If you were at all interested in the early trailers – that is, if space exploration and item crafting is your thing – then Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky more than lives up to the hype. I’ve already colonized a half dozen solar systems and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface.
If you’re like me and you prefer a story to a sandbox, it’s a little tougher to evaluate No Man’s Sky. The game is ponderous and often obtuse, making it difficult to get into and requiring a serious time investment before it starts to make sense. It is, however, unlike any game I’ve ever played, a universe of such breathtaking scope that its sheer existence feels like an accomplishment.
With that in mind, I don’t feel like I’ve seen nearly enough of the game to write a full retrospective. That’s why this is not a comprehensive review of No Man’s Sky. These are just some observations and impressions from my first few hours with the game, which may or may not help you decide if No Man’s Sky is right for you.
From the outset, No Man’s Sky sold itself as an ideal. It was the promise of unfettered discovery, a Star Trek utopia of limitless frontiers in which you could blast off from one planet and journey directly to the surface of another.
Hello Games has more than delivered on that promise. Piercing the atmosphere and watching the cosmos expand before your eyes is a truly humbling experience. It’s overwhelming – you are small and insignificant when measured against vastness of the universe – but the sensation is hopeful rather than futile. Each step feels like an accomplishment because each new planet and alien species is a tiny contribution to the collective knowledge of humanity.
As a vehicle for discovery, No Man’s Sky provides a sensory thrill unlike any I’ve ever experienced in a video game. There’s a genuine feeling of awe and wonder, and that alone is enough to make the game worth a second look.
Seen One, Seen ‘em All
The flip side, unfortunately, is that the universe doesn’t offer much in the way of variety. Though the surface of each planet is different – some are radioactive, some are frozen, some are packed with wildlife – there are a lot of repeat environments and the uneven terrain is remarkably similar on each ball of rock. The gameplay rarely changes no matter where you happen to land, which ensures that the game quickly falls into a familiar pattern.
Despite the infinite scope, the novelty quickly wears off, and it won’t long before you feel like you’ve seen it all before.
There’s Always a Way
Though it dulls some of the new-car shine, the repetition does serve a vital gameplay purpose. When you’re not exploring, the bulk of No Man’s Sky is spent learning the complex crafting system that allows you to upgrade your ship, your spacesuit, and other various tools that need to be recharged at frequent intervals.
The system could have been frustrating – you’ll die without carbon or get stranded without plutonium – but you can reliably expect every planet to have at least a partial supply of every resource that you’ll need. You can always find the materials you need to restock your spaceship and power your life support, and the abundance of asteroids ensures that the same is true while you’re in space.
The flexibility is crucial because it tightens the game’s feedback loop and makes it possible to play the game without too much planning. Even if you don’t know what each planet will look like, you can be sure that you’ll never get stuck, which encourages you to be bold in the search for adventure. No Man’s Sky wants to keep you moving forward. The game’s crafting system helps make that possible.
Never Go Back
Backtracking is one of the most well-established concepts in all of gaming. The entire Metroidvania genre is built around rediscovery, while most RPGs will similarly send you to each town twice because revisiting old levels with new powers is a way to look at a game with a fresh set of eyes. Familiarity also breeds mastery. Memorizing a city map in Grand Theft Auto or a multiplayer map in Halo is satisfying because you’re gaining expertise.
No Man’s Sky doesn’t allow for that kind of prolonged study. Making the warp jump from one solar system to the next requires an incredible amount of resources, to the point that the vast majority of your time on each planet will be spent searching for materials to make it to the next one. Given the high time investment, going back to a place you’ve already been is seldom an appealing option. Once you’ve left a planet, chances are you’ll never set foot there again.
Either way, No Man’s Sky is so massive that it would be impossible for one person to probe everything it has to offer. It offers breadth rather than depth, so if you want to play you’ll have to accept the fact that you’ll never have perfect knowledge of the environment.
Mark Your Territory
No Man’s Sky allows you to name every planet, animal, and region you discover, and it is without question one of the most endearing aspects of the game. You’re essentially a dog running around the galaxy pissing on everything to mark your territory, and while it might sound cheap or juvenile, it still makes you feel like you’re one of the most important and consequential people in the universe.
It’s a little unclear why you get to rename each planet when most of them have alien inhabitants and/or unmistakable signs of previous civilization (more on that later), but it’s fun so I’m not going to complain. No Man’s Sky lets you put your own stamp on the universe, and that’s a joy that most of us will never get to experience in reality.
What Does this Do?
One of the first things you’ll do in No Man’s Sky is build a hyperdrive. Then you need to build a warp cell to power that hyperdrive. The warp cell can only be crafted with Antimatter, which in turn can only be crafted with an Electron Vapour. You’ll also need Suspension Fluid if you want to build that Vapour.
As you can imagine, the layers can get a little confusing. The game introduces a lot of different resources and crafting materials, but it’s not at all clear what you’re supposed to do with most of them and the user interface is not terribly intuitive. Your inventory starts out so small that you’ll be inclined to sell everything that is not immediately necessary, making it difficult to hang onto rare items that might be useful later.
Resources are divided into subcategories that make survival relatively straightforward, but it will be many, many hours before the broader systems start to make sense. It’s tough to weigh the costs and benefits of each potential upgrade, so you might want to go online to do some research before diving in.
At first glance, No Man’s Sky doesn’t seem to have much of a story. You’re just exploring planets and mining resources to continue the cycle. Then you stumble across a few aliens and the remnants of the Atlas Civilization and you realize that there is a much broader world with a mystery to unravel. It gives the game a dash of Indiana Jones that enhances the central theme because it adds a cultural presence to the vast emptiness of space. You’ll soon find yourself seeking out knowledge stones to learn more about the language and history of the aliens.
The story is parsed out in incredibly small doses and I’m still not sure how deep the rabbit hole goes, but it does give the game some desperately needed narrative momentum. I look forward to finding out more as I get closer to the center of the galaxy.
No Man’s Sky has space combat, and that combat is terrible. You’ll be on your way to a planet, minding your own business, when you get a warning saying that hostile ships are approaching. The warning would be helpful if you could do something about it, it’s basically just the games way of telling you you’re about to die.
That may change later in the game after you’ve upgraded your ship and bought some better shields, but in the early going, the combat is frustrating to the point that it feels unwinnable.
The problem is that the enemy ships are far faster and far more maneuverable, and you can’t run because the ships interfere with your warp drive. You’re left floating in space without any evasive recourse, so you will die if you can’t shoot while spinning in circles.
It wouldn’t be a big deal if death wasn’t such a major inconvenience. As in Bloodborne, you’ll need to find your corpse if you want to reclaim your inventory, which can take a while if you died at the far reaches of a system. You will want to make the detour. The enemy ships belong to pirates that are drawn to you when you have valuable loot. The longer you play, the more inevitable it is that you’ll have something they want (though they don’t seem to take anything after they’ve killed you). If you don’t find your grave, hours of gameplay go up in smoke, making death an obnoxious waste of time in a game that is already packed with wasted time.
Combined with the roving sentinel drones that patrol the surface of planets, it often feels as if the game is actively preventing you from playing as the developers intended. The miserable combat is a reason not to explore, which becomes an issue when that combat is unavoidable.
It’s difficult to recommend No Man’s Sky because it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. However, it is one of the most unique games I’ve ever played, and is well worth checking out for that reason alone. No Man’s Sky feels like something different. That’s a sensation that’s all too rare in gaming.