No Man’s Sky – Review

Title   No Man's Sky
Developer  Hello Games
Publisher  Hello Games
Platform  PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Genre  Action-adventure, survival
Release Date  August 10, 2016

Hype is a funny thing; it can turn the most innocuous game into The Greatest Thing Ever without anything so ordinary and boring as input from anyone actually involved in making it. In fact, the less that’s known about a game, the better. Our minds quickly fashion the apex-game, filling in the many blanks with everything we want, finding tenuous justification for our dreams in the vaguest of developer statements. Ultimately, of course, the game must come out, and when it does the possibility space collapses into a known thing and we demand to know why the experience we had imagined has not been realised as we desired.

So, No Man’s Sky then. I’ve been playing it on the PC and, as you may have read, the port falls somewhat short of expectations, lofty though they may have been. To be perfectly honest, apart from the rather jumpy frame rate (it sits at 60 most of the time but it will dip to 30 and below for short periods, especially when visiting a new planet) I’ve not had a lot of technical problems but your own mileage may vary.

What I have had are design problems; I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the game was designed for console, but it certainly wasn’t designed for PC, and in some places doesn’t appear to have been designed at all. The UI is really unintuitive: you have to click and hold for about a second to select or activate things in both your inventory and the game options – I initially assumed that the UI was broken when I couldn’t change any settings until I realised that holding the mouse button caused the little circle to fill and then it did stuff.

The galaxy navigation map is just awful, especially coming from something like Elite Dangerous, which does such a good job of visualising 3D space. There’s no way to search for systems, no way to zoom out to get a better idea of where you are, and the layout makes it really hard to tell where stars are relative to your current location. After five jumps there was simply no way that I would ever be able to find my way back to the system I started in, and it would be hard enough to find the one I just came from. The sole guide is a coloured line which leads you in the direction of your objective, typically the galactic core, but if you just want to explore you’ll essentially be doing it randomly.

Crafting is also problematic; you have a very limited inventory, especially early on, and a lot of crafting materials don’t stack, so you often struggle to find space for everything you need in order to craft something. The game also commits the cardinal sin of not allowing you to craft if you don’t have any free slots in your inventory, even when doing so would free up multiple slots. On top of that if you try and harvest a resource and your inventory is full, that resource is simply lost, which can be incredibly frustrating with rarer materials. Furthermore for the resources that do stack they stack different amounts depending on whether they’re in your suit inventory or your ship inventory and this is not made clear at all.

So, now that I’ve shit all over the PC port and the game design we get to the critical question: What the hell is this game and is it any good? No Man’s Sky is Space Minecraft meets Pokemon Snap meets Elite and it’s pretty good overall. You begin the game on a random planet, this is your planet, name it, explore it, get to know it, make the most of it, because once you leave you’re never coming back here. Your ship is knackered so you need to repair it, which you do by harvesting resources from the environment and storing them in your ever-so-tiny inventory. While you’re doing this you can scan plants, animals and minerals which you can then name (if you wish) and upload the data to some kind of galactic database for cash. After a while your life support system will run low on power so you’ll have to go find some isotopes to refuel it, the act of which will drain the power in your mining laser so you’ll have to go find some isotopes to refuel it (possibly by punching them if you’ve totally drained the thing).

If you’re lucky, you might even come across an outpost, observatory, or ancient ruin where you can loot things, chat to strange aliens without understanding anything they’re saying, or learn a few words of one of the alien languages so that one day you might actually know what you’re being asked. One of the “kind of necessary but also a bit immersion-breaking” elements of the game is that every planet has these points of interest; even if you’re visiting a dead world with a toxic atmosphere there will be a bunch of buildings and people without really much justification as to why they’d be there, but you’ll be glad they are nonetheless.

Once you’ve repaired your ship you can take off, after refuelling your launch thrusters with isotopes (are you sensing a pattern yet), and explore more of the planet. One of the disappointing aspects of the honestly quite remarkable procedurally generated worlds is the lack of diversity on them; it’s the classic sci-fi problem, this is a desert planet, this is a snow planet, this is a jungle planet. There are no biomes, no ice caps to visit or grasslands that flow into arctic tundra, just the same type of environment across the entire surface.

Eventually you’ll tire of your home world and feel the pull of space (which I guess would be gravity and would pull you towards the planet, so I didn’t really think this through very well). Pointing your ship upwards, you fly seamlessly into orbit and then out into the vast and very pretty reaches of space (which seems perpetually populated by asteroids, no matter where you travel). This is considerably cooler than when you reverse the journey and get to watch the terrain being drawn in as you approach it.

Space is big, though the spaces between planets are navigable in mere hours if you wish to do it the hard way. Luckily you have a sub-light pulse drive to get you there in minutes as long as (surprise, surprise) you have sufficient resources to fuel it. The same thing inevitably applies to your hyperspace engine, which allows you to travel between systems.

Taken out of context, No Man’s Sky is a grind. You (deep breath) harvest resources to build upgrades to harvest more resources to keep you alive and mobile so you can harvest more resources to maybe sell to afford a bigger ship with more inventory slots so you can hold more resources and upgrades to harvest more… Thing is, it mostly avoids feeling like a grind as long as you keep moving. Planets are often wildly different and there are plenty of cool things to discover as you explore, the life support and launch thruster mechanics are annoying at first but they’re not especially onerous once you know what you’re doing.

I’ve found myself roaming from system to system, stripping an area of its resources, admiring and giving stupid names to the local wildlife, and wringing as much free stuff as I can out of each planet’s occupants, never staying in one place too long lest I tire of its ambience. Slowly, I’ve upgraded my ship and my gear, learning more about the game’s systems and how to best optimise my playstyle around them. I’m sure I’ll eventually get bored of the loop, but for now I’m still enjoying the voyage of discovery on each new world, hoping I might get lucky and find a deposit of rare minerals, an ancient monolith, or a flying penis monster of my very own.

When you think about it, it’s a miracle that this game exists at all. It’s insanely ambitious with procedurally-generated everything, made by a tiny indie studio based in Guildford whose offices were all but destroyed in a flood. The hype train may have piled into the buffers at Kings Cross causing a lot of casualties but, irrespective of what you may have thought or wanted the game to be, this is what it is and it does it pretty well.

  • Vast, procedurally-generated universe to explore
  • Seamless travel from space to surface
  • Weird alien creatures that you can give stupid names to
  • Secretly a survival/crafting game
  • Technical issues on PC
  • Shonky UI
  • Not the game I imagined in my dreams

If you’re thinking of getting No Man’s Sky, go into it with open eyes. Don’t buy into the hype; this isn’t the greatest game ever made, but it doesn’t need to be. If you like discovery and exploration with a bit of crafting and survival stuff on the side, it’s a great experience, current PC technical issues aside. Hello Games may be in dire need of a good UI designer, but the universe they’ve created for this game is unmatched in both scale and diversity.

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