No Man’s Sky always looked to be either the year’s biggest success or its biggest disappointment. From its astonishing initial reveal two years ago, it’s been the subject of frankly unrealistic expectations and slavering gamer hype. As released, it’s neither an unqualified success nor a total failure. Rather, it’s a game of great ambition whose every strength is tempered by a flaw.
The basic setup of No Man’s Sky is this: you wake up next to a crashed starship on an alien world. Foraging for supplies, you repair the ship, embarking on a freeform journey across a universe containing quintillions of worlds, exploring, trading, and surviving as best you can. If that sounds like your bag, you’ll probably get something out of No Man’s Sky. But there are caveats.
The exploratory experience in No Man’s Sky - especially early on - is phenomenal. It’s genuinely jaw-dropping being able to climb in a spaceship, take off, fly to a whole ‘nother planet, land, and start exploring again without a single break in gameplay. No other game communicates quite this sense of scale - or of your own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Like someone trapped in Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, you’re acutely aware of being a lonely little dot poking around a tiny corner of the galaxy. It’s terrific.
Landing on a new planet, the chances are strong you’ll be the first player to do so, giving you the opportunity to name and catalogue its flora and fauna. Animals can be fed and befriended, provided they’re not too ornery. But any sense of wonder at discovering new life rapidly gives way to laughter upon actually seeing it. Generated, as with nearly everything in the game, via an algorithm, many creatures end up looking like freakish Frankenstein monsters; the kind of derpy evolutionary disasters a kid would draw by mashing half a dozen animals into one. One of the early planets I found contained such a multitude of penis creatures - duly named the Multipeen, Flaccidoculum, and Bumplugginus - that I dubbed the planet Phallus World. Come visit one day.
On your first few sorties into the interplanetary unknown, you’ll be amazed at the variety. But where our universe sports tiny pockets of colour amidst a whole lotta emptiness, No Man’s Sky’s universe is more or less uniform. The thrill of discovery quickly wears off when you can find lifeforms on every marginally divergent planet. You quickly learn that these worlds are “undiscovered” only in the colonial sense: full of alien buildings and artifacts, somebody’s always been here before you. And contradictorily, despite masses of life-bearing planets, only 3 spacefaring species seem to exist in the whole galaxy.
All these worlds and land formations and creatures serve a single purpose: to provide raw materials with which to power and upgrade your ship and gear. Like a spacebound Minecraft without the player creativity, the core gameplay of No Man’s Sky is a repetitive exercise in resource-gathering. Most of your time will be spent looking for the right resources to make a new thing, or navigating the unintuitive, inconsistent Destiny-ish inventory screens in order to craft said thing. It’s billed as a survival mechanic, but when you find yourself shooting a rock with a laser for five minutes in order to repair your weirdly fragile life support system, it's more of an inescapable spiral of grind. There’s a unified trade system that pervades the galaxy (eat your heart out, European Union), but like much of No Man’s Sky, buying low and selling high isn’t escapism - it’s economics. Despite occasional moments where a Zen-like trance (or sleepiness) sets in, the underlying math is laid so bare, it's a total chore.
Sure, there’s combat - when you cause enough damage to anger the ancient space-Robocop Sentinels, or accumulate enough loot to raise the eyebrows of pirates - but it’s all weightless and uncaptivating. Space dogfights provide more annoyances than thrills, and on-foot combat is a slow, imprecise fumble. On the other end of the gameplay spectrum, multiple factions exist to be met and ranked up with, but those relationships have little perceived meaning beyond getting better deals at shops. Though they look and speak different (the language system is a great representation of the difficulty of first contact), the Gek, Korvax, and Vy’keen are thin variations on well-trodden sci-fi tropes, exhibiting little to no identifiable character.
All of this stems from an overreliance on procedurally generated content. Granted, procedural generation is what defines No Man's Sky, but it sucks away any sense of structure from the experience. Never once is it made clear why you’re doing what you’re doing. Player freedom is given too much emphasis; a little guidance or direction would go a long way in a limitless universe of samey environments. Moments of emergent wonder or excitement crop up occasionally, but they’re brief spikes on a fun graph that mostly flatlines, providing insufficient hooks to pull players past the grinding drudgery of the early game into the smoother drudgery of the late game. Some might be happy to while away endless hours in a loop of busywork. I'm not.
Adding to its tragedy, No Man’s Sky is a great-looking game. Its ‘70s sci-fi inspired design; its vibrantly colourful worlds; yes, even its derpy procedural fauna look like nothing else in gaming, frequently managing to stun even as the actual game mechanics bore. Graphical glitches and pop-in mar the experience somewhat, even going as far as to affect gameplay at times, but if anything, that only speaks to the game’s ambition outstripping its technical capabilities. It’s a strong argument for more powerful console hardware.
It would be tempting to chalk the game’s issues up to its prelaunch hype, driven equally by heavy marketing, an overexcitable gamer population, and a click-desperate press all too happy to introduce the two. It’d be equally as tempting to whinge over “broken promises” (there are gamers actually doing this right now) as it would be to trust that updates will make this rough-edged foundational release into a great game. But right now, we only have the game as released, making this a real bummer of a review to write.
I feel bad for developer Hello Games. A tiny team blessed and cursed with support from the Sony behemoth, they designed an incredible game engine that maybe inspires the imagination too much. Beautiful, innovative, and empty, it’s an amazing achievement but a boring game, all breadth and no depth. No Man’s Sky is hell of a facade, but it’d be nice if somebody was actually home.