No Man’s Sky: Exo Mech
Posted at 18:16 on 27th April 2020 - permalink

In the wake of the massive ‘Beyond’ and ‘Synthesis’ updates last year, Hello Games have continued to regularly update No Man’s Sky with smaller, weirder new features. So far we’ve been surprised with the ByteBeat music generation system, as well as new class of bizarre biomechanical starships, and most recently, the Minotaur Exo Mech.

The Minotaur is a big stompy bipedal exoskeleton that can be summoned to a planet’s surface (Titanfall-style) and which offers enhanced environmental protection and (once upgraded) better maneuverability than the plain old Exosuit.

My experiences with the Exo Mech serve as a good snapshot of the current state of NMS, and why I’m regularly coming back to it after four years. The game that was criticised at launch for offering the player too little to do now boasts a plethora of complex subsystems and diversions to cater for all manner of playing styles. Not all of them work perfectly, and as the game has grown, the amount of quirks and jank bubbling just below the surface has increased commensurately. There’s usually nothing serious enough to break the game, but it often asks a lot of the player’s patience and willingness to play around the gaps.

Even after hundreds of hours exploring, I’m still not always entirely sure whether some of the things that befall my Traveller are intentional design decisions, the result of particularly unlucky procedural dice rolls, or actual honest bugs. Usually what emerges from this chaos is familiar (if not mundane) or sometimes just irritatingly broken, but there are now enough moving parts that there is potential, just sometimes, for the game to synthesise an engaging self-contained adventure.

I logged in on the evening the Exo Mech patch dropped and set to work on acquiring my shiny new robot. My first port of call would be the Space Anomaly (the game’s interdimensional multiplayer lobby), where a new branch of technology blueprints was available to unlock.

In past years this may have involved a few days of scouring resources from planet surfaces (in this case, digging up buried tech modules to trade with the Anomaly’s merchants). But now NMS has pervasive multiplayer and a (mostly) non-toxic community, I had the good fortune to find a well-to-do Traveller on the Anomaly’s promenade who was handing out care packages of modules, allowing me to bag the whole set of new blueprints straight away. Minutes later I was planetside and fitting out the accessories and paint job of my new mechanical pal.

I had a little stomp around. I noted with approval that the Exo Mech could walk on the seabed unimpeded, and that its scanner was much more versatile than the multitool equivalent (and that stomping around left pleasingly chunky footprints in the snow, mud or moon dust). But as technically impressive as the Minotaur was, I couldn’t quite see the point of it. Guiding the lumbering mech around seemed a little cumbersome compared to just punching your spacesuit’s jetpack thrusters, and it’s environmental shielding was largely a moot point for someone who had long ago reached the endgame of NMS’s survival mechanics. I took a few photos and mentally filed it away as another nice novelty, like the cooking system, or underwater bases, or being able to build race tracks.

When I picked up the game again a few days later, I noticed that I was getting quite close to the centre of the galaxy I’d been trucking through for the last few months.

(No Man’s Sky is divided up into 256 galaxies in the manner of the original Elite’s eight. One of the main goals in the game – initially the only one, other than completing a perfunctory quest line – is to reach the centre of the galaxy and be teleported to the outer edge of the next one. Before the advent of portal travel, this was a major undertaking, requiring hundreds of warp hops between star systems and exploiting black holes, which would zap you vast distances along the spiral groove of each galaxy. Each galaxy has a slightly different ‘recipe’ dictating the average planetary conditions the player will encounter in each system. The first galaxy – Euclid – is fairly unremarkable. The third – the cursed Calypso that I’d been slogging through – has a higher chance for hostile conditions, resulting in most planets being wracked by constant blinding storms, caustic atmospheres, aggressive sentinels, Traveller-eating lizards or some combination of these. The tenth galaxy is meant to be particularly lovely, but for now I would settle for the respite of the relatively average fourth galaxy – Hesperius.)

It took maybe an hour or so to arrive at the last tiny wisp of stars, the galaxy’s run-off groove, the bottom tip of the funnel that all Travellers who had ventured this far (on Playstation) pass through. As with the previous galaxies I’d traversed, these last few star systems had been signed by their discoverers. I found a non-descript unclaimed planet to tag (“Milliways”, unoriginally) then set my ship’s controls for the singularity at the centre.

I had a rough idea of what would happen next. Galaxy hopping functions like a ‘new game plus’. You wake up shipwrecked on the shores of the new galaxy in a repeat of the game’s opening sequence, except you still have all your gear and cash. The cost of being reincorporated by the Atlas over an impossible distance is that your starship is wrecked, along with all the equipment in your suit’s inventory, and your multitool. That means all your protective (and offensive) capabilities are for the moment unavailable, and if the randomly chosen planet you’ve made landfall on is hostile to organic life (and in this case it was), you’re going to have to quickly hunker down in your wrecked ship’s cockpit and figure out how to get up and running again.

Except this time, my ship isn’t there.

My suit’s hazard protection is ticking down, and I can’t bore out a rough shelter in the nearest hillside as my multitool is currently a retrofuturistic paperweight. I duck into a shallow natural cave and wait for my innermost layer of shielding to recharge. Thankfully some of my suit tech is working (secondary inventories aren’t damaged by intergalactic travel, an actual bug that would have been more useful if I’d remembered it earlier).

But I still can’t summon my ship, wherever it is, as its launch thrusters and pulse engine are offline. I look up to the roiling sky of the soon-to-be-christened Planet Bum. (I usually name planets more imaginatively than this, honestly.) I can at least summon my capital ship into planetary orbit (again, pure luck that I’ve started in a star system of a type my freighter’s hyperdrive can lock on to), but with no way of leaving the atmosphere it remains tantalisingly out of reach.

However, as of the last update, my capital ship can construct and dispatch exocraft to me. Now we’re getting somewhere. I summon the Exo Mech, which hurtles dramatically into the mud at the mouth of the cave, and clamber aboard. It’s powered up and functional, and more to the point, I can use its scanner to detect nearby ship’s distress beacons. I get a ping – an hour away on foot, but with the Exo Mech’s hop thusters I can cover it in five, ten minutes tops. If it’s my ship I can get off this rock. If it’s abandoned I can at least hotwire it and get to my freighter, ditching it in the hangar to be traded in as scrap at the next space station.

It’s a bumpy, laborious journey (Planet Bum is crinkled with jagged outcroppings and deep gorges, and if the Exo Mech lands roughly from a hop it has to be painstakingly steered back onto the right heading before leaping again), but in a short while I reach the crash site.

Unfortunately, it’s not my ship, but nor is it abandoned. There is now a third eventuality for distress beacon callouts – the ship’s pilot is waiting for assistance, and the player is the AA.

There’s no option to just kill the pilot and steal his ship. (At least I don’t think there is – come to think of it I’ve not tried it since this scenario was added. Maybe a less scrupulous player could have gone that route.) I complete a simple task for the pilot to allow them to take off.

(In this case, it’s a Korvax who is having a crisis because they don’t know how to care for the organic pet they’ve brought along. Siphoning some oxygen to the creature’s tank saves the day and allows the grateful pilot to resume their journey. There seem to be loads of these scripted encounters, with some being much more elaborate. I’ve run across a fair few while scouting for crashed freighters and don’t think I’ve had one repeat yet.)

Having cleared this distress beacon from the Exo Mech’s scanner, I fire it up a second time. A new ping lights up – another hour’s trip. I worry that this will take me back to where I started, and that my absent ship is an unsalvageable bug, stranding me here forever. But mercifully it’s a different beacon, and better still, this time it’s my missing primary ship, a blue and gold S-Class exotic (‘The Needlemouse’). And as luck would have it, there are several dozen Wiring Looms stashed in the cargo hold – almost enough to fix most of my suit, multitool and ship’s tech with the exception of most of the weapon systems.

As my ship’s freshly repaired launch thrusters kick away from the surface of the inhospitable Planet Bum for the first and last time, I twist around in the cockpit and spy the abandoned Minotaur Exo Mech, crouched in wait for a pilot, as it shrinks away to a dot below the clouds. My travails on this inhospitable planet have brought it up in my estimation considerably, and although the game will fabricate a new one for me at the touch of a button, I feel a slight pang of guilt to be abandoning this one here to rust for eternity. (Well, technically it will get garbage collected from memory the next time I hop to a new system but that’s not very poetic is it?) I would certainly have had a much more unpleasant time if I’d attempted the crossing before the Exo Mech update.

I reorient my ship towards the welcoming landing lights of my freighter’s docking bay. Time to see what this new galaxy has in store for me next.

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