The galactic map, used for jumping between systems, was awkward to use. I really wish it had a cursor I could move over the stars, rather than having to move the sticks around and hope it moved to the star I wanted to view. It’s unlikely I could ever find my way back to systems I’d previously discovered.

After jumping between a few systems, ships would sometimes attack in space, but I still felt like I was selecting planets from a menu rather than flying a ship. The combat was nothing special. There wasn’t any depth in weapon choices, with only two kinds of weapon with a few upgrades. Having to go into the inventory to recharge shields was a pain. All round, space combat was something to do for the game milestones (which also link to trophies), not because it was good.

My early experiences were generally fun. I liked exploring, and it wasn’t too difficult to mine stuff to keep my exosuit running. Inventory space is a little tight at first, but it can be expanded. The biggest issue was the game didn’t want to explain anything. Controls were only shown in a diagram in the options menu and there was no explanation of what icons meant. For example, selecting options requires holding the button, not just pressing it. A red shield icon appears on the screen, but it actually means the inventory is full, not that the shield has a problem. Scanned plants and animals have to be uploaded after scanning to count, and again after all animals are found. There’s no air of mystery in withholding basic game functions from the player. All it meant is I paused the game to search for the answers online, which was time I wasn’t spending playing the game.

As the game continued, I got the hang of the interface, and it was mainly down to exploring. I enjoy mining and exploring in games, so I didn’t mind wandering around looking for animals and gathering resources. It’s a relaxing thing to do. There were a few more exciting moments on planets with threats, which were also fun in their own way. I spent a long time on a planet with sentinels that attack on sight, as part of a set of milestones for surviving on extreme planets. I think the family were a bit boggled as I walked slowly over the landscape and said, “I can’t stop. A killer robot is chasing me.” Sentinels aren’t the fastest robots out there.

Encounters with aliens were mostly rather similar, but there were a few that stood out. There was the time I stuck a killer slug up my nose because of a misunderstanding between “don’t stick this up your nasal passage” and “stick this up your nasal passage”. I’d have liked more of those, and less of aliens needing some basic resource for their equipment. These alien encounters could be a good way of showing how their society is now, in contrast to their ancient history, but the game never really got there.

The planets were the highlight. I found rocky deserts with strange plants and stone pyramids, ocean worlds with swimming eyeballs, and lush planets with plants everywhere. Some things do repeat a little too often, such as there being a limited range of items that grow in caves, and resource items looking the same on most planets. Those zinc flowers are like an invasive species that have found a way to populate nearly every planet in the galaxy. But mostly, I was finding planets that couldn’t have been mistaken for the one before.

Another planet

Image Caption: Another planet, which contrasts starkly with my first planet. Giant red leaves twist towards the sky, growing from a bare rock surface. The air is hazy and orange. The compass is visible, and there’s a white dot in the centre which acts as a cursor in the PS4 version.

Animals have areas where the variation really works, such as individuals in a herd varying. They might have babies with them, for example. Some species have very different individuals, to the point that it takes a scan to see they’re the same species. I did get a feel for some of the elements used to make the animals, as some noticeably repeated. Angry crabs were pretty common on the worlds I visited. The range of animal sounds was also small. But I was always finding new things. The best was when a big animal was given tiny butterfly wings, and it flew along like the universe’s most clumpy fairy.

As might be guessed from the clumpy fairy, the biology isn’t realistic. Herbivores can have carnivore teeth or a planet might only have herbivores. Animal behaviour is not very detailed. There were some nice moments though, like the carnivorous cow trying to chase one of the faster herbivores. There’s a good reason why cows aren’t mighty hunters. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing.

My discoveries

Image Caption: A collage of some of my animal discoveries, showing the range of things found. Animals include a mushroom with eyes on their stalk, a bird with three butterfly wing segments, a biped bird-dinosaur with a unicorn horn on their nose, an eyeball with tentacles, a mite with six legs and a crest on their back, and a green zebra-striped pigcow.

Much as I like exploring, the game promised a story. The strongest point is the lore about the past. Ruins reveal the history of the main alien races. Old logs tell the story of an ancient traveller. Any player can find these by exploring, regardless of other choices.

Things aren’t good when it comes to story where the player participates. The crash site had an item that let me talk to Atlas. This suggested there were two main story paths: helping Atlas and rejecting Atlas. It turns out that wasn’t the case. By rejecting Atlas, I’d opted out of the story, rather than choosing a different story. For those who do follow Atlas, the additional story it unlocks is sparse. There’s also a little bit of information that can be picked up by talking to two other characters, which again, doesn’t add a whole lot.

The game also strongly suggests that getting to the centre of the starting galaxy would be significant. All systems are marked by how close they are to the centre, there are black holes as shortcuts to the centre, and the galactic map really wants to show the player how to get to the centre. But the game sets players up to be disappointed, as it doesn’t follow through on the promise of something special.

The central problem was a lack of satisfying rewards for doing any of these things. That would mean getting a reasonable chunk of story or visiting a unique place. The game could have done with taking a good look at walking simulators. Those games have using story and setting as a reward, often in non-linear ways, down to an art. It’s clear that’s what this game was trying to do, but it didn’t succeed.

There are accessibility issues with the game. The character head movement can’t be turned off. This is particularly a problem as the character sways when standing still, which removes my usual trick of taking a motion sickness break by standing still. Red and green dots are used to mark animals when scanning, which is a colour blindness issue. The dots are also tiny. Making the dots bigger, and putting a symbol in the dots, would make them a lot more usable.

The game has a wide variety of genders for the animals found, including rational, asymmetric, orthogonal, none, and non-uniform. Some aliens are referred to using gender-neutral pronouns. There aren’t any humans, so there isn’t a direct comparison to how well it handles human genders. However, all but one of the trophy descriptions are named after stories by men, which isn’t a good sign in that direction (the exception being short story “Symphony For a Lost Traveler” by Lee Killough).

A concern for how endless the game will be is the design decisions for galaxy creation. My top update would be more types of worlds to explore, more alien races, adding more assets into the pot for the procedural algorithms to use, and other things that mean there will always be more to find. But the universe is already created, so that’s unlikely to happen. It would mean remaking the universe, and destroying people’s discoveries in the process, which I’m sure they won’t do (and I wouldn’t want them to either). I’d have rather the game started out with a single galaxy and had new variations in future galaxies, than to have infinite galaxies that will all be the same.

This is a game that has its extremes. The weak areas, like the story and the space flight, are very weak. The strength is the range of planets produced from the procedural algorithms, which is something unique. It will appeal to anyone who wants to wander alien planets. I loved finding the animals, swimming in the oceans, and naming everything. The main thing is for players to know what they’re getting. Exploring other worlds and seeing strange creatures, for sure. A story that explores the mystery of the setting and great space combat, not so much.

The Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Movie CoverGenre: Superhero / Film
Main Cast: Henry Cavill; Ben Affleck; Amy Adams; Gal Gadot; Jesse Eisenberg; Jeremy Irons
First Shown: March, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

I wasn’t that fond of Man of Steel. So when I went to the cinema recently, I walked past the staff in their superhero costumes, the table of drinks, and the balloons. Instead, I headed into Zootropolis, which was great. But there had been a bit of a mistake when the tickets were booked, which meant the manager had to handwrite tickets for a showing at a slightly different time. The cinema sent free tickets as compensation. So it’s thanks to Odeon Cinemas that I’m writing this review of Batman v Superman.

In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) fight with Zod, people are questioning whether Superman is a good thing for the world. Batman (Ben Affleck) has no doubt about the answer: after seeing the carnage caused by the battle, he thinks Superman has to go. But it might be that there’s something more happening than either of them realise.

One of my criticisms of Man of Steel was the amount of death that was brushed under the carpet. Epic fights happened with no attempt to move the fight away from the city. Civilians had to fend for themselves, if the film even acknowledged they existed. This film does address that. The opening scenes were the strongest on that score, as they show Bruce Wayne on the ground during the finale of the previous film. It humanises the conflict in a way Man of Steel failed to do. Some of the later scenes did not work so well, as there were a whole lot of happened-to-be-uninhabited places in two major cities. That was rather convenient and hard to believe. Though at least the heroes are now considering that civilians will die if they’re not careful.

I liked the concept behind Batman. He’s older, and twenty years as Batman has taken its toll. Wayne Manor is a ruin, so he lives in a new building on the grounds. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is also older, and has become rather more cynical. Given how often the Batman origin story is done, it was a good choice to have an established Batman, with the issues that come with that.

Batman going darker is the main theme of his storyline. He tortures criminals for information, which fails as it’s not a reliable method. As Alfred points out, it’s Bruce Wayne who finds the information through non-violent means. The violence is a coping mechanism, not a solution. This was an interesting take on Batman, but I would have liked more on what led to this. He has flashbacks about his parents dying, but the traumatic things he would have faced after that are glossed over.

Superman’s storyline didn’t have a lot going for it. He gets very little time as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ends up doing the reporter thing without him. There’s a lot of standing around looking sad and feeling guilty about people dying. Not a whole lot of really getting into his story, or showing his relationship with Lois developing.

The final main hero is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She has a small role in this one, but it’s a good sign for her coming solo film. She has an air about her, as though she’s a lot older than she looks, which really works for the role. She also brought a bit of interest to later fight scenes, as she’s a lot more tactical with her weapons than the other two.

The villain is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of the original Lex Luthor. Having him as the next generation of Luthors isn’t a bad thing, though little time is given on expanding his backstory and motivation. It wasn’t clear how the older Lex Luthor died or how else things had gone differently in this timeline. All of this would have impacted the life of the current Lex Luthor.

Unfortunately, undeveloped elements are a trend. There’s a lot of introducing characters and plot, then trying to wrap them up neatly and quickly. This doesn’t make for the best story.

Taking Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), for example. He’s in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated (above the knee), due to injuries from the big attack of the previous film. He feels bitter and blames Superman. When he climbs the Superman statue to spray messages, it looks like he might get a role that goes beyond being there to pity. But he doesn’t, and that’s his last moment of agency when he’s not being manipulated. I was particularly uncomfortable with the press interview, where the camera moves to show his legs as he complains about losing everything. It’s set up in a way to point at his disability as something to pity. It would have been a lot more interesting to have his anger against Superman and the system actually come to a resolution. And as a result, for him to come to terms with what happened. But there’s no time to develop his story.

On to some of the other things going on, mental illness is handled the way superhero stories often do. Batman’s trauma is shown with empathy, even when his behaviour is going off the rails. Lex Luthor is the bad guy, which means he’s called psychotic as an insult (he doesn’t come across as actually psychotic… he also shows signs of trauma). Lex is irredeemable and mentally ill, while Batman can change and is troubled.

There’s a scene where Superman rescues a girl in Mexico. The crowd holds their hands out to touch him, as though he’s a god. Superman might be uncomfortable with this, but it still paints him as the great white saviour, worshipped by those simple non-white folk who don’t know any better.

Gotham and Metropolis were difficult to tell apart. They were also really close together. I never imagined they’d basically be districts of each other, viewable just by looking the right way. If it hadn’t been for characters saying where the action was happening, I wouldn’t have known.

There’s a lot more that could be said without needing to give away major plot twists or talk about the ending, simply because there was so much happening. It’s really the setup for multiple films.

I didn’t hate it, and I did like it better than Man of Steel. There were some themes I’d like to see explored more in sequels, like what it means to be an older Batman. There was plenty of action, and it’s likely to be enjoyable enough for superhero fans. But I didn’t love it because of the cramming issue.

When it comes down to it, I’m a lot more interested in the possible future films that will come from this. Wonder Woman is finally getting another film. After reading Cyborg’s adventures, I’m curious about how his story will be developed. Aquaman has always hit my love of ocean stories, even before Jason Momoa was cast in the part. The groundwork for the setting could lead to something great, but the filmmakers do need to slow down and tell one complete story per film, rather than trying to do everything at once.

After Earth

After Earth Cover (UK)** The review contains some mild spoilers, but not the major twists or ending **

Humanity damages Earth so much it isn’t habitable for humans, so they leave for a new world. This is attacked by aliens who track humans by their fear pheromones. But the aliens are beaten back after the emergence of Cypher (Will Smith) – a solider able to feel no fear, so he’s invisible to them.

As the film begins, Cypher is close to retirement, and has a strained relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith). In an attempt to patch things up, he takes Kitai on his last mission, but the ship is damaged and crashes on Earth. With Cypher badly injured, it’s up to Kitai to travel through the wilderness and send a distress call. In the process, father and son have to face their differences.

 

General Thoughts

After Earth got very bad reviews, but the premise interested me enough to watch it anyway. I really enjoyed it. It’s not the action-adventure the marketing suggests, but a story about a father and son working through their issues (with some action backdrop).

There’s a lot of attention to detail in this. All the characters speak an invented futuristic accent, showing how language has continued to develop. The design of the colony avoids the excess and waste of the modern world, and their energy comes from turbines, as might be expected from a species trying to avoid making the same mistake twice. The changes in colour and texture of Kitai’s suit is also a nice touch.

Add in that this is a rare science fiction film where non-white/people of colour get the starring roles, and there’s a lot to like. This is not one of those futures where anyone brown mysteriously disappears, possibly because the aliens think they’re extra tasty.

 

Ecology

Earth is initially abandoned because humans made it uninhabitable (for humans). It’s placed under a harsh quarantine, which states that everything on Earth is out to get humans. I was worried when that was announced that it’d be like the King Kong remake, where animals attack humans in a single-minded way. But the quarantine is an exaggeration.

Given my interest in animal behaviour in films, I liked the different animal reactions. The spider Kitai first meets has no interest in him and doesn’t bite him. The first larger animal is checking to see if Kitai is a threat. Each animal has its own reactions, rather than being generic meatbags who want to kill all humans at any cost.

Reading Moby Dick, and the themes of hunting it contains, is used to overlay this. In the absence of humans, Earth is thriving, and species driven to near-extinction are abundant. The implication is the quarantine isn’t really to protect people. It’s to protect Earth.

As a criticism, I’d note that the timescale isn’t long enough for some of the adaptations shown to have evolved. Mimosa-like plant movement wouldn’t be a quick thing, for example. But it’s probably better not to overthink how the climate and ecology is really working.

 

Women

There are also scenes with Faia (Sophie Okonedo) the mother and Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) the daughter, but the primary focus isn’t on those relationships. In mild spoilers, because you find it out shortly after the opening, it’s clear something happened to Senshi. I felt the family reaction to this was good, rather than it being a throw-away tragedy to activate the plot. What I mean by this is the plot isn’t tragedy occurs so let’s kill aliens and never mention it again (looking at you, Starship Troopers film). It’s tragedy occurs and family has to deal with the emotional fallout.

That said, I wish we’d seen more of the Faia’s reaction to this. There’s hints she’s struggling to deal with it, but it’s not fully shown.

One common Hollywood trope is most side characters are men. There were women and girls in the crowds, but they didn’t get lines. This may seem a small thing, but it does detract from the realism.

If there’s a sequel, I hope they deal more with the family as a whole. And mix up the side characters a bit.

 

Disability

There’s a point when a solider who lost a leg in a previous battle thanks Cypher for saving him. This has good and bad sides. The good side is it shows the man is enjoying his life after becoming disabled. He’s genuine happy that he got to go home to his family. Life after disability shouldn’t be a rare protrayal, but it is. It’s often shown as a fate worse than death (and therefore death as a mercy).

However, the thing about wanting to stand to salute Cypher was rather over-hammed. He should have been able to stand with crutches, but he didn’t have any. I see how they wanted to link it in thematically to Cypher’s later injuries, but still… he could have had crutches.

 

Conclusions

I suspect some of the negative response was it not being as actiony as suggested. Someone expecting a kill-all-the-aliens war film will be disappointed. But I’m suspicious some criticism comes from the invented accent. People could think, “This accent is new to me. It’ll take some time until I’m fully able to get the tone of the speaker’s voice and notice small differences.” Or they could think, “This accent is weird. They must be terrible actors.” The latter is unfortunately the one people go for a lot of the time.

This isn’t hypothetical, given that people with composite accents in the real world tend to get those sorts of criticisms. Like the situation where Amal El-Mohtar’s accent was described as feigned and false.

However, if you like family tales with science fiction settings, an attention to detail, and Will Smith, you may well enjoy this film.