There’s been times over the last three years where I started to doubt whether we’d see No Man’s Sky at all. Between outright refusal to give a release date, then followed by delays, rumours of awful performance, finally with a minor internet fuss caused by a day zero patch, there’s every chance that Hello Games’ gargantuan space adventure could have collapsed under the weight of its’ own ambition and turned into The Last Guardian mk2. Sean Murray’s ever-growing beard started to give the impression of a man slowly being driven to insanity by his supposed masterpiece.
I’ve been interested in No Man’s Sky since the moment we first saw footage at VGX 2013, then Sean’s shy presentation at E3 2014 the following year. It tapped into the fascination I’ve held about space since I was a young boy, and each glimpse we saw left me grinning with a child-like sense of wonder about the discoveries I might see when I finally got my hands on No Man’s Sky. I must admit, my first few hours of playtime were brimming with fear; had I built this up too much in my own mind?
Thankfully, it does. It’s everything I hoped it would be. Conversely, it’s also pretty frustrating.
Straight away you’re thrown in at the deep end. Spawned upon a procedurally generated and unique planet, you’ll see your crashed ship in front of you and some materials scattered amongst the debris. You first task is the make the craft a viable mode of transport again, so it’s time to gather resources and craft the required items.
Resource gathering is a simple process, boiling down to just pointing your multitool at the object you wish to gather from and holding down the trigger, and the farmed material automatically entering your inventory. In the early stages inventory space is at a premium, even with the ability to make use of both the storage built into your exosuit and the spaceship. Both are expandable as the game progresses, although I seem to always be wishing I had an extra slot to put things in.
The materials available vary from planet to planet. It’s entirely possible to chance upon a lush paradise where your basic materials needs, isotopes and oxides, are in bountiful supply, and a healthy supply of rare and exotic materials that you can trade in various locations dotted throughout the galaxy. Conversely, it’s also possible to land upon a dead planet, devoid of any flora or fauna. In my experience though, No Man’s Sky thankfully never leaves you stranded on one of these barren landscapes, it always seems to be possible to pick up the basic material needed to engage your launch thrusters, Plutonium, and lift off back into outer space.
Much like resource gathering, crafting is an easy process. A press of the touchpad brings up your inventory and the option to craft new items in open slots, and you’re told exactly what’s needed to craft each object. At the early stages your craftable objects are limited, however this will soon increase as the game hands you certain blueprints necessary for progress, whilst others are available from a variety of different methods.
Despite exploration being the main focus of No Man’s Sky, there’s also a strong survival element coursing through it. Your exo-suit has both life support and hazard protection, both of which you need to pay attention to. Whilst my starting planets were remarkably welcoming environments, others have been deathtraps. For example, I’ve seen hazardous environments at both ends of the spectrum; ice planets where extreme the cold can swiftly kill you, and scorching hot hellholes. To add to the lethality, some planets also have dynamic events where, for example, an ice storm can completely reduce your hazard resistance within a minute. At these moments it’s generally advisable to take cover in a shelter or your ship and wait it out, although players further through the game will have found mods for their equipment to help them survive these inhospitable environments. The game is quite generous in terms of explaining when you’re in a place that’s not entirely safe, with bars in the corner showing the status of your life support, level of temperature protection, and oxygen levels, and also a pop up in your HUD when the reduction hits certain milestones. Recharging each of these is a very simple process, just a case of popping into the inventory, selecting the item you wish to charge, and choosing the required materials, and usefully all of which are basic materials which you’ll normally be able to find without issue.
Each planet has a multitude of points of interest. Some are Alien relics, which can grant you a boost in standing with the respective race and a few extra words in their language or, more rarely, you’re given a choice to make and picking the correct option grants you an item to aid you along your quest, such as an upgraded multi-tool. Similarly, the majority of point of interest are geared towards giving you options to upgrade your exosuit, ship, or multitool. Drop pods allow you to purchase extra storage slots in your exosuit, while shelters and other such structures often have blueprints available from either NPCs or wall terminals. NPCs generally require you make a multiple choice selection before giving up their wares, a process that can be potluck in the early days when you know little of the local language, but do become easier in time.
Upgrades to your ship can be done in two ways, either by stumbling upon a crashed ship somewhere on a planet or by purchasing one. The former, whilst free, comes with significant issues in that a crashed ship generally has functionality that needs repairing, and the success of this process can vary from planet to planet. For example, on my first planet, a luscious, resource-plenty paradise, the two ships I found were easily repaired. The third I found, which was on a planet I named “UTTER DOOM”, a barren hellhole complete with heat storms that melted your shield in no time, was somewhat different. What followed was two nights of ducking and diving out of the ship and caves, trying to not fry upon this scorched earth, collecting the multitude of materials needed to repair the stricken vessel.
That leads me onto to an important point regarding how people perceive their time in game. To some, spending two nights fixing up a ship would be beyond frustrating, and likely tedious. To me, this was part of my adventure, one element of my tale of journeying through the galaxy. Did it get frustrating? Of course, I want to go from planet to planet, system to system, but this gave me a difficult challenge that I overcame, and importantly feel massively satisfied now it’s been completed.
The most serious issue that hangs over No Man’s Sky is that of longevity. With a core gameplay loop that essentially revolves around flying to planet, mining, crafting, then flying to another planet to repeat the process, how long can that be sustainable? Again, this will come down to the individual. Personally, I had absolutely no issue with that loop and I’m finding the relaxed nature to be a nice counterpoint to my general go-to style of game, which generally involves guns and explosions. I’m enjoying pottering around in this sandbox, and relieved that I’m not feeling hurried towards an end goal. I know it’s out there, but if I’ve had a tough day and just want to investigate the planet I’m on then I’m absolutely free to do that. Similarly, if I want to make a big push forwards then I can do that too. That’s not to say though that I’ve not had moments of reflected on the hours I’ve spent playing on a particular night and thought to myself “What have I actually done?”
That said, it can feel cripplingly big. As someone who feels overwhelmed at the amount of collectables on an Assassin’s Creed map, I’m often struck with a strange sort of panic when I’m in full exploration mode on No Man’s Sky. How on earth am I supposed to ‘complete’ this planet? It’s wise to get out of that mindset of aiming for completion, and instead to focus on progress. Above all else, it’s about the journey.
Much has been said about No Man’s Sky’s looks, and personally I think it’s stunning. Yes, textures aren’t crystal clear. Yes, there’s a pop in. None the less, it’s makes my jaw drop on a regular basis. Descending from space, re-entering the atmosphere and swooping in over your new discovery. Watching the planet come closer into view, seeing trees, rivers, mountains and oceans in the distance. Dropping furthermore, inspecting it in more detail, seeing buildings take shape. Finally landing, exiting your craft, seeing the creatures and plant life up close for the first time. This is a joy that’s not left me in tens of hours of gameplay. It’s extremely stylised, much like the 80′s sci-fi that Sean Murray profresses to have based to game on, and it’s a welcome counterpoint to the realism that titles like Elite Dangerous strive for,
Much like the graphics, sound design is also superb. The soundtrack by 65daysofstatic is superb, and planets have very pleasing ambient score too. This music ramps up in times of distress, such as when Sentinels have turned on you or when being attacked by pirates in space.
One serious negative that needs addressing is No Man’s Sky’s number of crashes. My first three days were pleasantly bug free but the fourth was fairly disastrous, with repeated crashes constantly interrupting progress and leaving me unable to access terminals or even leave the planet. From that point it’s gradually got worse, with some sessions consistently broken up by repeated cashing issues. It’s reached a point where I had to stop playing one night because the game was crashing nearly every 5 minutes. Far from it being an isolated experience, it seems many people are having similar issues although, bizarrely, others are reporting no such issues. One would hope that Hello Games make a significant push at addressing stability in an upcoming update.
(Writer’s note – This review was worked on over a course of a week with the 1.03 update. On the night of submitting the review Hello Games released the 1.04 patch which seems to make significant improvements to No Man’S Sky stability. Whilst more long term testing is needed, early impressions are positive)
There’s other fairly fundamental issues, some of which could well be perceived to be gamebreaking. One that I ran into is a problem with the galactic map, the system used to plot your course between systems. It’s possible to set waypoints but impossible to remove them unless you reach the marked point. That can be a problem if, like me, you started darting off all over the place in full-bore exploration mode. With a maximum of 3 user defined waypoints, it’s entirely possible to end up lightyears (literally) away from these waypoints, with no idea of how to reach them. Even more problematically, if you have filled your 3 waypoints you can no longer set them for Atlas Stations and Space Anomalies, which are absolutely crucial to progress. After 4 hours of doing nothing but warping from system to system I managed to locate two of my three and clear them off, allowing me to progress with the story, but to date I still have one user defined point that exists somewhere out there in space and I have absolutely no idea of how to get to it.
While I’ve been writing this review it’s been hard to miss the amount of social network chat surrounding the game, and it’s clear that it’s a real Marmite title. There’s clear division lines, between people who’ve fallen wholeheartedly for it and those disappointed, angry even, at the title. There’s also the inevitable hot takes from folk who’ve not played a single second of it, desperately shouting their Very Important Opinions™ into the bottomless void of Twitter. No Man’s Sky is a niche game, but I’m pleased to say I fall into that niche. It’s tapping into my fascination about space. I adore the relaxed nature of the gameplay, the absence of being forced to do x or y, and instead having free reign to take my time on my latest planetary discovery. I spend hours on each one, scanning everything I can, taking delight in cataloguing the fauna, visiting as many structures as possible. I’m countless hours in now and I still get a surge of excitement when I see something I can investigate. I’m still taken in by the vistas and creatures that the game generates. I still think it’s ridiculously gorgeous. Finally, and crucially, I still think it’s fun.
I feel like we’re at the start of what could be a very interesting journey with No Man’s Sky. Hello Games have stated that content updates will be free, and they’re working on things that will potentially change how people play the game. Large scale freighters will be available to players, plus base-building is in the pipeline too. The team have a plan on how they want to expand the game, and I’m excited to see how it progresses and grows. I suspect that No Man’s Sky a year from release is going to be a significantly different beast than it is today. However, I’d hope that we see some significant additions sooner rather than later.
It’s by no means perfect, but No Man’s Sky is a beautiful, wonderful, incredible thing. It’s also hollow, frustrating, and in some ways broken. If you’re the patient type with a strong imagination I suspect you’ll find much enjoyment.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 7.5/10 Format: PlayStation 4 Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Matt Jones purchased a copy of No Man’s Sky for his own personal use and wrote the above review off the back fo that purchase. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.