Now I’m a week of play deeper into No Man’s Sky, its obvious strengths and equally prominent flaws can be pretty clearly defined. Despite this, it’s a hugely difficult game to assess. As I mentioned in my earlier diary entry I find myself vacillating between really enjoying it and being bored to tears with it at different times. Can playing a video game reflect a player’s mood? (If so, in No Man’s Sky we have perhaps the most psychologically incisive game to date.)
Some less philosophical considerations first though: it soon becomes apparent after playing for long enough that No Man’s Sky’s box of tricks is really only a box of trick, singular. That trick – the gigantic universe and its procedurally generated planets and life forms – is a technical marvel, but ends up perhaps being slightly transparent after a while. Make no mistake; you’ll make visits to plenty of similar rocky, scrub-covered planets and have encounters with a bunch of mismatched paint-by-numbers creatures that look like they could never exist in nature (quadrupeds with a pair of chunky rhino front legs and spindly deer back legs seem to be particularly prevalent in my part of the galaxy).
But just as it’s all wearing you down, the game has a way of regularly throwing wonders and enjoyable surprises up, whether it’s a cool friendly creature, a fantastic view away to the horizon, or being terrifyingly hunted through an alien ocean by some new seriously scary-looking species of space-shark. Whatever else you might say about it, No Man’s Sky is surely one of the most screenshot-inducing games ever. And although a big percentage of those screenshots may be people capturing moments when the procedural generation cobbles something a bit laughable together, these still speak to the game at least doing something that’s interesting and unusual. In this way I think the game’s procedurally generated core has to be judged very much a success, and provides the vast bulk of the good, entertaining aspects of the game. The problem No Man’s Sky really has is: everything else.
A lot of potentially interesting systems to complement the key exploring are all in place – resource gathering, crafting, trading, combat, communicating with alien races – but all of them are either underdeveloped, poorly-implemented, annoying, or a combination thereof. Resources are distributed fairly uniformly – I was excited to land on a planet studded in enormous lumps of gold early in my journey, but soon discovered you can find these (or emeril lumps) on most planets, making tediously gathering piles of the stuff and flogging it the most reliable way of making money.
This in turn makes “buy low, sell high”-style trading between systems too fiddly to bother with. Crafting seems arbitrary, and constant inventory juggling and non-stacking items grow annoying. Upgrading your multi-tool is a matter of navigating your way through a nightmare sea of similarly-named improvement modules that are mostly visually indistinguishable but for different numbers.
There’s scores of different ships, but the only thing that separates them are their number of inventory slots (this often changes even between two ships of the same visual model) and space combat itself is fairly terrible, bereft of any useful targeting and with an outcome almost entirely determined by what ship and equipment you have. Ground combat meanwhile is almost entirely avoidable, and rarely challenging. The wee chats with alien races are often neat – and the language learning mechanic is nice – but there are only three races in the game (somehow spread all over the universe), and they don’t interact in any meaningful way, or cause the player any real problems.
It’s all actually *there*, and when added all together, each individually unsatisfying game facet is just about enough to provide a viable game activity alternative to cresting the hills of Lulu, taking space photographs. But it all feels shallow, especially dropped in a universe of such ultra-grand scale; 18 quintillion planets, and pretty much all of them have got iron and plutonium and a Gek, Korvax or Vy’Keen receptionist somewhere waiting around doing a crossword puzzle.
Doubtless this game was totally overhyped, which perhaps makes some of the harsh reception it’s received a bit unfair; doubtless too though, we saw a lot of features demonstrated or talked about pre-release – even quite recently – that have not made their way into the release game. We can only assess the product we got, of course, rather than holding it up against a hyped-up measuring stick – but even then the feeling you get from the release game is still of a grander planned project that has been somehow compromised by various tawdry demands of practicality.
Perhaps nothing speaks to this more obviously than the error, repeated everywhere, that can’t be unseen once seen; height and weight figures are always swapped over in your scanner’s creature info pane. This is the kind of basic, blatant mistake that really should have been caught by the most superficial of quality control checks, and the fact that it made it into a release version seems to speak to the enormous pressure the small team at Hello Games must have been under to get the thing out the door. If that’s too subtle a reminder though, semi-regular total crashes of the game may serve to convince you that this is a product that has not been completed, but merely released. It’s a painful tag to append, but No Man’s Sky is pretty comfortably the least stable console release I have ever played. Ouch.
This is a long litany of negatives, and for many it will be more than enough to bury the game’s strengths entirely. Fair enough too. But I can personally still see myself playing more of No Man’s Sky. There’s something about its core mechanics of exploration and discovery that keep you going – poking into random caves, trudging out to see what that new question mark on your HUD is, or cautiously sidling up to a grazing creature to see if it’s friendly – and encourages you to call people into the lounge to show them what you just found.
It’s helped along here too by being a great looking title that probably nails its overall aesthetic as well as anything since Darkest Dungeon. And all the “big universe” sci-fi game elements you’d want are actually here (they’re just not that great). The game’s “three paths” tug you gently along as well, providing some intriguing background to your galactic wanderings. Pulse-pounding it isn’t, but it’s a more relaxed, gentle gaming experience; a meandering simulator that makes for a change-of-pace break from your regularly scheduled programme of face-shooting.
Above all, it feels like it’s potentially a great *base* for a better game to come. Of course in an ideal world, games would get released as actually completed products. Time will reveal if Hello Games can listen to user feedback and update their release product into the sort of “the year’s best 6 out of 10” that Destiny successfully became, but what we’ve got now is hard to recommend without a lot of caveats.
It’s a fascinating and at times beautiful game with serious flaws, and feels like it hasn’t quite yet moved out of the experimental stage. Definitely take a look if a more chilled-out, free-form gaming experience sounds like you; a better idea though might be to check back in on things in a year or so and see if we’ve got a more polished experience by then. Here’s hoping.