No Man’s Sky Review: The Long Haul

So did Sony and Hello Games’ hype trail derail or did it pull into the station?

I remember watching the game trailer reveal of No Man’s Sky in 2013. My jaw would’ve hit the floor if it were physically possible. The idea of exploring a virtually endless universe of star systems with my own personal spaceship made me giddy with delight. Then 2014 rolled around… Sony showed it at E3 and it became instantly obvious that I’d need a PS4 to play it. If you’ve read about my gaming habits, you’d realize why that was a problem for me.

Nevertheless, I ended up buying a PS4 as a present to myself for getting promoted at work, after begging telling my wife that I was planning on getting one. She eventually relinquished to my pleas and I waited… and waited… and waited…

Then finally I got my hands on the game, worried that I’d fallen victim to the hype train again (screw you Alpha Protocol). Interested to hear the verdict? Well read on.

OR SKIP AHEAD I GUESS

GAMEPLAY

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So pretty, so blue

It’s important to understand that No Man’s Sky is a mix between a survival and exploration game. Everything costs something, which is a lesson you’ll learn in the first few minutes of the game. Your life support, environmental shielding (the stuff that keeps you from dying from the elements), and spacecraft all require resources to continue operating. Resource management will take up the majority of your time, but that isn’t to say that’s all there is.

Exploring the universe will lead you to learning bits and pieces of alien languages, cataloging flora and fauna (oh and rocks), upgrading your suit and ship systems, trading with other lifeforms, scouring planets for resources, fighting pirates and sentinels, and taking in the sights.

Learning languages in particular provides myriad of benefits to the player and you’ll learn new words in a few different ways. Monoliths and knowledge stones that you find spread across the universe provide insight into the languages of the different sentient species. You can also learn new words by talking with the aliens themselves, offering carbon-based resources in return for new words, or even requesting healing or some pocket money (depending on your reputation with that species). Knowing more of a language gives you a better idea of what an alien is trying to say, the logs of a computer system, or the story a monolith is telling. This may not sound like much but it can help narrow down the options of what you need to do. I have noticed that some of the numbers puzzles have begun repeating themselves though, so it appears that there really isn’t much there.

When on a planet’s surface, you’re going to spend some time at least surviving the elements. Most worlds are inhospitable; some are dead entirely. Excursions into the wild provide a challenge itself because some worlds have extreme temperatures, high radiation, or toxic atmospheres. Luckily, you can craft temporary systems for your life support that help mitigate the challenges those environments pose. I’ve personally found that the best course of action is to not bother carrying anything. For example, Carbon, and Iron can be found just about anywhere so it is far better to not bother stockpiling it. Plutonium, Gold and Aluminum are easy to find in caves; Thamium-9, Nickel and Copper in asteroids;  Heridium in massive pillars; Titanium from killing sentinels; and Zinc and Platinum from special plants. The key to finding minerals is just knowing where to find them. If you aren’t finding a particular mineral on one planet it can pay off to just head to another world and check things out there. Seriously, the inventory system isn’t bad. You just need to plan.

The animal inhabitants of the different planets can also provide a bit of a distraction, or even a danger as well. Many planets have some form of life on them which can either be docile or aggressive. You can gain additional money by cataloging those lifeforms, though it doesn’t make for much of a loss if you decide to avoid doing that entirely. You can even feed the more friendly creatures some “Carbon” (Carbon is broken down plant life, people) to befriend them for a little bit and they might find you some stuff. I’ve found a bit of fun in naming the different creatures I run across.

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Say hello to Mega Chicken

Actually, naming every discovery in the game is an option that I’ve taken full advantage of. Players might even stumble across my Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo systems now.

And then there’s the combat. Battling in outer space in your spacecraft takes the form of dogfighting or an attack on a freighter or two. Fighting on a planet’s surface involves defending yourself from animal attacks and interference from sentinels. Space battles are reminiscent of Freespace in a simpler form, which is to say that spaceflight is easy enough to manage yet still engaging. You can even bring the fight down to the surface by entering the atmosphere if you need a little easier combat.

Sometimes while patrolling the worlds for monoliths and minerals you’ll run afoul of the sentinels, a robotic police force intent on preserving the universe in it’s current form. Some planets have a heavier sentinel presence than others, which is usually an indication of more rare resources to be extracted. Combat with the sentinel security tends to be rather simple and easy if you have the Boltcaster modification on your multitool, even when you’re fighting the higher level security.

Lastly, some complaints of mine:

What the hell is wrong with the hyperspace map? It’s almost impossible to tell where you’re going.

What’s the purpose of waypoints?

Why do I move like an asthmatic 12 year old with leg braces? Would it have killed Hello Games to just let you sprint without a stamina meter?

PRESENTATION

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Going in hot!

The color palette and art design of No Man’s Sky borders on simplistic, but I’m hesitant to say that qualifies as a drawback. The worlds, ships, creatures, and other outer spacey stuff don’t look boring. Space isn’t a void of darkness in most cases, eschewing black for more vibrant colors. The same could for the rest of the game as well. Animals, aliens, and spacecraft all sport unique designs that serve to set them apart from the others.

The varied colors are more or less necessary considering the way that the worlds and inhabitants are created. The entire game is built up using a procedural engine. The way this has been explained is that the locations and creatures are generated when they’re discovered, using the game’s mathematical equations… Or magic. Mathemagic. Creating everything on the fly works for the most part, though there are sometimes hiccups.

Randomly generated creatures sometimes clip through the ground and quite literally flip out. On one occasion at least my wife and I witnessed a shark-like animal spinning on the ground like a top because the game spawned it on a floating rock instead of the water below it. In another example of the system screwing up, a structure wasn’t placed on level ground and resulted in it appearing to float above the terrain (though the moon in the example was the only place I witnessed this so far). The procedural generation method seems to have led to the lack of physics in the game also. Excavating the base of a pillar of material doesn’t cause the rest of the pillar to collapse. It just hangs out up there, defying gravity. That’s not to say that there aren’t other floating things in the game, you’ll see floating rocks and mineral deposits on just about every world. It’s just a little disappointing considering that Red Faction handled terrain destruction better on the PS2.

These problems pale in comparison to the most glaring issue: texture pop is rampant. Whether you’re approaching a planet or flying through the atmosphere, No Man’s Sky’s engine can’t generate terrain quickly enough to account for the speed at which the player can travel. This leads to the constant appearance of textures fading in while you are flying. The game’s performance isn’t affected necessarily, but it is immersion breaking.

But there’s the sound. The soundtrack isn’t oppressive, meaning that you aren’t being constantly bombarded by action-y music. The music kicks in when it’s needed, and it’s pretty excellent I might say. The other sounds of the game are decidedly science fiction-y too, what with laser, robot and explosion noises. I know this sounds pretty bland but the sound design is pretty damn good and does the job well. I love the noise of atmospheric entry and the sound some of the animals make… The notification of my inventory being full is stuck in my head though.

Did I mention that it looks A LOT like Destiny? That’s a bit of an understatement. It feels like they tried really hard to make it look like Destiny. Especially when it comes to the inventory and menus.

ORIGINALITY

NMSSpaceStation.jpg
Coming in to stock up at Mass Produced Space Station No. 1.3 x 1018

No Man’s Sky may not be groundbreaking in art style, gameplay, or player interaction but the method in which the game populates the universe sure is. Procedural generation has been used in many games like Minecraft and Elite: Dangerous but never on this scale. The star systems are populated with worlds that are entirely procedurally generated, creating a universe that is amazingly full of places to explore. Arriving in a system and dropping into a planet’s atmosphere carries with it the excitement of discovering something new.

There’s an ugly side to procedural generation though. Solar systems are generally filled with planets that are mind-bogglingly close to each other, all of which are single-biome worlds. This can be excused because it isn’t a space flight simulator like Elite: Dangerous but it can still be jarring considering that all the planets are clustered around each other, with a couple a little further away. Then there’s the fact that worlds seem to just hang there in your sights for a long time while you’re barreling towards them at incredible speeds until you’re suddenly shot into orbit above the atmosphere.

What makes for a far larger disappointment is the lack of variety on every world’s surface. No Man’s Sky’worlds definitely fall under the single-biome planet sci-fi trope. Planets with water don’t have large oceans, temperate planets don’t have ice at the poles, and there are no Earth-like planets at all. All of this seems to reinforce the idea that random doesn’t mean it looks natural.

A common and legitimate complaint about the use of procedural generation in No Man’s Sky is that everything feels the same, because most of it is. The outposts, shelters, space stations, etc are all the same thing over and over again. There’s some level of excuse that can be allowed considering the game was created by such a small team, but still. Every star system has a space station and every space station is the same.

STORY AND MULTIPLAYER

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Gross…

Something that has never been a big part of the game’s marketing is the inclusion of any tidbits of story in No Man’s Sky, but surprisingly there’s actually a bit of overarching narrative if you bother to look for it. Upon finding yourself stranded on a world with a busted ship, you’re immediately confronted with guidance from a weird orb doodad calling itself the Atlas. It tries to set you on the path to the center of the universe, though I decided to ignore it completely and head off to explore. You’ll eventually come into contact with a couple unexplained helpers who have taken it upon themselves to look after you for reasons that I’ve yet to learn. The truth is that I’m nowhere near the “end” of the game, as I’ve spent too much of my time getting distracted.

The multiplayer of the game is where the majority of the vitriol over the title seems to be aimed. Some players have gone so far as to say that Hello Game’s Sean Murray has promised the ability to play with others, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Murray has been interviewed multiple times, and asked questions regarding the multiplayer option only to brush it off by saying that it’s possible but improbable. Not to rehash any news but there has been at least one instance of players being in the same place at the same time, but they were unable to see each other. This has been speculated to mean that either there is no multiplayer at all to No Man’s Sky’s servers just not being able to keep up with the traffic.

The truth will come to light eventually.

WILDCARD: THE WORLD UNIVERSE IS YOUR OYSTER

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Another day, another planet

No Man’s Sky is huge… I’ll just put that out there. The universe that allegedly exists in the game is so large that it actually includes multiple galaxies of stars, each with multiple planets. I can’t adequately explain how wonderful that is to me, how enamored I am with the idea of there being billions upon billions of planets to see, and a team behind it that is supposedly going to continue working on it to offer more content over time.

If Hello Games continues to add to and refine No Man’s Sky, I will be exceedingly happy. I already love the sheer volume of space to explore. For there to be more to keep me busy in the future… Well, we’ll just have to wait and see I guess.

Revelations

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Full speed ahead

I’ve loved my time so far with No Man’s Sky, though I’m under not any illusions that I will get tired of the game at some point. Given the amount of enjoyment I’ve derived from it, as well as the time I’ve been able to spend with my wife playing it, I have to say that it’s worth the cost of admission. We’ve spent a few nights handing the controller off to each other while we wandered around different locations, taking in the sights and checking out the numerous oddities.

There are some things you’ll want to consider though. I’ll put it in a handy list form for you. I’ll make a pro-buy and anti-buy list:

Buy No Man’s Sky if you like games that…

  • …are exploration focused.
  • …force you to balance your resources.
  • …are relaxing to play.
  • …are science fiction based.

Do NOT buy No Man’s Sky if you don’t like games that…

  • …require you to plan ahead.
  • …don’t hold your hand.
  • …don’t have an intricate plot.
  • …don’t have traditional multiplayer.

Most importantly, if you are looking for a game that is based on hard science fiction, play Elite: Dangerous instead. No Man’s Sky is NOT a simulation. If you want something with an engaging narrative, play Destiny Mass Effect. There are simply too many other games in the science fiction genre to justify projecting your desires onto No Man’s Sky.

If you want something light-hearted with copious amounts of exploration, you might want to give No Man’s Sky a shot. If you aren’t totally sure about it, rent it or buy a used copy from a game store (most used games can be returned within a certain window).

I personally would recommend this game to others, though I’ve come across people who would do the polar opposite. The key is to consider what you want in a game and knowing what I know now of No Man’s Sky, I would buy it all over again. Despite its flaws, inaccuracies, and bugs, I’ve come to seriously enjoy my time playing it.

Now please excuse me while I look for something more horrifying than the mega chicken.

 

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14 thoughts on “No Man’s Sky Review: The Long Haul

  1. I couldn’t do it with this game. So much crashing, so much stuttering, it was like I was frustrated with it. I did a refund, but in a few years it might be better so I can get it again and actually play it.

    Liked by 1 person

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