What is No Man’s Sky?
Since it was announced in 2013 people have struggled to understand exactly what this game was. Cartoony graphics, weird aliens, procedural generation, 18 quintillion planets, space ships, guns and a strange red-eyed diamond were all that we got. Now we’ve had the chance, at last, to play the game, we should be able to tell you, definitively, what No Man’s Sky is. But things are never quite that simple.
Before we really get into the review, I need to get something out of the way. No Man’s Sky has issues. Lots of them. Not least of which is the massive amount of hype leading up to the game’s launch and the vast outpouring of public opinion from all corners that clouded its release. Needless to say, a lot of people were pretty disappointed when the game failed to live up to their lofty expectations (not that anyone at Hello Games or Sony ever gave any clear indication of what sort of expectations people should have – possibly a huge mistake on their part) but a lot of people are enjoying it, too. One thing we can say for certain is that No Man’s Sky is absolutely not for everyone. I’m going to try, as much as I can, to give a fair and unbiased review of the game with the goal of helping you decide if it’s the kind of game that you want to spend your hard earned cash on. But, be warned, reviews are always subjective – however much we try to make them otherwise – and this one is absolutely no exception.
No Man’s Sky, then, is a game about exploration. When you start, you’ll find yourself on a random planet with a crashed ship, a basic space suit, a multi-tool (combination mining laser, gun, grenade launcher and space-hoover) and strange red orb. The orb gives you a choice to set you on your way: follow the enigmatic path of the Atlas or go it alone. That choice is your first introduction to the story of No Man’s Sky and will set you on your path to the galactic core or give you just enough help to make it into the vast reaches of uncharted space on your own.
Survival is the core of No Man’s Sky. You’ll need to be constantly looking out for elements that you need to power your basic systems – all of which deplete over time and with use – and additional materials that you can sell for a profit at certain outposts or stations. Every multi-tool has a mining laser as its most basic attachment (the only one that you can’t dismantle) and it’s this that you’ll use most when hunting for survival or crafting materials. You can also find materials or trade goods hidden inside various boxes that litter the majority of planets, most often at outposts or abandoned buildings. It’s very Minecraft, in that you use certain materials to craft certain items but, in No Man’s Sky, you don’t need to worry about forming patterns in order to make something: you just have to have a free slot to store it in. You also have to learn the patterns to craft before you can make them. Or you could just buy them from the nearest Galactic Trade Terminal.
Your ship, suit and multi-tool all have a number of slots into which you can cram vital systems, upgrades and (in the case of the ship and the suit) cargo. If your suit or ship fills up, you can always transfer items between them, providing you’ve a slot spare. As you progress, you can unlock more slots in your suit and buy or discover new multi-tools and ships with a higher number of slots available, affording you greater flexibility and the ability to carry more cargo. No Man’s Sky relies heavily on inventory management; requiring you to carefully balance what you’re carrying where to ensure that you’ve got enough of element A to power your ship, element B to repair your suit or multi-tool and element C to trade for cash.
For the first few hours, you’ll probably be exploring your first planet, gathering resources to repair and refuel your crashed ship. In that time, you’ll come across plant and animal life that no one has ever seen before (players always start on their own, individual planet – and there are more than enough to go around). You can use your scanner to examine rocks, plants and whatever bizarre creatures abound on your world and you can upload these for a small cash reward to the Atlas database. You can also change the default, scientific, name of all of these to something of your own choosing – but do mind the profanity filter.
Exploring can be a bit hit-and-miss. The mining laser starts out incredibly weedy and underpowered so it’ll take you a while to whittle down the plants and rocks into gatherable chunks (all of which are sucked, helpfully, into the multi-tool’s hoover attachment). Sometimes you’ll find that you’re on a planet with very few key resources: plutonium is necessary to power your launch thrusters, carbon, thamium9 or some other isotope is required to refuel your life-support systems and you’ll need zinc or titanium to repair your suit and, if you can’t find any of those, you’re pretty much done for.
Alongside flora, fauna and mineral deposits, planets can also be home to settlements, bases or ancient ruins. The ancient ruins serve, more than anything else, to flesh out the back-story of No Man’s Sky – particularly where it pertains to the Atlas and the mysterious race known as the Travellers. Each ruin will have at least one knowledge stone from which you can learn an alien word and most ruins have additional information to impart to the player, usually more words or important locations that will help you when you interact with one of the alien races that are scattered throughout the galaxy.
The settlements come in several varieties but all have one or more items to discover, words to learn or loot to nab hidden within them. There are abandoned houses, sometimes turned over or in disarray, sometimes strangely pristine as though the owner had simply left one day and never returned. There are larger single buildings, too, and even some small villages made up of a couple of houses and a survey station or manufacturing plant – some with landing pads attached. There are even some huge trade stations with numerous pads and plenty of opportunities to interact with other species.
If you approach another ship, you can chat with the owner and trade items or make an offer on their ship. If you’ve got enough units to buy it, you can transfer your cargo and bag yourself a better ship but, be warned, those aliens don’t go in for haggling. Each time you meet an alien in person though, you’ll get a chance to interact with them and either earn some materials, an upgrade or a new word as a result of it. These interactions are all multiple choice and, regardless of how many words you know, the game will generally give you clues as to the right answer. However, whichever answer you choose, the interaction will only happen once and never again so you can’t go back and try again later. While these interactions do serve to enlighten you about the aliens, their race and their customs to a certain degree, they are ultimately quite meaningless; they don’t advance the story in any way and, due to No Man’s Sky’s incredibly relaxed attitude to pacing, they quickly become a little tedious – even more so if you get the answer wrong.
One of No Man’s Sky’s biggest problems is that, anytime you interact with anything, you have to hold down a button for a number of seconds – whether that be gathering fruit from a plant, initiating a conversation or picking up some loot – an action which really slows the game down and really affects its pacing, especially if you’re in a hurry to do anything. Similarly, any time you hit a milestone (one of No Man’s Sky’s in-built achievements: anything from walking a certain distance to interacting with so many aliens to shooting down X amount of Sentinels), interact with something or meet an alien, the game dispenses with the HUD, slowly condenses into letterbox mode and gives you a lovely message that lasts for several seconds and severely impedes your progress in doing anything (other than walking around, you cannot interact with the game while this is going on). I’ve been in situations before now when I’ve interacted with a ruin and been scanned by a hostile Sentinel and, while engaged in reading the scant flavour text, nearly died because I couldn’t do anything about it shooting me.
Alongside hostile wildlife (of which there is plenty – including plants that delight in punching you if you get too close), the Sentinels will be your primary antagonists in No Man’s Sky. They’re another mystery – present on every planet, they restlessly patrol their territories on the lookout for anyone messing with the lifeforms or rock formations there and, if they find someone pitilessly blasting their way through a lovely gold monolith or hump of desirable emeril, will immediately try to take them out while calling for reinforcements. But that won’t ever really be a problem. Sentinels are quite easy to outrun – even easier if you’ve not strayed too far from your ship – and, provided that you’ve got a combat upgrade for your mining laser or a bolt-caster attachment for your multi-tool, you’ll be able to dispatch them pretty handily, largely due to No Man’s Sky’s treacle-like sticky targeting. However, even if you take sticky targeting out of the equation, No Man’s Sky’s combat is still rather messy and would, probably, be nigh on impossible.
Targeting with the multi-tool is twitchy and awkward to say the least. Even if you’re just trying to blast away at chunks of unmoving rock, you’ll still find yourself constantly correcting and dealing with recoil but, with the added onus of being shot at by a moving target, keeping them in your sights while you’re trying to avoid being shot is like trying to fire a bow and arrow while someone pushes you around on ice-skates… not to mention the added joy of potentially falling into a chasm while you’re doing it. The scatter on your standard bolt-caster, too, is incredibly high so the vast majority of your shots will go wide, adding insult to annoyance and injury.
Land-based isn’t the only type of combat in No Man’s Sky though, but it’s also not the worst. Once you’ve managed to repair your ship, you’ll take off into the stars (providing that you don’t want to spend another five to ten hours cataloguing every species and discovering every waypoint on your starting planet) and continue your journey of system-spanning discoveries amongst the cosmos. On your way, you’ll encounter other ships – some of which will be hostile. Unfortunately, while the space combat is, perhaps, a little easier than its ground-side counterpart, it’s incredibly lacklustre and lacks a lot of the complexity that makes space-combat fun and engaging. Unlike games like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, No Man’s Sky’s control systems are incredibly basic.
That’s true for every situation that you’re in. It’s also true for the vast majority of the game’s mechanics: most of the time you need to press a single button to do what you want to do and the most complex menus you’ll navigate are the ones to figure out what the controls are. Unfortunately, that simplicity means that you don’t get to use a lot of the tricks that can give you the edge in combat: there’s no newtonian strafing or flipping your ship and letting inertia carry you on while you pour fire down your pursuer’s throat. Instead, dog-fights become long-range engagements where you pile plasma fire into your enemy until they pass you, hoping that their shield will drop before yours does. The fact that you can recharge your shields in tense moments of rapid inventory management just means that the fights are often prolonged past the point of enjoyment and they begin to get teeth-grindingly frustrating after just a few minutes. And if you’re up against more than two enemies at a time, better to just run away.
One of the good things about combat, though, is the music. UK experimental rock band 65daysofstatic have crafted a great soundtrack for No Man’s Sky and it absolutely helps to flesh out the often shallow universe and help the game reach an emotional and impactful level that it would, otherwise, not be able to. The majority of the time, the soundtrack meanders thoughtfully and, sometimes, eerily, as you explore, delighting in atmospheric loops punctuated with moments that help to lift the monotony of mining with otherworldly sounds amidst bursts of percussion and massive levels of reverb. The music really comes into its own, though, at times of high drama. Approaching a station, entering combat or discovering some of the more important, story locations are all cues for the soundtrack to step out of its procedural ponderousness and into the full-bodied brilliance of 65daysofstatic’s more heavily composed pieces, making the moments really stand out and the hairs bounce up on the back of your neck. Procedurally generated music, it seems, works incredibly well and it’s one of No Man’s Sky’s high points.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of its sound effects. While, for the most part, they sort of fit with the slightly out-there, sci-fi aesthetic, there have been many occasions on my playthrough where I’ve experienced great walls of sound, as though every effect were playing at once for no particular reason. On other occasions, animalistic sounds have played when there are no animals around, machine noises sounded where there are no machines and strange blats, bleeps and bloops abound just about anywhere with no discernible source. It’s almost as though No Man’s Sky is trying to fill the empty spaces of the game with noise; like the sounds themselves are embarrassed about there being rather little to do.
One of the things that is sure to polarise players (and, predictably, reviewers) of No Man’s Sky are its graphics. While to some, No Man’s Sky’s visual approach to the procedurally generated universe may be a little too close to “baby’s first space-sim”, the stylised graphical elements actually allow the game to do things that no others can. In a sim like Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen, certain structures and ships within the game would have to be vastly different to account for “real” science but here, the visually pleasing design really does conjure up memories of sci-fi book covers past without having to bow to real physics or design concepts. Not only that but they really are incredibly beautiful and wonderfully well-realised. The real wonder of No Man’s Sky’s visuals, however, is in the fact that all transitions, with the exception of hyperspace (which is, basically, just a big loading screen) are seamless – there are no loading times between planet, space, station, space and the next planet. You can hop from one to the other just as much as you’d like without being interrupted – it’s an incredible experience each and every time.
But, as with anything good that I’ve said about No Man’s Sky so far, there is a caveat. The draw distance is minimal: everything pops in but, as opposed to just appearing, the landscape repaints itself with a grainy dither effect now and then, a visual problem that is greatly compounded when you’re flying over a planet and the surface is literally redrawing itself closer to you, making mountains move and shifting the position of structures as you cross over them. It’s not only planets that pop in, though: possibly more annoyingly and, certainly, way more hazardous are the asteroids that abound in orbit around planets. It’s no joke to be travelling several hundred miles per hour and have an asteroid suddenly appear in front of you out of nowhere, sometimes too quickly for you to get a shot off and take it out. Fortunately, you can repair your ship’s systems on the fly, too.
I know I mentioned physics being able to take a back seat due to the stylised nature of the game earlier but I really can’t get over the fact that gravity seems to have about as much sway in No Man’s Sky as a lone democrat at a republican rally. It’s entirely possible and, indeed, probable for a player to separate the top of a monolith of any particular element from its base to leave it hanging, suspended, in mid-air, thumbing its nose at Newton, Einstein and Galileo.
But No Man’s Sky isn’t a physics simulator. It’s not even really a space game at all – it just happens to be set in a sci-fi universe with ships, aliens and existential questions. After even a short while playing, it’s abundantly clear that at the centre of Hello Games’ galactic heart are the key mechanics of exploration and discovery. And, of all the elements that this game has had packed into it, those are easily the most fun and rewarding.
There’s nothing quite like dropping onto a new planet for the first time, feeling the pad vibrate in your hands as your ship struggles against the atmosphere, watching as colours bleed into the landscape and seeing the formless ball take on topographical features of all shapes and sizes. That initial rush of being the first person, ever, to see something, to set down upon one of billions of worlds in an unfathomably large galaxy, to just sit back in your chair for a moment and savour the barest hint of the feeling that those intrepid explorers to new lands in our own, human history must have felt.
Once you’ve chosen your preferred landing site, it’s time to set down and see exactly what this planet has in store for you. There might be grasslands, desert, vast oceans or barren wastelands. The atmosphere itself can range from utterly deadly to human perfect and the weather from clear and sunny to bitter acid storms. Whipping out your multi-tool, you scan everything, you give them individual names (seriousness optional) and you upload their records to the Atlas for posterity. You find the resources you need to survive and the ones you want to trade. You might stumble upon an abandoned beacon that needs to be awakened with a Bypass Chip to learn the location of a downed ship (you’ll need to repair these if you want to replace your current one, so be warned!) or an alien lifeform that will tell you about an ancient ruin where you can practice your xenolinguistics. It’s easy to spend tens of hours on a single planet alone, just discovering everything you can, making money trading to buy a new ship or simply exploring for the fun of it.
The rate of discovery in No Man’s Sky is one of its high points – you never need to look for long before you find something interesting and, generally, you’ll always find something else close by. Exploration is incredibly rewarding in so many ways but, possibly, the most rewarding is just the pure excitement of boldly going where no one has gone before.
Exploration for its own sake might seem pretty dull to some players but No Man’s Sky has a couple of story paths that you can follow in order to ensure that you’re never just mooching around the galaxy with nothing much to do. They’re not assertive, compulsory storylines by any means: at any time you’ve got the total freedom to go where you please and do what you want but, if what you want is just a little direction, it’s available to you. The Atlas story is probably where most players will start and it involves trying to unpick the greatest mystery No Man’s Sky has to offer – nothing more, or less, than the ‘why’ of the galaxy (and, perhaps, the game) itself. But the story is delivered in such a minimalist, unintrusive way that it almost feels as though you’re discovering that, too. No Man’s Sky doesn’t beat you around the head with lore. It doesn’t have the veritable library of fluff that seems prevalent in most RPGs nowadays. It lets you discover its secrets for yourself and the result is that it’s a far more rewarding game for it.
No Man’s Sky has problems. It’s inevitable, in a game this size and this ambitious, that not everything goes exactly according to plan. With such a wide scope, it’s difficult to make all of the elements equally as engaging or well developed. But this is just the start of the No Man’s Sky journey. Sean Murray, the game’s director and possibly the most vocal and recorded game developer since Peter Molyneux, has stated that there’s much more to come with No Man’s Sky in the form of (purportedly) free updates – base-building and freighter owning being high on the agenda.
For all of the issues that No Man’s Sky has, though, it isn’t anything less than brilliant. Not just because of its technical prowess, not just because it really does feel like stepping through the cover of an old sci-fi novel (probably an Azimov tale with the philosophy of Heinlein, the golden heart of Clarke and artwork that’s all Chris Foss), not just because you can feed animals to make them poop out iridium, but because it speaks to my inner anthropologist, to the cartographer, botanist and naturalist within me: it’s a game that reaches down to the existentially exploratory nature of my human soul.
Speaking as a fan of a more relaxed paced games, as an owner and backer of both Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen and as a wannabe Minecraft survival-mode architect, I find it incredibly easy to look past No Man’s Sky’s admittedly rough exterior and see the brightly shining diamond beneath and I think I’m going to playing it for a long time. But I won’t hate on you if you don’t – it’s your $60, and I won’t tell you how to spend it.