From the moment I saw Sean Murray on stage at Sony’s 2014 E3 press conference I have wanted to play No Man’s Sky. Watching them walk amongst the strange fauna of a foreign world before seamlessly entering a space ship to ascend through the planet’s atmosphere into space, zooming around a giant tanker all in one uninterrupted sequence, it was just mind blowing. It had me hooked. It had everyone hooked! Sony had plucked a seemingly unheard of indie studio in Hello Games from thin air and rocketed them and their feature title straight to the front of the hype machine. Everyone wanted a piece of No Man’s Sky for the next two years. The problem is, no one, right up to the point of its release, could really tell you why because no one really knew what you did in the game.
We knew that the game used an a algorithm to generate a crazy amount of new worlds, filled with flora and fauna to explore. That those world’s would likely be ones that no one else had been on and the things you found you’d be free to name and that would be shared with the entire player base. Everyone would be working together in mapping this generated universe but no one would likely see one another because of its gargantuan size.
Was it then? Is the point of No Man’s Sky to have no point? To simply explore? Well no. After playing you almost immediately recognise that whilst it has all those elements of discovery and battle the point of No Man’s Sky is to simply stay alive.
If I were to categorise No Man’s Sky in any genre it would be that akin to “Don’t Starve”. A constant juggling act of resources that allow you to continue to survive another day and perhaps explore a little further. Except in the case of No Man’s Sky the “further” is to another system where you can continue to mine and discover new resources.
No Man’s Sky certainly adds a lot more to the mechanics along the way too. For instance there’s a robust inventory and crafting system as well as a galactic marketplace for buying and selling resources and items you’ve crafted complete powered by its own stock-exchange-like fluctuating pricing market.
There’s also (loosely) a story to No Man’s Sky. The game guides you towards “the centre of the universe” where you’ll find… who knows what? It’s your choice to follow the path or not, in fact the game, within the first few minutes even, prompts you to decide if you want to or not in which case you’d freely roam the universe with no real reason behind it at all. It kind of mimics real life. In a deep, rather depressing looking in the mirror kind of way.
It begs the question then ”What do I do in No Man’s Sky?” and I think the fact people were still asking that question right up to its release explains the literally thousands of articles and videos you’re seeing that go through “the first x minutes of No Man’s Sky”.
Twelve hours in I’m doing the same thing I was doing in hour one. No Man’s Sky’s game loop is resource mining. Be it from a plant, from an animal or from an asteroid, you’re forever on the lookout for one item or another. Without it you can’t explore the next place. You can’t warp to the next system. You can’t discover… and that’s where you get hooked. Discovery.
Once you get past the initial thrill of simply being able to take off from a planet’s surface and rocketing yourself into space and beyond the game has quickly becomes about the discovery of that next world, that next animal, that next thing, to me. Staving off extreme temperatures to be able to survive reaching that next alien artefact and what animals and structures I find along the way.
It helps of course when the world’s look beautiful too. Simply walking, which you’re going to do a lot of – let me tell you that right now, can be quite fun. It’s not exciting on some of the more baron worlds you’ll encounter but on others it’s a continual stream of discovery and astonishingly a real sense of wonderment in what you find at times. Perhaps 30 or maybe only 10 hours down the track the game’s beauty and wonder will wain, have each new world turn into ”just another planet”. My fear is that without a solid story line and more importantly genuine in-game interactions supporting it the attractiveness for me to pick up the controller and play might disappear too.
No Man’s Sky feels infinitesimally lonely to me.
Here in lies the problem I have with No Man’s Sky. Game mechanics aside (the game’s controls are hardly it’s highlight) No Man’s Sky feels infinitesimally lonely to me. Despite the numerous fantastic creatures that roam the countless world’s you visit and the odd NPC you encounter I can’t but help think that this universe is vastly empty.
Each planet, whilst terraformed differently feels eerily under populated. A research station here a space port there, not once (or once that I’ve yet to encounter) do you see a city or have an interaction that makes the world feel alive. You’d think at least after travelling through five systems you’d find at least one with a city on it. The NPCs you encounter are generally littered amongst space stations and you never see them move let alone have two in the same room!
The only other real effort towards populating the world comes in the form of aircraft that buzz over head whilst on a planet’s surface or fly in & out of a space station’s dock. Oh and when they’re shooting at you for attacking a larger ship you’ve just warped into the side of and accidentally pressed the wrong button on the controller and then thought, “Oh to hell with it, I’m game. R2…”
My point is space ships are faceless interactions. Animals are non communicative ones and the NPCs converse like soulless robots and in gibberish half the time too. You don’t get to understand most of what they say until you learn their language, which is done through visiting artefacts and ruins on planets to teach yourself. Comparing say Mass Effect to No Man’s Sky is apples to oranges but Mass Effect certainly does has a life to it that’s lacking here.
No Man’s Sky is effectively an indie game however. It was built, quite remarkably, by a company that has less than fifteen employees. What they’ve created is nothing short of incredible. An entire universe for us all to explore, albeit with the constant fear of death through depleting life support or the lack of resources required to fuel your ship to move forward and do so.
There is nothing about No Man’s Sky that leaps out and screams at me to recommend it to people. It sits in a new, semi-crossed over genre that it’s carved for its own purpose that people will either love or hate – or get bored of quickly. It’s not Uncharted, there is no beginning, middle and end. There is no real end at all and that’s a difficult thing to process for a lot of gamers because that redefines what a game has been up until this point. It’s “journey to the centre of the universe” story feels bolted on and more of an after-thought on top of some amazing tech. And for that reason I can’t not recommend it either but I do so knowing that you’ll be doing so informed of what’s ahead and hopefully have a better understanding of what it’s about and whether it’s for you.