So this is going to be a tough one. No Man’s Sky is one of the most complex pieces of art I’ve had to really think about critically, let alone deciding whether to give it a buying recomendation. The reason for that is that the game will be something different to each person. I don’t mean thatas each player will be exploring almost exclusively undiscovered galaxies, but rather, it will be totally different depending on what you want out of the game.
The title has landed so very hot, with controversy and coverage pushing it to be the most insanely hyped up “indie” game I’ve ever witnessed. That wasn’t helped by grand fantasies from prospective players about what the title was going to be, fascilitated by the massive promise of a near infinite universe full of diverse planets.
That is an impossible place to review a game from, as a lot of this would be talking about what the game isn’t, which isn’t what I want. Instead, I want to focus on what it actually is. To spell out as simply as possible, here you go:
No Man’s Sky is a survival game.
If you are familiar with the genre, there is nothing in the mechanics that will surprise you. You’re dropped into a world with a mining tool, and you build from there. This is mostly achieved by gathering resources, with varying degrees of usefulness and value. Your resources will almost go exclusively into either your multi-tool, Exosuit, or ship (or trading). You will find upgrades for each of those three things allowing you to shape and form your character as you want. There is actually a lot of diversity here as you can make your ship a tank, a fighter, or resources gatherer, or you can mod your multitool to be focused on mining or as a weapon that shoots either lasers or bombs.
The other thing you will use your resources for, what with this being a survival game, is living. Your suit will constantly be draining life support and your ship will need fuel to launch and go into hyperdrive. Honestly, this is where frustration will kick in for many players. As is the case with almost every survival game, the hardest and most tedious parts come at the beginning as you forge a stable basis. No Man’s Sky isn’t brutally punishing, instead preferring a relaxing pace by not asking for a lot to survive, but at the same time, it spends a lot of time nagging you for resources. If you are not seasoned in survival games, I fear No Man’s Sky might be tough going early on. On top of that, while clearly a concious developer decision, the game doesn’t tell you much about it’s systems. Seriously, I’m well ventured in the genre, but opening up the UI for the first time and only having elements with no clear purpose for what they are for is daunting. Couple that with the constant nagging, and No Man’s Sky could absolutely eat at you at the first hurdle.
However, once you find your bearings and begin to understand the mechanics of the game, it opens itself up to reveal the breadth of its scope. As you push your way into space, figure out interstellar travel and begin to get into the groove of what you want to achieve, No Man’s Sky really reveals itself. The size of the universe, the path you must forge and the possibility that awaits is intoxicating. Landing on new planets to see new colours, resource opportunities, ruins and technology is always really enticing. While mechanically the systems are not the deepest you will find, they are perfect for some passive game time, mining resources in order to push your way towards the centre of the galaxy.
The procedurally generated universe is really impressive, and that is why many will pay the price of admission. While sometimes it can feel like a planet or wildlife is more or less the same with a colour change and a few properties swapped, I have seen some real variety on display. From walking tiger dogs, to gumdrops, to praying mantis and toucan dinosaurs, to gargantuan quadrapeds that feel truly alien, the wildlife is always a really cool touch. The planets can also be barren wastelands (you may see a lot of these), lush jungles or 98% ocean. Some will be very easy going, others will have the weather, sentinels and wildlife trying to devour you whole. One of the most exciting things for me to do was to find old ruins to be given short little story options, or to discover language to better understand my fellow aliens on worlds. It’s such a neat mechanic, and makes the universe feel culturally lived in. While yes, most of the time you are going to do the same thing you did on the previous planet, it always feels exciting and fresh as the properties of your environments change with infinite diversity.
It always feels like discovery. This is really what makes No Man’s Sky worth a damn. The special sauce that really gives No Man’s Sky its magic. Jumping to a new system with five new planets, untouched by anyone ever before feels lonely, awesome and dumbfunding. Procedural generation is nothing new whatsoever, with Elite all the way back in 1984 having a near infinite universe. On top of that, with stuff like Minecraft and now Elite: Dangerous, it is something very much alive today. The core idea of a universe that creates itself with math and formulas is nearly as old as mainstream games. However, No Man’s Sky’s universe is so beautiful and cohesive, it’s almost certainly the most artfully I’ve ever seen the process used. It always feels I’m making cool discoveries in a tangible universe I want to be part of when I’m grooving with the game.
No Man’s Sky feels important for video games in this respect. While intelligent and deliberate crafted content will always appeal as more ‘human’, the context of No Man’s Sky makes it feel grand. This is the kind of stuff you want to put to the side of a review or your time with the game, but I think remembering how this game was crafted is important to the final product. This is a universe crafted entirely by math and a very, very small team of creators. It seems impossible, and yet it exists. It gives the game a spellbinding aura that makes it very easy to love. It feels put together by creators who cared about the vision of the game so much, and have achieved something special by getting this game into our hands. When everything is firing on all cylinders, the aesthetics are at their best, you are on the hunt for new upgrades and the beautiful 65daysofstatic soundtrack kicks in, the game’s ceiling is as boundless as its procedurally generated universe.
It can be fleeting though. Of course, that is all surface level, and while the universe never stops being quite awe inspiring or full of ‘wow’, it can’t quite cover over the cracks of the mechanics of the game. Don’t believe it when people say that the game is shallow or offers “nothing”, but also be aware of what you are getting into. This is a survival game with a confusing resource system, little story and a monotonous loop. The ability to end up diversifying yourself and equipment is fairly deep and evolved, and if you let it, the game will just steal hours from you as you make your way through the infinite. However, the limitations of the mechanics will become apparent, and the variety will be lacking after just some time in the game. This means that No Man’s Sky is just going to be for some people, especially those who like survival games and can sink hours into pure exploration and resource gathering without a care, while others who play games to be excited or get a rush may well find them barely able to get past the first handful of hours.
With all that said, I think No Man’s Sky is a really special game and one that will be talked about for decades and decades. It’s an important milestone and an incredible achievement by Hello Games, one they should be lauded for. At the same time, I find my time with the game already coming to an end after just 15 hours of play (15 hours of play is a lot of time mind!). Its a complicated beast, and one that will appeal and turn off certain players for a whole host of reasons. At the same time, the importance and gravitas of the title feels massive. This is a true meeting of math, technological achivement and human artistry, making it feel profound. While I don’t feel its song luring me back in all the time, when you can get on its wavelength, what it sings transcends.
Buy it if: You want the constant rush of discovery, and to feel lost in a huge universe full of planets and opportunity. Also, if you dig relaxing and chilling out to a survival game.
Avoid it if: You don’t like survival games, and don’t find the idea of exploration or resource gathering infinitely appealing.
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