In space, no-one can hear your disappointment
After months of anticipation and mounting hype, Hello Games’ majestic spacefarer No Man’s Sky finally arrived this past week. The game’s cryptic and enigmatic marketing and promotion has left many a gamer eagerly anticipating the moment they would finally get their hands on No Man’s Sky, but is it everything we hope for?
In No Man’s Sky, players assume the role of an unidentified, presumed human spacefarer who awakens on a random planet (which is different for every player). With only an exo-suit to protect from the strange alien atmosphere, a trusty multi-tool for blasting foes and acquiring resources, and a wrecked star-ship to their name, the player is free from the point of waking up on to do pretty much whatever they want– and once they fix their starship, to go to any planet they want, in any system in the game’s expansive galaxy they want. The overarching goal of the game is to reach the galactic core, but you’re free to work toward it or work as little toward it as you see fit.
The first few hours of No Man’s Sky are truly breathtaking, and in many ways live up to all the promise the game showed in all its months and months of hype. Observing the surface of my starting planet, I was immediately struck by its beauty. A vibrant, stunning greenish-yellow sky stretched over my head; plains of yellow green grass stretched out before me, dotted with multi-colored outcroppings of rocks and minerals that gleamed in the light. Grass sways gently in the soothing low howl of the wind. As I wandered, I marveled even more at the mountains, the caves filled with gorgeous formations of rocks, with bright yellow spores wafting gently through the air. Weird and wonderful animals lollop and bound playfully through fields and plains, barking and squeaking. My explorations were in turn accompanied by the game’s wonderfully ambient soundtrack, a gentle mixture of subtle electronica and synth that fits in perfectly with the game’s gorgeous and vibrant 80’s retro-future aesthetic.
In case that ridiculous prose didn’t make it clear enough, No Man’s Sky is a beautiful looking and sounding game. Every visual and auditory aspect is a delight, wandering the surface of planets, gliding through space in your starship, seamlessly transitioning from the planet’s atmosphere to the yawning maw of space, and back again. Your starship feels great too – It moves and floats with appropriate weight, and it’s always exciting whenever you fire up your pulse engines and watched the stars blur and stretch around you as you fire up to light speed. From a purely experiential level, No Man’s Sky is as grand and majestic as it promised to be.
Yes, as an experience, No Man’s Sky is wonderful. But it’s once you get to the core of its gameplay that things begin to fall apart in Hello Games’ ambitious little galaxy. Here’s a rundown of what exploring every planet in No Man’s Sky is like: you’ll find a planet; you’ll fly into its atmosphere and touch down somewhere. You’ll mine the vital resources needed to keep your ship and exo-suit powered so you don’t get stranded or die, while wandering around to the little clutch of the same five or six different kinds of installations and locations that can appear on any given planet. And once you tire of that, its back off into the stratosphere to rinse and repeat that process with the next planet, and the next planet, and the next planet. Having done this with over a dozen different planets, it made me realise that, as much as No Man’s Sky dazzles you with its vibrant color palette, beautiful visual style, and eerily beautiful sound design, it has very little else going on under the surface. Oh sure, the planets you visit all look different enough. Some are tropical, some are artic, some have radioactive atmospheres, and others are extremely hot, but that’s pretty much it as far as their inherent differences go. Really, the only times where the mounting monotony was broken for me were encountering alien artifacts and members of the handful of sentient alien species that inhabit the galaxy alongside you. Being a different species as they are, these aliens don’t speak English, and it’s only by uncovering the aforementioned artifacts that you can decode parts of their language. In speaking with the aliens, most of them will offer rewards for reacting to them in certain ways, and doing so increases your standing with their entire race, which in turn, nets you more rewards. But even this aspect of No Man’s Sky quickly reveals itself as limited as well, as it doesn’t take long for every alien interaction to break down into the same simplistic set of repeated actions. Really what it boils down to is No Man’s Sky best attributes all lay on its surface. And once this sinks in, the initial nervous excitement of finding an new planet and eagerly anticipating the mysteries it might hold dissipates when you’ve already seen all the mysteries the planet will hold on every other planet you’ve already visited several times over. Eventually, that beautiful, entrancing surface of every planet will always give way to its hollow core.
Things get even shakier with the resource and inventory management. As I alluded to before, resources such as iron, plutonium, and zinc need to be mined from both the planets and asteroid debris in space in order to keep all your equipment powered up. The problem here being that the amount of inventory space you are given to hold all these resources never feels like enough. It didn’t take me long to completely max out of storage capacity on both my ship and exo-suit, and once that happened, the game started to slide into a painful chore of constantly trying to shift things around so I could cram things I needed in without having to drop the important stuff I already had. While I actually quite enjoyed the sense of serenity and simple wonder of walking the surface of a planet, this feeling always came crashing down whenever the game obnoxiously reminded me that I was running low on something and that there was a bar that needed to be filled. This in turn causes No Man’s Sky to be at odds with itself as an experience. It’s both stressful and relaxing, but not enough of either to function well as a survival game or a simple exploration adventure game. The limited scope and repetitiveness of the gameplay, as well as the general inconsistent oscillating of player experience almost makes No Man’s Sky’s major gameplay elements feel like an afterthought, rather than something that was at the forefront of Hello Games’ priorities in designing No Man’s Sky. The resulting tedium and repetition they produce is actually far more off-putting than the idea of simply wandering around these planets unhindered by these frustrating and obnoxious staples of the endless stream of survival games that seem to be flooding the indie games market.
It should also be said that No Man’s Sky has a few performance issues as well. While it generally runs quite nicely on PS4 with limited to no load times, there were more than a few instances of jerkiness: the game locks up for a few seconds every time you trigger a waypoint to save, there’s some very noticeable texture pop-in more often than not, and there were at least a couple of examples I found of in-game assets glitching out. No Man’s Sky also crashed a number of times throughout my time with it. Three times to be exact – twice after two hours of play, and the last one during the game’s start-up sequence. For me, these were minor quibbles, but it bears mentioning here if only because it disappointed me a bit after being so initially impressed by the game’s ambitious technical achievements.
No Man’s Sky feels like a game whose reach has greatly exceeded its grasp. While it may be stunning visually and incredibly atmospheric, that particular charm only holds you for so long until the uninspired, repetitive nature of its gameplay becomes too grating to ignore. To be honest, my initial impressions of No Man’s Sky were that it was like a walking simulator on a triple-A budget. And if that were all it turned out to be, I probably would have enjoyed it much more than what it actually is: a walking simulator with frustrating and clichéd survival game elements crammed in simply for the sake of being there that ruin any long-term enjoyment of the game. It all adds up to make No Man’s Sky a disappointment; a beautiful, grand, ambitious disappointment to be sure, but still a disappointment.