‘No Man’s Sky': Action-adventure game shoots for the moon, but lands in a crater
By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | Stars and Stripes | Published: August 19, 2016
The first few hours of Hello Games’ “No Man’s Sky” are among this year’s best video gaming moments. The rest of the game is among the year’s biggest disappointments. This dichotomy is in the very DNA of what is ultimately an ambitious, but flawed, experiment.
“No Man’s Sky” was billed as a true galaxy exploration simulator. Sean Murray, Hello Games’ lead designer, tantalized audiences with promises of an in-game universe as vast as the real one and worlds as varied as the ones we’ve only seen in science fiction.
Promotional videos showed vast worlds inhabited by alien animals roaming vast, colorful landscapes. Players would be able to leap into their spaceship, launch from one world and fly seamlessly to the next, where only the unknown would be guaranteed to be found.
The final game delivered on some of those promises, and failed on others.
The universe of “No Man’s Sky” really is as vast as was promised. The galaxy is nearly infinite, but feels truly endless. My greatest fear when picking up the final game would be that the seamless space flight shown in trailers would be a trick of carefully edited videos, and I’d be greeted with a parade of loading screens.
That fear turned out to be unfounded. It is absolutely possible to fly from one planet to the next with nary an overt loading screen to be found. Sure, some of the longer warp-speed jumps are disguising asset rendering, but it’s cleverly done and so the illusion remains intact.
That element of “No Man’s Sky” never quite got old for me. The dream of seamless space exploration has been one held by gamers for decades. While games such as “Elite: Dangerous Horizons” have done a great job emulating planetary exploration, none has nailed the feel of flying from surface to space and back again quite like “No Man’s Sky.”
However, that’s about the only thing the game does perfectly. Every other element of the “No Man’s Sky” experience ranges from mediocre to outright bad.
Murray and Co. were purposely coy when asked about the meat of the game’s interactive elements. The glass-half-full types said it’s because Hello Games wanted to cultivate an air of mystery about the title. Cynics said it was because there probably wouldn’t be much interaction to be found. Sadly, it seems the cynics were right.
The game opens with you having to mine resources to fix your broken spaceship. To do so, you’ll shoot various rocks and plants with your all-purpose mining tool/laser pistol. Once the necessary resources are gathered, you’ll blast off to the next planet to see what adventures lie upon its rocky surface.
And then you’ll shoot various rocks with your all-purpose mining tool/laser pistol. If you’re lucky, the planet will be packed with radiation/toxic chemicals, and you’ll have to watch a meter fill up.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the survival game template that has become the de facto game design over the past few years. “No Man’s Sky” isn’t even a particularly great entry into the genre either, thanks to some poor design decisions that hamper the crucial first hours.
Your inventory slots are severely limited in the beginning, making the early hours of the game a frustrating tennis match between actually playing the game and trying to manage an inventory screen.
You can gather infinite resources, but there is precious little to do with them. There is no base- or ship-building, though some of those elements have been promised as future DLC. Even a bare-bones ability to create a meaningful impact on a planet would have created some sense of purpose behind the endless resource gathering.
As it stands, you gather resources so you can increase your capability to gather more resources. It’s a gameplay loop that becomes frustratingly boring very quickly. By the fourth of fifth hour of playing, you’ve felt like you’ve done all there is to do in “No Man’s Sky.”
The same goes with the galactic exploration element, ostensibly the game’s selling point.
When you land on a planet for the first time, you’re likely going to be in awe with the size of it. Even flying in your spaceship, it will take actual hours to fly around the entire thing. The alien lifeforms, at first, are unique and interesting to look at. Then you fly to another planet and see the same things you saw at the first world, with maybe a palette swap to differentiate them.
The promotional videos showed massive alien dinosaurs eating foliage from towering trees. The reality of the game is seeing the same lizard cow you saw two planets ago, but this time with an added dorsal fin. And neither of them are doing anything that presents any illusion of life.
That’s a shame because the galaxy feels so infinite, so massive. It calls out to be explored. But the fun is sucked right out of the game with the realization that no matter where you go, or what you do, you’ll still be forced to shoot rocks with a laser gun and stare at similar-looking flora and fauna.
Some of the elements Hello Games introduced to break up this monotony don’t really work all that well, either. Planets, locations and alien lifeforms, once discovered by players, can be named. It’s fun at first to name a hideous, deformed creature after your grade-school math teacher, for instance, but it becomes dull very quickly.
While traveling around, you might come across monoliths that offer up some basic text choices. The mysterious structures will ask you various questions. Correct answers will result in upgrades and better relations with one of three of the native alien races to be found in “No Man’s Sky.”
The lizard-like Gek, robotic Korvax and militant Vy’Keen can be found at space stations or planet-side bases. There are some dialogue options when dealing with them, but interaction is basically limited to buying, selling or giving them resources. It’s pretty disappointing to discover an alien robot on an undiscovered planet and find out it’s just another vendor.
The central purpose of “No Man’s Sky” is to find the center of the universe. At its core, it’s a game about exploration. But the fun of exploration is the discovery of the new, the odd, the interesting. Everything unique about “No Man’s Sky” can be found within the first few hours of gameplay.
That being said, there remains something special about hopping into a spaceship and flying, without loading screen, to another planet. For those first few hours, before the illusion of a living universe is irrevocably shattered, “No Man’s Sky” is an incredible game. It’s my hope that with future updates, the rest of the game will be able to live up to that early-game promise.
As it is right now, though, it’s a very shallow experience. Hello Games shot for the moon with “No Man’s Sky.” While they didn’t quite make it out of orbit, they provided us with an incredible view of the stars. Maybe if we’re lucky, they’ll one day bring us the rest of the way there.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC (reviewed)