Developer: Hello Games
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: August 9, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
No Man’s Sky effectively portrays the loneliness of space by providing so little for the player to do that it’s tempting to flush one’s self out of an airlock just to break the tedium.
Not that you can do that. That would be too interesting.
After all the hype, all the promises, all the boasting of procedurally generated wonder and dynamic encounters, Hello Games’ “ambitious” spacefaring game is little more than just another crafting and survival experience, more about performing mundane, repetitive tasks than providing unique and exciting encounters.
If you’re not sick of the hundreds of survival games out there already then No Man’s Sky, with its endless resource collection and irritating inventory management, might be for you.
For anybody else, the allure of hopping from planet to planet just isn’t all that intriguing – once you’ve completed a long and dull journey from one world to another, you’re going to touch down and basically do what you did everywhere else.
The game’s biggest feature – that no one planet is the same – means very little when your interactions on each one are practically identical.
Yes, there are dry planets, watery planets, cold planets, stormy planets – but they all adhere to the same simple rules. The major difference between a poison planet and a nuclear planet is the fact you’ll get a different logo next to the timer that tells you how long you can stay outside.
The animals, mixed and matched quite obviously from a pool of recycled body parts, can be fed to uncover rare materials, but you can’t do much beyond that. Aside from the few that are hostile and prone to attack, the animals are just there to look weird.
Upon encountering a large, dinosaur-like creature, I proceeded to use my shitty jetpack (and boy is it shitty) to ride on its back. I thought that would be fun. Instead, I just fell through its back because it had no solidity, leaving me to sigh and return to yet more mind-numbing resource collection.
My disappointing experience with the dinosaur has come to exemplify No Man’s Sky‘s biggest problem – everything is so obviously faked, so unabashedly illusory. The universe is devoid of credible, tangible life. For as much as the game promises dynamic adventures, everything is scripted, static, held in place like cardboard cutouts in a fairground ride.
Sentient aliens met along the way are never found just wandering the land. They remain stood or sat in place like static quest givers in an MMO – without the quests. Every now and then, other starships land nearby, but nothing ever gets out of them. To interact with their pilots, you must interact with the ship, at which point a character model pops up and you can have a text-based conversation with a pop-up character model.
The world of an average Elder Scrolls game may be far smaller than No Man’s Sky‘s galactic sprawl, but it’s inherently more meaningful, vivid, and lively, because it actually has stuff to do and people to meet.
No Man’s Sky is indicative of a big problem the games industry has – conflating the size of a game’s world with the quality of its character. It’s yet another game that pushes scale above everything else, but when it comes down to actually playing the thing, sheer landmass doesn’t account for much.
I simply do not care that I can explore a universe when that universe contains animals a mere window dressing, lifeforms that stand affixed to one spot, abridged visual novel confrontations, and an endless need to shoot rocks and trees to continue micromanaging every banal detail of my character.
The endless collection of resources needed to refill multiple fuel sources is a total drag, but it’s really the best bit of substance the game has to offer. An incessant journey from planet to planet, zapping carbon and iron out of plants and stones so you can journey to more planets in order to zap more plants and stones.
This constant feeling of chasing one’s own tail for the sheer sake of it is found in many survival games, and it’s just as prevalent here. Everything is a chore, everything needs some special sort of fuel source, and there’s not enough room to carry it all. You start out slow, unable to sprint for long, with a terrible jetpack for a modicum of enhanced travel.
One’s abilities can have upgrades crafted for them, but upgrades share the same restricted inventory space as everything else, meaning you need to choose between being able to sprint for an acceptable amount of time or being able to carry more things. This becomes less of a problem when you buy bigger starships to carry more loot, but it remains an annoyance and it makes the early game an uphill battle against crushing ennui.
Breaking up the “enjoyment” of filling your tiny (if slowly expandable) inventory with materials are frequent attacks from Sentinels – robotic annoyances that seem to be everywhere and further drive home the uniformity of this allegedly varied universe.
Combat with sentinels consists of firing one’s mining microtool (or switching to weapon mode if you have one attached) and trying to keep focused on them as they buzz around like flies, peppering you with bullets.
When a sentinel shows up, you’ll be expected to drop everything and deal with them, lest they call for support. Planets with a heavy sentinel presence might as well be called Worlds o’ Harassment, since you won’t be able to stay out of your starship for half a minute before one of the little shits shows up.
Every now and then, “elite” versions might appear, but they’re actually less irritating to fight since they stand still sometimes – the game’s sub-par FPS mechanics really aren’t suited for fast-moving fodder. Guns feel weak and aiming on the PS4 is sluggish even with the sensitivity turned up to maximum.
Both on land and in space, combat is the absolute lowest point of the game, seemingly included just to make things more “gamey.”
At least they move, though. At least they have some sort of direct interactive element. Despite being serial tormentors that infuriate with their presence, the robotic murderous Sentinels are about the only form of believable life in No Man’s Sky‘s universe… and that’s really sad.
Planet surfaces are riddles with waypoints to find, and that comes to represent the only major objective on most worlds – scanning the surroundings for landmarks and heading to “discover” them. Anything discovered can be named and uploaded in exchange for units (NMS‘ currency), which means you can have star systems called Chungus, full of planets called Chungus, with every landmark on every planet also being called Chungus.
Naming things is fun at first, but soon it just becomes easier to upload the gibberish default names and get the cash. I can only spend so long seeing how far I can break the word filter (tip: Cumdrencher is an accepted name for any animal you might find).
Cash can be used at trading posts on space stations and various planets, but are most useful in purchasing inventory upgrades or better starships. Take my advice and work on obtaining a superior ship fast – you’ll be grateful for the added cargo space.
There’s an argument to be made for the meditative experience of cruising around space or the skies of a world, scanning for locations or simple taking in the scenery – and scenery can be beautiful in its own bizarre, garish way. Landscapes of eye-searing purple and green may not be to everyone’s taste, but I find some pleasure in just how dazzlingly colorful things can become.
Free of the crafting and the terrible combat, one could see how No Man’s Sky might have made for an interesting airborne “walking simulator” of sorts. With its other gameplay elements feeling like half-measures, the game truly is at its best when one is simply floating around the empyrean void, observing from a distance.
This is when I’ve found myself actively enjoying the game – when I’m practically doing nothing. Once there’s a location to get to, an objective to reach, travel becomes excruciating. Once I need fuel and supplies, the hunting and gathering becomes meddlesome. Once I attempt to continue with the dreary text-based story on offer, the whole thing becomes ironically robbed of any meaningful point.
Oh, and as weirdly pretty as the game can be, things are marred by aggressively grainy pop-in, as textures and environmental details bubble into existence, pixel by pixel. It’s overwhelmingly ugly and happens on every single world almost every time one is flying through it.
There are also hovering buildings, floating off the ground like bad Unity projects, some of which end up “built” into mountains and hills with no way to enter their half-buried doors. This is not deliberate, mind you – the buildings quite clearly lack some collision detection when they’re haphazardly plonked into the surroundings.
I’ve seen so many planets, met so many aliens, and mined so much goddamn carbon and not once have I been surprised. Not once has the game thrown me a curveball. Every new location is just a different colored home for the same old routine, and the procedural generation means that things feel far less diverse than they could be – when randomized pools replace handcrafted designs, the lego bricks piecing everything together are far too obvious.
Like Spore before it, No Man’s Sky is a game that promised far more than it could ever deliver, but I can’t even blame my tepid reaction on hype. I did not for a second believe Hello Games’ vaguely described spacefarer could be anywhere near as varied and expansive as promised.
Even with my expectations guarded, however, I did not expect just another survival/crafting game that used randomization as a crutch to the point of losing all potential personality.
And I at least expected more to fucking do.
I’ve seen things you people would easily believe. I’ve not seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched no C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. There are no moments to lose in time like tears in procedurally generated rain.
Time to Sky.