The possibilities are endless. Billions and billions of unique planets to discover. That’s how many of us have been imagining No Man’s Sky all these years throughout its development from a small team, who’s previous games were content to have us rip down a 2D track chasing combos on a motorcycle. It’s quite a leap to say the least.
The reality may not be what we were expecting though, mainly because the game’s core gameplay was only shown off very late into the development cycle. For years, all we really knew was that there would be a lot of planets to discover. Take away the lengthy list of planets though and what we’re left with is rather less appealing – a resource mining and inventory management sim.
To put this in context, you begin on your own unique planet, with a broken spaceship and a busted multi-tool – a laser gun/mining beam. You’re given basic hints telling you that you need to search the planet for various elements to make the necessary repairs.
You may find these in storage crates, or by smashing rocks. Before long, your mining beam is up and running, allowing you to break down various rocks and metal elements to extract resources for building. You’ll faff around for an hour or so, looking for the other items on your checklist, making repairs to your suit, ship and a scanning tool that tells you what minable materials are nearby.
That’s not all you have to worry about though, you need to have a large supply of numerous elements to replenish an obscene amount of items. Your suit’s shield protects you from the various planet atmospheres on your journey, with it depleting at differing rates accordingly. Add another ever-depleting meter for what’s effectively your suit’s oxygen level, not to mention ammo for your multi-tool and launch fuel for your spaceship and you’ll quickly fill up the limited amount of initial inventory slots with fuel, leaving little to no space for anything else you might need.
When you’re always trying to build something new after finding a blueprint for new tech, it’s incredibly frustrating not being able to pick up an item without sacrificing something essential elsewhere. Not to mention you need a free slot to build an item and even to interact with some intelligent life forms you’ll meet on your travels. For huge amounts of time in No Man’s Sky, it feels like you’re trying to get the chicken before the egg.
No Man’s Sky makes little effort to tell you what to do, instead you’ll occasionally come across new blueprints for better gear for your ship, enabling you to travel even further each time. It always feels like you’ve blindly stumbled across an upgrade rather than done anything to deserve it.
But what about the exciting part of the game we were all looking forward to? Discovering unique, beautiful planets? The worlds of No Man’s Sky, as you may know, are procedurally generated by an impressive set of algorithms that essentially randomise a huge number of factors to create individual planets.
The uniqueness of each planet is sadly, incredibly disappointing, mainly because of so many recycled assets. You can scan each planet’s rocks, plants and wildlife, with the vast majority being discovered by you for the first time. Within the space of a few hours on multiple planets, I’d found a lot of identical rocks and plants, that were apparently unique. As you fly over planets, the most repetitive assets are the structures and buildings. No matter what race of alien, they all seem to have used the same contractors to build every facility you come across. The planets may change, but the buildings and rooms you visit on each world are nigh-on identical, which proves incredibly discouraging on your long journey to the centre of the universe. Imagine spending weeks on a motorway, and every service station is identical and you’re not far off.
Perhaps I’m being a bit cruel there. Occasionally, some of the planets are beautiful, especially when you’re treated to some grass and trees instead of desolate rock-riddled landscapes. Some of the wildlife is certainly interesting for a while. With the game producing random results for everyone, you could be seeing incredible things more regularly than I did, but in all honesty, I’ve seen nothing that gets close to some of the amazing scenes shown in some of the trailers or preview footage.
It seems there’s a lot to be said for purposefully designing a specific world, rather than putting it all to chance via complex algorithms. I don’t think math and machines are going to be threatening the talent behind the beautiful worlds of The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 or Skyrim anytime soon.
Getting back to gameplay, after about a dozen hours or so, the grind evens out a little. The extra inventory slots you can buy may become incredibly expensive, but each one is worth it as resource juggling becomes less of a burden. You’ll become better at letting certain objects go, and knowing what you need to carry more of. Thamium 9 for example is plentiful and can fill up numerous essential meters for less than others.
When you know what materials you need for your next upgrade, you’re free to hop around planets, pushing through star systems closer to your end goal of the centre of the universe. Along the way, you’ll meet more friendly aliens or discover artefacts, both of which unlock words in the alien languages, making each exchange that little bit clearer. As far as gameplay mechanics and systems go, it’s one of the most repetitive experiences out there, but you’ll lose hours just plodding along and relaxing and occasionally gawping at a nice looking planet or weird creature.
After the initial struggle, you’ll find there’s little left to challenge you. The sentinels guarding resources are mainly pretty chilled out and a basic boltcaster upgrade is enough to send them packing. Most of the wildlife isn’t fussed about your presence and running out of oxygen/shielding is only really possible by your own carelessness. When you die, you drop all of your biosuit’s items, but you can easily retrieve them by making your way back to where you died, Dark Souls style. This isn’t the outrageous problem I initially took it for though as there’s rarely a challenge getting back and you don’t have to make your way through a gauntlet of enemies like From Software’s games.
That said, underwater caves should be avoided as I got lost and drowned a few times and had to leave my loot down there as I knew it would happen again if I went back. That, and I’ve never found anything decent in any cave yet, they’re a complete waste of time. Space combat against the rare showings of space pirates should be avoided too as the sluggish manoeuvrability and weedy weapons aren’t worth wasting inventory slots on upgrading when you can flee combat or quickly fly back to the scene of your demise without the risk of being attacked again.
There are many rough edges to No Man’s Sky, which are a bit of a surprise considering the delays for polishing up before release. The first few weeks were plagued by crashes, but Hello Games has been hard at work post-release and has fired out a few patches and I’ve not had a crash for a while. Other elements continue to frustrate though, such as waypoints for ruins leading to a blank spot of planet, some items not activating objects when they should and so on.
Crafting options soon dry up as the unlockable equipment blueprints repeat way too soon, letting you know that’s as good as things are going to get for you, despite your journey to the centre of everything only being a third through.
When flying through the sky, the amount of texture pop-in on the surface below is truly awful, sometimes you can get really close before a cliff or a floating cluster of rocks form into something solid. It would be more forgivable if the overall graphics weren’t so bland either. In all seriousness, the visuals look very-last gen. The story elements you do find are incredibly bland and thin, worse than Destiny even. Don’t even get me started on the reward for finishing the Atlas path.
I’m not entirely confident the texture pop-up is fixable with a patch, but No Man’s Sky is clearly a work in progress still and Hello Games has said more is to come. Hopefully this means some expanded gameplay elements as the experience is a little thin on the ground beyond finding slightly different looking planets.
So, I suppose No Man’s Sky has become a victim of its own hype. I don’t feel betrayed at all; I think our own imagination has run away with us a little in terms of what we thought the game was going to be. I just wish more time had been spent on refining the gameplay side of the game, rather than the game’s flagship feature – the math behind the construction of the billions of ‘unique’ planets.
As things stand, the near-infinite number of planets doesn’t hide the fact that you’ll be doing the same mundane activities on each and every one of them. I’ll be keenly keeping an eye on future updates, as I’m hoping No Man’s Sky is going to evolve into something with more incentive for us to stay and explore the universe the incredibly ambitious and talented team at Hello Games has created.