There’s a lot to say about No Man’s Sky. For whatever reason, this game has become somewhat controversial. Perhaps it has to do with the lofty language used by the developers: sixteen quintillion planets, a number so big that my phone doesn’t even have the name stored in autocorrect. It has been teased at various conventions for about three years now, and it’s finally hit the shelves. So does it live up to the hype?
In a word, no. But it would have been impossible for a team of fifteen people to live up to the amount of buildup that three years (and sixteen quintillion planets) can amass. Despite an incredibly shaky and somewhat shameful PC release, I still think that Hello Games deserves a great deal of credit for attempting something on this scale. The fact that it succeeds on any level at all is astounding.
In case you haven’t heard of No Man’s Sky, here’s the rundown: it is a game in which you explore a vast universe of procedurally generated planets, moons and space stations, because space is neat. That’s pretty much the gist of it. There is a crafting system, and some combat, but I would argue that the crux of the game is the exploration aspect. The planets are planet-sized, and you can get in your ship and fly from a planet into space with no loading screen.
If that sounds impressive, it’s because it is. This is what makes No Man’s Sky remarkable to me: the scale. Traversing planets gives you a sense of how big a planet-sized planet really is. Zooming in at warp speed from a distance and watching as a planet goes from not moving to filling up your entire screen is awe inspiring.
But what about the game? Is there even a game there? Is it worth playing? Is it fun? Well, the answer is: sometimes. I spent the first hour or so in utter awe. I spawned on a planet with acidic rain, and I had to hide in caves to avoid being killed. It made survival feel awesome, and finding and crafting all of the parts for my ship was challenging and rewarding. Getting in my ship and taking off, pointing my nose to the stars and zooming away from the planet’s surface was exhilarating. And turning around, seeing where I just came from, the utter scale of the planet that I could explore, and turning around and seeing four other huge planets waiting for me, was breathtaking.
It is also very, very pretty. Other than lots of graphical pop-in (especially when flying into a planet from space) and some framerate issues, the game looks great. The art style is clearly inspired by 1950s sci-fi novel covers, and at times it is difficult not to stop every ten seconds to take a screenshot.
But what about the gameplay? Well, this is where the game begins to show its strings. Unfortunately it’s incredibly repetitive. You go down to a planet, you find an anomaly. It’s a trading outpost, abandoned or occupied. You talk to an alien, or log into a computer, and it gives you three options. You choose one at random, because you don’t understand the language, and it either gives you a reward or punishes you. You find wildlife and scan it into your database. Sometimes you find crashed ships that can replace your own, or escape pods where you can upgrade your suit. There are also monoliths where you can learn a single word of an alien language, making it easier to communicate with that race.
It sounds like there’s a lot to do, and there is; there are a lot of moving pieces in this game. There is even an economy that you can manipulate to your favor, buying low and selling high. You can attack or defend huge starships full of raw materials. All of it sounds rather exciting, but unfortunately none of it plays out in a very exciting way. Because of the procedural nature of the game buildings, plants and animals start to repeat a little bit; after a while of playing you can recognize all of the parts that make up the animals, and it feels like you’re taking a peak behind the curtain in what should feel like an infinite and believable universe.
On top of that the inventory system is terrible. I have never encountered a less well thought out inventory in a gathering/crafting game. You don’t start out with enough slots, and each of your suit upgrades (which drastically improve gameplay in certain cases) take up an inventory slot as well. This means you spend way more time than you ought to managing inventory, which is just no fun. On top of that, the base movement speed is far too slow; I’ve been using an exploit where you melee and then jetpack, which gets you really scooting, in order to move around. The worlds, for all of their outposts and trading centers, feel very empty, and even with a few NPCs scattered around it feels very lonely, for better or worse.
All of that sounds completely dreadful, and in a way it is. I recognize that significant changes need to be made to this game to improve quality of life. Stacking upgrades over the equipment, adding some form of ground transportation and enhancing NPC interactions would do a world of good. But the weird thing is I can’t stop playing No Man’s Sky. I fully understand all of its flaws, but something keeps pulling me back. Maybe it’s the art style, maybe it’s the scale, maybe it’s the music or the sense of freedom and discovery it gives me. Perhaps its all of the above. Something about No Man’s Sky appeals to me on a deep level.
I doubt that will be true for everybody. I would recommend giving that video I posted above a watch in its entirety before deciding on buying or not. There has already (predictably) been an uproar over the game’s repetitious nature and (more justifiably) the horrific PC launch. But for a select few, myself included, it’s a blast to spend hours exploring planet after planet, finding all of the nooks and crannies. There’s a different feeling to every planet I have visited. I almost miss a planet when I leave, because it was something that I and I alone discovered, and it imprinted its own sense of place on me. That is something special that very few games have succeeded at, and its what keeps me coming back for more, and more, and more. Thanks for reading, and stay Optimistic.