No Man’s Sky Review | In Space, No One Can Hear You Yawn
Before I begin, let’s get this out of the way: No Man’s Sky is a disappointment. It’s not the game many were convinced it would be and, compared to certain elements included in pre-release trailers and developer Hello Games founder Sean Murray’s own explanations of it, it’s also not the game we were led to believe it would be, either. It is huge, but the immensity of its universe is undermined by the lack of things it gives the player to do. It’s a very limited gameplay loop trapped in the body of a sprawling, awe-inspiring world.
But despite these issues, No Man’s Sky offers glimmers of an experience that can be more affecting than any other in the medium. It can spring surprises on you that, given the nature of its procedurally generated universe, you never knew were going to happen, and may never happen to another player after you. Despite it routinely leading the player through long stretches of tedium, it then almost validates this monotony with a beautiful moment on an otherworldly planet, whether it be the sight of a bright red sunset rising behind an inexplicably ocean blue mountain or a desperate race to shelter after being caught in an acidic rain storm.
No Man’s Sky opens with you, the “Traveler” as you are known by some alien species, standing next to the wreckage of your spaceship. From here you’ll learn how to repair and craft items, which amounts to collecting items and then holding down a button to turn them into something else, and how to make use of the Multi-Tool you’re given. Rather than being handed a variety of equipment with which to explore your surroundings, the Multi-Tool instead provides every function you’ll need, from being able to blast down enemy sentinels and hostile wildlife through to scanning your environment, which points out the location of your surrounding resources. You can also hold hold the left trigger in order to zoom in on a target, whether that be an alien creature or a planet’s plant life, with the Multi-Tool then analyzing its data and storing it in your log book for future reference.
The Multi-Tool presents No Man’s Sky‘s first major issue, with it being woefully inept for combat purposes and thoroughly uninteresting when used for scanning alien life. Aiming at an enemy is sluggish and unresponsive, with it taking too much time to place your cross-hair on a target even with the sensitivity turned way up. Analyzing the weird and sometimes wonderful creatures you’ll meet along your journey is also akin to a somehow less compelling version of Pokemon Snap, with you typically standing a measurable distance away from them, waiting for a bar to fill up and then cashing in your data for some units, the in-game currency. This renders what should have been one of the most exciting aspects of interplanetary exploration – the act of taking to a mysterious, unmanned planet’s surface and recording your findings – into a mundane exercise that I routinely overlooked within a few hours of my time with the game.
However, the real problems I had with No Man’s Sky began to emerge when I first ventured into space. After slogging around my starting planet for an hour or so, trying to make sense of what else there was to do on its surface aside from trundling over hills and shooting at plants for carbon, I decided it was about time to blast off into the stars and see what the rest of No Man’s Sky‘s universe had to offer. Bear in mind that the trailers Sony have released for the game featured moments such as ships flying in formation alongside the player in order to take down enemies, massive fleets of giant spacecraft warping at light speed in unison to avoid heated battles, and daring flights through dangerous asteroid fields, and the reality of what space travel in No Man’s Sky actually entails is a lot more underwhelming.
In actuality, space is as empty as its name suggests. Now, I’m not about to go criticize space for not being full to the brim with things to do, as I’m not opposed to those moments of quiet reflection offered by the likes of fellow space exploration sims Elite: Dangerous or the Star Citizen alpha, but space travel in No Man’s Sky is so frequently devoid of purpose that it swiftly becomes a laborious chore to keep traveling to and from planets and space stations. Battles with enemies are infrequent and disappointing, as rather than being epic Star Wars-esque duels they largely amount to destroying a couple of rogue ships that wish to steal your cargo. Those fleets of giant spacecraft remain static and motionless, hanging in the sky as though they were cut and pasted into the universe. The asteroid “fields” are mere smatterings of rocks floating a reasonable distance from one another, making them easy to maneuver around and providing little threat whatsoever.
The real thrill of space travel is entering a planet’s atmosphere for the first time, with flames appearing around your view of your ship’s cockpit and the surface of the world you’re about to explore slowly coming into view. However, even these exciting moments are plagued by a constant pop-in issue, which sees each planet’s surface slowly fizzle into view by virtue of an ugly, grainy graphical effect that sullied the moment of awe that should have been present when witnessing each alien world for the first time.
But despite this irritating visual issue, No Man’s Sky is a technical accomplishment on so many other levels that it fades into obscurity when you consider what the small, Guildford-based development studio Hello Games has achieved here. According to the dev team there are 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky. There are so many, in fact, that our own sun would apparently burn out before a player could visit all of them for even a second. When you land on a planet and a text box pops up to say that you’re the one who’s discovered it, that’s not some hollow statement – you really are the first person to have journeyed to it. With that in mind, it’s difficult to not be swept up in the grandeur of it all.
But the issue I have always had with games reliant upon procedural generation is that they give tight, well-constructed level design a backseat as a result, with No Man’s Sky being no exception. Despite there being 18 quintillion planets, very few of them in my experience have felt like real outliers in terms of their topography, fauna and foliage. The vast majority have featured relatively rocky hills (but no towering mountains to scale), winding caves (but not so winding that you can legitimately get lost in them) and then the odd structure such as a trading post or a shelter. During my playthrough there have only been a few instances in which I’ve stumbled upon something that I felt I’d never seen before, which is a major drawback for a game that is so reliant upon players wanting to explore it.
The major differences between each planet is mostly their cast of creatures, though even they stand to expose the problem with Hello Games randomizing an entire universe. Though I saw more than my fair share of wildlife that looked like it could reasonably exist in some faraway planet, many were unreasonably shaped to the point of hilarity. Yes, having such exceptionally preposterous creatures may stand to make the denizens of No Man’s Sky more “meme-worthy,” but it ultimately detracts from the virtual reality Hello Games has been trying to create. Case in point: this weird creature I stumbled upon in my playthrough, which somehow boasted the body of an extremely muscular kangaroo on the ultra thin legs of an emaciated dog:
— Paul Tamburro (@PaulTamburro) August 9, 2016
But No Man’s Sky‘s troubles with conveying a sense of authenticity in its universe do not end there. On many planets you’ll be able to stumble across members of one of the game’s three intelligent alien species – the diminutive Gek, the robotic Korvax and the brutish Vy’keen – but they remain locked in place, either standing upright or sitting down in front of a desk, with your interactions with them kept to a bear minimum. You’ll be able to learn new words in their language that will increase your standing with them, but this will only serve to help you gain more items/upgrades from them. Don’t expect to become embroiled in some intergalactic war between these species by buddying up to one of them while severely pissing off another – the only real reason you’re given to interact with them at all is to procure more stuff.
Which leads me to my biggest qualm with No Man’s Sky: the minimal impact you actually have on the game. Now, I’m not suggesting that one player should be able to turn this unfathomably huge universe on its head, but No Man’s Sky provides the player with no real sense of belonging to it, and no sense that you’re anything other than a walking avatar hopping your way between a series of frequently gorgeous, if often interchangeable, locations. I guess that the inherent issue with creating a universe so large is that you’re left with the player feeling like such a small part of it. Sort of like our own reality, then, only with more pop-in textures and the occasional giant dinosaur.
The game’s main narrative thread, in which you’re guided towards the galaxy’s center by the mysterious Atlas, at least gave me a sense of purpose by suggesting that I would eventually get to learn that secret lying at the center of No Man’s Sky’s universe, but my journey towards that center was almost solely composed of visiting a planet, mining its resources and then selling it on for profit. But even then this activity is mired by its own set of issues, largely revolving around paltry inventory space and the banality of its survival system, which apes the worst parts of games such as DayZ by forcing you to continually power up your life support, radiation prevention system and other assorted do-hickeys you’re saddled with throughout the game. Then there’s the upgrade system, which revolves around talking to aliens and hoping that they give you the thing you want, only to more often than not be given a thing you don’t particularly need. Even purchasing a spaceship, which initially saw me mining away for a good hour or so to gather up a cool 1.3 million units, only affords you with a few more inventory slots and more aesthetically pleasing cockpit to admire when you’re whizzing around the galaxy. If you want customization options, then the only hope you’ve got is relying upon a Gek to palm you off with an upgrade to your blasters after striking up a conversation with him.
It’s such a shame, too, because it often feels like there’s a far more compelling game here just waiting to burst out. Yesterday I thought that the game had finally “clicked” for me after visiting a new star system, in which I landed on a planet with a surreal green sky, guided by the chirps of its native animals and its nigh-on perfect soundtrack (Sheffield-based rock band 65daysofstatic have done a seriously tremendous job here) into a forested area in which I happily mined away until the small hours of the morning. I watched the sun rise there, witnessed its wildlife come from out of wherever they had been hiding for the evening, before finally jetting off in my ship completely at ease. It was an experience you can’t get in other games, and one of a selection of similar, breath-taking moments that have each almost convinced me that the game will be different from there on out. But then it’s back to another 20 or so planets that offer irritatingly intrusive survival mechanics, dull interspecies interactions and the endless pursuit of rare materials to flog for no discernible reason other than to keep moving forward, pushing towards a goal that loses its intrigue after the first 8 hours of jumping through the same limited series of hoops.
I wanted to love No Man’s Sky, but its unfathomably large universe produces an unfortunately hollow experience. Hello Games has created a major technical accomplishment, and for that they should be applauded, but the game centered around that accomplishment feels too empty and dull to traverse considering the amount of stuff that has been crammed into it. 18 quintillion planets is an impressive number, but No Man’s Sky simply doesn’t offer a worthy incentive to explore them.