A few years ago, a small indie company by the name of Hello Games showed a trailer at VGX. The trailer was for a game called No Man’s Sky. It wowed the audience and from that point forward, the hype train was on the run all the way to the last stop of unrealistic expectation city. The game has finally arrived on PS4 and latterly PC, is it possible for this game to live up to the hype around it?
The game begins with the player on a random planet in an extensive universe, with a broken ship and only a mining tool to help them, one that needs looking after as it’s going to be getting a lot of use. It may be a little bit bewildering at first, because there’s only a little bit of direction given in (quite insistent) text messages that flash up in a banner at the bottom right of the screen. Find material X to fix problem Y.
Off the player trots, mesmerised by the odd looking plant and animal life that greets them; look it’s a rabbit with a peculiar looking head. Ah, it’s a fern but in an unusual colour. Ah, it’s a big lump of copper floating majestically in the sky. Hang on, what now? It’s quite a wonderful experience at first, naming discoveries, exploring a vast planet in a vast solar system in a vast galaxy with new and exciting things to uncover. And it has its own graphical charm if somewhat bereft of textures, with lovely complimenting colour pallets on land, sea and sky.
Once the player has found their feet, has scanned the environment and is being pointed towards a bit of plutonium, it’s down to work. Aim your mining tool at the crystal and fire. Now your gun is overheating. Wait…and start again. Life support is running low. Go to inventory, charge suit. Aim mining tool at crystal and fire. Mining tool is out of charge. Go to inventory, charge mining tool. Aim mining tool at crystal and fire. Inventory is full. And so it goes on.
After enough material has been scavenged, the player will get to repair their ship. Now it needs fuel, so it’s back to the mining and to inventory to charge the thrusters. Finally, it is lift-off time. That same initial awe takes hold as the spaceship breaches the atmosphere and reaches open space. To get out of the current planetary system will then require a hyperdrive which requires warp energy, which requires mining. Is the pattern becoming clear yet?
Initial impressions for No Man’s Sky are strong, but it doesn’t last very long before the cracks in the game start to appear. It is an endless task of mining and inventory management, however, inventory management is a complete nightmare. For a game that’s so intent on having the player constantly having to go in to the menus to service multi-tools, spacecraft and your Exosuit, why is it so slow to navigate around? It’s enough to drive anyone insane. Where are the keyboard shortcuts on PC? Why does a mouse click require the player to hold the button for several seconds?
Space battles are also hampered by the controls and inventory management. The ship feels very sluggish and can’t easily turn to keep up with the pace of the oncoming ships that rip through the shields, forcing the player to micro-manage a recharge as the enemies continue to fire. Fortunately, the hit-boxes are huge and the aliens follow the exact same attack vector every time, but early on in the game, before upgrades, they are an annoyance that will see the player’s ship destroyed and returned with an empty cargo hold more often than not. Hope that mining didn’t take too long to do.
Planet discovery is certainly more of a rewarding experience, at least initially. The planets are indeed huge and take an age to navigate around. There are wondrous creatures to gaze upon, from wacky giant worms to humanoid pigs and flying elephants. Plant life is equally plentiful, from stalagmites to trees and ferns. There are some familiarities to Earth like forms, but with strange and unusual mutations. However, No Man’s Sky is just an illusion of a big universe.
Yes, there may be eighteen quintillion planets, but when all of them are a near identikit of each other that illusion is quickly shattered. Some may be toxic, some can be cold, some radioactive – but it’s actually the same thing repeated with just a subtlety different colours and fauna. It is perhaps a big galaxy, but it is razor thin. This becomes more apparent once the hours start adding up and the creaks become more discernible.
It starts with little things such as realising that there’s only one building contractor in No Man’s Sky. Every building on every single planet the player lands on is made of the exact same parts. Some buildings might be larger on the outside than others, but inside it plays out the same. Greet an alien with the same animation, get limited dialogue choices, alien gets happy and gives away stuff generously, or alien gets angry and headbutts the player. They then happily interact with the player again instantly forgetting what’s just happened. There are some puzzles to be solved in some buildings but even those play out identically: the numbers move one character to the left or total in increasing multiples. The same ships with the same pilots land at the same docking points, with the same annoying first-floor stairs. Every time.
Move further towards the centre of the galaxy and it becomes apparent that things aren’t really progressing anywhere – there are no side quests to get stuck into and there is very little of an underlying story to hang it all together. The player will get upgrades to their Exosuit, multi-tool and ship as more planets are visited and more aliens are spoken to, however, these don’t change the core mechanics.
The distances the player can travel and the rate at which things can be mined out increase, but it’s merely a case of treading water. New ships handle the same as the old ships, no matter what the size and the mass. The player will never crash though, as they never really have much control. It’s perhaps the music that is the highlight of the game, as the sometimes haunting melodies have an ethereal quality to them; it’s quite lovely and very fitting to the feeling of being a tiny presence in a big empty space.
Since release, both the PS4 and PC games have received a few patches, that seemingly look to have fixed the framerate issues and game crashing bugs that caused many problems at launch. There are still some irritating bugs though, such as lift-off randomly launching the player straight into the atmosphere, buildings that have no doors, stock markets with negative quantities of stock, stuff that can’t have been missed whilst testing the game.
For all the shiny coatings that lure the player in at first (and it is fun at for the first few hours), No Man’s Sky isn’t really much of a game, it’s more like an endurance test with an end goal that isn’t worth reaching. It’s simply more of the same old, same old, same old, same old, same old, same old and the grind isn’t worth the asking price.