Frankly, this isn’t the review I expected to be writing about No Man’s Sky. I have been excited about this game since it was originally announced. No Man’s Sky does almost everything it promised. The sense of scale and wonderment is apparent from the get go, but for as much as everything is mysterious and unique, No Man’s Sky feels oddly vacant. It has a heart but no soul, and it takes what should be a thrilling adventure and makes it feel unrewarding.
No Man’s Sky relies on a few fairly simple mechanics, primarily focusing on resource management. With three types of resources each with their own three levels of quality, you’ll find yourself regularly searching for more and more as you attempt to craft new items and upgrades and keep the ones you already have running smoothly and, importantly, quietly. The game can be a tad annoying at times, especially on harsh planets, constantly reminding you of depleting life support or thermal shielding. I know, that sounds helpful, but when it is happening every few minutes you’ll be wondering why there isn’t a better way of doing things. You have to manually charge each item across your exosuit, your ship, and your multitool. Again, it doesn’t sound like a problem, but with how frequently you’ll be doing it, it makes you wonder if there was a more elegant solution.
Traversing each procedurally generated planet is initially exciting as you jetpack around, popping off your scanner to find hidden spoils. However, you may find yourself more than a little let down by what can be a serious lack of variety, especially in the fauna and rock formations. Things gradually get better on the way to the center of the galaxy, but I can’t tell you how many identical variations of the same tarantula crab monster I have seen that have always been hostile on every planet I have ever seen them on. The limits of the procedural generation are apparent after just about a dozen or so planets explored. That sounds like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the sheer number of planets that actually exist. Of course you can still scan away at them, collecting their data and sending it off to the rest of the galaxy in exchange for Skybucks (not the actual currency name). Also unfortunate is that everything you find is meaningful only to you unless someone manages to make a 1 in 18 quintillion jump to a planet you have explored.
Along your journey you’ll also meet members of the three intelligent alien species (four if you count the sentinels) that inhabit the galaxy along with you. You’ll complete conversations and trades with them for rewards and knowledge of their languages. You’ll also learn their words through objects scattered across the worlds you explore. It’s a nice way to feel like you are interacting with someone along your journey, but quickly becomes an afterthought once you get a general idea of what they are always looking for. Much like the rest of the game, once you see it a few times, you’ve seen it all. It also exposes one of the game’s biggest issues. While it sounded prior to launch that players would be able to interact with each other, that doesn’t actually seem possible in the final release. Everything you do is to your own benefit or own detriment. The vastness of space feels all the more empty when it feels like sometimes you’re the only one in it.
Most of the actual gameplay is just okay. The jetpack works as you’d expect it making it so there is never an area that is inaccessible. I did get stuck a few times in some caves and other tight spaces, but my trusty jetpack got me out every time. Controlling your ship is surprisingly easy and the game is very forgiving in most cases for colliding with objects. Space combat is nothing to write home about but is good for a dogfight now and then. Mining is a particularly bothersome chore because it is so imprecise. Your laser takes out entire chunks of resources at a time, but consistently leaves small residuals floating around. The worst part of this is that those small pieces generally do have the valuable resources you seek and can be tough to target. Combat suffers many of the same troubles, but No Man’s Sky’s special brand of, “I can’t believe it’s not auto lock,” helps, when it wants to. The auto lock is unreliable and it’s best to just get close and have the biggest possible target. Also, the field of view is pretty lousy, often being too small to show enough relevant information. Everything just feels too close.
Now, in spite of all that, you can still have a surprising amount of fun. No Man’s Sky is a great example of being greater than the sum of its parts. As much as I despised mining for every last patch of resources, I still did it every time I came across them. My desire to make more credits and get bigger and better ships and upgrade my gear as much as possible drove me to keep playing. One hour turned into four and more.
Story and Modes:
Your goal in No Man’s Sky is to get to the center of the galaxy, plain and simple. How you get there is up to you, so long as you take the time to gather the resources you need to outfit your ship properly. There isn’t much of a story to the game, but there are three different paths you can take along the way. Only the Atlas path is immediately presented to you and the games doesn’t really go out of its way to indicate that there are other paths to follow, or at the very least I haven’t found them yet. For the time being it appears that this is a single player affair with little indication of the changing any time in the immediate future.
Visuals and Sound:
No Man’s Sky has an often thrilling electronic soundtrack that stands out as much more than ambient sound. The music helps to set the mysterious tone and to also amplify the things you are doing. Warping through space is visually stunning and is made all the more so thanks to the accompanying score. Ambient planet sounds, on the other hand, are often bothersome. Moaning creatures that don’t seem to exist and various mechanical sounds flood your ears, leaving no truly quiet moments. I had more than a few instances where sounds became bugged and simply repeated over and over when they weren’t supposed to. Visually the game looks great, but your experience will vary from others. I have yet to find a planet that has really blown me away, but I know others that have found truly beautiful worlds as well as other who have found plain, boring planets. The game is only as beautiful as its procedural generation. The framerate can take a hit from time to time, though these instances were not common. While I have not played the PC version, it is apparently not on par with the PS4 version, so you should definitely choose the console version if possible.
There have been plenty of games that have procedurally generated content, but nothing comes close to the scale achieved by No Man’s Sky. As much as the game often feels flat, there is no denying that the concept itself is well executed. Never has the term “endless replayability” been more applicable, and with more than 18 quintillion planets, odds are that you won’t explore it all in this lifetime. Frankly, I’m excited to see what comes next with the same concept.
On paper, No Man’s Sky is a steal. There is no game on this Earth that offers more content. That being said, a great concept doesn’t always make for a great game. It is hard to recommend No Man’s Sky because as much as there is to do, there isn’t all that much to do. Your $60 will never go further dollar for content, but there are so many other games that are more consistently fun that it’s hard to say the value is as good as it seems. If you have a desire to explore the unknown and don’t mind so-so gameplay and a lot of different but oddly similar planets, then there is a lot here for you. If you’re looking for a more survival esque experience or any kind of narrative, then look elsewhere because No Man’s Sky isn’t that game.