Boarding your spaceship for the first time, you thrust off the ground and see the horizon stretch out before you.
Tilting the craft’s nose towards the heavens, you begin to climb away from the eerie flora and fauna of the unique alien planet you’ve been stranded on. Parting through the clouds you see the stars for the first time – distant and infinitesimal. You roll your ship to reveal the haloed curvature of the ominous planet you were on seconds before. This is your first proper experience of the power of No Man’s Sky – and one that you’ll spend the rest of your time with the game desperately trying to recreate.
No Man’s Sky is the spiritual successor to just about every sci-fi movie ever made, and has been pieced together lovingly by indie developers Hello Games. Anybody who followed the development of the game will be well aware of the sheer scope of the thing. 18 quintillion planets that would take 584 million years to be discovered at the rate of one planet a second. That’s pretty big then, but the difficulty lies in what exactly there is to do on these planets.
It’s easy to see why No Man’s Sky has been likened to games like Minecraft and Day Z, as foraging for resources and supplies are the main order of the day. Using your trusty multitool and environment scanner, you must set about collecting, crafting and upgrading your gear in order to self-fund your travels to the centre of the galaxy.
While there is a story at the beating heart of No Man’s Sky – it’s really only used to prod you in the right direction should your explorative ways take you too far into the depths of outer space. Because of this, it’s completely up to you how you spend your time in the game. If you want to live on the fringes of space, upgrading your ship and attacking merchants and cargo vessels for their space booty, have at it. If your calling is to be an adventurer; finding new species, planets and star systems for personal glory, then that’s all good. You do you.
When you’re not out exploring, interactions with the various sentient alien lifeforms in the game play out like an old-school text adventure – where you have a block of text describing a scenario and a few options detailing what you’d like to do. Most times, you won’t have a clue what the alien is saying, but you can learn their language from monoliths and ruins hidden away on planets, or by asking the aliens themselves once you’ve become better acquainted. It’s a neat little system that breaks up your continuous search for valuable resources, and makes you feel like you’re not entirely alone out there.
As fun as this all sounds, the game is not without its pitfalls. Presently, there’s only so much you can do in the universe, and farming for materials to keep your life support juiced and your hyperdrive spinning can become monotonous very quickly – this is made more frustrating by your lack of carry space at the start being largely outweighed by the speed you can gobble up resources. The heady thrill of discovery can also become depleted when you realise that many of the creatures, rocks and plantlife will simply be slight variations of what you’ve already seen, patched together differently and with a new lick of paint.
Combat, too, is a bizarre mix of dull and difficult. You’ll only ever find yourself shooting at various aggressive animals or security drones on a planet’s surface. Neither are particularly challenging to defeat, but you’ll find your multipurpose weapon to be the real threat. Being able to switch between two firing types sounds great in practice, but they both use the same type of ammo – this means when one runs dry, they both do. If you want to re-stock them, you have to do it through a menu screen that doesn’t stop the action while you’re tinkering, leaving you completely exposed to a good licking.
On that subject, the menu screens are needlessly difficult to navigate, with the PS4 version of the game switching to a PC style cursor to peruse them. It’s a small detail, but when a lot of your time is spent shifting items around in your inventory it can get annoying.
Despite these grumbles No Man’s Sky is certainly still an impressive feat in videogame design, and it does have its moments of jaw-dropping awesomeness. The thought of blasting out of a space station to reveal a planet looming in front of you should never be met with a shrug by sci-fi fans after all. What the team at Hello Games have accomplished here is phenomenal; it just feels in some ways, the game has become a victim of its own hype. Many people expected an infinite universe full of infinite possibilities, bustling with life and things to do, but that’s just not what it is, and it’s not what Hello Games ever said it was. At its core, No Man’s Sky is a sci-fi, survival sim set in a procedurally generated sandbox. Suffice to say then, that the game we have at release is very much that.
Sean Murray – the game’s lead programmer and founder of Hello Games – has stated that there will be free, rolling updates coming for as long as there’s a community who want them. This kind of fan service speaks volumes about the passion behind the project, and with talk of base building, freighters and more coming in the future, there’s no telling where the game will end up, or how close we’ll get to what people originally imagined.
With a game operating on the sheer scale of No Man’s Sky, it’s nigh on impossible to say whether its issues with repetitiveness will get the better of it, or whether Hello Games can keep it fresh enough to hold the interest of players with their promised updates. Right now, I’m still interested in putting more hours into the game, but I’m hoping for just a little more to keep me there in the near future.