No Man’s Sky Review: A journey to the centre

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And a shaky journey at that.

It’s been a mighty challenge to avoid the massive hype train that is No Man’s Sky, pre- or post-release, but for the want of writing this review with completely fresh eyes — and basing it purely on my own experiences — I’ve not seen a single leaked video, stream or image leading up to this review. Finally, it’s my time to explore.

Distance from centre: 174804.7 light years (12 August 2016)

Upon starting the game for the first time, I found myself on a reasonably attractive-looking planet. Marked with some nonsensical name that I never bothered to pay attention to, the surface of this world was a bright green colour with a clear blue sky. Before me was my crashed Starship resting in some purple shrubbery; debris was scattered all around. Suddenly, a digitised voice squawked, “Radiation protection falling”. My Exosuit was warning me that if I don’t do something quickly, I was about to grow a second head or, more likely, die. My first planet not only was a bit ugly, but was also trying to killa me with radiation. Great.

So off I went, obeying the brief (but helpful) prompts that ever so slowly answered the question that’s plagued gamers since the announcement of the game: “What DO you do in No Man’s Sky?”

Collecting enough resources to repair my ship whilst ensuring my life support and environmental protections were maintained was a breeze. There were plenty of necessary plants and minerals around my crash site and before long, my Starship was almost ready to go, save for some Heridium. I had no idea where to get it from or what to look out for. I didn’t even know if there was any of it on this side of the snot green radioactive rock I was on. It was at this point that I truly felt alone. Games have been holding our hands for too long, guiding us through every step needed to reach our goals — but not this one. Left to my own devices, I took a stab in the dark and triggered my scanner, meant to find things of interest for me. Sadly, it displayed nothing. So I picked a direction and started to walk, setting off my scanner periodically as I went. After a few minutes an icon showed up, indicating the location of a large Heridium deposit; strangely enough, it wasn’t my scanner that found it. It was just visible for some reason — so perhaps the game is holding my hand, after all.

That is where I started to get a sense of what you do in this game. For the next 15 minutes, I walked towards my goal, cursing the slow travel speed and limited sprint ability (which, yes, can be upgraded) while observing the procedurally-generated plant life and animals that nobody will ever see but me.

As I walked, the sun began to set and this planet of mine became a very dark and ugly place. The vibrant green hues turned to a feral, snot-like colour and the sky a pale green akin to a stagnant pond overshadowed with dark clouds. With the darkening landscape, I took in the visuals and, to be honest, found them quite disappointing in some aspects. While I wasn’t anticipating anything mind-blowing, visuals exceeding the calibre of last-gen consoles doesn’t seem like too much of an ask.

No Mans Sky Factory

While you can see objects far off in the distance with enough clarity to figure out what they are, their textures are ever-changing, upgrading themselves as you approach. It’s an effect similar to a pixelated transition you might find built into some cheap video editing software. The sky (of this planet, anyway) appeared oddly low to the ground, which reduced the feeling of scale NMS is using as its main selling point. I observed various species of wildlife, all of which moved in a fairly awkward manner. While walking or galloping they looked fine, but if they rotated on the spot to change direction the same forward walking animations played out. That being said, this game is procedurally generated and I feel some leeway should be given due to this fact. For your standard everyday current-gen game these visuals would be unacceptable. For a game built like No Man’s Sky, where the developers couldn’t possibly have seen every iteration of the landscapes and creatures, an increase of 10% graphical quality would have kept me happy enough.

As I continued on with my journey, mining resources as necessary to keep myself protected from radiation poisoning and ensuring my Exosuit continued to help me breathe, I completely forget the presence of the Sentinels protecting the galaxy. That is, until I pissed them off just a little too much and they attacked. At this stage I only had my mining tool to defend myself. Two little robots fly around me, shooting me with lasers while I struggled to keep them in my sights long enough to take care of them both. Whilst waving my mining tool around like a madman, they disposed of me in what felt like an unfair match. I’m left feeling as though at least a small portion of the cause of my demise is an auto-aim system that needs some tweaking, but the majority of the blame rests on the shoulders of this inexperienced explorer.

After respawning, I carry on with on with my mission to get this bloody Heridium. In the distance an icon marks the location of the humiliating death that took place moments earlier. I pretend it’s not there and continue to gather resources essential for my survival. But this time leaving the scenes of my crimes quickly in a bid keep the sentinels at bay. Eventually I locate the deposit of Heridium I’ve been looking for and collect every little bit of the stuff I can carry before strolling back to my ship. By this point I’m bored and quite frustrated with the inventory system which is far from intuitive. Collecting resources just to survive is becoming a repetitive and arduous task at this stage. I can’t wait to get off this god awful rock and find somewhere much more habitable.

Saying farewell to my list of loot, I launch into space and my boredom quickly subsides. The game suggests a few locations to explore, including a space station in which to trade resources and an outpost on a nearby planet. Before checking out the space station I visit two other planets, one of which is a slightly less-offensive green that my starting planet but devoid of any wildlife and lacking in useful resources. The other is closest to the sun in this system but surprisingly freezing cold. Rather than freeze to death, I depart the planet and from the warmth of my little Starship I name the planet, “Trees” because I can’t be bothered thinking of anything more creative.

From space I proceed to follow the relevant points of interest and am guided through the steps necessary to build and fuel my hyperdrive, including obtaining some Dark Matter from a friendly Korvax bloke. The hyperdrive will allow my little Starship to travel to nearby star systems which in turn will help me travel closer and closer to the centre of the galaxy. I’m told it’s a massive 174804.7 light years away.

No Mans Sky Menu

Before going anywhere I allow my ship to float aimlessly in space while I take the time to make myself more familiar with the inventory menu; it’s apparent I’m going to be using it a lot.

This is certainly the most significant issue I’ve experienced in NMS. Strikingly similar in appearance to the modern design of Destiny‘s UI, menus seem out of place in a galaxy inspired by old 60s sci-fi. Managed with a pointer icon, these have clearly been designed with the PC player in mind. So no matter how familiar a player may become with the menus, navigation will only be as fast as the cursor moves. Considering the amount of time spent in the inventory, I’m hopeful Hello Games will take this feedback and make necessary improvements for consoles.

I move to the Discovery menu which lists all the star systems, planets, animals and flora I’ve discovered so far. This is arranged well, with a hierarchy of items that makes sense. Uploading discoveries is a tedious task, sadly, as each one needs to be submitted individually. While I assume this is to encourage players to individually rename all their findings, I have no interest in coming up with a moniker for every plant and rock I point my analysis visor at. An “upload all” button is an absolute necessity.

Returning to take control of my ship, I’m prompted to open the Galactic Map which shows my location in the universe. This provides my first real sense of the true scale of the game. An icon showing my actual location in this ridiculously vast bit of space left me truly amazed at how freaking huge this game actually is.

Rather than following the suggested most direct route to the centre of the galaxy, I instead pick a star system a little closer and warp towards it. Once there I’m alerted to the detection of a “Hostile scan”. Within moments I’m under attack by a lone Starship trying to swipe all the hard-earned fat loots on board my little craft.

NoMans Sky Map

As I realise I’m not ready for this in the slightest my heart begins to race. I immediately assumed that losing your Starship in No Man’s Sky is much more significant than losing your life. The enemy ship flies towards me head on with guns blazing, taking away large chunks of my ship’s limited shields. As I turn around to track it, my sluggish transport struggles to keep up with enemy maneuvers and it again makes another pass at me. A few more hits and my ship is on the brink of destruction. After harnessing my skills honed in Tie Fighter I pull off some clever moves and this thieving bastard is in my sights. With the help of a target showing where to lead my gun fire the ship loses control and explodes a few seconds later quite spectacularly. I want to cheer, but it’s midnight and my wife and child are asleep.

Was this attack a random event? Or is the game still intentionally showing me all the things that can happen in No Man’s Sky? I have no idea.

Finishing up for the evening, I was left with the feeling that I’d picked apart the niggly little things that annoyed me about No Man’s Sky. That said, I’m still very keen to come back and see what more it has to offer and focus on the experience rather than design.

Distance from centre: 173237.3 light years (15 August 2016)

In the many many hours I’ve played No Man’s Sky over the past few days, I’ve travelled less than 0.5% of the total distance between my starting point and the centre of the galaxy. Looking at those numbers — and thinking back on the hours I’ve invested in this game — I can’t help but wonder, “what the hell have I achieved? I’m barely closer to the end goal, how long is this bloody thing going to take?”

Herein lies the beauty of this game. Distractions. Distractions everywhere!

We’ve all played games with side-quests that veer off from the main story. Sometimes these are cleverly thought out and play an integral role in the overall game experience, and on occasion they’re nothing more than filler offering no real substance to the game. In all cases, the primary intent of side-quests is to add a few extra hours to a title. In No Man’s Sky, there are no specific side-quests; unlike most other titles, NPCs don’t send you off on missions. Instead, you find yourself embarking on your own personal missions to chase down specific elements needed to build some special upgrade for your Multitool or working to save up money for a new Starship. Because you know what you’re trying to achieve — and you know you’ll eventually achieve exactly that — this doesn’t feel like too much of a chore. Sure, searching for, then mining minerals is grindey, but when you’re working towards the specific item you want — instead of just for the sake of levelling up — it feels all the more worthwhile. There are true rewards for your efforts.

No Mans Sky Jump Drive

I met an NPC during my travels last night, and we had a brief interaction which resulted in him offering me an entirely new Multitool. It was better than my existing one in all aspects bar one limitation —  it didn’t have a grenade launcher. Still, the tool was too good to refuse. I accepted his gift and then spent the next two hours looking for applicable resources on three different planets (and one moon) to upgrade that Multitool so it would work just the way I wanted it to. That was my new side-quest; by the end of it, I wasn’t any closer to the centre of the galaxy, but I had that little bit of loot that I wanted and enjoyed the time taken to install that grenade launcher. While exploring planets Jerry, George and Kramer (and Kramer’s moon Newman) in the star system known as Seinfeld, I had learned so much about the lore of the local intelligent life and I was starting to develop a strong understanding how to approach different interactions with them, which in turn reaped some excellent rewards.

This is where No Man’s Sky is truly shining for me right now. As Hello Games have stated in several interviews, this game has no story, but a deep lore that you learn about as you progress in your own adventure. Rather that being outright told where you have to go and what you have to do — as is the case with most games — No Man’s Sky puts up signs that gently point you in the right direction, never directly telling you, “Go here now!”.

Yes, there are certain events that take place at specific points in your journey, but even though they are intentionally timed, they don’t feel scripted and almost feel as though they have occurred naturally and completely by chance, solidifying the notion of freedom and playing out your own story in this galaxy. We’ve all read about, and played games, that promise complete freedom in open worlds. Never before have I experienced that freedom. It’s so easy to spend hours and hours in one star system, working towards that specific upgrade or searching for rare resources for trade so you can save up for that sexy 30 slot Starship you’ve been following around. You can literally do what you want and have as equally a fulfilling experience as those that follow one of the several suggested paths through the game.

No Mans Sky Animals

Sadly, one of the not-so-subtle methods of ensuring you experience all that this game has to offer is the very limited inventory available to you in the early hours of the experience. Starting off, you’ll find both your Exosuit and your Starship can barely carry enough resources to achieve any worthwhile goals. Your first five hours or so in No Man’s Sky really needs to be spent on increasing your inventory, which can be tedious. It’s much better than having to always dispose of, or sell items, simply because your pockets aren’t deep enough. Eventually, you’ll unlock the ability to craft a specific device which can help you significantly with Exosuit storage; until that time, the “Inventory full” warning will be the bane of your existence.

Further to this, instead of upgrading storage slots on your ship, the only option is to buy entirely new ships with more slots. In a way this makes sense. After all, you don’t buy more storage space for your car. Buying a new Starship can be a frustrating experience as there’s no space craft dealer to speak of — as far as we’ve seen. Instead, you just hang around at space stations or trading posts, waiting for other (NPC) explorers to show up so you can make a deal with them. Sometimes you’ll see an amazing craft that’s well out of your price range leaving you jealous of anyone in possession of something similar, or you’ll be offered a cheap hunk of crap that features less storage than you’ve already got.

It’s a matter of luck and patience for you to find the perfect ship for your needs and budget. That being said, earning credits is quite easy and if you’re clever with your resources, focusing on items in high demand for each system you visit, you can be rolling in money quite quickly. There’s also great rewards for finding all the species on a planet so keep a good eye out. While you may need to spend your precious credits on occasion to buy resources you cant find elsewhere in that star system , most of the time you can find or craft the items you’ll need so through natural progression you’ll find you can easily save a few million credits to buy that special space craft. There’s also plenty of guides out there to help you earn credits fast so do some research if you’re so inclined.

No Mans Sky Ship trade

An issue that I’ve mentioned before is No Man’s Sky‘s inconsistent visuals. They’re a little primitive for a current-gen game but (as I stated earlier) that can be overlooked considering the game wasn’t hand-designed like most others. While its vibrant colour schemes are starting to grow on me, I was initially calling bullshit in regards to the notion that everything is different. After visiting a huge number of different planets and finding that each one was the same baren desert with little plant life and near identical hills, valleys and cave systems everything started to feel very samey. That being said, not long after writing a rather ranty paragraph on that matter for this very review, I captured the below screenshot of a planet that is now named “NMS is Making a Liar Out of Me” (it’s below). Hopefully there will be more variation and surprises as I progress. I wouldn’t want this planet to be one of those 1% experiences.

Another aspect briefly discussed previously is the way the game handles in combat against sentinels. As I’ve grown accustomed to how they move and how the controls feel, combat on foot has become a little more enjoyable. It’s far from an in depth shooter experience, and can still be frustrating at times but it’s getting more tolerable. For some strange reason though whenever I’m being attacked by sentinels near a structure, there’s always one straggler that’s left hiding behind a building that I have to go hunt down. This is clearly an annoying little bug that needs to be fixed.

While on the subject of combat, dogfights in space are an absolute pleasure to be involved in now. The enemy AI isn’t exactly complex but dogfighting is becoming more and more fun as my ship gains new features. Where I was once fearful of being attacked by a single enemy, I’m now able to take out five at a time without breaking a sweat and each kill feels incredibly satisfying.

No mans Sky Forest

With a constant desire to keep upgrading my gear, and a steady trickle of lore to learn about, which actually rewards you for developing an understanding of the locals, No Man’s Sky is managing the carrot on a stick concept of gaming so subtly it’s almost as though it’s been done by accident. And while I’m being easily distracted from the primary goal, I’m enjoying the whole experience more with every hour I put into it.

Distance from centre: 171513.3 Light Years (August 19 2016)

While still a long way from the suggested end goal of No Man’s Sky, I’ve spent countless hours mining, exploring, trading and flying around the galaxy. Along the way my opinion of the game has changed considerably, and as I continue to play, I expect it to continue to change.

Despite not having reached the centre of the galaxy — which is probably several hundred hours of gameplay ahead of me — I’m now at a stage where I can confidently review this behemoth of a game in a way that will accurately describe the experience you will have, should you be so inclined to take the plunge.

Some of you might feel having not reached the centre of the galaxy reduces my ability to form a valid final opinion. But before you all go grab your torches and pitchforks, consider this: reaching the centre of No Man’s Sky’s galaxy is an optional objective and the end goal does not impact the experience of the journey.

I’ve developed a very confusing love/hate relationship with No Man’s Sky. I hate it. And I hate loving it.

The grind to gather elements for ship and suit upgrades is infuriating at first. Especially whilst you’re learning what each element looks like, what they’re used for, how rare they are and where they’re usually found. You’ll wander aimlessly for hours trying to find what you need. You’ll be annoyed with the slow walking pace and limited sprint. When you finally find that deposit of Iridium you’re looking for, you’ll discover your tiny inventory is already full to the brim with some super rare or valuable items you can’t bare to abandon. So you’ll return to your ship with the intention of flying to a trading post or space station to sell your valuable items for precious credits. Only then you’ll find that your ship doesn’t have enough fuel to take off, so you have no option but to reluctantly dispose of some your valuable items anyway and go looking for fuel.

No mans Sky Animal

You’ll do this over and over for a few hours. Slowly becoming unimpressed with the barren planets you’re discovering along the way.

Then something riveting happens. You’ll finally get the elusive upgrade you’ve been fantasising about; or you’ll discover a beautiful planet, lush with yellow grass that sways majestically in the breeze and forests of purple trees that tower well above you. When you’re almost ready to to call it quits, something will materialise to motivate you to keep going. Another few hours will pass, you’ll hear birds chirping outside your window, and all of a sudden you’ll realise you’ve been awake for much longer than health professionals would recommend.

Unfortunately the sheer size of No Man’s Sky, while its biggest asset, is also its most significant flaw. Those little pockets of joy are too few and far between the seemingly endless parade of desolate worlds which are void of anything interesting to see or do. It is guaranteed to leave you asking yourself: “why the hell am I even playing this game?”

No Man’s Sky is like a drug. There’s much better things to do with your time and it may never truly satisfy you in the long term. But you’ll keep coming back to it again and again in the hope that you’ll experience something incredible. Saturating you with repetitive resource gathering on the same boring planets until you’re just about over it, the galaxy will suddenly give you just a tiny hit with a freaky animal, an absurd abundance of rare artefacts or even a beautiful solar eclipse. Your eyes will widen and your excitement level will rise. And you’ll then remember why you’re still playing… only to question it once again when you stop to think how far you’ve travelled, and how little you’ve achieved.

Progress is painfully slow. The need to upgrade your personal inventory one slot at a time is possibly the poorest design choice I’ve ever seen in a game; especially when the focus is on resource gathering and inventory management.

This problem can be resolved thanks to the multitude of guides and tips that are popping up all over the internet. Normally this would frowned upon or even considered cheating. But taking the opportunity to learn how many of the mechanics work — in the absence of the game itself teaching you — can significantly enhance your experience and save many wasted hours.

It’s not commonly known upgrades to your ship, suit and multitool are more efficient when grouped together. It’s also not commonly known that various classes of star systems represent the quality and diversity of their planets and wildlife, nor is it clearly explained that the star classes are indicated by the colour of the stars in the galactic map. These are just a few examples of mechanics and features that aren’t obvious or explained, yet that have a significant impact on gameplay.

Having taken the time to research how to play, I’ve improved my efficiency ten-fold and in-turn have increased my exposure to the great surprises No Man’s Sky has to offer. And there are some really great things. Just look at this guy…

No mans Sky Ewok

Another poorly executed mechanic is the Dark Souls-like death system. When you die, or when your ship is destroyed, a “Player Grave” is left behind at that location. Returning to your grave allows you to retrieve your dropped loot and then carry on your merry way as if nothing happened. Die again before collecting your goodies though, and they’re gone for ever. In Dark Souls and Bloodborne this worked perfectly well, because there was a real risk vs reward dynamic. In No Man’s Sky, it’s just an inconvenience, as returning to your grave carries virtually no risk. The animal, pirate or sentinel that disposed of you will be long gone and you’ll always spawn just a short distance away.

Good but not great. That’s the simplest I can describe No Man’s Sky, and it’s certainly not for everyone. If you’re time poor, in a relationship, a parent, employed, enjoy sleep or a completionist to any degree, leave now and don’t turn back. You will never have enough time to enjoy No Man’s Sky in full. Hampered by slow progression caused by poor design choices and insufficient hand holding might leave a bad taste in the mouths of some.

Yet, despite its flaws, it’s a chilled out experience suitable for those capable of making their own fun within a game. Engaging in battles with pirates, discovering weird and wacky species and leaving your mark on a planet by naming your discoveries are all great fun. The number of gameplay hours available to those willing to invest are the best value you will find.

No mans Sky Dark Space

Amidst the hype and the vitriolic criticism from keyboard warriors around the world feeling like they’re owed something better, it’s easy to forget that this game — possibly the largest ever made and certainly the most anticipated of the year — was developed by a team of just 15 people (at its biggest). Its visuals are basic, there’s no narrative to speak of and it’s infested with game crashing bugs in its current state (patch coming very soon, we’re told). Its primary focus on resource gathering is repetitive, but discovering a huge deposit of something rare and valuable breaks the repetition to keep you motivated to continue exploring. All things considered, No Man’s Sky is the first game in years to actually justify the use of the word “ambitious”. That’s why I like it.

 

6.5 out of 10

The good

  • A truly original concept.
  • Sudden hits of amazement.
  • Literally thousands of hours of hours.

The bad

  • It’s too damn big.
  • Long period of repetitive grinding.
  • Menu system not suitable for consoles.
  • Primative visuals.

 

No Man’s Sky was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.