Christmas, 2014. I was trying to decide between a Playstation 4 and Xbox One. I’ve never pledged allegiance to a console company, like so many people who hang around video game message boards seem to do, so I was mainly looking at what games each system offered. Everything is so expensive to develop this generation that almost every company has to make both a PS4 and Xbox version. However, though there may not be as many, there are still some console exclusives, and an E3 game announcement video pushed me over the fence to the PS4.
From all the trailer and gameplay videos of No Man’s Sky that have come out in the two and a half years since then, it was clear you would be traveling a procedurally generated universe in a spaceship, discovering planets, vegetation, and animals. You could fly from a planet’s surface through the atmosphere into the reaches of space, all without a loading screen. However, the details from the developer on what the actual point of the game was, were few and far between. After waiting that long, when would we find out?
As it turns out, not until the game was released. Since No Man’s Sky is so large (a few trillion planets) I haven’t explored the entire game, nor will anyone, ever. I haven’t even reached the center of the universe, which is “sort of” the end goal of the game. So a full review isn’t possible, but what I can do is tell you about the mechanics of the game and who would enjoy it.
First of all, if you’re thinking of picking this up because of the hype and it being the biggest new release out there, pump the brakes. Ask yourself if you’re a diehard Madden, Call of Duty or Overwatch player; are these the only types of games you enjoy? If so, this game isn’t going to do it for you. There are enemies to fight on the planets and space battles, but most can be avoided and action is not what makes up 90% of this game. If you get excited finding an item with one more inventory slot than the one you had, enjoy open exploration at a slow-burn pace, or like picking up bits of a narrative from obscure clues and dialogue, welcome to No Man’s Sky.
There are three “paths” you can decide to follow on your journey through the stars. I’m not going to get into those specifically, as that falls into spoiler territory. Instead, I’ll go over what I consider to be the typical game-flow: You pick a system on your star map, either by following a highlighted line from one of the paths, or by going into free view and clicking on it; the game tells you if you have enough fuel or good enough equipment to get there; if not, you get more fuel or search for blueprints for a better warp drive, then search the planets and asteroids for materials to build it. You get to the new star system and pick a planet. Fly around the world looking for interesting buildings or ruins. Land and scan plants, rocks and animals. Search structures for new materials to sell, or plans you don’t have, as well as alien ruins that provide some of the lore for the game. That is 90% of what you’ll be doing, and you’ll do it over and over again.
Yes, there are quests to follow, and other activities like attacking space freighters for their cargo, but most of your time is going to be spent doing the steps listed above. Hello Games, the maker of No Man’s Sky, said shortly before the release it would be a divisive game. If the above doesn’t sound fun to you, no matter what Metacritic says, you might want to skip this one. For everyone else, I’ll tell you what hooked me and why I find it unlikely there’ll be another game that comes out this year that I’ll like better.
No Man’s Sky is a good looking game. Not on the level of Uncharted, but the different planets have a great art direction that makes them both interesting and seemingly real. Underwater caves and color changing skies as the day passed were a couple of highlights. The soundtrack is outstanding too. I would forget about the music as it disappeared while walking across a barren planet, only to have it resurface and set the mood of a battle or while interacting with an alien ruin.
I loved the different animals I came across and was able to upload and rename. My two daughters (9 and 6) were watching me play when I first got it, and through the advice they gave me there is now an unfortunate looking beast from planet “Toddland” with the name “Buttasauras” uploaded to Hello Games server. This is truly a game about finding your own fun.
For me though, the feeling of open exploration and freedom is what sold me on it. No planet you find is going to be completely the same as the one you just left. Not the minerals, animals or color of the sky. What do I want to do when I get there? Do I look for trading partners at a base or go swimming in an ocean trying to find a new fish species? Every time I came into orbit of a new world, I was excited to see what challenges it might present. Does my life support run out extra quick because of the environment, forcing me to constantly look for Isotopes to recharge it as I’m exploring? Will the robotic Sentinels on the planet ignore me if I ignore them, or are they already hostile, ready to chase me in waves? Maybe I’ll discover a giant, rare ore node in a cave deep underground that will give me enough money to buy a new ship.
That’s the way the hours melted away. I don’t know how many times I told myself I was going to follow one more beacon before I went back in orbit to warp to a new system, then a couple of hours later I found myself still on the same planet, searching a complex I just happened to fly over as I prepared to depart. I’ve spent time on just four planets so far; that’s a disproportionate amount of time, given that I’ve been playing since the game came out, to spend on such a small amount of real estate. I could have progressed much farther in the universe, but instead I just let curiosity lead me. I have to think that’s how the designers meant for the hook to be set, but for some it’s just not going to happen. For those that do, and know what to expect going in, this is a phenomenal game in scope, one that’s going to get a lot of playtime from me over the next few months.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the game has its flaws, even for those who do like the play style. There are some persistent bugs I’ve noticed, which are typical of open, free exploration games like this, even if it doesn’t completely excuse it. Think Skyrim and Fallout 4. There’s sometimes draw-in as you’re flying above the surface that might make you miss a resource or upgrade station. There are some clipping issues too, and I’ve noticed AI glitches with Sentinels getting stuck on buildings when trying to attack. The most common bug I’ve noticed is sometimes when I get back in my ship while on a planet and turn on the boosters, it’s instantly shooting me into orbit, rather than lifting me up slowly to fly above the ground like it’s supposed to. I’ve also had the game glitch while warping, freezing the game. I had to reset, only to find a white screen when I loaded up. Luckily, when I rebooted again, it worked correctly and I found myself where I was supposed to be with all my loot and progress intact.
Besides bugs, there are some “interesting” choices on how you switch gear out. When getting a new ship from a crash site or picking up a new multitool, there isn’t a way to swap out upgrades you made to your old item. Instead you have to break down the companion units into components first and rebuild the add-on in the new gear. Since you don’t get all your components back, you usually have to go mine some resources to build the same companion units you just had.
In the end, setting your expectations is going to be the key to whether or not this game is for you. This is still a review in progress, since, as I’ve stated, I haven’t finished the game. I’m certainly rating it for myself and what I get out of it. I realize that some of the parts that I like are going to be the same ones that keep others away. That’s fine. We’re can both right even if we don’t agree. Just know what you are buying before you decide to step out the door into the No Man’s Sky universe, and you can have a wonderful time.