For all the hype, the years of expectation and excitement that has built up for No Man’s Sky, it’s not a game that welcomes you with open arms. The galaxy that you find yourself in is completely unfamiliar to you, you don’t share a common language with the few isolated aliens you do encounter, and it’s easy to feel lost and unsure of what to do next.
But what do you do in the game? What’s the point of it all? The questions that seem to have hounded the game all the way through development are most relevant during the first few hours. It’s here that I felt the most rudderless, as the game takes a fairly laissez-faire attitude to tutorials and teaching. Encountering a strange red orb that offered me the guidance of someone or something called Atlas on my journey, I chose to accept, but I promptly lost myself in exploring the planet before me.
With yellow grass covering the ground and gently waving in the wind alongside slightly unusual trees and bushes with red leaves, I wandered away from my space ship, heading over hills on foot and with my jetpack, as well as exploring the caves lit by unusual plants that hide in the darkness. It wasn’t long before I encountered my first creature – I renamed the species Gertrude a little later on – a tall quadruped with crocodile-like skin that set the tone for the rest of the wildlife on the planet.
It’s partly from simply wandering around and exploring that it took me so long to actually repair my ship and actually take off. I had a list of elements and items to collect in order to fix the Launch Thrust and Pulse Engine, as well as those prompts in the bottom right hand corner, but it took me quite some time to put two and two together for how to create the Carite Sheets I needed, let alone what symbols to look for when searching for the Heridium and Zinc that I had to collect.
The multi-tool is at the heart of much of what you can do on a planet’s surface. It’s this that lets you perform a topographic survey and highlight nearby points of interest, scan and categorise new species of flora and fauna, mine for elements with its mining laser, and yes, it can have a gun and grenade launcher built in as well, to fend off the sentinels that might not approve of your actions. Once you put your mind to it – or if you know what you’re doing from the outset – it doesn’t take long to collect all of the materials you need, letting you fix up your ship and take off into space, heading off to one of the planets that you see hanging lazily in the sky above.
Flying is one of the places where the game does take you by the hand and help you on your way. Your basic ship’s speed is augmented by a boost initially, but for serious in-system travel you need to engage the Pulse Engine, with minuscule specs of space debris streaking across your vision, before you get to consider travelling between solar systems with the Hyperdrive. The controls are simple and easy to pick up and play, and that’s only added to by the game’s slightly heavy handed automation. It slows you down to prevent you from crashing into space stations and planets, for one thing, and even stops you flying below a certain level on a planet, unless you press the button for the automated landing. It’s almost coddling in that regard, but conversely, the way that it automates your trajectory to a far off waypoint is joyous in its simplicity.
Visiting other planets, there’s points of interest dotting the landscape, with everything from little piles of dropped supplies to beacons and waypoints to interact with that show you were the first to discover them. It’s difficult to get across the sheer sense of scale, but No Man’s Sky does so admirably, as you breach through the atmosphere, flames roaring around your ship and the edge of your screen, while the time to your destination gradually creeps up and and up and you’re forced to slow down from the ludicrous speeds you were once travelling at.
It’s here that the PlayStation 4 struggles to keep up with the game’s sheer scale and vision. It’s not that surprising, but it’s one of the weakest looking parts of the game to be skimming through the sky and see the landscape below you in a mess of dithered pop-in, in order to hold the game to a solid 1080p30.
Though there seems to be life of some sort to be found on every planet and moon, not all of these are particularly beautiful or memorable. In fact, many are quietly boring, with dull brown and grey landscapes sparsely covered in slight variations on cacti, while half a dozen closely related species of blobby jumping aliens bounce around. The procedural generation has its moments though, and it’s staggeringly beautiful when you’re wandering across rolling hills blanketed in grass or flying through the vastness of space, all to 65daysofstatic’s wonderfully subdued soundtrack that sits in the background until its needed for a dramatic moment.
A major part of the game is familiarising yourself with the other races that you encounter, and interacting with them in various ways. At its simplest, it’s finding the knowledge stones, plaques and monuments that will teach you new words – though I’m not sure I really need to learn the Gex word for ‘Gex’ – but these interactions often lead to little riddles and questions to figure out, both from the monuments and when talking to other races. A simple little scenario is described in text, detailing an interaction with an alien and asking you how you want to react. Sometimes it’s figuring out what they want you to give to them from a handful of possible elements, other times it could be deciding whether or not to let them take your multi-tool. With no cultural reference points and the vast language barrier, it can be quite tricky to get your head around.
Get it right, though, and you’re rewarded with slightly improved relations to that race, as well as a possible upgrade to your gear. The impact of those upgrades is slowed by the limitations of your initial equipment and the fact that each ability, upgrade, item and stacked element will take up a whole slot. Your first multi-tool has only five slots, but five potential abilities, so it’s only with later multi-tools that you can boost the cooldown rate of the mining laser, increase the damage output, and so on.
Similarly, it’s necessary to constantly juggle the various elements you pick up. These fall into a handful of categories, but while the multi-tool can be recharged with all of the power providing elements, the Launch Thrust requires Plutonium for each launch, the Pulse Engine demands Thamium9, and each warp jump requires you just go through four steps of crafting with several different elements in order to create a Warp Cell. That’s something that I’m really hoping is simplified later in the game or in a patch.
Six or seven hours in, and No Man’s Sky is really starting to hit its stride. I’ve largely stopped renaming planets and animals once I ran out of imaginative nonsense and Farscape characters, but I’ve got to grips with what to do when I enter a new system, found planets with giant boulders of gold and other valuable elements to scoop up with my laser and sell at trading posts, and that’s let me buy better multi-tools and a new (and awesome looking) ship. I even got into my first few space battles, only to discover that I was biting off more than I could chew.
Importantly, No Man’s Sky also starts to open up and present you a few clearer choices on your path to the centre of the galaxy. Following Atlas’ guidance is one, but there are two other routes open to you that can give you an advantage and cut down the length of your journey. Yet there might be something altogether more sinister bubbling away under the surface…