No Man’s Sky is an astonishing achievement. For such a tiny development team to create a universe with such vast scale, discovery and exploration speaks volumes of Hello Games. However, in company founder Sean Murray’s desperate reach for the stars, it's the fundamentals on the ground that are lacking. When this is coupled with frustrating bugs and problems, the sense of wonder quickly fades. Does it live up to the hype? Well, that depends.
No Man’s Sky has generated more hype and expectation than a Manchester United transfer window. For years fans have speculated about what the game is, what it could be and how it’s going to make all our lives whole again. Now of course, Hello Games is partly responsible for the hype Frankenstein, as is Sony, but so are we. For every new trailer we brought with it our own expectations, interpretations and demands. It wasn’t until the few months leading up to launch we finally got an idea of what this game actually is. And now we know for sure.
Watch: What kind of game is No Man's Sky?
No Man’s Sky is a survival game. A chance to explore 18 quintillion planets, scrambling for resources, battling against an oppressive sentinel force, fighting off bounty hunters and pirates in space while discovering and naming all the phallic-looking flora and funny-looking fauna. In my first few hours with the game, it is all of this and more.
Starting on my first planet – which I later named “mine” – because it’s definitely not yours – I begin searching for minerals and materials to repair my damaged ship. Everything is new, everything is exciting. The lush red and purple landscape is awash with new experiences, chances to learn how No Man’s Sky ticks. Within an hour I have learned that Sentinels are mean, how to mine resources, learned new language, which resources are most beneficial, the fact my backpack is the size of Jiminy Cricket’s pocket, all while exploring a gorgeous new world.
After repairing the ship, I jet off into the galaxy, and it is indeed a "wow" moment. The first time you break the clouds and reach the stars, planets all around waiting to be visited, explored, plundered, your mind boggles with all the possibilities that lay ahead.
I spend my next few hours gleefully planet-hopping, adapting my suit to deal with the harsh climates of wherever I visit. I scan everything and explore everywhere. Sentinels rain down upon me when I become too greedy. Space pirates attack my ship as it becomes abundant with treasures. Everything exhilarates, until the patterns start to emerge, and all you're left with is the realisation that the core mechanics are incredibly basic. There comes a time where your disbelief can no longer be suspended and you realise, in terms of gameplay, No Man’s Sky is jack of all trades, master of none.
Again, No Man’s Sky is a survival game, with many different things out to end you. Depending on the planet, the climate can be extremely harsh, sentinels extremely aggressive and the indigenous creatures equally fierce. At first you’ll stick it out, thinking of ways to defy the odds and get the vital materials you need until you realise that, with 18 quintillion mining holes on offer, it’s much easier to jet off in search of a more hospitable environment.
It’s hard to consider No Man’s Sky a survival game when there is very little reason to ‘stick it out’. When a planet isn’t welcoming, there’ll be dozens within the solar system that will welcome you with open arms.
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On the subject of planets, too, while they can look gorgeous at a distance, up close textures can look a little blurry. Land patterns repeat, rock formations look bland and any patch of water will be completely still. The consequence of procedural generation is, ironically, a lack of uniqueness and detail. You also won’t have to explore many planets before you get the sense of deja vu.
While talk of 18 quintillion planets and requiring hundreds of years to explore every single one will be thrown about, I can’t shake the overwhelming familiarity many of them share. I’ll land on a planet, it’ll be devoid of flora and fauna (an all-too-common, frustrating experience in my time) and quickly set off for richer climes, only to land on the planet next door that boasts an eerily-similar colour palette and near-identical structures.
Of course, with such a phenomenal scale, it’s impossible to have every planet be truly unique, but I just wish the spell didn’t break quite so soon.
When on a planet, you’ll spend plenty of time mining, which is fine, but lacks creativity. It won’t be long before you know what materials you need, and where to find them. The fact you simply have to grab them and shove them into your spaceship’s engine or combine them to craft an element to add to the hyperdrive. It lacks a certain connectivity and drive that Minecraft has in spades (and picks).
The only reason you keep collecting is because of the main objective: the journey to the centre of the galaxy – the Atlas quest – but the path to completion is a strain on my patience as monotony truly kicks in.
To move to new planetary systems, you need to upgrade your hyperdrive, doing so by combining certain elements to craft components to create energy cells. At first I was strolling, wandering around every planet, picking up the materials as I found them. But as the objective become more and more pressing, the sense of discovery no longer intrigued, and all that remained was finding the ever-elusive Heridium.
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How long you choose to chase Atlas will simply be how much patience you have with the gameplay, or how long before the immersion breaks and the realisation that you’ve done the same four basic tasks for the past ten hours hits. Either that, or the endlessly-annoying game-crashing bugs will get you.
No Man’s Sky broke far too frequently to consider it an anomaly. Often my game crashed while trying to warp to a new solar system, which is even more frustrating when the game has certain save points, meaning at times I’d have to go back to a space station, craft the energy cells and try and warp to the solar system once more, only for the game to crash again. The game's instability simply served to dull my excitement and willingness to persevere further, which is such a shame considering the excitement I experienced in the first few hours.
No Man’s Sky is a good game. Sean Murray and Hello Games’ vision of creating a vast universe on a scale unseen in video games has no doubt been achieved, and will certainly provide everyone who plays it with something unique.
However, the fundamental gameplay isn’t deep or rewarding enough for me to stick around and explore many of the planets the game has to offer. With such basic combat and inventory management, it quickly wears thin and you’ll feel like you’re dragging yourself from system to system in search of Atlas.
Does it live up to the hype? For anyone who’s been following this game for years, probably not. But if you appreciate this game for what it is – a technical marvel that will no doubt vastly improve over the coming months if the day zero patch is any measuring stick – then there is certainly plenty of fun and wonder to be had. It’s just a case of how long before the fun stops.