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Review: ‘No Man’s Sky’

Though a joy to play, Hello Games’ much anticipated release is severely lacking in many key areas.

Developer: Hello Games

Publisher: Hello Games

Release Date: August 9th, 2016

NOTE: No Man’s Sky was  played on the PlayStation 4.

No Man’s Sky has proven to be a difficult game to assess. It walks, talks and looks like an indie game but has the price tag of a AAA title. How do you judge a game that has 18-quintillion levels? It has the breadth and scope of an entire universe but is severely lacking in key areas. For years now, community anticipation for the game has spawned a cult-like mentality that ostracizes any non-believers. And yet, now that the game has been released, even the most devout zealot must admit that No Man’s Sky is not all that it’s been cracked up to be.

Hello Games’ previous claim to fame was the PlayStation Network indie title, Joe Danger, which spawned four other titles. The 15-employee studio set out to create a game in which an entire universe is procedurally generated and shared amongst users. What that means in layman’s terms is that the game engine created planets with their own ecosystems, weather effects, outposts, monoliths, etc. The player is free to name any of the flora, fauna and even planets whatever their hearts desire, though the profanity filter is pretty tight. Some players have named planets and systems after real-world loved ones who’ve passed away. Other like myself, calls the animals and environments what they look like, such as the carnivorous Stegosaur Jerk and the Cheetah Gorilla.

It’s odd to see the occasional laws of natural selection being broken when an animal with a cheetah print exists on a snow planet. Some of the animals – such as the Swagasaurus Rex - on these planets are completely top heavy and really stretch the fiction in science fiction.

The game’s first hours are likened to Dark Souls in that you are plopped into an unfamiliar world and not given any instruction outside of the vague “Rebuild your ship.” Each player’s initial experience will be vastly different. One player may start on the planet of dreams and unicorns while another will spawn on a toxic hellhole that constantly sucks the life right out of you. If you do die in No Man’s Sky, you have one chance to go back and collect your lost resources. If you fail to do that, then the resources you’ve gathered are lost forever. Seems like No Man’s Sky owes a lot more to Dark Souls than initially expected. The overall goal of No Man’s Sky is to reach the center of the universe and the player can reach that destination however they want although the game does generously guide you.

The gameplay of No Man’s Sky is survival and exploration on the planets that you discover. As you traverse the planets, your life support and hazard protection shield constantly run down and you’re forced to mine resources. Resources are also used to power your ship’s engines and warp drives and let you partake in basic crafting. When you’re mining planets for resources, you will attract the unwanted attention of Sentinels – machines that scan plants, animals and you. The combat is slow and drawn out. There’s nothing exciting about a very generous auto-aim. There’s no tension in combat when you can either destroy those floating annoyances or run into a building or ship to break the line of sight. Luckily, No Man’s Sky does not advertise itself as a Call of Duty-esque shooter so these types of disadvantages in gameplay were to be expected.

One of the more aggravating aspects of No Man’s Sky is that the resources, suit and weapon upgrades occupy the same slots in your inventory. You can upgrade the suit’s inventory with drop pods found on various planets and the ship inventory is upgraded by changing ships but at the very beginning – when the game encourages and demands that you get resources to keep yourself alive – it’s a burden to choose which elements you need right then and there vs. which ones you think you’ll need later. An inventory box on one of the many space stations that float around in every system would have been a welcome addition to alleviate this deficiency and would prevent players from gathering resources and then scrambling to find the nearest vendor to make space for better items.

When you do finally get your ship off the ground and explore the vastness of space, it’s breathtaking. The game’s presentation is beautifully stylized and the soundtrack by 65daysofstatic delivers those upbeat tempos while contrasting them with sparse sci-fi tones that reinforce the feeling of isolation that can only be found within the expansive space. With players amazed by that first planet and those opening hours, the next planet is sure to be just as varied and interesting.

And while it’s true that all of the planets are varied with different interesting lifeforms on each, the absolute truth is that you end up doing the same thing ad nauseam. You travel to a planet, you see a building, you walk in and collect the resources. You scan for more stuff and question marks appear. You can’t not know what those questions marks are so you go and explore and find upgrades or more resources or an alien vendor who will teach you a word of his alien language.

During my playtime with No Man’s Sky, I ran across three different alien species who each displayed different behavioral quirks when we interacted. The warrior species hated my unflinching curiosity while the robots adored it. But none of them have more depth than the Destiny NPCs who hang around one area forever. They don’t feel real or organic when they just sit there, yelling at you in gibberish while you’re only able to decipher three or four words that you’ve learned in your travels. The space stations are even worse when other merchants will fly into the hangar and never come out of their ship. You walk up to them and interact with the ship itself and offer to buy the ship or trade with the merchant. The emptiness of space never felt this empty in any other science fiction game on the market.

But at least there is the multiplayer, right? The mode that Sean Murray, founder of Hello Games, said was available in the game and was the only way to see your own character was found to be a farce shortly after No Man’s Sky released. When Murray spoke about No Man’s Sky’s multiplayer, he said that there is no way you could find your friends in this universe and that the chance of meeting another player was very slim. It happened in a matter of hours when two streamers arrived on the same planet and space station yet were not able to see each other. Not even a pacing glance. At the time of this review, the multiplayer claims have yet to be addressed. But Murray did say on Twitter: “To be super clear – No Man’s Sky is not a multiplayer game. Please don’t go looking for that experience.”

Yet, when promoting the game, he had no problem saying that there was multiplayer in the game, even when there wasn’t.

If the gaming community holds Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Capcom, etc, accountable for their broken promises and statements, then the same must be applied to an indie studio.   

For all my complaining and criticizing of No Man’s Sky, I thought it was an achievement; a joy to play and a comforting experience when it’s just the player on a planet. The ambition on display when you’re slowly drifting through space and there is yet another undiscovered planet is palpable. The desire to explore and catalog every inch of space is comparable to playing Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls or Fallout. Murray went on record to say that No Man’s Sky will be “super divisive” and no words in the English language describe No Man’s Sky better. For some it will be one of the top games of the year while some will see it is as a colossal disappointment.

When No Man’s Sky received a hefty day one patch that even changed the universe building algorithm itself, it suggested that the game could be very different in a year or two. Perhaps that’s how the No Man’s Sky universe will stay organic and alive.