Between over-hype, confusion about promised features, visual awe, and an awkward PC launch, it’s tough to discern the value of No Man’s Sky. Here are our thoughts after a week and a half of play.
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4 (version reviewed), PC
Release Date: August 9, 2016
What is one to make of No Man’s Sky? By the time you see this review it is almost certain that your views on the game have been colored in some way by a combination of the Internet hype machine, a multitude of other reviews and think pieces, discussion of its broken status on PC, and the jaw-dropping screenshots that have been plastered all over social media this week. It’s a divisive game for many reasons. And yet, the experience of playing No Man’s Sky is somehow divorced from most of that discussion. This game is not a list of its features or lack thereof.
No Man’s Sky plays something like a mix of Starbound and Firewatch. You take a space vacation that lasts as long as you want it to, usually in the range of 30-100 hours. You’ll spend the opening hours playing a survival game; the middle hours, a resource gathering/trade-centric game; the ending hours, an exploration and photo-taking adventure. It’s weird and open-ended and hard to pin down. It does some things well. It fails at others, too.
First, the opening hours: a crashed ship, no resources, repairs to make, limited inventory space. You’ve got a mining beam, which you’ll use to collect different types of resources to recharge ship parts like launch thrusters and pulse drives. The majority of what you’ll do in No Man’s Sky revolves around ensuring you have the right resources for the right occasions. You’ll need isotopes for fuel and life support systems, while oxides offer hazard protection. Though some resources appear in greater or smaller numbers on certain planets, all basic items can be acquired anywhere with enough searching.
The result is that the first ten hours of the game or so will mostly revolve around planet hopping. You’ll land, take about 30-60 minutes to scrape up what you need to make the next big jump, and move on. You’ll be driven at first by ship reparation goals, and later by the call of a mysterious being called Atlas, whose guidance you can accept or ignore at different points of the game. The goal is to get to the center of the galaxy if you can, but it’s a soft goal. There’s nothing nudging you away from planet hopping ad infinitum.
Other, smaller goals will present themselves as you push forward. Your ship and exosuit don’t have nearly enough storage. You need materials to upgrade them once you get the storage you need, so you can make greater jumps, survive for longer periods, and mine ore faster. Here is the middle segment of the game, then. Once you’re comfortable collecting basic resources, you’ll be busy increasing your own prowess as a space traveler via trade with alien species that you meet, and exploration for blueprints, rare trading materials, and crashed ships you can salvage. Only once you have the maximum amount of inventory slots and the best upgrades can you relax enough to explore with wild abandon.
Future promise does not change the state of the game on release, and that state is currently beautiful, but empty.
The desire to freely explore drives the game’s other systems, because No Man’s Sky is absolutely stunning. You’ll see glorious sunrises over misty, wooded areas. You’ll climb tall mountains and dive into the depths of oceans. Storms will wrack the plains and you’ll stand against the wind, freezing, for that perfect photo op. But those beautiful vistas are difficult to appreciate with your life support screeching at you, your hazard protection dropping, and your pockets full of Emeril. Driven to explore, you’ll be caught in an endless resource-gathering/survival loop.
Is it worth it? Maybe. You may be weary of hearing how this is a niche game and “not for everyone,” but to No Man’s Sky, this commentary applies particularly. The truth is that if you do not find beautiful vistas (and this game really is stunning!), star-swept skies, and terrifyingly awesome animals a fitting reward for repetitive mining/gathering work, then no. You will not like No Man’s Sky. You will grow bored, and quickly.
Even without the hype machine of Internet communities, it is clear just from the gameplay that No Man’s Sky was once a very different game. The groundwork is here for some truly interesting adventure, combat, exploration, and interaction. Yet it remains unrealized.
Take, for example, the system of learning languages to converse with aliens you meet. As you travel, you will come across knowledge stones that will give you a word in an alien language. Your interactions with these aliens usually offer two-four dialogue options, with one answer being “correct” and producing the highest reward.
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Without enough of a language known, it’s a crapshoot what the right answer is; as it should be. Yet these interactions, for good or ill, never result in consequences beyond gaining an immediate reward, or not. Your reputation means nothing; the aliens are indifferent to you beyond that interaction. It’s a wonderful system on a basic level, but it feels gutted. As if more was intended, and never delivered.
The same goes for the overarching plot of the game involving Atlas and some odd friends named Nada and Polo. The vague, mysterious nature of it all was cool at first, leading me to expect bigger things down the line. But as you reach the “end” of the game (if it can be called that), it turns out that there just wasn’t much to it after all.
Along these lines, I have high hopes that future updates will flesh out this universe further. That seems to be Sean Murray’s intention at the moment. But future promise does not change the state of the game on release, and that state is currently beautiful, but empty.
Finally, some things worth mentioning: The controls are mostly standard, but “hold down to confirm” for basically every interaction in the game is unwieldy. You move too slowly. Your character is too short. I never want to hear the words “No Free Slots In Ship Inventory” again for the rest of my life. I could also do without “Life Support Power Low.”
The procedural generation results in some truly fabulous worlds. It also, sometimes, results in really inappropriate things like this.
Last but not least: I played this game on the PS4, and it crashed a grand total of five times at different points over a week and a half. That is not the worst thing ever, but it is still not okay given that the game does not autosave. An update for the game dropped last night, which I hope fixed it but cannot confirm.
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