I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
There’s something wondrous about space – incomprehensible to any human mind. Infinite planets in infinite star systems, driving home the fact that we, as humans, are indeed small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So when a game like No Man’s Sky comes along, promising us the chance to explore an essentially infinite galaxy of our own, you could forgive the wider gaming public for losing their minds just a little bit. The problem is that No Man’s Sky offers little else.
When Hello Games first showed NMS off all those years ago, it seemed impossible, but there it was. Eighteen quintillion procedurally generated planets with infinite possibilities; a game beyond the scope of anything that could ever have been previously imagined. It’s a wonder then how the finished product they’ve shoved out into the wider world could be so dull, so devoid of interesting content, and so… lifeless.
That’s what No Man’s Sky is in a nutshell – lifeless. At its core, NMS is a very basic survival game: you start off on a random planet at the edge of the galaxy, complete with a broken down spaceship. From here, you’re directed by a mysterious entity known only as the Atlas to traverse the great beyond in search of that creamy, delicious center. So you scavenge for resources, repair your ship, fill it with enough plutonium to gain lift off, and into orbit you go. It’s here where No Man’s Sky starts to feel like something special is about to unfold; you’ve gone through what was essentially a fairly bland, standard tutorial, and are about to start on your journey proper. The feeling of leaving the atmosphere for the first time, spotting a planet in the distance, and touching down on it’s surface, minutes later, with nary a loading screen in sight is genuinely majestic.
Unfortunately, that sense of majesty quickly wanes. By the time you’ve visited a few planets, or been to two or three different star systems, the glossy, metallic paint starts to come off on No Man’s Sky, exposing its grimy, dull shell – a bare-bones experience without much variety or stuff to do. Planets all feel suitably huge, but when you’re visiting the same two or three outposts on your third planet of mostly ocean in as many star systems, to repeat the same handful of tasks over and over again, the repetition wears on you, and it starts to feel like you’re not getting a whole lot done.
This issue is compounded by the fact that your inventory is tiny. It’s constantly full, and the endless micromanagement is anything but fun, especially when you consider that any upgrades you make to your exosuit, starship, or multitool take up an inventory slot. As a result, NMS winds up throwing you into a position where you don’t wanna upgrade your perpetually, often too-rapidly decreasing life support systems lest you suddenly lose the ability to mine gold which you can sell to buy a new ship that can store more stuff and… you get the idea.
Narratively, No Man’s Sky is effectively worthless. It doesn’t even feel like it’s doing the best that it can to keep you engaged. The story, what little there is, is essentially just there to keep prodding you to move forward, and even once you do reach the center of the universe, it’s not like you’re going to be blown away by what happens. It actually feels detrimental to the experience as a whole, and thankfully you can choose to ignore the Atlas path and forge your own from the start; however unless you’re the kind of person that really enjoys mining minerals on samey planet after samey planet, it’s not like you’ll get much more out of doing things this way. You also can’t go back to star systems you’ve previously visited, so as much as I wanted to go back to the toxic moon of Cord’s Bathroom to mine its ample reserves of gold and copper, I couldn’t once I’d left the star system.
It isn’t all bad of course. Like I said earlier, the game does have a certain majesty to proceedings. Land on a particularly luscious planet teeming with wildlife, and you can have a pretty good time and lose a decent chunk of hours just exploring and documenting the various fauna. Sure, seeing some of the crazy combinations the game has thrown together to make various wildlife gets old once you start to see essentially the same animal with a different tail or legs for the fifth time, but the occasional time that it clicks, it feels worth it for that brief moment.
No Man’s Sky is a pretty nice looking game too, although it suffers from some serious pop-in. This isn’t so bad when you’re touching down on a planet – it makes sense that the game would be drawing that stuff in as you touch down. But it seems like once you’re on the ground, walking around, things flit in and out of existence with far too much frequency. It’s especially annoying when you think you’ve spotted another large gold reserve, only for it to disappear when you get within a few feet since you’ve already mined it. It’s a shame, because there’s some really nice effects going on in the background, and seeing the wind sweep through tall grass as the sun sets on an idyllic planet legitimately has the ability to stun.
Probably the biggest issue I had with NMS is the horrendous quality of the PC port. My PC’s no slouch, easily capable of running Triple-A games at 1080/60 on high settings, but NMS is pathetically poorly optimized. Getting the game into a playable state took a significant amount of work and numerous attempts, and even when it got to the point where I didn’t feel like I was gonna throw up, gameplay still wasn’t exactly buttery smooth, with frequent pauses and jerky animation abundant. If you must play NMS, and have the option available, the PS4 version is the way to go.
Even if you enjoy survival games, NMS isn’t a particularly good one. It’s solid, fine, and perfectly serviceable, but little else. It feels like a great early access proof of concept, and that’s all. Sure, Hello Games have promised many improvements to come, and it’s great that the company is thinking long-term with No Man’s Sky. For now, though, it’s a fairly par-for-the-course survive ‘em up, complete with all the inventory management and meter refilling that comes as standard. It’s a game that’s capable of great things, moments of quiet majesty and incredible serenity, but held up by paper-thin mechanics. It may even be a great game someday, but right now, it’s not, and unless you’re a huge fan of the genre, $60 is a little steep for the time being, although you can tack on an extra star for the PS4 version.