The long-awaited space-faring sandbox adventure is finally out! After spending a lot of time with this divisive game, Andrew has his verdict! Was it worth the wait, or was this game better left lost amidst its 18 quintillion planets?
ALL FILLER, NO KILLER
First off, let me start this review by saying I have been waiting for No Man’s Sky for a very long time. From the moment I saw the first screenshot, I knew we were in for something special. Also, Hello Games, known for their Joe Danger series of games, made some pretty amazing claims that had me hooked: A nigh infinite universe to explore? Awesome! Procedurally- generated planets? Sounds great! Meet and do battle with alien lifeforms? Sign me up! Etc, etc. But somewhere in the midst of the hype-train, something went wrong. Whether it was the marketing campaign and interviews that promised too much, or whether it was the game design itself not being up to the task, this is not the game we thought we were getting.
One of the things that No Man’s Sky does very well should come as no surprise, as it’s one of the first big things Hello Games began promoting: the gigantic universe. This game is huge. Like, capital H Huge, with over 18 quintillion planets to find and explore. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t even know quintillion was an actual number. To put that in perspective, one quintillion is equal to one million trillions. To put that in more perspective, Sean Murray, one of the lead designers of No Man’s Sky, and a co-founder of Hello Games, told IGN that it would take a person around 5 billion years to visit each planet and spend only one second on it. Whoa. That’s a lot of planets. Unfortunately, this amazing accomplishment is a bit of foreshadowing for what’s to come: all razzle dazzle and no substance.
No Man’s Sky also has an amazing visual aesthetic. As previously mentioned, the planets are all procedurally-generated, so you never know what you’re going to get when you land. You could get a barren hunk of rock, with strange acid-green minerals; a beautiful frozen snowscape that would make 80’s ski movies jealous; or a lush tropical environment, full of flora and fauna. What really makes the planets stand out is the coloring–on some planets you could end up in an environment with purple grass and orange trees! It can really be a sight to behold.
The animals are also randomly created. When you land, the wildlife is all thrown together from a random assortment of legs, torsos, heads, behaviors, and whatnot. This again makes sure almost every planet you land on is full of unique creatures. Do they always look good? Absolutely not. It’ll be a 50-50 mix of animals that look interesting or cool, and animals that look like they are thirty-five generations worth of inbreeding.
After the initial amazement of your first few planets subsides, you’re left with the age old question of, “What next?” In No Man’s Sky, your options are fairly limited. You can roam around and catalog the creatures on the planet, you can explore for alien ruins in an attempt to learn some of the game’s languages, or you can mine. See, No Man’s Sky is a sandbox–you do what you want. If you’re just exploring, your options are limited to just that: explore. No exploration without any kind of narrative structure can be fun for a while, but expect your enjoyment to wane after a few hours. If you decide to explore the Atlas path, then you’ll at least have a little bit of a narrative to hold your attention, but even that can be hard when the gameplay begins getting stale.
That right there is the problem with No Man’s Sky. It’s a mile deep and an inch wide. You’ll have fun exploring for a few hours, and you’ll revel in the diverse planets and wildlife, but after about your 12th jump to a new system, everything will begin to look the same no matter how procedurally, randomly-generated the content is.
In my game, I chose the Atlas path so I could have some story to give me contest in the universe. So I would mine, and jump, and mine, and jump. I soon became obsessed with getting a new ship so I could store more cargo. This would save me trips to a space station, so I could spend more time mining. Now, you can try to locate a crashed ship, claim it, and repair it, but they usually aren’t much better than your current ship. I found it way easier to find a ship at a trading post or space station that belonged to an alien and offer to purchase it. You can get some really great ships that way. I mined and mined to save up enough credits to buy this new ship, taking about 3 or 4 hours of gameplay, give or take. I purchased it. Hooray! Now, two systems later, there is an even better ship that I want. Time to mine again, this time to around 12 million credits, which, according to my previous experience, would take me around 8 hours to do. Challenge accepted says I. I would periodically see the ships I wanted when I would arrive at a trading post to sell my goods, and it would reinvigorate my desire. I felt like a young Wayne Campbell, who just saw Cassandra for the first time
Then I hit a bit of an existential No Man’s Sky rough patch. My inner dialog went something like this:
Me: “Why am I doing all this mining?”
Other Me: “So you can buy that sweet new ship, silly! Think of the cargo space!”
Me: “Okay…then what will I do with all of that extra cargo space?”
Other Me: “You’ll have so much more room for activities! And more mining!”
Me: “So I’m mining to get units to buy a ship to help me mine more to get more units?”
Other Me: “Exactly!”
Me: “So when I get all these credits using the new ship, what will I use them for?”
Other Me: “Use them to buy a new ship!”
Me: “Wait, for what?”
Other Me: “BUY ALL THE SHIPS”
With no strong narrative to drive the experience, the game stalls. I had no reason to keep going. Some games are very successful at promoting gameplay with no real narrative, like Minecraft or Terraria, or even games like Ark: Survival Evolved. The difference between those titles and No Man’s Sky is that their gameplay, while lacking narrative, is extremely deep. You can craft, explore, beat bosses, and more with no story. They also have an extremely deep and rewarding multiplayer experience–another thing that No Man’s Sky is lacking.
There is already talk of what Hello Games plans on releasing in future updates, such as base building; however, it should be considered extremely poor practice to release a game that is so far from what is should be and then expect people to still purchase it and wait for it to get good.
What we’re left with is a game that is beautiful and full of potential, but doesn’t deliver on its promises of a rich, engaging universe and gameplay. For sure, this game will light a spark of curiosity, and you will have fun exploring for the first few hours, but that spark will very rarely catch into the wildfire people were hoping for.
+ Over 18 quintillion planets
+ Great visuals
+ You could literally play this game until the day you die and still not uncover everything it has to offer
– Despite the last bullet point, it’s an incredibly shallow experience
– Alien interactions consist of one brief conversation
– Space dogfights almost nonexistent
– Mining quickly grows tedious
– You’ll spend most of your time “surviving” instead of exploring
– First-person combat is clumsy and stiff
No Man’s Sky is available now on Playstation 4 & PC.
Andrew is an editor for The Geekiverse who will be sticking with Elite: Dangerous for his space game needs. Until Star Citizen. Unless Star Citizen is just another No Man’s Sky. In which case, what is the point of living?
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