Everywhere around us, the world is governed by systems. The water you drink, the air you breathe, the device with which you are reading this, and even the traffic jam that made you late to work this morning. Fractals occur throughout nature, and despite my teenage attitude towards math instructors, they were not wrong when they spouted that ‘numbers are everywhere!’ These systems, numbers, and equations are the toolbox that game designers use to create the worlds we have explored and fallen in love with. No Man’s Sky is a game of systems, numbers, and how they can be used to breed beauty and wonder. On the same level, No Man’s Sky is also a genuinely flawed game, with a laundry list of bugs and missing features. I don't think No Man’s Sky is the game I wanted, or the game were promised, but I do think there is a unique and awesome experience to had in it.
If you have been keeping up with the games industry press and community discussion, you likely have already heard about No Man’s Sky. Complaints and praise alike have been pervasive across the blogosphere, Reddit, and other sites of their ilk. It’s been said there is no such thing as bad publicity, but I think that Hello Games’ lead Sean Murray might have a thing or two to say about that considering all of the recent hubbub. A lot of insinuations were made about the scope and depth of No Man’s Sky going all the way back to its initial announcement in 2014, and it all came to a head at launch in a flurry of internet mudslinging. There were so many people with impassioned excitement surrounding the endless possibilities, and unfortunately about as many boisterous trolls and people looking for something to hate. Massive blog posts and forum threads were erected, and the conversation quickly walked the line between spirited discussion and witch hunting. This is not the time or the place for a full on article about fandom, game marketing, or managing expectations, but when following No Man’s Sky, the proceedings in question were hard to avoid. I sympathize with both sides, and want to leave the topic with this: Developing and marketing a video game is tough, and both Sony and Hello Games should have done a better job with messaging, but as fans we should also do our part to start informed and think before we act online.
Now let me step down from this soapbox to actually get to the game itself. No Man’s Sky is a game about exploration and survival. In true sci-fi trope fashion, you crash land on an undiscovered world, confused and alone. Shortly after, you are given the first of very few proper ‘tasks’ you will ever receive in No Man’s Sky: repair your spaceship. Early minutes of the game are spent learning the basics of your inventory, mining elements, and crafting items. As your proceed to fix your ship, you gain access explore the nearby areas of your new makeshift home planet and its wonders. After completing that, the universe is literally in your hands, and that is where everything ‘takes off’. From here, you can travel anywhere in the universe, given enough time and patience, and this open exploration is where the ‘real’ game happens. Unfortunately, this is also the precise moment when the frustrations and issues start to rear their ugly heads.
|Behold the majesty of procedural generation.|
The universe of No Man’s Sky’s was created through a process called procedural generation. While there is some artistry and hand-crafting to the individual elements, the promised quintillions of planets were generated with the programming equivalent of a giant spreadsheet of data. This is simultaneously one of the most awesome (as in literally left me in awe) and most broken parts of the game. At the beginning, every new planet was a wonder of questions and possibilities: What new animals would be here? Would there be new environment i've never seen? Giant creatures? Maybe even something so bizarre that I wouldn’t even have considered it? For dozens of hours, this was my main drive to keep going. The power of mystery had me, and that is precisely why I was so disappointed to discover the incredible universe of sameness after exploring only few dozen planets. I understand from a technical standpoint why it had to be done this way: If you want a bespoke universe of hand-crafted designs, you can’t make a universe of such massive scale, but if you procedurally generate everything, there would be a massive universe of building blocks jammed into unnerving conglomerations. Hello Games made the smart decision of splitting the difference and doing more specific crafting of architecture and creature anatomy, but still allowed for randomness throughout the universe. The idea is astounding theoretically, but in execution what it became was the same 9 alien installations, on the same 15 different planetary environments, with creatures of the same 20 or so component parts. With this realization, the ‘Mysteries abound’ attitude slowly faded into tired tedium.
Outside of the mysteries of the universe, No Man’s Sky boils down to a relatively run-of-the-mill space survival game. Your suit, tools, and ship all run on resources that you need to gather to stay alive, and within the initial hours, No Man’s Sky quickly falls into its gameplay loop: Jumping from planet to planet, exploring a little, gathering enough materials to make some money and fuel your ship to, then repeat ad nauseum. This is not inherently a bad thing, and it is the loop that many wildly successful survival games do, but considering the way this product was touted by Sony and the developers, it felt shallow. There is a ‘story’ that you can play through, though it is entirely optional. I appreciated what the simple storyline tried to do by making parallels to humanity’s struggle of questioning the origins of existence and the concept of a creator, but it’s lack of compelling content had me forcing myself to finish it. Some amount of direction in a game of this scope is needed for many players to have a good experience, but when that direction is ‘go here, read a sign, repeat’ the gameplay mediocrity often outweighed my interest in No Man’s Sky’s philosophical quandaries. Outside of the story, the only other goal the player is given is to try to reach the center of the galaxy. The player is not given much of a reason why, or any particular assistance on the how outside of a line on your starmap, but at least it’s something to do in a game that often falls short in that category.
Since apparently in 2016 you can't get away from it, No Man’s Sky does include combat, both in space and planet-side. Speaking favorably, I would describe the combat in the game as feeling ‘tacked-on’. Speaking less favorably, I would describe the combat as a worthless addition that ruins the pacing and solitary feeling of being a small fish in a functionally-infinite pond. When on a planet, your mining tool doubles as a weapon, and has its own grenades, ammo, and upgrades to combat the robot space cops that are pervasive to the galaxy. The ‘sentinels’ as they are called are a neat addition, and having to question whether or not I should break into a facility or mine an element for fear of attack was a nice touch in a game that often borders on boring. Beyond that, they feel like a nuisance, and even their more powerful variations are dispatched so easily they nearly felt pointless. The Sentinels can also be encountered in space, mostly when fleeing from a planet or attacking one of the seemingly pointless space frigates, but their lack of challenge challenge remains. Space combat is a simple rendition of dog fighting that, despite being built in the modern gaming era, still somehow managed to feel worse than TIE Fighter and other founders of the genre going back to the mid-90s. Space pirates will also appear on occasion when you are carrying valuable goods, but their appearance does little other than elicit a slurry of frustrated groans and sighs. This space combat frequently brought the moment-to-moment gameplay to a screeching halt. With such little penalty for death and the ease of loading old saves, I often found myself taking advantage of No Man’s Sky’s poor design choices to avoid combat altogether, speaking volumes to the quality and fun. The combat was one of my biggest pain-points during my time with No Man’s Sky as a whole, and I think that players’ willingness to jump through hoops to avoid it is telling of its poor implementation.
|Get used to this screen. It's where you'll be spending the majority of your time.|
It is worth noting that there is a mechanic to the game wherein you can scan and name the newly discovered planets and wildlife. This was one of the big selling points as it lets players make their mark permanently on the galaxy. The player is rewarded for doing so with credits, and even more so with a feeling of exploratory agency when being able to mark this land in the name of your own. Unfortunately, as my time with the game progressed it started to become more of a chore than a feature. This tree? I guess I'm going to name it ‘20th tree with a very small difference’, get my credits, and move on. I was initially enamored with naming planets like keepsakes after things important to me, and had even developed a code to tagging planets by what resources they contained. Like so many other parts of this game, my habits of doing so lapsed over time. With no ability to easily return to planets visited in the past, and limited likelihood that another human will ever see these planets, what should feel like my ‘one small step for man’ moment boiled down to updating a value in a massive database somewhere.
End-to-end, the ideas of cool concepts with poor execution and fun features that quickly devolved into rote monotony are indicative of the entire No Man’s Sky experience. I was compelled enough by the gameplay and its possibilities to put dozens of hours into it, but I was left feeling empty. The developers have made promises and timelines for new features to be added in the future, and while I may come back to it, I fear the damage is already done. If you can't get enough survival gameplay or space exploration, then this game is for you, but for the rest of us, I can't suggest in good-faith that anyone spend $60 on what ultimately feels like just another early access survival game.
-Sir Justin Wicker
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games
Platforms: Playstation 4, PC
Release Date: August 9th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PC