No Man's Sky ($59.99) is a game with two faces. On one side is an expansive, beautiful, and wholly fresh science fiction space exploration game. The other is a mundane, task-driven experience that may fail to hold your interest for long. Playing No Man's Sky feels like nothing before it, yet you've also played through the individual mechanics in some sense many times before. Its release is a long-running story of anticipation and promises, both delivered and broken, and so the game as it stands at launch has and will continue to prove divisive. The legitimate complaints about its subsystems and perceived dearth of activities, though, are overshadowed by the actual experience of playing the game, fading into the background as minor nuisances as you become immersed in new alien worlds—the real thrust of the game. No Man's Sky is a completely unique, engrossing, wondrous, and yes, flawed experience, one that conjures the feelings of exploration and discovery like nothing before it, and it's entirely worth losing yourself among the stars. I played the PC version of the game, but it's also available on PlayStation 4.
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Perhaps more than any other game in recent memory, No Man's Sky seems nearly impossible to disentangle from the hype and anticipation surrounding its release. Despite the relatively modest beginnings and tiny development team, the excitement generated by this title puts it in a difficult position of meeting sky-high expectations, and so the context of release and reviews demands addressing. Much of the confusion about what exactly No Man's Sky's is can certainly be traced back to Hello Games' own statements, a studio that understandably promoted its passion project hoping for any initial interest, but lacked precise explanations of mechanics as fans flocked to it. Some promised or teased features also didn't make it into the launch version of the game—though I wouldn't assume malice here.
Another factor, which is really crystallizing through observation of the earlier PlayStation 4 version launch, is the large number of potential fans projecting their own desires and preferences about the ideal version of the game onto the real project in development. This seems to be happening more than usual with No Man's Sky because its base concept pre-release—an unfathomably large, computer-generated galaxy to explore—is so inherently appealing and grand in scope that much of it seems a blank canvas on which to paint with the colors of your own genre preferences. But it simply can't be everything to everyone.
Director Sean Murray and his team had their own vision in mind, ultimately a specific work of art the studio set out to create. Expectations vary so greatly between prospective players (think, for instance, of the many people who consumed little to no pre-launch coverage, and thus have no colored conception of what the game did or did not deliver) that it can't possibly be reviewed in the context of what ought to be, or whether one's pre-order was justified. The best way to critically examine No Man's Sky—the only fair way, I'd argue—is to strip all of that away and judge our own experiences with the game we've been presented with at launch.
One Small Step For Man
Your journey begins at the foot of a small fighter, and it quickly becomes apparent this spaceship is yours. Before you can climb aboard and shoot off into the stars, you're told the ship needs several repairs, which forces you to really soak in the starting environment to consider your options. A vast landscape stretches out in every direction, awash in distinct colors and dotted with foreign flora. I can't possibly describe what it will look like for you, which is the genius of No Man's Sky appeal: there are 18 quintillion planets to explore—a genuinely mind-blowing number of in-game locations—and so every player's starting location will be different. Mine was something of a paradise planet, with vibrant green grass gently blowing in the wind, rolling hills, and glowing plant life in the valleys.
That staggering number of planets means they were not each hand-crafted by the developers of course, but rather, procedurally generated by an algorithm the studio created, similar to the way Minecraft's terrain unfolds before you (more on the planets themselves and their crucial roles later). Unlike Minecraft, each game file is not a newly generated world: every No Man's Sky player exists within one shared universe, meaning it's possible to stumble across a planet discovered and named by another player. Odds of that are low (I didn't encounter a single such location in my 30 hours with the game), and there is no true multiplayer beyond this which might disappoint some, but full-fledged cooperative play is not a feature I expected, and is one I feel would be antithetical to No Man's Sky's integral sense of desperate loneliness. It's you and your ship against a hopelessly large galaxy, finding only occasional company in NPCs, who are more concerned with their own tasks than integrating you into their plans. Names left by other players are simply pockmarks on the universe, like the cryptic messages buried away in ancient ruins that inform you, piecemeal, about the world around you.
Setting off from your ship to look for resources is tense, and represents the first expansion of the game's scope that No Man's Sky thrusts upon you. Every single facet of your surroundings is unfamiliar, from the terrain, to the potentially harmful atmosphere, and to what the resources you're hunting for even look like in the environment. Native creatures roam the landscape, and your multi-tool is your only method of defense, in more ways than one. Scanning the fauna—also generated by the game's math within a set of rules—tells you about their diet and temperament, while also filling out your lifeform database. The multi-tool's steady laser stream doubles as both the way to mine for minerals, which appear as natural formations of varying texture and color in the landscape, and as a method of combat. You can spend resources as you progress to upgrade the device, including a Boltcaster mode that serves as a more powerful gun, and faster resource mining.
You'll find what you need by simply moving around: every planet provides the same basic materials needed for survival (though they take different forms), as well as unique combinations of more rare materials that won't appear elsewhere. It's a good system, since it won't leave you stranded, yet provides uncertainty as to what will be over the next ridge on any planet. Each planet also shares some form of derelict ruins, research facilities, and other locations of interest, which have varying types of rewards and outcomes.
The menu informs you how much Carbon, Heridium, and other minerals both real and fictional are needed to fix your ship. It's a balancing act, since you use the same materials to refill your always depleting Life Support bar as you do for ammunition, fuel, and upgrades. The UI is similar to Destiny's, with a cursor interface and press-and-hold buttons to make selections. It makes sense at times, but generally its inclusion leaves you wondering why they didn't opt for a traditional box-to-box inventory layout. Juggling resources between your suit and ship inventories is often a hassle, especially with the limited number of starting slots provided. There's less micromanaging as you purchase more spaces, but it's an overall finicky system as you learn how it works.
Mining itself is pretty mundane, and your enjoyment may ultimately depend on your tolerance for firing a laser into rocks and watching your material counts rise. I'd argue, though, that this aspect is no less senseless than grinding for materials and loot in an RPG, or hacking away at cubes in Minecraft—two of the most common activities in all of gaming. Still, it must be said that these mechanics represent much of what could irritate players about No Man's Sky, just as they rightly draw criticism in other genres, since mining takes up a chunk of your time and is not particularly exciting. The ill-received Mako resource gathering in the original Mass Effect was the other experience that kept coming to mind as I hunted for minerals across uncharted worlds, a comparison that won't endear this concept to most (though these attractive, larger planets have much more to them).
Yet, in the same way you wouldn't first describe or laud Bioware's RPG by its rote mechanics, No Man's Sky is more than the sum of its parts. Half-baked combat and clumsy inventory management become more minor quibbles when a brand new world is rolled out in front of you, minor roadblocks in the face of the feeling of discovery. No Man's Sky rewards more patient, deliberate play: there's nowhere to rush to, but plenty to see, and the scope really becomes apparent when your ship is ready to shoot into the stars.
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
The thrill of rocketing through the atmosphere never dissipates. Once your ship is space faring again and you have fuel on hand (namely Plutonium, a common resource on the ground), you're free to come and go to any planet in free flight as you wish. Engines roar and the excellent soundtrack by British band 65daysofstatic, which ranges from moody piano to more rock-inspired riffs, shifts gears as you hurtle through the atmosphere and into space. Depending on the star system, other huge planets may loom close ahead or in the distance, set against a nebulous backdrop of any number of colors and a multitude of stars. The avenues of your adventure are limitless, whether you'd like to head straight for the center of the galaxy by Hyperdrive or boost to the planet right in front of you. Every star system on the expansive galaxy map holds several planets within, and each of them are as varied as the one on which you began. You can look at the systems the way they're connected for travel—with one or more branching jump lanes leading to another star—or observe the entire galaxy in a free flight camera mode, a feature that reminds you of the sheer size of the game's universe, as its breadth widens again.
Each system features a space station, which serves as a trade hub and ship shopping location, as well as a guaranteed interface for interacting with the alien faction controlling that region. An NPC sits inside, as they do on some planet-side buildings, offering short conversations and the chance to win a reward or improve your standing, should you choose the right option. There are generally three choices, and responding to some interactions will require guess work while the answers to others are hinted at with subtle clues. Rarely is the outcome overtly negative, and you'll either get a mild bonus, a good reward, or nothing depending on your selection. It's another simple system, but one that generally throws something new at you to figure out.
The three factions have their own attitude and view of the world, which you can gradually infer from messages and clues. Pirates occasionally engage your ship, halting your ability to jump, and fending them off is a tense, but simple exchange. You can upgrade your vessel's shields and weapons, or buy a ship with superior firepower, though there's little to gain from seeking out dogfights. Losing all hit points in the air or on the ground creates a grave, which you have a chance to return to in order to regain your inventory. From space, you can head toward one of these stations with your faster Pulse Engines, jump star systems with your Hyperdrive, or burst back down to a planetary surface. The blackness of space is your silent launch pad to different paths of adventure.
Even after working to escape the shackles of being grounded for the first time, there's an immediate, pulling temptation to visit another planet. The thought that every planet will look and feel different—even with shared similarities—and offer enough open ground that flying to a distant destination on the other side of the planet can take half an hour of real time is something you have to see for yourself.
And so, you launch your ship into full throttle, speeding toward the surface, burning up as you tear through the sky. The terrain type only hinted at from space pulls into focus as you near the ground, perhaps contradicting your assumptions about what lies below. For instance, what once appeared to me as ocean from far above was proven to be bright blue grass as I drew closer. This moment is No Man's Sky at its best. Touching down and stepping out of your cockpit evokes a sense of wonder as you see what type of terrain, weather, and native life the game provided you.
Landing on a second celestial body broadens that game's scope yet again; it's a scale that's almost difficult to consider. The act of landing on another planet is more eye-opening, more revealing of the game's size than seeing the galaxy map, because only then are you realizing the significance of each star system waiting out there. As mentioned, there has been plenty of questioning what players do in No Man's Sky—and to be sure, some features and folds hinted at explicitly or implicitly by Murray and earlier trailers did not make the release version—but the answer is simply: exactly what you see. Arriving on, exploring, and observing hundreds of new worlds is the meat of the game. It's also what Murray attempted to get across countless times in interviews, and brushing it off while asking 'what else?' misses the point of the experience and the creator's vision. It may not be enough for those seeking prescribed activities and deep, complex systems, but it's rewarding, engrossing, and valuable on its own. Money, minerals, and upgrades are the means to an end: the real currency No Man's Sky trades in are moments of unique beauty and awe, the ability to go farther and see more.
Planets, Programming, and the Past
Hinging this game on exploration wouldn't work without the strength of the algorithm, and Hello Games' work in this area is an unequivocal technical achievement. Planets don't feel thrown together with random parts, but built in a cohesive way even though code did the work, and at previously unseen numbers. Barren, rocky surfaces are often partnered with irradiated climates, a sickly purple landscape warding you off both physically and visually. Snow falls gently on freezing planets, while some are dominated by large bodies of water, and fittingly feature fauna with fins. Still others don't fit into any standard archetype, instead just feeling wholly alien thanks to strange, glowing clusters of plant life, sudden heat storms, and rare minerals. All the while, suitable, often serene music twinkles away in the background as you take in the scenery. The sound design as a whole adds meaningfully to the immersion, from the roaring of your ship's engine to howling winds, footsteps echoing off cave walls, and deafening silence.
Radiation slowly wears on your suit's protection levels, as do extreme heat, cold, and toxicity, giving you a few more threats to monitor and reason not to stray too far from your ship or shelter. The survival mechanics are somewhat toothless—it won't take long to always have enough resources to keep your resistances up—but the feeling of an oppressive atmosphere never leaves you. Like many of the game's mechanics, its simple on its own, but serves a greater purpose in world building and fuel for imagination.
A loose narrative built largely on environmental storytelling binds the game together, providing just enough guidance in the beginning and mystery through the rest of the game. This begins early on, tied into the instructions on how to build your first Hyperdrive and continues into space as you hunt down the mysterious Atlas. Any potential outcome of this journey is unknown to me, but it's an alternative path to follow from the trail to the center of the galaxy. It's also tied in to the only real recurring characters in the game, the amusing and well-written explorers Nada and Polo, as well as artifacts and messages you find on the surface. If you pay attention to the dialogue from this pair, you'll find winks and nods to the nature of the No Man's Sky's universe.
You can learn several faction languages word by word from ancient stones and ruins on planet surfaces, as well as from NPCs, all of which help you read messages and hold conversations. Over time, recurring themes and musing about the Sentinels (the robotic guardians who roam every planet) come together to weave vague, but consistent lore. This method of storytelling creates a sense you're existing in a lived-in universe shaped by events in the past, even though other intelligent life is sparse and your role in it is unclear. Though I didn't reach it myself, there is an end goal to this path, but even if you don't seek out the conclusion, the information secreted away out there is another reason to explore, and another intriguing facet of the universe. Your insignificance as a lone space traveler is made crushingly abundant not only by the sheer physical space around you, but by an intangible feeling of not belonging in this world, constantly questing for answers, probing for a place.
"I Didn't Feel Like A Giant. I Felt Very, Very Small." –Neil Armstrong
No Man's Sky's journey pushes every player to continue in this fashion, zipping from planet to planet, system to system across the galaxy, scrapping for resources to buy a larger ship, a better multi-tool, a more powerful Exosuit, all in the name of more efficient exploration. For the many claims about what this game could or should be, it is clearly first and foremost built around the exact sensation of discovery that it always promised, encouraging you to revel in every new environment and seek out an endless stream of frontiers. The magic of setting foot on a new world persists with every landing, even if your emergent routines and actions on each grow similar once you learn to recognize mineral formations and building types—small comforts against the insurmountable abyss of space.