Genre: Action-Adventure Game, Survival
Release date: August 9, 2016
Review platform: PS4
The most prominent thing about No Man’s Sky is its concept; it's a procedurally-generated universe simulation made up of 18 quintillion unique planets, with absolute explorative freedom at your disposal. This alone sparked No Man’s Sky (NMS) into a hype snowball, and it quickly inspired Sony Interactive Entertainment to pick up small indie team Hello Games’ experiment and churn it into a cultural phenomenon.
Admittedly, like many of us, I was on the hype-train when I saw the teaser at E3 2014. The vibrant, beautiful landscape of copious life and splashing color was enough to catch my attention; but things took a turn for the unexpected when the player got into a ship, blasted into the sky, and seamlessly entered outer space, encountering a space battle before landing on another planet.
Needless to say my jaw dropped and I was sold. If NMS simply worked then it was sure to be an amazing achievement. However, Hello Games spent the last couple years insisting that a game, or rather an “objective,” was still being developed and implemented into the ambitious, open-world dream project.
Finally, No Man’s Sky is here, and to much awe and relief, it's exactly what it claimed to be. The teaser was real and the experience NMS has to offer is staggering and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. The universe generation alone is mind-boggling and the ability to traverse its worlds so smoothly is captivating. For the last week my dreams have consisted of exploring vast planets, which speaks volumes to No Man’s Sky’s effect. It has a mesmerizing pace and a powerfully relaxing tone that permeates you. As creator Sean Murray said, it’s very “chill."
The game that Hello Games provided alongside this dense, relaxing simulation is as addicting as crack, but you’ll want to push your way through it to reveal more of the intricately exhaustive world you so desperately want to explore.
However, you’ll ultimately feel as though you’re only being offered a taste of what’s possible in NMS’s future, especially considering several things promised -- such as the ability to see other players -- have not been confirmed or found. Additionally, there are many aspects of the game that gamers just don't have answers to yet. although the answers are sure to come.
Fortunately, based on the extensive day one patch that seems to have doubled the amount of content from the month-old pre-release version, much more content is definitely expected in continuous updates from here on out, effectively rendering No Man’s Sky a truly endless affair.
As varying and thorough as NMS’s universe is, its game mechanics are unflinching. To enjoy the game, you need to be a patient player who can see through the thick game mechanics in order to find satisfaction in the finer, quieter moments. This should be easy fare for Just Adventure readers.
Much to my surprise, when the game first started, open-world exploration was not immediately available as your ship has crashed-landed with you abandoned on a random planet. According to my friends, you can actually start on a pretty barren/boring planet, so I was fortunate mine was fairly interesting. It was bright purple with lots of plant life and compelling glowing crystals, instantly capturing me and making me want to explore every nook and crevice.
Being forced into this position gave me a fair assessment of how the game is going to work. First, it involves a lot of walking, so those with the taste for great walking simulators such as Dear Esther, Firewatch or Proteus will feel right at home. Additionally, the thematics of all of these games are echoed in NMS’s countless breathtaking spectacles, making it great for fans of environment-driven games like Myst or The Witness.
From the start you're equipped with an upgradeable jet pack, a scanner to find elements and objects, an analysis visor to log creatures, and a multitool - which is a singular weapon with multiple settings including the mining laser and attack projectiles (which are either a bolt caster or plasma launcher).
Your immediate goal is to mine essential elements like Plutonium and Zinc with your mining laser from rocks, crystals, and flowers in order to fuel your ship. This is essentially what you’ll be doing most of the game. In the sense that mining is the main ground game mechanic, a Minecraft comparison is undeniable.
When you mine you’re shooting your mining beam into a crystal, colorful tree or rock, causing it to explode and converting it into flying polygons which will be collected into your inventory. Mining feels satisfying every time, even if carving out giant rocks means tiny pieces are going to get stuck in the air and be a pain to get down.
Occasionally, you come across resources that are endangered and if you harvest them, the game goes GTA on you as floating sentinel drone police converge on your location with blasters ablaze. Your best option is to run; gunning them down with your bolt caster or plasma grenades only causes larger and scarier-looking looking sentinels to arrive. So fighting isn't really the best choice.
Given that you essentially use the same two gun types during the whole game (with the exception that there are upgrades), combat isn’t exactly fleshed out. But ground combat isn’t the focus. The focus is about exploring the world around you more than it is about fighting on the ground.
Once you’ve mined enough elements to launch your ship, you’re ready to blast into space, smoothly transitioning from the ground to clouds and atmospheric changes, and then to open space as you witness the most astonishing moments of No Man’s Sky. I was absolutely shocked to find that not once did No Man’s Sky's frame rate drop or even stutter through any of this. The pacing and flow of leaving a planet and slipping through space just feels smooth as can be.
From here the game begins a bit of a straightforward formula driven by your sheer desire to explore the universe further.
Each solar system has a space station floating between several planets in which you can station your ship, sell items to traders and buy space vessels from other stationed explorers. Explorers and traders, by the way, are made up of about six species whose characteristics and colors are randomized so, as with everything in the game, no one ever quite looks the same. It's the randomization of every asset's characteristics that allows for so many endless possibilities, even if a number of the assets tend to have a small spectrum of model variants.
At normal drifting speed, a planet in the distance can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple days to reach (verified by waypoints on your hub that calculate distance). By using your unlimited boost, hours can turn into half-hour distance speeds and, by using your limited hyper-boost, planets take minutes or seconds to reach. If you run out of hyper-speed, there is no need to worry. Your ship comes installed with a mining beam and attack weapon, and mining the countless asteroids surrounding you in space provides you with instant fuel for hyper boosting.
Landing on planets is a relatively simple affair of entering the planet’s exosphere and letting it equalize out into the stratosphere. You can’t actually crash your spaceship, but you can encounter intense space battles at any time that can destroy your ship (which will instantly respawn nearby). However, once you’re safely in a planet’s atmosphere you can safely land anywhere you want, as long as its flat.
Each planet is randomized with different environmental characteristics such as weather and wildlife, along with different temporal characteristics. Each planet also has a routine number of structures and puzzles for the player to mess around with, and usually a variety of different creatures types. By using the ship’s scanner, you can scan for these structures while you fly around the planet for better navigation.
Planets will usually have stations that house traders and marketplace terminals. There are also colonial outposts, abandoned structures and monoliths, all of which have interactions and puzzles that can get you blueprints, rare items, and foreign language words. Learning alien words is vital because many interactions require specific items, and the more foreign words you learn the more dialogue is translated, enabling you to figure out what items are required -- which is admittedly very cool.
The dialogue puzzles and character interactions themselves are fairly bare-bones and almost remind me of some kind of variant of Dungeon and Dragons rather than anything resembling Mass Effect’s complex narrative and dialogue systems. In NMS, these moments consist of a rather static character model barking gibberish at you and giving you a couple of text options to respond with, usually consisting of the player giving the character a correct item. If the correct item is provided the character will usually reciprocate with a significant item.
Also accompanying these moments are the main explorer’s inner-dialogue text blocks, which are not read aloud and land somewhere between Captain Kirk and a Jules Verne novel. Again, there’s not a lot of variety to these moments, and your enjoyment of them largely depends on your interest in nostalgic '70s sci-fi and B-Movie logistics. This is definitely a strong artistic theme that No Man’s Sky gets right.
I was personally captivated by the tone and atmosphere of the narrative moments, especially given the strength of the writing; but overall, the rigid and uninvolved presentation definitely made me yearn for the narrative complexities of a BioWare production.
Initially, planets themselves are not very dynamic. This is because the closer to the center of the universe you are, the more beautiful, lush, and dynamic the planets become. At the beginning, you’re at the edge of the universe and planets tend to look bland, dark, and barren. To get closer to the center, you have to craft “warp cells” to fuel your hyperdrive so you can warp to a different solar system. Crafting warp cells requires gathering and crafting a handful of difficult-to-find elements using blueprints that can be found in every solar system.
When crafting these warp cells you’ll find that what really stretches the entire playtime out is the immense limitations of your inventory, which leads you to grind away, collecting things endlessly so you can sell enough items in order to afford enough slots to actually store or craft anything that allows you to progress forward.
You have to actually micromanage three separate inventories - your ship, your suit, and your microtool, and you have to transfer items between the right inventory accordingly to use them on the appropriate equipment.
To be honest, the constant swiping through the inventories doesn’t feel super fluid, and the less you have to rely on your inventories, the more enjoyable it is to explore at your leisure and truly enjoy NMS for what it is. However, this requires adjusting to an intense repetition of grinding, mining, collecting, and selling just so you have enough slots to survive comfortably or really do anything at all.
At the same time, fans of survival games like Day Z, Don’t Starve, and Minecraft will be enthused by this intensity of micromanagement. Adversely, if you die, you’ll quickly respawn at the nearest settlement and you’ll be able to recollect everything you lost from a pinned location, so the ingrained risk of the survival genre isn’t exactly here. Still, it's still an adequate enough system to build through while you explore the most thorough universe simulation ever crafted.
Getting enough cells to warp to another solar system certainly takes a long time. I’ve been playing the game for an entire week and have only managed to warp 25 times. Additionally, only in the last day or so have the planets started to become really lush and dynamic.
In this sense, No Man’s Sky’s sense of scope is immense and dense… and unbelievably long. Playing as excessively as I can, I haven’t gotten anywhere near the center of the universe. However, the incredible art style and immersive nature that the game offers makes me continue to push through incessantly in completely addicted fashion.
The things I’ve seen in No Man’s Sky are unlike anything I’ve seen or experienced in a video game before. Again, the rhythm and smoothness of No Man’s Sky are really what make it so captivating. It's an intensely immersive experience that truly captures my favorite moments from Star Wars, Tron, Fract OSC, Dune and H.G. Wells, and wraps them into an immensely realized universe. From one moment to the next I was making consecutive screenshots of scene after scene and sending them to a friend, discovering spectacle after spectacle with immense ease and precision at every corner.
Perhaps the biggest artistic factor driving the immersion is the incredible soundtrack by 65daysofstatic, which is procedurally generated as well to give every planet its own distinct ambiance. Get your surround sound ready, because frankly, this music is top-rate at every given moment of the game. Sometimes it gets rather intense and perhaps a bit overly-complex, but there is a sheer beauty in transitioning from a seductive, hazy synth into a blazing instrumental rock breakdown introducing pounding drums and powerful guitars when entering into an air battle.
This gorgeous music partnered with No Man’s Sky’s bright-multicolored-polygonal aesthetic allows for an extravaganza of procedurally-generated video game art. All too often did a planet or a scene really resonate with me because a brilliant assemblage of perfectly curated pieces came together beautifully. Finding valuable floating, spinning red cubes in a desert oasis near a patch of purple grass really brought me to a place of childlike wonder.
Although I suffered a number of random game crashes throughout the week, I know this is something Hello Games is already working on getting patched. And while I haven’t gotten to the center of the universe by any means, I’ve seen a lot the game has to offer and honestly I would love to see some cities and more developed sci-fi worlds down the line. There’s also good reason to put in ground vehicles. But the groundwork here is solid, and the desired content can be provided down the line.
Ultimately, while there is heavy repetition in the current gameplay core, Hello Games is sure to update No Man’s Sky with enough content and adjustments to make the gameplay as fresh as the world that's crafted around it. Even so, No Man’s Sky's unending world of spectacular vistas and haunting mysteries is enough to make the experience worthwhile, even if you have to slog through a bit of repetitiveness. Ultimately you’re just not going to experience anything else like it. Booting NMS just to simply explore its endlessly beautiful crafted universe makes it a title worth returning to.
+ It really procedurally generates an entire universe
+ You can seamlessly explore planet-to-planet, in a totally realistic scale, in complete real-time
+ Overall aesthetic tone and pacing are perfection
- Micromanaging gameplay and narrative content are barebones and unflinchingly rigid
- A sense of missing content that's sure to be addressed in patching
- Lots of crashes