An infinite universe with limited possibilities.
Loneliness is pervasive in the wide open expanses of space. From the moment that your eyes open on your first planet to your thousandth landing, the feeling of utter isolation is stifling, but tranquil. This is but one of the double edged swords that defines No Man’s Sky, a game that is both beautifully innovative and lifelessly monotonous.
Hello Games has created a world larger than anything we could have possibly imagined. Nothing can prepare you for the moment you blast through the atmosphere and into open space for the first time…only to see the space station in the distance looming four hours away. This scope is painted with the fantastic colors and exotic flora and fauna of a 1960’s science fantasy made real. Alien creatures bound across frozen tundra or tropical paradises while intelligent life takes up residence in research stations and trading posts that dot planetary surfaces. This is the sandbox that No Man’s Sky presents to us.
Those expecting a personal space odyssey will be sorely disappointed. While Hello Games never steered the gaming community wrong with its presentation of No Man’s Sky, we naturally filled in the gaps with excited delusions about what the game could be. Amazingly, No Man’s Sky is exactly what Sean Murray said it was; a game about exploration and survival. Each planet provides new animals, plants, resources and geology to explore and discover. Different biome types bring different combinations of these elements into existence, as well as their own particular survival challenges. Cold, heat and toxicity are enemies more so than the guardian sentinels that patrol the surface.
These elements make up half of No Man’s Sky‘s gameplay loop, while the other half is composed around resources. The crafting, trading and combat systems are all centered around the basic materials that litter a planet’s surface. Every resource has multiple functions, for example, plutonium can be sold at shops, used for crafting, and most importantly, is necessary to get your ship off the ground. Every component has a role and is worthy of a slot in your precious inventory. Unfortunately, this loop is where the double edged nature of No Man’s Sky begins to show its fangs.
Hello Games has given us the most technically incredible world ever created in a video game, but it doesn’t provide a compelling reason to explore it. Things that seem mysterious and magical in the first few hours quickly repeat themselves with minor variations. Once the cracks begin to show, the math dictating the game becomes increasingly evident. Derelict research facilities that have borne witness to unknown horrors can be found with alarming regularity. Ancient monoliths containing vast amounts of knowledge provide you with the same results as the small stones that dot the landscape. The realization quickly sets in that the wonders you are discovering are not wonders at all; they are commonalities.
The game’s systems and controls also work together to make exploring frustratingly challenging. The decision to map “sprint” to the right stick is counter-intuitive to the way that we have been conditioned to play games. This would not be an issue if players weren’t as reliant on the sprint functionality for navigation, but the normal walk speed is painfully slow to the point where it is a constant internal struggle whether or not to use your starship for surface exploration, which is a waste of precious resources, in place of travelling on foot.
Inventory management is another major gameplay hurdle. Your beginning inventory is paltry, which creates an unnecessary impediment to enjoyable exploration. The game requires a variety of resources to keep basic functions operational, but it is almost impossible to hold everything required. Add in a few trade commodities and your inventory is full. Constant trips to the space station to unload unneeded materials are tedious and work against the goals of the game. Slow, incremental improvements to inventory space do little to alleviate the problem, which also serves to render upgrade blueprints insignificant; who has the space for them?
That No Man’s Sky doesn’t implode under the weight of these deficiencies is a testament to the brilliance of the game’s ambition and design. The systems that work are very successful and show that the game is just a few missteps away from greatness.
Unlike surface exploration, space travel and combat is a joy. Battles against pirates and jetting to adjacent star systems are exhilarating and worthy of the work required to trigger them. The wide variety of ships available and variant prices on goods make a trip to the local space station a fruitful enterprise and the resources necessary for getting there are readily available in the form of asteroids. Overall, space is the fun and rewarding side to No Man’s Sky‘s coin.
The language system is another success, and is my personal favorite reason for exploring the landscape. Negotiating with the three alien races can sometimes unlock words of their languages, slowly turning a sentence of jumbled gibberish into a cohesive solution to conversation. Mysterious stones and ancient ruins also provide help in language, and some of the game’s best moments come when a single word can clue you into the solution of a puzzle that would have previously been guesswork.
Perhaps the most brilliant thing about No Man’s Sky is how the game challenges the conventions of gaming. We live in a world defined by completion, be it attaining a platinum trophy, maximum gamerscore or filling in the entirety of a game’s map. Combat has also become a predominate gaming pastime that is the main attraction in most corners of the hobby. No Man’s Sky eschews both.
The game is simply too big to explore everything, and combat takes a backseat to almost every other gameplay system. This makes playing a refreshingly powerful experience. Combat encounters, when they do occur, attain a new level of importance and tension. The scope of the game makes leaving unexplored icons an inevitability, not a nagging reminder. This formula creates an experience that can be enjoyed at a relaxing pace truly controlled by the player rather than the developer.
The gaming industry can learn a lot from Hello Games. The developer’s ambition and passion led to creating something that is truly unique and special. It has obvious problems, but the game presents a malleable platform that will only improve with the passing of time. The game is the definition of divisive, as most of the games choices and systems can be interpreted as good or bad depending on who you speak with. What cannot be denied, however, are the amazing stories and moments that emerge from the endless depths of space. A trip to a planet teeming with gold leading to a pirate encounter on the way to a space station is just as likely to happen as hours of monotonous exploration. It is the beauty and curse of No Man’s Sky, everyone’s experience is different.
Hello Games shot for greatness and came up short. The frame for an astounding adventure is there, but gameplay and control hiccups prevent the promise of the game from being truly realized. Small instances of greatness do little to validate the long slog of repetitive drudgery that the game asks of its players. Some will find the escape they crave among the stars, but many more will leave disappointed by failed execution. Each reaction is equally valid and is available to every player. However, No Man’s Sky is a marvel that has to be seen to be believed. Despite the problems, the relaxing nature of the gameplay keeps me coming back for more, and the passion of the team leaves me confident that what we know today as No Man’s Sky will be continuously redefined in the coming months and years.
The Verdict: 6.5 out of 10.0
No Man’s Sky creates a technically profound world that calls to one’s inner imagination. Its satisfying mix of exploration, crafting and discovery offers opportunities for some of gaming’s finest moments. While the magic of the game is overwritten by math after a few hours and the ambitious goals are held back by various control and mechanical issues, the title challenges the notion of what a game can be. It truly has to be played to be believed.
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Brett Williams is an Associate Editor for MONG who has strange urges to play No Man’s Sky while playing Destiny, and vice versa. Quite the quagmire. You can follow him and his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.