No Man’s Sky opens up with the same level of ambition and promise that all its marketing has exuded for the past three years. The camera flies past thousands of stars, each with their own systems orbiting them. Hello Games, a small studio for the scale of the game, have been selling the idea of scale since day one. A staggering 18 quintillion planets, spread out across a shared universe just waiting to be explored. A universe that sadly is nowhere near as engrossing as you might have hoped it to be.
Drawing from an array of sci-fi novels and films and leveraging some incredibly complex (and fascinating) procedural generation algorithms, Hello Games set out to achieve the impossible. Creating a game world on this scale is unprecedented, never mind that the team creating it doesn’t break 20 employees. No Man’s Sky’s ambition is arguably what has sold the for all these years, with the promise of near infinite exploration kicking imaginative minds into overdrive. But once this paper-thin facade is peeled away, the only thing that remains is a pretty standard survival game. And not a great one at that.
No Man’s Sky is first and foremost about one gameplay loop. Using your multi-purpose gun, you’ll mine a variety of elements from planet surfaces and in orbit, quickly filling up your criminally limited inventory space (which is a pain to navigate from the get go). These elements are sorted into three classes to keep things simple, they’re the crux of what makes No Man’s Sky tick. Not only does the abundance of one or scarcity of another have a direct impact on the planet you’re exploring, elements are your means for survival For better or worse.
Every planet brings with it some form of hazard, keenly communicated through two life bars on the overcrowded HUD. The top refers to environmental effects that the planet might be imposing on you, be it radiation poisoning, freezing cold temperatures or sweltering heat. This bar changes according to what it needs to be, supplemented by an ever-present Life Systems bar below it. These both tick down constantly, requiring elements to keep them topped up and stay alive. It’s the carrot on a stick that splits in multiple directions, but taps into the primal need to simply survive.
Survival, as it turns out, is severely overrated though. Mining is the only meaningful way to obtain elements to stay alive, craft tools and complete recipes. It is also mundane and boring, requiring you to simply aim and hold a trigger until a crystal shatters, rock falls apart or carbon miraculously appears from strange looking space mushrooms. Most of your time spent attempting to explore this universe will be hindered by this too. It’s an inescapable part of No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop, but also one of its weakest.
Crafting is also just as important to progress, as hopping between star systems requires a resource known as Warp Cells. Each one of these requires a build up of four recipes and burns immediately once you make the jump, keeping you entrenched in the loop in-between stints of exploration. This grinds the sense of discovery to a halt almost all the time. Instead of being free to explore, you’re forced to touch down frequently on planets to look at the same elements and mine them again. Coupled with the ridiculously slow moment speed, it’s almost as if No Man’s Sky doesn’t want you to explore that much at all.
Which is a shame, because it’s the strongest component of the game that breaks the monotony of its otherwise boring tasks. On ground you’re free to visit alien outpost to converse with one of four alien races. You’ll open up trade and frequently be rewarded for playing a guessing game of response, granting you new recipes, better weapons and more. You could alternatively, dedicate your time to learning their language, which happens a word at a time. Increasing your standing with a race, seeking out ancient ruins or simply chatting will open up their vocabulary to you, replacing once unknown words with slight translations here and there.
It doesn’t help that much though, as quickly becomes evident. The vague way in which questions are presented still makes responses almost impossible to predict at times, even if you’ve made it your life’s purpose to learn ancient languages. Still, seeking them out does offer up it’s own form of gratification. Learning of ancient alien histories and observing their design is fascinating, so it’s a shame that they’re given little else to do than occupy colony outposts and space station stores.
Sticking with ground exploration, you’re free to tackle the ridiculously massive masses of rock as you see fit. A handy scanner (which can be upgraded, like almost every component of your mining tool and ship), lets you know where elements are, but true explorers will have to seek out outposts with longer range scanners. These reveal one of four points of interest, non of which change from planet to planet. A shelter will always reward you with an Exosuit inventory upgrade. A Monolith will reveal alien ruins. Before long you’ll exploit these to your needs, which makes individual planets feeling ridiculous similar within no time.
Planets themselves thankfully offer up some delightful visual variety from time to time, even if all the buildings on them don’t change in the slightest. The range of colours and hues used to generate simply breath-taking views can break the monotony from time to time, even if these moment are fleeting. It is, however, common for plants to start looking oddly familiar the deeper you explore. You’ll notice slight window-dressing changes over fundamental designs that remain rigid, as the sense of explorative wonder slowly fades until nothing remains.
The same can be said for each of the planet’s ecosystems, which feature a variety of put together wildlife and plants. You’re able to scan these in for small monetary rewards (and rename the first one or two before becoming bored), and the initial few first contacts are memorable. That quickly fades when animals designs become twisted monstrosities of the algorithms that created them. Sometimes floating off the ground or chipping right through it, it takes away most of the splendour that observing these strange creatures is probably supposed to evoke. But hey, at least that red leaved tree looks pretty in the sunlight.
And when wildlife isn’t so friendly (or you find yourself at odd with the Sentinel space police), No Man’s Sky does its best to try and give you a reason you fight back. Your mining tool doubles as a gun, and you’re able to easily fend off most enemies with heavy auto-aiming and lifeless shooting. I never really felt in any real danger during my travels, only dying a handful of times to nasty space pirates who ambushed me while warping. That’s mostly down to space combat being a drag too, but thankfully the penalty for death is so light its just as easy to shrug off.
At this point it might seem like No Man’s Sky is devoid of any redeeming qualities, but the irony is that its more handcrafted elements are those that ultimately save some face. Spaceships, for example, offer up some delightful visual variety and showcase some creative designs, making me stop at every passing space station just to check out what flies in. Being able to purchase any ship you see is neat too, if not for some weird design choices that force you to replenish travel systems every time you do.
Mining tools and weapon design fall under this bracket too, with some quickly and colour designs distinguishing each one of your new procurements from the last. Since they’re hand-crafted though, the well only goes so deep – and before long you’ll run into the same designs with different paint jobs. The same is sadly true for weapon and ship mods, which quickly cease being new discoveries only after a few hours.
There are no such issues for No Man’s Sky in an auditory sense though, with both the soundtrack and sound design being two of the most solid aspects of the entire experience. The slight whoosh of your ship air-locking before travel or the eerie pings of a space station are delicately used to great effect here, and breathe life into an otherwise dead universe. The soundtrack is especially sublime though, giving your explorative meanderings a pleasant backdrop of soothing synth and riveting beats when necessary.
It’s just a same some of those elements take a back seat to what is ultimately No Man’s Sky’s biggest problem. As a game, No Man’s Sky is simply boring. After a week with it I’m struggling to find any real inclination to return, with the splendour or discovery and the excitement of surprise being washed away by repetition on a grand scale. No Man’s Sky is a technical marvel in some aspects (the game is also riddled with bugs and performance issues in other departments), but its sense of wonder is so wafer thin that you’ll need to hold on tight to that notion to draw any drops of enjoyment after only a handful of hours.
And it’s a pity, because those drops can be intoxicating. The rush of breaking into orbit for the first time, or landing on a planet that looks like some of the promotional work that the game has pushed for so many years. Those fleeting moments of wonder are where No Man’s Sky is at its best – delivering a sense of astonishment that few other games have before. But they’re padded with inescapable, poor gameplay – and it won’t take long before you considering shutting down that space ship for good.
Last Updated: August 16, 2016