Space exploration game No Man’s Sky has been a long time coming. We’ve had at least three years of hype. And, as the result of PlayStation taking the game under their wing, what was once just an interesting indie title has turned into THE NEXT BIG THING™.
And it’s quite a shame, really.
Cards on the table, No Man’s Sky is a very good game, but not necessarily what the mainstream gaming audience expects. It’s a game that would shine as an indie game, but likely makes for a dull and uneventful AAA affair in the eyes of your average gamer.
There’s a generation of gamers that have dreamt of nothing more than flying across the cosmos in their own spacecraft, trading and exploring as they go. Those gamers that grew up with Elite, Freelancer et al, will appreciate the solitary vision of space that No Man’s Sky affords us. This is a game made for you.
Unfortunately, our younger brethren are likely to find No Man’s Sky rather pointless.
As an editor I sometimes like to give one of the younger reviewers a title that I know will make them go “WTF?”. I did it with The Golf Club and it was one of the most unintentionally funny reviews I’ve ever read. I’m reading similar reviews for No Man’s Sky.
There’s a fair amount of hate out there, and it’s amusing, really, as it’s not as if we haven’t seen the likes of No Man’s Sky before. It may seem original, but the game is, in fact, rather derivative. If you take a bit of space sim from Elite: Dangerous, add a dollop of Minecraft’s crafting, pour in some survival elements from Subnautica and mix it all together with some of the planets, lifeforms and procedural generation from EA’s Spore and you have No Man’s Sky.
Individually, most of these games do things better than No Man’s Sky. But blending all these titles together does make for a lovely game. Even if it does reinforce my view that I’ve been playing video games for too long to be able to play anything truly original.
Hello Games’ procedurally-generated space game kicks you out into an overwhelmingly large galaxy, populated with more planets that you’ll ever have time to visit (in a million lifetimes). It’s a big game and one that many will not be able to come to terms with.
This sort of open, non-linear gameplay isn’t for everyone; especially, the previously-mentioned Gen-Y’s, bouncing off the wall, demanding instant gratification, and players that prefer set objectives right of the bat.
The planets and the stuff on them is all procedurally generated. That is that is created using mathematical formulas rather than having artists carefully place object or sculpt flora and fauna. This should produce very natural-looking and varied planets, plants and animals.
The truth is that it produces lots of very odd-looking and samey planets populated by some very odd-looking and samey creatures and vegetation. Don’t get me wrong, the planets are very interesting to explore, but none quite as impressive as the planets in the various trailers.
You start the game stranded on an alien planet with a busted spaceship and tiny pockets. From here the game stealthily holds your hand, guiding you from a distance, as you gather the materials needed to repair and refuel your ship.
No Man’s Sky provides you with three pieces of equipment that drive the main gameplay mechanics. It’s a simple system, but it works very well.
First there’s your exosuit. Your primary protection from the heat, cold, poison, radiation and water of the alien worlds that you will visit. The suit also has a number of inventory slots for equipment upgrades and material storage.
Next, there’s your multitool. It’s a scanner- enabling you to scan local wildlife and sites of interest, a mining laser and a weapon.
Finally, there’s your ship. Equipped with Launch Thrusters- for vertical take-off, a pulse engine, hyperdrive, armaments and a shield. All of these require fuel that will need to be either mined or purchased.
Your exosuit and ship start with a meagre amount of storage easily filled with materials and upgrade equipment. For a game that otherwise provides for rather tranquil gameplay, the inventory system is an absolute bastard, especially at the start of the game. Subsequent suit upgrades and replacement ships increase the available space, but it is still easy to run out.
Planets are resource-rich and complex items require many different materials to craft. Get too greedy and you’ll soon fill your storage space. Whilst I can see the need, in the interest of gameplay advancement, for the cramped storage, nobody likes micro-managing their inventory.
The game gives players plenty of tech items and upgrades to build, but the crafting system is often left wanting because you just don’t have the storage space available to stack all the raw materials.
Most of the planets are rich in raw materials which can be mined with your multitool. Subsequent upgrades allow you to literally carve holes in the landscape, creating tunnels that expose huge caverns and cave systems.
As well as harvesting materials, you can also scan the livestock and discover trading posts, outpost and ruins. Everything you discover can be named and uploaded for a cash reward.
Planets are often covered with diverse animals, most of which are skittish, some of which will attack you. Then there’s the mysterious sentinels. For the most part these autonomous machines scan you and move on. If you get greedy of damage the environment too much they will turn on you, giving you good reason to blast them into piece (and salvage their innards).
The trading aspect of the game is, again, simplistic. It’s is fun, though, pulling into a space station or landing at a trading post, and engaging fellow travellers in trade.
Throughout the game you get the opportunity to learn alien languages, a word at a time, which makes trading easier. If you have enough money, you can also purchase their ships, giving you more of that all-important storage space.
No Man’s Sky is most definitely about exploration. You are on a journey, either to the centre of the galaxy, or following the trail to the mysterious, knowledge-dispensing Atlas constructs scattered about the star systems. Along the way you will, though, you will have some less than hospitable encounters and need to defend yourself.
Combat in the game is usually the result of being ambushed by pirates. You may also stumble upon a battle and just opt to help out. There’s also distress signals that you may feel the need to attend to. Starship combat is competent, nothing to write home about, but will make crafting powerful weapons and a decent shield system a worthwhile endeavour.
The striking art style and colour pallet of the game, most of which we probably owe to the game’s procedural algorithms, produces some truly beautiful, if sometimes weird vistas. Lush purple grass, red lakes and odd alien creatures give the game a unique and very distinctive look. The graphics are clean and almost retro. No Man’s Sky certainly has a fresh and very welcome look.
No Man’s Sky does so many things so right, like the ability to climb in your ship, take off, point to the heavens, leave the atmosphere and more into interplanetary or interstellar flight. It a great feature and one that I’ve been looking forward to experiencing properly in a game for years.
Despite how much I enjoy the game, I’ve found myself unable to play for extended periods. Its vastness is overwhelming and extended playtime can become tiresome. After an hour or so, I found the game starting to feel a bit repetitive. This is a game best played in bite-sized chunks.
The biggest question that No Man’s Sky raises is “what is the point?”. Your objectives are not very defined and, with seemingly no end in sight, feel unachievable. This is a game crying out for multiplayer, which for whatever reason (like the galaxy is too big), isn’t going to happen. Another thing I’d like to see, and fingers-crossed we may get this, is VR support. No doubt, something we will see when PlayStation VR comes out.
Right now, No Man’s Sky offers rewarding gameplay that is best enjoyed in small doses. Whilst the game’s vast galaxy is overwhelmingly large, it is also quite empty and, for the most part very similar. The game does have huge potential and I’m very keen to see where Hello Games take it.