No Man’s Sky was released for the PC on August 9th and I have been playing it quite a bit since then. I meant to write a long review but I’d rather point to the most accurate and hilarious summary that I could find.
The author explains No Man’s Sky as a mindless, never ending grind to explore planets to get gear upgrade to explore planets to get gear upgrades.
And he isn’t wrong.
No Man’s Sky’s main purpose is to explore, walk the planet surfaces, genuinely be interested in what lies behind the next hill, below the surface in the huge caverns. And in that, it delivers.
Screenshots don’t do it justice. No Man’s Sky planetary design has managed to instill an eerie feeling of loneliness, abandon and straight-up “loss” in the player. You walk 100m from your ship into a random direction and you start anxiously looking over your shoulder hoping to find your way back. The procedural engine does an incredible job of creating a realistic looking landscape that has parallels to what one would find on earth but still seems very, very alien.
Movement isn’t fast – its walking pace with the occasional sprint and quite a bit of jet-back action but the scale of cliffs, mountains, oceans and deserts dwarfs the player’s ability to cover ground. Occasionally, one wanders into an compound where one of three alien races (I have only encountered 2 so far) waits for no good reason and tries to communicate.
This is classic game design with the exception of course that I don’t speak his language – I can learn words from special features strewn into the landscape and occasionally purchase them from friendly aliens. Increasingly, so it is promised, I will decode the language, communicate better and be able to truly benefit from my relationship. That’s the theory. In practice, apparently, there are 200 words in the alien’s language and getting them is a matter of time and dedication, not skill or game play. There is also not much reason, I managed to be friendly with two races while guessing what is said, based on the context. A greedy Gek alien (as shown above) will nearly always want money for example (or Carbon which can be harvested from his own houseplants). But I do enjoy the minigame and the satisfaction that comes from having learned another word of a foreign language. It does bring a “realism” to the game that is sorely missing from other franchises where all aliens speak perfect English (yes, yes, Universal Translators, Babelfish) . The method of slowly learning the culture via deciphering the language does add to the feeling of being the only human out there – and that’s a good thing. But overall, I miss the reason why I should learn the culture. There are no missions or quests other than the very occasional pointer toward a crashed spaceship (which is inevitably worse than my starter ship) and once I arrive, there is no-one to rescue, no follow up quest, no puzzle to solve.
Meeting NPCs is a classic game function and No Man’s Sky does it the classic way – random encounters, no story line, no depth. Not sure if it gets better the more I advance to the Galaxy’s core but also not sure if I can be bothered to find out. Like EVE Online players know, the first few hours / days / weeks decide whether or not a player sticks with it. No Man’s Sky’s NPC interaction – like EVE’s mission agents – are paper-thin with a never ending loop of “pay me 20 carbon and I heal you”. I truly miss something like WoW where a massive story loop connects the lore with myself and shapes my actions in the game.
Another staple of computer games is of course resource management. Most games have some form of mining, collecting or crafting and No Man’s Sky’s system is very traditional. Harvest raw stuff in your environment, find blueprints, make a thing and somehow use or sell it. Ok… Absolutely no creative approach to this at all, the mining beam does everything. And when after 10 seconds of harvesting my inventory is full, I am instantly reminding of being a Newb in any other game, WoW, Skyrim, ESO… that all work on the exact same principle. Welcome to the hamster wheel of crafting so that you have more space to craft so that you have more space to craft……. Yes, I know, the system is tried and tested and its a new game but as a player, the experience of frustration is not new. I am sick and tired of having to balance backpack or inventory slots. Thank god for stations in EVE where I can hoard my stuff and work out later what to do with it…
In same vein, crafting is exactly like WoW upgrades. A thing (Exosuit, laser gun multitool or spaceships) has slots for upgrades. Make an upgrade, use a slot. That’s it. Yes, back to the hamster wheel of building the laser-of-magic-uberness, gear scores and – of course – more slots. Its a feeling all too familiar and while so far I have simply ignored the crafting altogether (aside from a few things like fuel), I am dreading the moment when I encounter environments where I have to min/max my suit.
Glitches, bugs and inconsistencies need to be expected when a new game launches especially when it comes from a smaller company. And there are plenty of those, trust me – many of which highly annoying like entirely nonsensical pop up messages like the ones shown above. Ever 30 seconds or so, this blue box reminds me to activate my hyperdrive. I am in a cave 100 m under ground, my ship is 30min walk from here! Stop spamming me this crap! Even worse (far worse, game breaking worse) are the “achievements”. Suddenly the field of view shrinks down to some pseudo-cinematic and for 30 seconds (really), I am congratulated that I walked 1000 steps. This nonsense happens without warning, in the middle of climb down a cliff, a fight with some monster or while enjoying the scenery. No amount of ESC-button mashing makes this go away and in a game genre that prides itself of freedom of movement, this forced nonsense is highly annoying.
Other bugs and design choices are more serious. For example, “reloading” the laser gun sometimes works by adding an isotope but sometimes by pressing “R”. No explanation in the game anywhere and without the internet, I’d be without a weapon and frustrated (and dead). Similarly, I found user interface very confusing – its clearly designed for a console with the PC as an afterthought. Huge, bright buttons with nonsensical icons need to be pressed and held !. “Clicking” doesn’t work. That weirdness made me miss the choice of going the guided path to the Galaxy’s core – I could not figure out how to activate the “yes” button when that option came up and am now freely exploring. Not that this is a bad thing but I believe I am missing out on the core story of the game which is already pretty thin. Deliberately walking away from content was not my choice and it doesn’t look like I can go back (i.e. I have no idea how to get an Atlas-Tier-1 key).
I believe No Man’s Sky strength is the backbone, the platform it was built on. It generates truly gigantic environments with a variety that I have never seen before in a game. The combination of this and the isolation, odd sounds and music create a survivor game like no other. I really want to like this game.
At the same time, the classical elements of all exploration games are present and implemented slightly worse than in other games. Total absence of player interaction (by market or PvP or dungeons or…) is an odd choice and I hope they fix that, maybe as an expansion or DLC. Similarly, new races, depth in NPC interaction and a true reason to be in the game other than standing on a cliff and gaze at the amazing landscape, even if that alone keeps me logging in.
For a while at least….