I’ll admit it upfront. I got caught up in the hype for No Man’s Sky. It is rare when I buy new games at full retail price. In fact, No Man’s Sky is the first full priced console game that I purchased in 2016. The lure of exploring a virtually endless galaxy teeming with exotic alien lifeforms overwhelmed my common sense to wait and see how the game was received critically. For once, I wanted to be part of the “new release” zeitgeist. Little did I know the brewing controversy surrounding No Man’s Sky that was to follow. While I agree with some of the major criticisms of the game and it’s associated marketing, I found a game that at its core is a technical marvel with a very thin veneer of gameplay that drags it down.
The game starts you off on with nothing much more than a damaged ship on a planet at the outskirts of the Euclid galaxy. You have a very basic tool for mining minerals and not much else. If you are like me, your first goal will be to get off this starting planet so you can dip your toes into the endless universe we were promised. Before you can leave your starting planet you will have to gather the materials required to repair ship. That initial task can be rather easy if you are fortunate enough to start on a hospitable resource rich planet and much more challenging if you start out on a planet hostile to life with none of the required resources near by.
Once you gather those key resources, taking off and leaving the atmosphere of your first planet is an exhilarating experience. The asteroids whizzing by combined with the rumble of the DS4 come together to produce a real sense of speed. From there you can explore other planets in your starting system, choose to gather the resources required to fuel your hyperdrive so you can jump to one of the countless other solar systems in No Man’s Sky. The choice is up to you.
On each planet you visit you will find procedurally generated flora and fauna. Each planet I visited seemed unique using different palette of colors, varied species of plants and animals and mineral resources. But as different as each planet was the more planets I visited a certain feeling of sameness began to creep in. After a while the planets began to remind me of intergalactic Walmarts. Despite their procedural uniqueness each planet has the staple materials you need to survive and continue your journey. This essential to the gameplay. Beyond that each planet might have a few rare elements or special items just as say a Walmart on the coast might self surf fishing tackle. Alien outposts are cookie cutter implementations of the same basic structures with little character or variations. After touching down on the first 20 or so planets the lack of variation starts to emerge and it becomes easy to know which pattern the planet falls into by just skimming the surface in your ship.
I’ve heard No Man’s Sky described as an endless screenshot generator and I would tend to agree. The color and lighting effects are stunning and allow for some of the most amazing landscapes ever seen in a game. There is something special about seeing a sunset on an alien planet that no one else has ever seen. The landscapes of No Man’s Sky look best from outside your ship on the ground. While flying your ship above the surface of the planet, the PS4 struggles to keep up with rendering the terrain. This will result in a lot of pop-in for structures and other objects like plants and mineral spires. This is somewhat understandable given that the planet terrain is being generated on the fly using computations.
When the procedural generation of creatures is at its best in No Man’s Sky you will discover beautiful beasts that feel at home on the current planet. At the other end of the spectrum you will encounter creatures where the randomness has seemed to have run amok. This results in bizarre abominations of poorly fitted body parts and awkwardly animation that is both jarring and amusing to see.
Other objects in the game like aliens, ships and structures all offer some visual variations. The models generally look good but it doesn’t take long feel like you’ve seen everything before. This is somewhat disappointing in a game that offers endless exploration.
The music in No Man’s Sky is largely forgettable. The primary tracks do help contribute to the feeling of isolation of being alone on a distant planet. At other times the music tempo will quicken in response to a dangerous situation – for example when your are in the middle of a space battle or being hunted by sentinels.
Aliens you encounter in game have no voice acting. All dialogue is conveyed through text boxes. No voice acting is not a huge omission, as communication from the aliens adds very little to the game. In fact the only voiced you hear in the game are those from your suit when you are low on power for a weapon or life support. At times these constant reminders can be extremely annoying and could have been left out of the game.
Much has been made of the lack of multiplayer in No Man’s Sky. This of course was enflamed by video of Hello Games’ Sean Murray making claims about the multiplayer features that never materialized in the finished game. The bottom line is – there is no multiplayer in No Man’s Sky. There is an online component where you can claim discoveries so that they will be visible to other players. However, any impact you make to a planet is not visible to anyone else that visits that same planet you discovered. You will never run into another player in the game. Each player is playing in what amounts to their own instance of the No Man’s Sky universe. Only the naming of discoveries is shared among those instances. I found this to be somewhat disappointing as I like many others was expecting the game to be a bit more like a MMO with a shared universe.
While many people seem to be disappointed with No Man’s Sky, I was not. It is a game unlike anything else I have ever played. Despite other shortcomings,the promise of infinite exploration was fulfilled. However, the infinite exploration opportunities come with a price. Once the player starts to recognize the patterns that shape each system and planet the magic starts to wear thin. At a certain point you feel like you have seen everything the game has to offer. For me, that point was the trigger to start grinding to get to the center of the galaxy and “complete” the game.
Should No Man’s Sky have been a full price 60 USD retail game? Maybe not. At the game’s best, it is a wonderful technical demonstration of how a small development team can produce a nearly infinite world. However it’s almost as if the creating the tech to generate the universe consumed almost all of the development time and the “game” aspects were shoehorned in at the very end of development cycle. As such, the gameplay is incredibly thin.