Review: No Man’s Sky

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There are few games that have charted such tumultuous releases and receptions as No Man’s Sky, and fewer still that are worth talking about five years after the fact. By now, we all know the story, how it was hyped to high heaven despite no one really knowing what it was, how the disappointment over promised features crushed it at launch, and how it has tenaciously clawed back the good will of the gaming world over the course of half a decade. It was this incredible comeback that got me to finally give the thing a try, that and the desire for some epic, sprawling, open-space adventure. But after twelve hours in an unparalleled, infinite universe, the question of whether No Man’s Sky is actually good is as complicated as ever.

You awaken on a planet, one of uncountable number in the vast reaches of the cosmos. You don’t know who you are or how you got there, but your ship is busted and the hazardous atmosphere is eating away at your suit. Over the next few hours, you’ll learn how to survive on inhospitable worlds (which, it turns out, is almost all of them), maintain your ship, travel from planet to planet, and eventually escape the confines of the current solar system to explore the infinite reaches of others. You are guided on this journey not only by helpful tutorial messages, but also the vague and ominous portends of unnamed voices, whispering about travelers and sentinels and number sequences. Once you have a grip on survival and travel, perhaps you’ll make some headway into understanding these strange messages and the cosmic forces behind them.

Or maybe you won’t, because maintaining yourself is a surprising amount of work. Those first couple hours are all about teaching you to shoot rocks and plants and crystals with your mining laser to get elements like carbon and oxygen, and then cram those into your suit or gun or ship to keep them working. Your life support needs to be maintained with elements, as does your environmental protection, your tools, your launch thrusters to get offworld, and so on. This is a survival game, after all, and survival games always require chores to keep you alive. So get ready to hoover up plenty of elements wherever you go, and make sure you have enough slots for them in your inventory as you shuffle them about.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to see when you travel to these mysterious worlds. Every planet is procedurally generated, populated by randomized flora and fauna, and dotted with unique rock formations. All of these can be scanned down for information on the elements you can vacuum out of them, as well as cash for discovering something that no one else in the universe has found. Additional features can be found dotted above and below the landscape, the latter being accessible by a terrain manipulator attachment that lets you tunnel straight into the ground. There are settlements, outposts, ruins, relics of the past, lost technology, and more to find as you scour planets, and between your scanners and helpful NPCs that will offer or sell coordinates, you’ll never run out of places to explore.

What became apparent as I tracked down more and more errant signals was the similarity between what I was finding. The first couple times I touched down next to a monolith or a listening station, I was pretty excited by the possibilities of what could lie within. Those examples in particular, it turns out, only really reward you with additional locations to check, which usually held artifacts to sell for money or extra resources. It was rare for me to find something of actual note, and the one time I did it was a sidequest to build a submarine and then drive it to like five different locations that were all minutes of boring travel between each other, all for a cosmetic helmet. The most disappointing discoveries were wrecked ships, which required absurd amounts of resources to get running again, except if I went ahead and claimed them and then returned to my original ship, the wreck would vanish and never return until I bought my own freighter much, much later in the game.

This is a big point I want to touch on, something that the experience with wrecks made very, very stark. I feel like immersion is an important aspect of survival sim, just to maintain a degree of fun as you go through the motions of gathering and crafting and other chores. No Man’s Sky seems like it tries very hard to create an atmosphere of immersion with its unique take on sci-fi stylings, but ultimately this is a very video-gamey video game. The stations you visit in each system are all exactly the same layouts with the same services. You can build teleporters to warp you (and your ship!) anywhere in the galaxy you’ve been, despite the difficulty baked into gathering the resources to hyperjump from one system to the next. Every alien you meet will teach you words in their language (which you have to collect diligently to have any hope of understanding them), every pilot will sell you their ship, and every captain will sell you their freighter.

All of these design decisions are there for the sake of content and player convenience, but they kill the feeling of exploring an actual galaxy full of mystery and wonder. Yes, every planet you land on has been unexplored by others, but in the context of the game that makes zero sense. You’re constantly making first-time discoveries on planets covered in ruins and listening posts, as fleets of traders hyperjump into low orbit. You’re supposed to be forging your way across an untamed universe, but there’s a major trade hub in every system and you can have your own bases and fleets within a few hours of starting the game. It’s hard to tell what kind of feel this game is going for at times, when you’re hunting for the raw elements to power up your thrusters to get off a hostile planet at one moment, and then spending ten minutes shuffling around your inventory the next.

Ultimately I think this is what kept me from really connecting with No Man’s Sky. This is a game that knows what it wants to be, the One True Space Sim that has something for everyone, but it doesn’t know how to be that. The design is all over the place, sometimes with little connection between elements. For example, if you want to build bases, you have to spend your time digging up lost tech buried on planets to unlock new components. Like…why? Why is unlocking new base bits not a component of actually building bases? If you want to explore planets far and wide, you need to constantly be crafting fuel for your thrusters that gets used every time you take off. I have no idea what purpose this mechanic serves other than to slow down exploration, because it really puts a damper on checking ruins and points of interest when you’re constantly weighing the cost of just landing.

I know this review doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but despite everything I’ve laid out here, I still think No Man’s Sky can be a good time for a lot of people. What Hello Games has accomplished here, both in the scope of the experience and in the improvement of it over five years, deserves recognition and a chance to impress. Folks not as concerned with immersion or survival chores will find a lot to do here, even if none of it goes particularly deep. And for aficionados of my reviews, this hits very different from Starbound, which was out to stop the player from having fun at every turn. There’s none of that malice or contempt here, just a confused attempt at giving you the galaxy but also making you work for parts of it. I’ve taken a rather winding, meandering path to a lukewarm recommendation, but that seems terribly appropriate for a game that sees you winding and meandering just as much. Is No Man’s Sky good now? It’s good enough to give it a chance, just with the understanding that it’s still not quite what it was meant to be.

One comment

  • Apt summation. I quite enjoyed my time with No Man’s Sky, but recommending it isn’t as cut and dry and just saying “it’s good”, because I’m not sure that’s the case.

    You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, one I was in, one where you’re brain in working on autopilot and you don’t really want to stress over anything.

    Despite the resource management, NMS is incredibly lax and laid back, which at the time was what I wanted. I eventually put it down because I wanted a game to ask more of me, and unfortunately NMS doesn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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