No Man’s Sky (2016)
PS4 / Rated T
Action / Adventure
Publisher: Hello Games
Developer: Hello Games
What do you get when you mix together a fresh new idea, an unconventional publisher-developer relationship, a massive development cycle, and hype levels the size of space itself? You get No Man’s Sky, a game that I really wanted to like. Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games promised to make an expansive game rooted in boundless exploration and science-fiction nostalgia. They teamed up with Sony to bring a console exclusive that would be revolutionary to gaming. Unfortunately, the game was treated like a AAA game with the size of an indie studio. When you pair that with a plethora of broken promises and an unclear scope, you get a game that lets a ton of people (like myself) down.
Again, I really wanted to like No Man’s Sky. The game brought and touched upon a ton of different concepts and ideas that would have made for a fantastic game if handled with a little more care. The prospect of getting in a space cruiser and flying through the endless expanse of space, exploring different planets and their wildlife on the way, is an idea that should get any sci-fi nerd bouncing with excitement. On top of that, a fluctuating space economy and the ability to interact with different alien species paint should have made No Man’s Sky the space exploration game we all were waiting for. So where did it all go wrong? Why did the game fall short of its expectations?
One reason is reality of the game’s planets versus what we were promised over the course of the game’s prolonged development and PR cycle. If you watched any of the game’s demos, you probably saw a lush and vibrant ecosystem, filled to the brim with a wide range of mystical creatures roaming about. It’s a setting that looked ripped from a painting. It was beautiful, and it got a lot of gamers excited to explore the game’s randomly generated planets for themselves. We all bought a ticket for the hype train. We all bought in to the Sean Murray’s tremendous vision, one that might have been a little too far-fetched.
At the end of the day, No Man’s Sky is just a game. A game with limitations, just like any other game. What Hello Games was promising fans was a game that would exceed technological innovation. Instead, what we got were computer-generated planets that looked barren and empty, usually with some sort of radiation or extreme temperatures that make exploration a major pain in the ass. Instead of these mythical creatures we saw in pre-release footage, we got a fair amount of atrocities that looked like the by-product of an animal creation algorithm gone wrong. Remember EA’s character creation game Spore? The creatures that you encounter in No Man’s Sky look like Spore rejects. The ecosystem in the actual game just doesn’t match up with what we saw leading up to the game’s release. This made planet exploration a bummer, especially when I started to see a lot of the same animals and planets over and over again over the course of my travels. Random generation is great, but the limitations of such a system started to become apparent after my visit to my fifth planet.
Besides flora and fauna, you can also explore abandoned outposts, monoliths, and other structures, some populated and some empty. Inside these buildings you can find new items, upgrades, money, and directions to other locations of interests. The variety of these buildings, just like the animal and plant variety, starts to quickly wear thin as the buildings you explore start to become super familiar as you go on. The monoliths, which are essentially ancient alien structures, are the most intriguing structures to explore as they offer the most variety and they also look amazing as well.
The universe of No Man’s Sky feels empty as well. Talks of a space economy and different alien species that you could interact with made me believe that the world we would be exploring would be a living and breathing galaxy. Instead, members of these different alien species stay in the same spots, whether it’s in a space station or a planet’s outpost. They talk in foreign tongues which makes it next to impossible to feel like you are actually having a conversation with an alien. You can find tomes throughout the galaxy that help you understand these species’ languages, but this doesn’t help the fact that these NPCs that you encounter are lifeless quest givers. The space economy does deliver in that you can find different prices for materials in different space systems, but I don’t think these prices are determined by any meta-statistics. If I were to sell tons of iron to a space trader, the price of iron across the galaxy would not go down, which is a shame. A space economy that actually reacted to players’ buying habits would be amazing.
Combat, whether it’s on foot or in the sky, is largely underwhelming. While exploring planets, you have a multi-tool, which allows you to mine for materials as well as fight enemies. You can upgrade the tool with better upgrades and abilities as you go. When exploring planets, your only enemies are aggressive creatures and the flying sentinels that scour the planetscape, waiting for someone to cause trouble. The creatures are easy to take down with your multi-tools’s blaster but the sentinels become a real nuisance as they traverse through the air. The gun combat doesn’t feel great and I often found myself recklessly shooting my gun in an attempt to destroy the sentinels. Combat does get easier with subsequent upgrades, but it never felt fun, which is a big problem. In the air, your space ship has blasters and lasers that aid you in taking down pesky space pirates you track you down if you have any valuable cargo on board. These fights were the most frustrating of them all. The space pirates zoom by you and do nimble acrobatic maneuvers through the air as you try to shoot them with your sluggish aim. Your best bet is to park yourself in place and turn your ship around in an attempt to take down the enemy ships. This, again, was not fun at all and was the source of a good amount of deaths. In fact, most of my deaths in this game came at the hands of space pirates. Luckily they have no interest in your cargo as you can go retrieve your lost goods in the same place where you went down. There are no stakes to these fights, which makes them a little easier to swallow.
Up to this point, I have probably talked about half of what you do in No Man’s Sky. The other half you may ask? Well, you are going to spend a lot of time with inventory management, which is another major detriment to the game’s experience. The thing I like about No Man’s Sky’s user interface is the inspiration it draws from Destiny’s user interface. Unfortunately, navigating through your inventory becomes a hassle thanks to the limited space that you have right from the get-go. Your Exosuit (your spacesuit) has an inventory as well as you ship, which usually has a larger inventory. These inventories are pretty small in the beginning which makes resource mining a pain. I constantly found myself having to sacrifice some materials in order to make room for rarer materials and items. It also doesn’t help that suit and ship upgrades take up inventory spots as well, which makes upgrading your gear a tougher decision that it should be. Your inventory space should never get in the way of upgrading your gear. In order to expand your inventory, you either have to purchase suit upgrades at outposts or obtain bigger and more expensive ships with more space. Again, as a player you should never have to upgrade your inventories in order to make them useable. Moving resources and items around in order to make room for other things is a big portion of the gameplay, which is a major shame. It starts to become a drag really quickly. I’m not exaggerating when I say that half of your playtime will be spent in the game’s inventory menus. You’re going to be managing your inventory a lot…which is not my idea of a good time.
Finally, I feel like I need to talk about the multiplayer aspects of the game, rather the lack of multiplayer features that the game has to offer. You have the choice to name the systems, planets, animals, and plants that you discover in hopes that another player will stumble upon your discoveries. Why else would name these things? However, the reality of such a massive random generation algorithm means that millions of planets are being created. Sean Murray has made it pretty clear that the chance of stumbling upon someone else’s discovery are pretty slim. Over the course of my playtime, I found nothing that was discovered by someone else. Because of this, I found myself skipping the naming process, sticking with the randomly generated names that the game gives to these different aspects of the universe. I stopped claiming ownership of such discoveries, because in the end, they don’t really matter. Realistically, no one is going to stumble upon your discovered planets…which is a damn shame. This is the theme of No Man’s Sky. It’s a damn shame.
I could go on for multiple paragraphs, but this review is starting to run long. There’s a bevy of great ideas and systems that No Man’s Sky implements, but they all feel half-baked and undercooked. Black holes, Hyper drives, puzzles, and the mysterious Atlas are aspects of the game that I haven’t talked about. However, none of these things managed to stick out because they were either mishandled ideas or cheap by-products of another random generation. I admire Hello Game’s commitment to fixing the game and trying to make it a better experience for players after the game has launch, but a lot of these problems could have been fixed if expectations were tempered and promises weren’t made. The No Man’s Sky we were expecting versus the No Man’s Sky that was put on shelves are two different products that tell two different stories. One could have been a defining addition to gaming history while the other was the product of a hype train gone off the rails. I wanted to like No Man’s Sky so much, but in the end it’s a game that just can’t get into. Who knows, maybe the game will be different in a year’s time with the developer’s plans to update the game, but I don’t think I will be making the return trip into No Man’s Sky.