Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Sony/Hello Games
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
Reviewing No Man’s Sky is a damn near impossible feat. Not even taking into consideration that it’s impossible to see and do everything and the massive controversy surrounding marketing materials which promoted things which don’t even exist, it’s still almost impossible to talk about it. That’s because when you examine its mechanics No Man’s Sky is actually incredibly simple, and yet it’s also hard to define and pin down. Much of these problems stem from the fact that No Man’s Sky feels like a teenager. It has sort of figured out a few keys aspects of itself and what it might want to do in life, but is far from knowing who it really is deep down. It’s a survival game, but one where survival is trivially easy, the very resources you need to survive, prosper and travel in abundance throughout. It’s an exploration game, but one where the initial wonder wears off quickly when you realise that all of these planets look slightly different but play exactly the same, and that despite all the travelling you do there’s only ever one single alien sitting in a huge space or in a small outpost. It’s a trader, with a shallow economy so that there’s no reason to make an extensive trip to sell a valuable resource. It has combat…if you want to call it that. It’s opening hours are the best, giving you a sense a wonder and exploration. Then the luster fades, and you’re left with something hollow that serves as a poster child for why procedural is the future, and as a prime example of why it isn’t. It’s a conflicted game.
So what exactly do you actually do in No Man’s Sky? Well, you mine. You mine a lot. You mine so that you can fuel the stuff you mine with, and then you mine to fuel your starship that will carry you from planet to planet across a galaxy containing some 18-quintillion planets that have been procedurally generated along with the wildlife and plants that inhabit them. You mine to build new upgrades that let you mine better, and go further faster. Why do you go further? To mine more stuff. There are narratives weaved gently through the game, one of which surrounds a strange entity known as the Atlas, or you could simply chase the goal of making it to the middle of the galaxy. These are vague objects, though, a way of just quietly prodding the player along to give them so sense of direction, because not everyone enjoys being told to just go off and do whatever. Even the straightest line to the center of the Galaxy takes a long time, though. But I’ve been to the center of the Galaxy, and it wasn’t a trip worth making. So that means there’s plenty of time to do other stuff, right? Surely in a game this vast there are numerous mechanics at play? Wrong.
The ultimate problem arguably isn’t even No Man’s Sky itself, but rather the intense level of hype surrounding it and the frankly borderline misleading advertising. Reddit users have compiled a daunting list of promised features that don’t seen to exist in the game, from deeper faction systems to atmospheric combat to meeting other players. Now, given the size of the game it’s possible that there are actually things people haven’t found, including the multiplayer since the chances of meeting someone is pretty small, but I’m far from convinced that said multiplayer exists. Still, that’s something for a different article. I’ve always attempted to review a game based on what it is, rather than what it was promised to be, envisioned to be or was wanted by consumers to be.
The game’s first few hours are nothing short of a spectacular experience. You begin on a random planet, one that is hopefully rich with resources and fantastical wildlife that will capture the interest of the player. You might encounter things that look horribly like brains being propelled along by weird tentacles, or snake-like creatures that glide through the air. Perhaps you’ll find something massive that walks on talk legs and looks like it hit every branch of the derp tree on the way down. Here you’ll learn the basics of mining; hold down the RT on whatever you want to get, be it iron or gold or emeril. You’ll also find a ruined starship in dire need of repair, so off you go into the wilderness to earn the resources needed to fix your vehicle. Along the way maybe you’ll be close to an outpost and meet your first alien who speaks in an incomprehensible language, one which you can gradually piece together one word at a time by finding Knowledge Stones, encyclopedia entries and ancient monoliths scattered across the galaxy. Here, on this vast planet that would take an astonishing amount of time to walk around, you have found intelligent life! On your travels you might also find new technology that you can craft using raw materials which will improve the life support systems in your exosuit or make your multi-tool better. Eventually you’ll repair your ship and takeoff for the first time, discovering in the process the true scope of the planet as you hurtle over its alien landscape. This isn’t some small sphere, it’s a collosal place and even flying around it will take a long, long time. With your ship you can travel in minutes what would take hours on foot. Looking upwards you can see something obscured by the clouds; an alien space station sitting in the void of space, and beyond that are two planets, equal in size to your own. It’s a beautiful moment. And then comes something amazing; you point your ship upwards and boost up into space. In just a few seconds you break the atmosphere and are greeted with an even better view of those other planets, planets that you can visit. As you stare a few huge cargo ships warp into view. It’s a moment I appreciated in silence. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was playing 2d games with ugly little characters battling across tiny worlds, and now here we are with a game that lets you explore a colossal planet before jumping in a ship, leaving the planet’s gravitation pool and flying off to an entirely different planet in an entirely different section of space using a warp drive, and it’s almost entirely seamless barring an obvious loading screen during warp travel. It’s…breathtaking. It’s a technical marvel. This is a game that boasts some eighteen-quintillion planets that are constructed from bits and bobs in order to make them all look different, each featuring a variety of wildlife and trees and bushes. As someone who grew up watching Star Trek, Stargate, Farscape, Star Wars and more I can’t even begin to tell you how these first few hours spoke to me. Here I was getting to live out my love of sci-fi, something that games like Mass Effect have done before, but not with this sense of scale and freedom. It’s simply wonderous.
But once that wonder starts to wear off and a critical eye is turned to the game it becomes abundantly clear that while No Man’s Sky is almost terrifying huge it has all the depth of Miley Cyrus’ lyrics. For a game so vast it’s surprising to see that it contains very little in the way of actual gameplay mechanics or variety, and that’s where its divisive nature comes from; some people will enjoy the cathartic loop of mining and upgrading, and for others it will just be a tedious grind that never shows them anything better or worthwhile. Once you start paying attention you’ll notice how eerily similar planets look or how none of them offer any different gameplay, or how clearly bolted together most of the wildlife actually is and how small their animation pool is. So few planets are worth spending time on because while the random generation tries its best to provide memorable moments it simply can’t compete with a person actually sitting down and designing spectacular views or awesome moments. Occasionally the system spits out something that makes you stop for a moment and soak it all in, but those moments can easily take thirty or forty hours to find at a time. That’s largely down to luck, because you might get a good run and hit upon several amazing planets in a row, or you could find yourself exploring dull environments for the next ten hours. You’ll start to find other things that bug you, too, such as how a colossal space station has a single alien who never moves and can only be interacted with on the most basic of levels. And why is every planet that is seemingly “undiscovered” actually home to hundreds of identical compounds, each of which is also home to just one damn alien at a time who doesn’t do anything?
Indeed, aliens prove to be one of the biggest let-downs. In the build up to launch we were promised factions that you could align yourself with and so much more, but what we’ve got is so much less. For starters despite the size of the universe you’ll never get to see anything of the three species’ civilisation. At most you’ll find one alien hanging around in a space station or in a building on a planet’s surface, and your interaction is solely limited to a brief puzzle (alien speaks, asks for something, you reply) and that’s it. You can’t try to converse further with them. Other lifeforms will land in ships when you’re on a space station or visiting a trading outpost, but while you can buy and sell items with them they’ll never step outside of their spacecraft, remaining inside of their protective shells for no other reason than the developers didn’t want them to step out. Aside from the small handful of building types there’s no hint of civilisation to be found.
Surprisingly despite the colossal amount of resource gathering the game wants you to do inventory space is incredibly limited at the start making much of the early busy work inventory management . Your exosuit and ship will fill up quickly, especially if you want to focus on getting a few technology upgrades since they too take up space needed for materials. Want to improve your stamina for sprinting across the landscape? Then you’ll need to sacrifice a space to do it. If you’re like me your first while with the game will probably be spent just trying to get some more space to work with, especially since the crafting system works by having the item you’re attempting to craft need an open slot as well, thus if you wish to make something that uses three resources you’ll actually need four slots. To improve exosuit carrying capabilities you can purchase new slots found in drop-pods on planets and in space stations, but they get progressively more expensive. Still, the extra room quickly pays for itself. The other option is to save up some cash and buy a new ship, which is a more difficult process than it sounds because there’s no dedicated spaceship market, rather you have to head to a trading post or space station and wait for aliens to land before making an offer on their ship. Using this odd system it can take a long time before something in your price range actually turns up.The other way to acquire new ships is to discover crash sites on planets, where you can then opt to spent time gathering the needed resources to repair the down craft and claim it as your own. This is a bit more satisfying than just sidling up to somebody and offering them bagfuls of cash to hand over their transportation.
There are a host of technological upgrades to be picked up along the way, with new blueprints found all over the place that can be used to improve your multi-tool, your ship or your exosuit. Don’t get your hopes up, though, as these are mostly just mundane improvements that let you mine quicker and more efficiently or provide some extra environmental protection. If only you could here me sighing right now. Anyway, the mining upgrades are worth chasing purely because they’ll save you a lot of time over the course of the game. Meanwhile as you progress further you’ll want to build better warp drives to access systems previously too distant to get to, sending you on yet more resource gather excursions. Despite how almost all of these upgrades merely serve to feed an already mundane cycle of mining, flying and mining some more they still manage to provide a small sense of progress in an existence that otherwise struggles with its lack of purpose. Much like Minecraft this is the type of game where you need to find your own goals that drive you forward, and technology upgrades give you just that – something to chase.
All of this technology needs to be fueled, though, which is where we hit upon the very foundation of No Man’s Sky’s addiction to mining. Your exosuit alone has two systems which are powered by resources; life support and environmental protection, and if you opt to add further layers of protection on top of that you’ll need to fuel those as well. Your multi-tool, meanwhile, also needs resources in order to power its mining laser, and to provide ammunition for the boltcaster weapon. As for your spaceship you’ll need to supply the launch thrusters, boost drive and warp drive with their respective elements, too. Every takeoff will cost you 25% of your launch thrusters total fuel capacity, thus for that single piece of technology you’ll need to stop ever four landings and either spend a few pointless seconds doddling through the slow inventory to refuel it from your supplies or mine some plutonium. Perhaps this would all make more sense if the required resources were hard to find, but in my entire 50+ hours with the game I never once came across anything short of an abundance of materials needed to keep travelling. Occasionally you might have to amble around for a few minutes to find stuff, but that’s the limit of it. No Man’s Sky quite literally does not want you to ever become stranded, and while that is somewhat understandable it also makes a horrible mockery of its survival elements. Without the ability to actually run out of important resources and have to truly explore planets to find them having to constantly drip-feed technology is nothing more than bloody annoying. There are crazy design decisions everywhere you look. Take your pulse drive, for example, which is used for moving between planets in a solar system; like your pulse drive can run out of fuel and must therefore be fed Iridium. Because of this it’s possible to get stranded between planets where the travel time required using regular engines could be hours and hours. To solve this problem Hello Games have littered space with fuel-rich asteroids, making it impossible to ever run out of fuel. You just stop, blow up a few space rocks and carry on your merry way, thereby also making the entire system pointless.
And as for flying your spacecraft, No Man’s SKy can’t even let you do that without taking the joy out of it. For starters every ship is exactly the same; none of them behave different or have any unique features, so while that huge beast you spent several million credits on might look great it’ll fly exactly the same as your starter vessel, except with the added benefit of being able to carry a small continent’s worth of resources in the boot. Once you bring your ship down into a planet’s atmosphere you can at least look forward to some low-level flying…except, no, you can’t. You see in its infinite wisdom and its desire to treat you like a small toddler who is prone to sticking his/her fingers in the electrical sockets the game simply won’t let you get anywhere near the ground, automatically pulling you back up whenever you begin to descend below a very high distance. All those dreams of cruising through ravines and skimming the ground are shattered because No Man’s Sky doesn’t want you to crash the spaceship, which doesn’t make any sense since death isn’t a very big deal in this game. You just respawn, travel back to your area of demise and collect your stuff before travelling onwards. Thankfully there’s already a mod that let’s you do low-level flying. Thank God for modders, eh?
Speaking of death there is combat in the game, albeit in a very, very basic form. Aside from the occasional hostile animal who wants to take a chunk out of your arse every planet is occupied by Sentinels, most of which are floating orbs but there are some other versions, too. These Sentinels can be quite aggressive or fairly passive, but basically their job is to attack you when you mine too many materials from the planet or start killing the wildlife. To fight then you switch your mult-tool to its weapon mode and then just hold down the trigger until they die. There’s nothing else to it. Or you could just run away since Sentinel forces won’t follow you into buildings or can be lost incredibly easy. Hopping in your ship also confuses them. Out in space combat is much the same; you can opt to attack some of the massive cargo ships at which point they’ll open fire and you’ll have to deal with some fighters, or you might encounter pirates gunning for your resources or attacking other vessels. Either way combat is dull since you aim at the big floating target which accounts for distance and travel and just hold down the fire button until the target explodes. Dogfighting is dull, there’s no feedback and….look, it’s just plain boring, which is somewhat amusing considering how you’ll constantly run across new improvements for your weapons.
On the plus side you can use this space combat to lead a life of space travel and never touch ground, or at least I think you can. Attacking cargo ships can naturally be a little hit or miss in terms of loot, but naturally you can then hurtle over to a space station and sell your pirated goods, because apparently nobody was looking out the window when you were busy shooting stuff up. Since you only need to power your vessel and shields you can acquire all the needed resources from asteroids, or from the space stations if need be. The problem is that ship upgrades are very rarely accessible in space, with the only chance of getting one coming from encounters with the aliens manning the stations. Sadly you can’t just purchase them, so eventually you’ll want to head to the ground. It’s probably for the best since there isn’t much going on in space.
That’s the flaw, though, isn’t it? There’s not much going on. Using procedural generation there are some eighteen-quintillion planets to visit, an impossible feat for a player, but out of the hundreds of those that I visited I barely remember maybe half-a-dozen of them. The tantalising prospect about procedural generation is that it can open the door for a wealth of emergent gameplay to sprint forth from the gameplay systems at work, but while No Man’s Sky has procedural generation by the wazoo it has almost zero emergent gameplay. Nothing ever seems to interact with each other. Animals seem to leave each other alone regardless of their listed temperaments and appear to be entirely unaffected by the weather, while Sentinels do absolutely nothing unless you happen to piss them off, while aliens simply stand around, their entire goal in life seemingly to wait in one spot for a player to pop by for all of a minute. Aside from some pirates raiding a ship none of the different factions interact with each other, and indeed your own standing with them seems irrelevant. Everything in the game exists independently of everything else, or so it feels, and the result is a game so vast in scale that it boggles the mind, yet so shallow and hollow that it leaves you feeling nothing, and frankly that’s worse than it just being plain bad. It’s like the whole galaxy is a stage, but you’re the only actor.
But here’s the big caveat; despite all my many criticisms with the game it’s absolutely going to be absorbing to a lot of people. It’s very easy to become engrossed in the repetitive, mundane gameplay loops and let hours of your life slip by. It’s almost a meditative experience, a way of letting your brain disengage for a while as you fly from planet to planet, hoovering up valuable resources and idly contemplating whatever new monstrosity you’ve discovered. At one point I sat down, and the next time I checked it was four hours later. In that four hours I didn’t find anything interesting, didn’t do anything different or even have any real fun. Yet there I was having lost track of time. It’s much the same effect that a mediocre movie or book has on me. There’s comfort to be found in the mundane, a safety that lets you turn off for a while.
Finally, let’s talk about performance. After a rocky start Hello Games have seemingly managed to polish the game up through a series of updates that now have it running smoothly for me, although reports of iffy framerates can still be found. That huge galaxy comes with some costs, mind you; get up close and textures are pretty naff and the way aliens and animals are put together makes for some very obvious and janky seams. Still, this is a game that is quite often lovely to look at thanks to a vibrant color pallete and the fact that while its huge it still plays with distances so that planets can be close to each other. In short, the PC version now seems to be worth picking up provided you’ve got a reasonable rig.
No Man’s Sky is not a bad game, it’s just not a great one, either, and for a lot of people who have been tracking it since it was announced and buying into the promises and hype that’s hugely disappointing. For everyone else provided you go in with the right expectations No Man’s Sky can be an enthralling game at times, which is strange given that so little of what happens is actually very interesting. What’s more, it’s easy to love the game because it was developed by a small team with big ambitions and plenty of passion, even if they clearly bit off a lot more than they could chew and then got caught up in a media whirlwind. It can be beautiful and enchanting, but dull and lifeless. It can be big and wonderous, and shallow and pointless. It can be hard to find the actual game in No Man’s Sky, but it can also produce those moments where you push that aside and just stare, murmuring, “well, would you look at that.”
Maybe that’s enough.