Review: No Man's Sky
Pros: A literally massive undertaking, Zen-like gameplay, Beautiful environments
Cons: Flight controls, Lack of Direction, Repetition
Game – No Man’s Sky
Release date – August 9, 2016
Platform – PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Windows
Developer/Publisher – Hello Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Trying to accurately describe Hello Games’ procedurally generated survival-adventure game No Man’s Sky is a bit like attempting to share your insights on the meaning of life – there are numerous ways to approach it, some may have drastically different viewpoints regarding their experience, and ultimately, when met with the sheer scope of it all, you can choose to shrink away or embrace it with open arms.
Simply put, my experience with No Man’s Sky was more philosophical than anything else. Not spectacular, not terrible. Mostly thought-provoking.
Lending to the idea, the game begins with your character waking up on one of 18 quintillion planets in an ever-expanding universe with little-to-no direction on how to proceed. There is some vague suggestion about following an Atlas Stone to find the center of the universe, but your choice to actually heed the call is nothing more than one possibility in the sea of stars laid before you.
No Man’s Sky is most certainly not concerned with grabbing you by the hand and dragging you to whatever final destination you choose. The only way I found out how to do anything within the game was to press a button and see what it did. This led to some very early encounters with the universe’s security bots known as Sentinels, the terrestrial versions of which are never more than an annoyance. Those piloting through the vacuum of space are a different story – more on that later.
To take full advantage of what the game has to offer, your only real goal at the outset should be to scour the surface of the planet for materials to fix up your spaceship which has, for whatever reason, seen better days. You initially come equipped with a standard multi-tool which has the ability to laser blast the life around you to obtain elements such as carbon and plutonium, both useful for maintaining your health and crafting upgrades or tools for either your exosuit, ship or multi-tool.
To craft these upgrades, you will need to find blueprints which can be obtained any number of ways, but most often at certain points of interest. Markers found by “scanning” the environment are littered throughout the map and will give you hints as to where POIs may be found. These locations will offer up everything from abandoned shelters and communications outposts to caches of precious materials and the ever-useful blueprints.
Discovery is one of the main themes of No Man’s Sky, which encourages you to find and identify every living thing on each planet throughout the universe, including dazzling plant-life, bizarre wildlife and the aforementioned outposts. For every new discovery you make, you have the option of renaming your find and uploading it to the game’s server. This not only stores it for, presumably, the remainder of time, but also awards you with credits, the in-game currency. With, as previously stated, more than 18 quintillion planets to scour, there are plenty of opportunities to make everything in the game your own.
All that being said, it is a feat in and of itself to discover everything on one planet, much less a solar system. On their own, planets can take upwards of an hour to circumnavigate within your ship, and that’s just moving in a straight line. These planets range from tropical paradises full of life to barren wastelands blanketed by poisonous clouds and everything in between.
(Quick side rant: Those of you out there bemoaning the fact that some planets look the same, did you make as big a deal of the fact that Tatooine and Jakku are pretty much identical? I mean, there are only so many climates that can exist people. – Rant end)
The vastness of No Man’s Sky cannot be overstated. You will feel small. Tiny. Infinitesimal. The first time I pulled up the Star Map when I eventually cobbled together the right materials to repair my ship, I literally gasped. My jaw dropped. Hearing the size and scope of the game is one thing, but experiencing it is something else entirely.
In short – No Man’s Sky is a completionist’s worst nightmare.
Once you do make your way into the final frontier you’ll find space stations, giant cargo ships and more asteroids than you can shake a multi-tool at. Attacking the cargo ships and asteroids will reward you with more raw materials you can use to craft, but target the wrong cargo ship and your friendly neighborhood Sentinels will descend upon you like angry hornets whose nest you have kicked one too many times.
Space combat is a bit flimsy, which led to the experience feeling more difficult than it probably should have. Or perhaps that is exactly like what space combat would actually be, and I should think twice before climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. More often than not though I felt like I was flailing about, unable to pinpoint my targets with much success unless they retreated a sizeable distance and then charged directly at me.
Your initial space ship lacks both firepower and storage space, which can fortunately be rectified by either finding and repairing a downed spaceship or buying one off of one of the many extraterrestrials that visit the space stations and trading posts throughout the galaxy. Purchasing a decent ship usually translates into a multi-million credit transaction though, so it is important to manage your resources and sell anything you may not need. The fact that your exosuit and spaceship have limited storage tends to make this a lesson in repetition, but a few trips back and forth to your favorite mass of terra firma can quickly fatten your interstellar bank account.
The aliens you meet can also offer you blueprints, materials and new information about their language, providing you select the proper responses. Interaction with these various sentient creatures is ultimately unnecessary but can go a long way to helping you build up your collection of space gear more quickly.
And that is pretty much the game, the nuts and bolts of it at least.
Land on a new planet. Discover a variety of weird and wonderful life forms. Craft yourself a few warp cells to jump from one star system to the next. Repeat.
This is of course a bit of an over-simplification, but if you want to spend all your time on one planet exploring every nook and cranny, you can. If you want to hop from one planet to the next like a frat boy on a pub crawl then that is certainly an option.
I could certainly forgive the general populous if, after hearing that assessment, they decide No Man’s Sky is not for them and pass it up. This is not a game for the thrill-seekers and FPS-heavy crowd looking to blow up everything in sight. Or those looking to “beat” the game and discover some kind of epiphany awaiting them at its end. In fact, the end, if you could call it that, is just as vague as the beginning.
So how could I have found enjoyment in all of that you may ask? Well, it had a lot to do with permitting myself to just open up to the experience, allowing a sort of Zen-like laissez faire to wash over me. I shut off the part of me that needed to “accomplish” and turned on the part that just wanted to “be”.
As I said, the game for me was philosophical.
I should note, given the amount of press that has been dedicated to it, there was a bit of a firestorm among the public following the game’s release. Many claimed the game had broken its promises to them about what they would experience and the overall gameplay. I throw most of the blame on players themselves, dreaming up a game that Hello Games never claimed to be making. The Sony hype-machine certainly played a role in creating the illusion this game may have been something it was never intended to be, but my overall judgment of the game has nothing to do with said media circus, only what my experience presented me with.
Since the initial launch, Hello Games has also released a number of patches to address issues throughout the game, ranging from the pesky to the game-breaking. I have been told this has made a good amount of difference in terms of the game’s performance, but frankly, my playthrough was free of anything relating to technical issues.
No Man’s Sky is divisive. I do not think there has been much argument on that point. A lack of direction and finicky flight controls mar the experience, but the sheer cosmic scale of it all left me awestruck. I have never played a game where I felt I had accomplished so much, but done so little. Entire aspects of the game, such as scanning your environment and interacting with aliens, can be glossed over in favor of aimlessly globe-trotting. It is the ultimate example of a game where “it is what you make of it”. For me, what I made was unlike anything I had ever been a part of.