No Man’s Sky (NMS) is a first person exploration and resource gathering game. It is the tiny studio, Hello Games, latest and largest release previously having produced Joe Danger, which I am told is a fairly standard side scrolling game series. First officially unveiled at E3 2014, No Man’s Sky has received a large marketing push from Sony as it is currently a PS4 console exclusive. Unfortunately, this has meant that the indie title has been subject to a lot of hype but also scrutiny as a result of many demoed features seemingly missing from the title on launch.
You start NMS as an astronaut waking up on a beautiful randomly generated planet next to a damaged spaceship. Your short term goal is to repair the ship by gathering resources from the planet using the mining beam from your multitool - a combi mining and shooting gun. Once you have repaired your ship you are free to explore the planet and local system or continue on a voyage to either the centre of the galaxy or follow a very loose narrative along a path to Atlas. Along the way you will find randomly generated planets to explore and name, interesting mixes of terrain, creatures to catalog, three alien species where you can slowly learn their language, and have to fend off attacks from space pirates who are after the cargo in your ship’s hold.
Sounds great so far? Well, sadly that is pretty much it to the game. There are other elements to the game but because it is all procedurally generated whilst nothing is the same, yet because these worlds are generated from a toolbox of limited assets everything can feel very much the same. This is why after visiting more than dozen planets I am feeling I have seen everything the game has to offer, which is not that great for a game that main feature is exploration. There are just a few types of buildings or drop pods but the surface of the planets are peppered with them, so the planets feel like they have already been explored. To fuel your ship and weapons you need to gather resources and the majority of the time it is very easy to find these resources as they are in abundance around all of the planets, there are rarer elements, but these are mostly used to build components of upgrades or sold for credits. There are caves to explore which are populated with rarer elements and generally look beautiful, but without anything meaningful to discover, once you’ve seen a couple you may get the feeling that you’ve seen it all.
The most limited resource is your suit and starship’s inventory space. As most other reviewers have noted, expanded inventory space is the main upgrade goal in NMS. You start with a pitiful amount and you will spend a vast amount of time in your inventory screen juggling around elements and pickups so that you have enough of everything. You can find drop pods to upgrade your suit, and find transmissions to other crashed spaceships which can be repaired and swapped with your current ship. So essentially the game becomes a big grind - mining various elements to increase your inventory size.
There is little danger to NMS, the space battles consist of being interrupted in your journey from planet to planet in a system, where you are set upon by some identically armed pirate ships. The combat is pretty basic, you have a cannon and a beam weapon and so do your enemies. The dog fights just consist of following the enemy fighters and mashing fire whilst churning mined resources into your shields to keep you alive. Not that death has any real penalty, you respawn at a space station - (there’s one in EVERY system) and can just visit your grave and pick up all your dropped loot, the pirates seem to leave it. It feels like there’s no challenge nor variation on this - the ships you can buy or find on planets only differ in visual appearance and number of inventory slots. There’s no handling difference, weapons difference, speed, etc, quite an opportunity that has been missed.
I think my biggest disappointment is that there are no epic space battles that were stated by Hello Games’ Sean Murray during gameplay showcases. The largest battle I have experienced is an optional encounter where some larger freighter vessels are being attacked by the pirates - you can aid the freighters but that’s as far as the combat extends.
The planet bound exploration sees you stalked by little flying drones called sentinels, who attack you when they have deemed that you have taken too many resources in a short amount of time - effectively acting as a sort of cooldown timer on mining resource. The sentinels are easily dispatched but you get a sort of GTA style wanted rating - but this element does not seem to be properly finished as I rarely managed to get a high enough rating that the sentinels became a danger, instead they’re just merely an annoyance, a hindrance.
Whilst I haven’t encountered any notable bugs myself whilst playing on PC there were numerous problems on launch, but Hello Games do seem to be trying to patch these at least. On PS4 I have read reports that the game is currently a bit prone to crashing.
The procedurally generated music is actually very good, and the sound is fine. I like the overall aesthetic and visual design of the game, they have captured the science fiction style of the 1970s and 80s very well.
I don’t know why but I find myself repeatedly drawn back to No Man’s Sky, it can be quite fun to have a potter about, collecting resources and exploring the different landscapes, trying to find one more alien outpost or a crashed spaceship. The game does feel like elements were cut, perhaps as a result of downgrading in scope as a limitation of the small development team size, or a limitation of the PS4 or just the design of the game. If the game had more substance - like if the brilliant assets were used to build 10-100 interesting planets with loads of nooks and crannies to explore and something meaningful to discover, more varied things to find and enemies or monsters to fend off and a decent plot stringing them all together and couple this with decent space combat it would be a great game. The problem seems to lay with the procedural generation - because nothing is certain of being present, they must ensure everything that is required to continue is available, so there is no scarcity of anything as a result, thus negating a reason to explore. Whilst the planets vary in colour, height, and temperature, there is no discernable difference in gravity or atmosphere. The systems are all a small sandbox, you can’t travel from one system to another without going to a loading screen to load up a new system and the space is littered with a ridiculous number of asteroids to mine.
I can’t recommend No Man’s Sky, even if I have enjoyed playing it. Jason recommends having a look at Starbound if this kind of game interests you.