Let’s get this out of the way: No Man’s Sky doesn’t manage to live up to the impossible heights of hype and excitement that built up in the run up to its launch last week. Yet, for the small team at Hello Games to achieve what they have with the game so far is still truly remarkable, resulting in a game that’s often an enthralling journey into classic science fiction.
It’s a game that encourages and requires you to venture forth and simply explore. You’re never commanded or required to go in any particular direction; you can wend your way the the galaxy as you see fit, spending as much or as little time on each planet and solar system, scavenging, mining, fighting and discovering wherever you go. All of this is thanks to the procedurally generated galaxy that Hello have created, with quintillions of stars just waiting to be explored.
The only thing you really need to do as you take your first steps in the game is fix your broken ship. At this point, you can either accept the advice and guidance of the glowing red orb that represents Atlas, or forge your own path. Either way, you’ll familiarise yourself with the multi-tool, the rigours of collecting resources and putting it to use to maintain and improve your equipment.
There are parallels to survival games like 7 Days to Die or DayZ, but the actual peril you face is generally very light, and most planets give you the time and space to explore and harvest their resources without being hassled. It’s only on naturally hazardous planets that you need to scurry from shelter to shelter, and if you anger the sentinel drones that float around. So you’re left to enjoy the sense of wonder as you meet your first indigenous alien life forms, fixing up your multi-tool’s components to catalogue and add them to your database.
The multi-tool is your main point of interaction with the the world, featuring a mining laser that cuts into harvestable elements, a scanner that sends out a ping to highlight nearby points of interest, a visor to scan plants and creatures, and the ability to add a boltcaster and plasma grenades as offensive weapons. Early on, it’s fairly anaemic, but through replacing it with newer multi-tools that have more slots and adding various upgrades, every part of its speed, cool down, and power consumption can be upgraded.
The same is true of your exosuit and ship – ships can only be replaced in order to expand, while the exosuit must be upgraded one slot at a time – and it’s actually much more important to chase after these improvements, simply to expand your overall inventory. Each unit, each upgrade and each item takes up a space in your inventory, while elements can be grouped in clusters of 250 in your suit or 500 in your ship. The early inventory size feels quite suffocating until such a time that you’re able to figure out the obtuse methods by which you upgrade them – even with Atlas’ guidance, you must figure out many parts of the game for yourself.
Hoovering up resources and managing your inventory is somewhat hampered by a system that apes the pretty but awkward mouse-like interface from Destiny. It’s clunky enough in Bungie’s space-opera MMO, but No Man’s Sky could do with a quicker and simpler interface. You’re very regularly having to duck in just to recharge one of the half-dozen separate systems that need power – several of which only accept a single particular element – and you have to hold to select every time.
It’s particularly tiresome to construct Warp Cells, with four separate steps that you must go through each and every time, when they could surely be rolled into one if you have enough of the five constituent elements in your inventory. This system clunkiness reaches its zenith when your deflector shields are depleted mid-dogfight, and you have to manually recharge them from the inventory, often while taking damage. The addition of a simple “Press Square to recharge” prompt somehow managed to slip through play testing.
Despite the procedurally generated galaxy, there’s also a certain degree of story and lore for you to discover, if you go hunting for it. Planets are dotted with alien bases of varying sizes, as well as alien monuments, and it’s through interacting with the solitary aliens you meet and these monuments that you can get a glimpse into their cultures and personalities.
These come in the form of quite delightful little logic puzzles, as you’re presented a short story or scenario to ponder. You don’t speak these alien languages, and are only able to learn one word at a time, meaning that you’re always piecing together what they’re trying to get across to you. Is the alien brusquely gesturing to your multi-tool out of anger, or is there a less dramatic explanation? Are they asking for units or a particular kind of element? Are the spiders crawling up your Exosuit a monument induced hallucination that you must endure, or do you try to brush them off?
They’re fun little interactions, and help to gradually build a picture of each race. Atlas, however, is much more mysterious, its purpose unclear and the promises of enlightenment at the end of your journey to the galactic core vague. Every once in a while, you’ll jump into a new system and find a vast Atlas Interface space station waiting for you to dock, letting you devote yourself to its cause – whatever that might be – but you should feel free to stray from its path, if you so wish. Parallel to this, Nada and Polo offer alternatives for your journey, and you can flit back and forth as you see fit.
Those first dozen hours of excited and eager exploration give way to monotony and repetition, though. The procedural generation systems that Hello Games have manipulated into creating this vast galaxy are nothing short of remarkable, but I feel that even Charles Darwin would struggle to see some of the differences between planets. On a number of occasions, I’ve stepped out of my ship and scanned what I thought was a herd of homogenous creatures, only to discover three different varieties, one of which seems to merely be a smaller juvenile, and I’m sure I’ve seen identical cacti on different planets, only to be told that they’re unique.
Almost all of the publicity prior to release understandably focused on the more verdant and photogenic planets, with hills covered in thick grass and plant life, but the reality is that I’ve generally gone from one inhospitable brown rock with giant cacti and mushrooms to a slightly less inhospitable green-ish grey rock with cacti and mushrooms. It’s difficult to get excited about another dismal looking ball, but at the same time, it makes those times that you land on a truly beautiful world all the more special. Especially if it just so happens to be rife with the kinds of materials you’ve been searching for. I excitedly scooped up as much copper as I could, the first time I found a planet with this minor resource in an abundance of floating eggs, as it allowed me to finally build a particular multi-tool upgrade, not to mention the planet with caves practically overflowing with more Vortex Cubes than I could hope to make use of.
The Galactic Trade Network is great for dumping the raw resources that you’ve scooped up, but it’s rare that I felt the need to pick up anything but consumable materials and items – namely zinc for warp cell crafting and titanium for mid-dogfight repairs. The game’s singular drive to the centre of the galactic core means that you’re never in one place long enough to discover and make use of trade routes to your advantage.
Similarly, space dogfighting could do with being better fleshed out. Every once in a while, you’ll be scanned and attacked by pirates, fending for your life and inventory contents, or spot a distress call from one of the freighter fleets being assaulted by buzzing pirate fighters. It has an appealing immediacy to it, as you switch between pulse and beam cannons and have to lead targets, but there’s not much complexity to it. As stated before, the lack of an easy way to replenish your shields takes much of the remaining enjoyment out of such encounters.
The risks and rewards are actually quite negligible. Die and you can come back to reclaim your inventory once you respawn, but worse than that, after spending fifteen minutes fending off pirates from a freighter convoy, bleeding my precious stockpiles of titanium in the process, all I saw in return was that my status with the Gex went up. No monetary compensation, no new upgrade, and barely even a “Thanks, champ. See you later.”
That, I think, is perhaps my biggest issue with the game. It’s so rare that I feel like I’ve been truly rewarded for my efforts. The initial burst of exploration is fantastic, but that thrill wanes; flitting from one system to another, gathering and selling resources, discovering new words and communing with the alien races all starts to feel a bit thankless. Aside from the semi-regular milestone notifications that pop up for various in game tasks, moments of genuine progress and delight are few and far between in a single task that’s so staggeringly monumental that, even after a few dozen hours, you might not be anywhere close to completing.
These are things that Hello can improve upon and add to over time, with the almost certainly huge number of game sales giving them the money and time to spend on the game and continue to develop it. Actual face to face multiplayer, base building and plenty more are on the cards, as they look to explore just what their game can become, just as you explore what they’ve already created. I’d hesitate to say that the game feels unfinished because of this scope to improve, but would suggest that, given the vast scale of what they created, they were forced to narrow their focus in other areas and leave certain stones unturned.
No Man’s Sky manages to be a hugely impressive accomplishment for the team at Hello Games, but the hubris and hype meant it could never live up to the expectations heaped upon it. Despite the various caveats and areas that Hello will look to improve upon over the coming months, you can so easily lose hours at a time landing on a new and interesting planet for the first time, giving the local flora and fauna idiotic names, before falling down a hole and getting lost in a sprawling cave system, only to do the exact same thing on the next planet over. There’s nothing quite like it.
Version Tested: PS4