Video game marketing is a curious thing. Selling games based on hype and promises have been more obviously profitable in recent years thanks to the rise of crowdfunding and the focus on the game developer as auteur, but really, games have always been sold on hype. It’s just that the method by which that hype is built is different. Today we’ve got forums and social media developing into pseudo-cults around a particular game; yesterday we had gaming mags filled with breathless hyperbole about how a game was going to change your life.
No Man’s Sky, a space exploration game from Hello Games, emerges from these heady mists of hype where it’s resided for years now…but technical issues and questionable design might make you wish it had spent a few more months as a dream.
If you haven’t heard of it by now, No Man’s Sky casts you as an unnamed space explorer out to…well, explore space. That’s pretty much it, really. There are several branches of “plot” to follow, but these are largely just a means of giving you direction during your wandering. The game’s overarching goal is to proceed to the center of the galaxy, but that might be more of a daunting task than you’d think given the enormous scales at work here.
No Man’s Sky’s key feature is its procedural generation engine which is used to create a galaxy with a bajillion stars and planets to explore. This means that there’s a whole lot of space between you and the galactic core. You can’t just fly there directly, either, since your ship runs on fuel and that’s going to cost you money and resources. There’s a lot of exploration in your future, in other words, so you’d better get to it.
By “exploration” I mostly mean “walking around and mining,” though. This is the kind of game that’s designed to appeal to people who love punching trees in Minecraft. All of your gear runs on various resources and you’ll need to constantly top yourself up to ensure that you don’t run out of juice for any given part at any given time. This isn’t difficult, per se, since everything you need is readily available in huge quantities on pretty much every planet you find, but your limited inventory space and the goofy Destiny-esque item management system can prove to be hindrances.
The real issue is that your chillaxed planetary exploration is often interrupted with LIFE SUPPORT LOW warnings, while your attempts to blast off to go where no man has gone before tend to be stymied by complaints from your empty launch thrusters, pulse drive and hyperdrive. Your mining laser needs juice, your gun needs juice, if you’ve got grenades those need juice, your ship’s shields and weapons need juice, pretty much everything is endlessly begging for more and more and more. Like pretty much every other indie survival game, No Man’s Sky feels like a nagging simulator much of the time. You can get upgrades for your gear that mitigate this to some degree, but early on it’s aggravating.
What’s more, the most essential resources are so plentiful that you’ll never feel pressured by something like dwindling life support; you can just blast one of the billions of huge plutonium crystals that seem to grow on the surface of every single planet in the galaxy and you’re good to go. You aren’t ever in danger of suffocating, you’re just in danger of having to go into the inventory screen (again), find your life support (again) and select the plutonium to stuff into it (again.) This is a cute idea at first and makes you feel like a real self-sufficient space adventurer, but after the first half an hour or so it’s becomes clear that this is aggravation for the sake of being aggravating and it adds nothing to the experience.
Let’s pretend that for a blessed moment that all your gear is fueled up and ready to go. That means it’s time for some exciting space exploration! This consists of moving between star systems, landing on planets and searching them for points of interest. You’ve got a scanner you can use to find interesting spots, so typically you’ll fly your ship over, land nearby and check out whatever it is; you’ll absolutely want to fly your ship over, by the way, since your character’s ground speed is plodding at best, and what running you can do is limited by a stamina mechanic that, naturally, nags you when you run out. Space flight isn’t much faster, and you’ll be spending a lot of time watching a timer count down until you reach a given destination, but at least it’s faster than walking.
You might encounter alien life, in which case you’ll have to respond to the alien’s request – this can be difficult if you aren’t familiar with their language, but correct responses can yield resources, money and upgrades. Naturally there are ruins scattered about that can teach you words in alien languages to improve your odds of success here. You can also find observatories and hackable beacons that lead to other points of interest, crashed ships to repair and commandeer and tons of different varieties of lootable resource cache. Once your inventory is full, you can find trading posts and space stations to offload your goodies and earn cash money that can be spent on supplies and upgrades.
Finding cool stuff is actually a lot of fun, though the degree to which it’ll hold your interest will vary from player to player. All of this content is the result of procedural generation, after all, which means that generally speaking one planet is going to be the same as any other, perhaps with a different color filter slapped on top of it or a little more or less water; “earth-like” planets with surface liquid and rolling hills are common and deviations from the formula are much, much more rare. Many planets are also home to procedurally-generated indigenous life; you’re able to name and catalog the star systems, planets, life and points of interest that you find, where they’ll be available for other players to one day check out, though the immense size of the game means that it’s unlikely you’ll run across anyone else’s discoveries anytime soon.
You also have no reason to ever go back to previous locations, since there’s no way to build bases or anything, so all you’ll have to remind you of your more memorable discoveries are catalog entries, some identikit resources and maybe a screenshot or two. Base-building is promised for the future, but we’ll see. There’s allegedly a very light multiplayer aspect to the game if you’re able to encounter another player, per the developers, but I wouldn’t count on that ever coming up given the scale involved.
Blasting the locals or strip-mining is likely to earn you some GTA-style wanted levels that result in trouble with the Sentinels, a sort of galactic police force. When this happens you can fight back with your mining laser or any of its attached weaponry, all of which has some heavy aim assist; there’s not a lot of tactical diversity here, and combat typically degenerates into mindless blasting until one party or the other runs out of juice and dies. This includes space combat, which plays out in much the same fashion except with a lot more rotating around to find your target. Ground combat isn’t very rewarding and you’re better off fleeing or not getting into trouble in the first place, though space piracy can net some nice loot and is more of a viable option.
One unique thing about No Man’s Sky is that it holds the dubious title of being the first PlayStation 4 game I’ve seen that just straight up hard locks the console since Destiny, another space-focused title that was released in a half-baked state. Despite a huge day one patch, the game appears to be extremely unstable, and you can expect crashes once per hour or so; I hope your PS4’s easy to reach, since you’re going to have to get up and unplug the entire console when this happens! The game saves on a regular basis so it’s unlikely you’ll lose that much progress when it shits the bed yet again…but you are inevitably going to lose progress at some point, so be ready. Checking around various discussion forums for the game, this is apparently a common issue with this game; I admit I breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t my poor overworked PS4 biting the dust. That’s not the only technical issue with the game – there’s horrific graphical pop-in at nearly all times – but it’s the most significant one.
Look, the bottom line is that this game’s got significant flaws. It was clearly released before it was finished, but the issue lies more with the many questionable design decisions that run to the core of the gameplay; no amount of patching will change the fact that No Man’s Sky has problems on a basic level. These include the endless nagging for fuel, the samey environments created by the game’s procedural generation, the plodding pace of basically every form of travel and the awful combat. At the same time, I still found myself staying up late at night exploring the galaxy, even if the galaxy’s just going to be more of the same and it’s going to take me forever to get anywhere. Taking in the sights is a great time, even if the sights all seem to blend together before long.
Finding loot still feels rewarding even after it becomes clear that all you really need money for is more starship fuel. Combat…uh, combat’s never really all that great, but I guess you can’t win ’em all. There’s good stuff here, it’s just buried underneath a thick layer of irritation.
No Man’s Sky is the poster child for what happens when the hype monster is overfed and grows out of control. Four years of incessant PR for this game have resulted in a solid $30 indie exploration game that probably should have found a home on Steam Early Access with many other similar games. That’s not where it is. Instead, it’s positioned as a $60 AAA experience and that’s unfair both to the consumer and to the game itself, though I can’t blame Sony for taking the gutsy move of combining the anti-criticism shield of indie development with a AAA price point.
This is not a $60 game; the crashes alone see to that. In a few months, however – and it almost certainly will take that long – this will be an amazing $30 game, while in a few months after that it’ll likely be an amazing freebie in the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection library. It also serves as a wonderful test case for what happens when the heady mists of hype run headlong into cold, hard reality…and it’s an example that our pals working on Star Citizen might want to keep in mind.