Disclosure ‐ A copy of No Man's Sky was provided to us on PS4 by Hello Games for the purpose of this review.
Reviewing No Man’s Sky is not an easy task. I struggle to recall a time when I have noticed more of a disparity between consumers’ understanding of a game, and the reality of it. The internet has flocked to the call to denote everything the game does, in a very poor attempt to express their disapproval for feeling cheated. I’m not going to sit here and say that No Man’s Sky is what I hoped it would be; I’m not going to say that prior to release, marketing was particularly accurate, but that doesn’t prevent it from still doing something of worth. Detached from the hype, No Man’s Sky tickles the desire for gradual and relaxing discovery, while drawing us into a universe that makes the player feel absurdly small, with no end in sight. However, it’s disappointing that these positive elements are persistently overshadowed by tedious inventory management, clunky combat, and one-note moment to moment experiences.
No Man’s Sky is a spreadsheet. It’s a universe generated by an algorirthm, that makes the planets either minutely or exceptionally different. I realise that’s a boilerplate description, but it is important to consider when acknowledging that something so simple in design, captivated me the way that it did. Travelling to a distant planet, embracing the goofiness of the generated animals, and becoming lost in the luscious or desolate landscapes, put me at an odd sense of ease. It’s a feeling of relaxation and mindless appreciation for the worlds that sets it apart from any other game, which is ultimately its saving grace.
Augmenting your experience through this universe is the ATLAS throughline, a loose and optional story path which raises some interesting questions as you progress through it. The sense of the unknown, while being at the complete whim of the universe and forces beyond our control is a persistent theme that crops up throughout the game. It will keep you intrigued until the very end, which may or may not be the conclusion you’re looking for. I won’t go into the specifics, but suffice to say, the ending to No Man’s Sky is inherently divisive. The game isn’t going to give you the meaning of life; it won’t think of something so exceptionally meta that you sit back in your chair for 30 minutes after completing it, just pondering what you witnessed. But it shouldn’t have to, it sounds cheesy, but it honestly is all about the journey.
Unfortunately, vague descriptions of beauty should be set aside when looking at No Man’s Sky strictly as a game. While its algorithmic universe is exciting and fascinating, its gameplay mechanics, features, and progression path is certainly not beyond extreme criticism. Put bluntly, the core gameplay elements are shallow; they lack significant interaction and force activities that become repetitive as soon as you depart your first planet.
One of the most prominent ways No Man’s Sky gets stuck in a repetitive loop, is through the alien and landmark interactions. Throughout your travels, there are roughly only a handful of things to discover for the first time, before they repeat over, and over. Colonial outposts, downed spaceship pods, space stations, they’re all the same. While certain places will have aliens to interact with, or a small puzzle in the style of an IQ-quiz, to help you gain access to upgrades (which I will go into later), after a short period of time you feel as though you’re just going through the motions: Landing on a planet, waiting for the inevitable moment when you realise visiting these sites is an endless stream of lackluster content.
On a positive note, talking to aliens and solving outpost puzzles yields some neat satisfaction. Learning enough words over the course of your journey, such that they are crucial in providing the right answer to hacked terminals or untrusting aliens, is a clever way to approach something as complex as language.
“Landing on a planet, waiting for the inevitable moment when you realise visiting these sites is an endless stream of lackluster content”
Whilst No Man’s Sky is primarily an exploration game, combat does feature as a significant aspect. However, it’s more of a nuisance than a succinct system. Sentinels, the guardian robots that fly around most planets, along with space pirates, are the only enemies you will face throughout your journey. The concept of the sentinels acting as a mysterious protectorate to be wary of, is cool, but in reality, the AI of these drones and mechanical constructions lack any form of intelligence. Fearing the Sentinels is a bit silly when you can just drop your ‘wanted level’ by walking inside a building. Besides offering brief entertainment value when you discover your first ‘Sentinel Frenzy’ planet (one where they attack almost immediately after harvesting resources), their meaning is drowned out by their simplistic and boring design. In fact, should you just want to kill them, or defend yourself, attempts to do so will accentuate the sloppy and painful feel of combat. Aiming the weapon is floaty and frustrating, while the recoil and spread of the gun just doesn’t ‘feel’ right.
The slightly better space gameplay is the closest thing to being a redeeming feature for the combat, had it not been such a rude interruption to my game time. When not engaging in dog fights, soaring through space and the atmosphere is easy to manage, as well as relaxing. I spent a considerable amount of time just skating slowly above the ground, landing only for something really important, but mostly absorbing in the sights. Although the space combat is ostensibly more enjoyable and less clunky than its ground counterpart, it is still a huge annoyance. Engaging in it doesn’t net you many worthwhile rewards, and before you’ve upgraded your ship enough, being forced to fight is very frustrating. It gets smoother with stronger upgrades, but even when I was at the point of killing pursuers with relative ease, it was an immense hassle when I just wanted to explore or shoot off to another star system.
Let’s be clear, without the incessant amount of inventory management in No Man’s Sky, it would struggle to define itself as a game. It is the only thing that limits player choice and slows the rate at which you barrel through the galaxy. The intent to abridge progression through the low resource stack count (so that it takes up more space in your inventory), and start the player off with a very limited amount of slots, irritates the experience and creates a mini-game that you devote far too much of your time to.
Exacerbating the inventory management is the upgrade trade-off. Each exosuit or starship upgrade which improves their performance and makes life a little bit easier, also take up a slot in your inventory. This design forces the player to make a choice between fun — but not necessary — upgrades, or additional inventory slots. I went through the entire game without a single Exosuit upgrade because I always needed more space. Therefore, I refused to engage in a significant aspect of the game. This is not a well designed system.
On the other hand, from time to time, setting a goal and embarking on your journey to find the resources and create what you’re looking for, feeds into the ‘chilled out’ and serene method of experiencing No Man’s Sky. Wondering deep into the jungles and caves in search for the right materials at a leisurely pace, or selling off my bulk venom sacs for sweet
Republic Credits Units while catching up on Bojack Horseman, is by far the best way to experience this monolith.
“[The Inventory] irritates the experience and becomes a mini-game that you devote far too much of your time to”
Even though how you discover No Man’s Sky is entirely up to you, the game does provide fairly simple accomplishment notifications, called ‘Journey Milestones’, which help track your progress more discretely. They’re an in-game point system which sync up with PlayStation trophies and Steam achievements. Unfortunately, although the short-cut when you achieve a new milestone triggers a wondrously harmonic tune that nestles in your heartstrings, the lack of an option to skip it is very infuriating. It’s a knitpick, but the amount of times I’ve wanted to get in my spaceship, or interact with something as this painfully long interface change imposed itself on my game, was too many to count.
Right now, it seems the most stable build of the game rests on PlayStation 4, the platform I have completed the review on. I can’t speak for the issues on PC, although we have a few posts about it on the site. What I can say, is that while the experience on PlayStation 4 went by relatively smoothly, it was broken up in bursts by frequent crashes. Often the game would close due to error while warping to another system, and would occur again until I initiated a full console reboot. The game saves frequently, but only when you get out of your ship or activate a settlement checkpoint. Ergo, if you begin skipping multiple systems at a time without visiting a space station, crashing, and starting back at the first system you jumped from is obnoxious as all hell. However, having spoken to other people of the OK Games crew, they seem to not have experienced crashing with the same frequency.
The overall graphical quality of the game isn’t astonishing; its beauty lies in the landscapes, colours and brutal environments. However, the grainy effect as the world generates in front of your eyes, is very noticeable and always a disappointment. Similarly, the draw distance is considerably short, which is annoying when looking for a specific resource, as it’s more difficult to scout out, particularly asteroids which don’t load until you’re very close.
It’s clear that the internet is divided by No Man’s Sky. It’s not uncommon for the gaming community to take something, and target it until nothing remains but hordes of angry people screaming in Reddit subforums and YouTube comment sections. No Man’s Sky is not a great game, it’s not necessarily even a good game, but the fulfillment you receive from it is only as strong as the experience you desire. It’s a game that continues to bewilder me. I can’t help but remain at odds with the game’s fundamental mechanics, but the sensations I have felt while witnessing this wild and enormous universe will stick with me for a while to come, and most likely have me returning. Perhaps further patches will some day make No Man’s Sky the game we always hoped it would be.