Review: No Man’s Sky

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When I first saw No Man’s Sky presented at E3 in 2015, I was enthralled. The developer showcased the title as a space exploration game, one that took place in a universe of nearly endless proportions. Over eighteen-Quintilian planets, all randomly generated. The planets were literally “planet-sized”, teeming with undocumented life. The first player to discover a particular planet could name it, and their name would forever be recorded as the “founder” of said world.  I mean, it was a concept unlike any other.  As a child, I was fascinated with deep space. The idea of an infinite universe filled with potential tugged at me then, as it still does now.  When the promise of No Man’s Sky was sold to the gaming world, I knew this was going to be a day one purchase for me.

So, here we are. No Man’s Sky has finally been released. And as I promised on the RetroSensei Podcast last year, I stopped everything and dedicated all my free time to playing it. I explored it, I learned its secrets, I experimented with it, and I ended up returning empty handed.  Allow me to explain…

First, let’s discuss what No Man’s Sky is supposed to be. As mentioned above, the game was sold to players as a deep-space exploration experience. The game is played through the eyes of an unnamed space traveler who wakes up on an alien world. As the traveler, you find yourself next to a broken spaceship. Not far from the ship is a strange artifact of alien origin. As you inspect the artifact, a strange voice invades your brain – you are given the option to follow the voice’s instructions and meet your destiny or ignore it and make your own way in the universe. Regardless of which path you may choose, you must first scour the planet for the resources needed to fix your ship and ensure your survival.

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Each player starting No Man’s Sky begins on a planet all their own. Your starting world is a world unseen by any other player. All planets, moons, and systems in the game are given randomly generated names, but as the founder of that world, you have the right to rename it if you wish. This is also true for the flora and fauna or special points of interest that you discover. The name you select, as well as the details of your discovery will be uploaded to the game’s server to be shared with anyone else who may eventually stumble across your world. At least…. that’s what the game promises. In truth, players have discovered that  (at time of this writing), discovery details are wiped after two weeks*… *** UPDATE- This is confirmed to be the result of a server error and not by design***

Anyways, back to the game itself. The first goal of the game is to harvest the materials needed to fix and upgrade your ship. This is done by seeking out ore or other raw elements and collecting them using a handheld multi-tool. While doing this, you will also quickly realize that aside from repair materials, you will need to collect resources to keep up your life support systems and even fuel for the multi-tool itself.  This quickly becomes a problem due the small amount of inventory space you start the game with. Luckily, as you proceed throughout No Man’s Sky, you will find frequent, albeit expensive, opportunities to upgrade your inventory slots. No Man’s Sky is very much a resource/survival game.

As you explore your starting world, you will likely encounter alien animals. Most are docile, but some are hostile. You will also eventually encounter “sentinels”. These are robotic probes that seem to appear whenever you seem to harvest materials in large number. If you’re greedy and continue to reap the land of its resources, these sentinels wills attack.

Once you’ve repaired your ship, you can use it to either travel around your starting planet with ease, or use it escape the atmosphere and head into space. Once you reach space, you’re likely to discover a few more planets and also a space station.  No you’re into the meat of the game.

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Every solar system in No Man’s Sky features a Space Station. So you’ll encounter these often. Here, you will find at least one alien lifeform. (There are four intelligent races in the game). At first, communication with these creatures will be difficult. But as you continue to travel from world to world, and system to system, you will uncover artifacts and computer terminals that will teach you bits of their language. Learning to communicate is important because many of the conversations or puzzles you will encounter in the game will often reward you with a prize, assuming you understand enough of the language to make the right decisions.

My starting world was rocky and barren. There wasn’t much to look at so I was anxious to move on and see what might await me on a new world. The next planet was different, but after spending an hour or so exploring it. I found that on the whole, it was really not much better. In fact, that might be the biggest problem with No Man’s Sky. Aside from the view, all the planets in game feature the same few points of interest: trading posts, communication towers, ruins/monoliths, and science stations. The purpose of these locations is either to learn new alien words, obtain blueprints for new technology, or buy and sell resources.  Occasionally, you may also encounter a shipwreck. But these are fairly rare. On top of that, nine out of ten times the wrecked ship is no better than your current one.

Spaceflight is even less exciting than planet exploration. It serves mainly as a path between worlds. Yes, you can mine minerals from asteroids and occasionally, you’ll encounter a fleet of ships in orbit around a world. But if you linger too long in open space you’re likely to become a target for pirates and combat is space is rather cumbersome, to be honest.

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The “goal” in No Man’s Sky is travel to the center of galaxy. To do so, you will need to craft a warp drive for your ship. (Players who pre-ordered the game actually receive a special ship that can warp from the start). However, you’ll soon find that warping through space is not really that efficient. Even with a fully upgraded drive, it will take hundreds upon hundreds of jumps to reach the center. Each jump requiring you to harvest and craft fuel. You can also take advantage of black-holes. These are supposedly short-cuts towards the center but they cause massive damage to your ship.  Now, I don’t usually post spoilers in my reviews, but I’m going to make an exception here. Reaching the center of the galaxy is not all it’s cracked up to be. Simply doing so treats you to a long and unskippable cutscene that sheds no light whatsoever onto the purpose or storyline of the game, and then essentially starts the game over again from the beginning. That’s right. The screen flashes and you wake up again on a new world, but this time in a different galaxy.

If you actually followed the game’s “storyline” and collected a number of special items through your travels, the ending is given is a tad bit more interesting, but the end result remains the same.

You’ll notice that as I summarized the game, I didn’t mention any interactions with other players. No Man’s Sky was described as being a multi-player experience, and even the box contains a notice of online play. But, in reality, you will never encounter another player. The game developer would have you believe that this is simply due to the large-scale size of the universe. But in truth, that is not the case. Two players were indeed able to organize a rendezvous in No Man’s Sky only to discover that the game clients do not talk to each other. You cannot encounter other players. Aside from seeing names people have given worlds and other discoveries, there simply is no multiplayer in No Man’s Sky whatsoever.

Now, it’s obvious that I’m quite unhappy that No Man’s Sky is not the really the experience promised to me by developers. I know that sometimes a player’s expectation will not line up with the end experience in a game. But No Man’s Sky is a unique case in that the developers outright lied and fabricated facts about the game. Setting these unfulfilled expectations aside and looking at the game itself, how is No Man’s Sky? Well, that’s a bit tricky. Initially, the game was crashy upon release and did indeed have a number of annoying bugs and glitches. But to be fair, a large number of these were swiftly fixed and corrected in a series of patches.  So, as I write this, both the PS4 and the PC version of game are pretty much stable. The game itself is gorgeous. The graphics are well done and at times breathtaking. The game actually does manage to capture a sense of wonder and mystique. The vast scale of the game was not oversold, it’s nearly endless. But sadly, most of what you will find is not always all that interesting. It’s different planets with the same contents. Over and over and over and over. The grind does exist, but for some reason I kept feeling the pull to play more and check out that one undiscovered world, because… maybe something interesting would be there. Even if it never was.

To me, if you approach No Man’s Sky with the mindset that it is an open-ended experiment, or a piece of art (and make no mistake, it is that), you will likely not be disappointed. This game is essentially a large sandbox, but one with very strict rules. However, if you come to the game expecting deep gameplay or a satisfying story, you will likely be disappointed.

In many ways, I imagine being a lost spacefaring traveler would actually be very much like the experience provided No Man’s Sky. A silent, lonely journey from one world to the next, in hopes that eventually you will find something that  gives your journey meaning. Only to know in the back of your mind that the only thing that waits for you out there is the vast nothingness, the likes of which you have already encountered.

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Difficulty: Easy –  No Man’s Sky is not a punishing game. If your character perishes, you will respawn at the point in which your game was last saved. You can find and locate your grave and restore any inventory that was lost. Most of the danger in this game exists in open space, courtesy of pirates. But occasionally, you will encounter a planet where the sentinels are hostile and attack on sight. These encounters can be deadly, fast. But as I mentioned, there’s no real penalty. No Man’s Sky is a fairly relaxing and stress free.

Story: The backstory of the game is minimal. It revolves around something called “The Atlas”, which is essentially a phantom alien consciousness. By following the path of the Atlas, the player can be ensured they will eventually obtain everything needed to reach the center of the galaxy, thus serving the will of the Atlas itself. – This scenario is actually quite well done, but it goes over the heads of most players. Essentially, the player is slave to an unseen force, one who’s intentions are not made clear. There’s hope of an ultimate end, but one that never seems to come.  – As I said in the review itself. No Man’s Sky is ultimately an experimental piece of playable art.

Originality: Love it or hate it, No Man’s Sky is certainly original. There’s never been a game where every piece of a shared universe is proceduraly generated. The game itself and the very concept of it is uncharted territory.

Soundtrack: The game soundtrack is fitting and perfect. From spacey ambient music while exploring the alien landscape, to pulse thumping beats when being attacked by sentinels. There’s no top-ten hits to be found here, but the score and overall game sound effects serve their purpose well.

Fun: In the beginning the game is interesting and entertaining. But sadly, it gets old pretty fast. What starts out seeming to be a universe filled with endless possibilities quickly fades into the realization that it is really nothing more than endless, re-skinned, repetitiveness.

Graphics: If No Man’s Sky is anything, it is pretty. Even the barren lifeless planets that you encounter more often than not, are well rendered and breathtaking to look at. The game largely has the overall look of an Issac Asmiov book cover. Which I found to be interesting and refreshing.

Playcontrol: The default controls are efficient, but a bit clunky at first. Thankfully, they can be remapped but in reality it doesn’t help much. For the most part, the stiff controls are not big issue, but on the uncommon occasion when combat occurs, it can often be difficult to navigate.

Downloadable Content: Free DLC Planned – Hello Games has promised free DLC that will “expand and change that scope of the game”. What this means exactly, is still anyone’s guess. If later content does in fact change the game in a big way, be assured I will update this review with those details.

***   Foundation Update Review    *** Atlas Rises Update Review

Mature Content: None

Value:  This game currently sells for a top-tier price of $60. In my opinion, this is too much for what you get. It won’t be long before this title is on sale. I cannot recommend a purchase at a $60 pricetag.  Knowing what you’re getting into, I’d feel more comfortable at or around $20.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 (original rating)  3 (After Atlas Rises Update) – No Man’s Sky is interesting. It’s not currently the game we were promised. But it’s not really as bad as some report indicate. If you like sci-fi, outer space and the thrill of the unknown, then you might like like No Man’s Sky. If you like peaceful, cerebral, open world games then you might like No Man’s Sky. But, if you’re goal-oriented, want an epic sci-fi storyline or exciting interactions with other players, you might want to sit this one out.  ***(I have updated the score from a 2 to a 3 after the fixes and enhancements introduced in the 1.3 patch)

Available on: PS4 and PC (Steam)

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