Take My Love, Take My Land: A No Man’s Sky Review

No Man’s Sky, the long awaited procedural generation space sim from Hello Games, is having a rough go. Like so many other high profile games, it became a victim of it’s own hype. What the studio delivered was something far different from what people expected though to be fair, Sean Murray did promise people the moon. It is difficult to look at No Man’s Sky based on previous trailers and numerous print and televised interviews. I feel bad for Hello Games because of the level of vitriolic shade being thrown in their direction from angry gamers. Granted, everyone who feels “lied to” certainly has a reason to be angry: this isn’t close to what the game envisioned back in 2014. And again in 2015. There will be lessons learned and how Hello Games reacts to the crowd will certainly define the game’s future.  That is all I really plan to say about the current state of No Man’s Sky‘s affair. I’d much rather talk about the game’s ambition and technical achievements, overshadowed as they may be. There’s enough anger feeding the beast right now, and that’s a fire I don’t want to add fuel to.

What really needs to be discussed is whether or not the game is worth $60. That will depend on your gaming temperament. Are you the type of gamer that craves fast action, visceral combat, and online teamwork? Or do you prefer strong narratives rich with maturity,  nuance, and character development? Sadly, No Man’s Sky serves neither of these masters. To be blunt, this is a game that’s going to appeal to the Minecraft and Don’t Starve crowd; those who find joy in the calm, quiet solitude of resource management and collection. The main drive in the game is always the Next Best Thing, be it a better ship, more Exosuit inventory space, or a more powerful multi-tool. It’s not much of a stretch to think of No Man’s Sky as Minercaft In Space because it has similar characteristics. The only real difference is the the ability to change scenery by visiting one of the thousands of millions of planets.

No Man’s Sky is not a substitute nor complement to games like Elite: Dangerous or the nebulous Star Citizen. Despite the presence of starships and interplanetary travel, this is not a space simulator. it’s not Wing Commander or X-Wing. There are no ship functions to monitor nor pilots to communicate with. There are aliens posted in space stations and outposts as well as pirates looking to steal your sweet cargo, but for the most part No Man’s Sky is an extraordinarily isolating experience. Those who crave human interaction are best initiating conversations in the PlayStation’s Party chat mode or, like me, listening to podcasts. It’s a big empty universe out there and it’s easy to catch a bit of the space madness.

What, then, is No Man’s Sky? It’s a universe of star systems that are home to numerous individual planets with their own ecosystem. Those planets are often rich with the game’s catalog of core elements needed to craft upgrades, fuel, and energy for the three main systems in the game: flight, survival, and mining. The adventure begins on a starter planet where a light tutorial walks you through the basics of the game’s design. What is cool about this beginning is that you’re  dumped on a totally random planet. My brother began on a lush Earth-like. One of my friends found themselves on a rocky world. I got stuck on a planet with perpetual acid rain. Situations like this is where you’ll find good in No Man’s Sky. With so many planets making up the in-game universe, planets are so wildly different from each other. I’ve been playing the game for a good chunk of hours and I’ve yet to see the same place twice.

Once your derelict ship has been repair, it’s off to another system to repair and fuel the ship’s hyperdrive. Once you gain the ability to warp to different star systems, a choice is offered: follow the “golden path” to the center of the universe (and experience what little story the game has to offer) or explore at your own pace. I chose to spurn the mysterious consciousness Atlas to make whatever mark I could in the universe. Whichever path you choose, visiting star systems will introduce you to the local color: sentient alien species with their own unique languages. Their vocabulary is learned by tracking down knowledge stones on planets and give a clue as to their temperaments, cultural history, and ability to negotiate. It is important to point out that the first 45 minutes or so of the game is what you’ll be doing for the rest of the game.

The majority of the game is spent exploring different planets and there’s a genuine thrill in making a seamless transition from space to planet surface without having any clue as to what the shape or form the surface will take. I only wish space travel where given the same level of attention. The act of flying a spaceship in zero gravity (and on the surface for that matter) has been boiled to it’s most basic function of moving to/from point A to B. It’s like driving the least interesting car in the world. There are different ship models to acquire, either from crash sites or purchasing them from pilots. Without upgrades, there is nothing to discern one ship from another. There’s very little personality with the different spacecraft beyond their design. As someone who has put in hours with Elite: Dangerous, the feeling of not being fully in control of my ship is sad. The arcade-like nature of the game makes flight is approachable to a fault. In space, the ship can freely move across the X, Y, and Z axis. On planet surfaces, some species autopilot prevents you from doing cool stunts like skirting across oceans or weaving through dangerous canyons. The immersion and freedom of flight isn’t there. I want to do barrel rolls. I want to blast holes in the terrain and fly through the holes I create. Side note: why is it that my ship’s lasers can blow up asteroids but not destructible element outcrops on the planet surface?

No Man‘s Sky is mostly void of true, significant danger. There is fall damage, and instances where planets become a huge drain on life support and personal shields that needed to be topped off by specific elements. Fortunately, every planet has all the things you need to stay alive. And if they don’t, tracking down trading outposts will grant access to a galactic market where you can purchase and sell essential materiel. Aggressive fauna can attack but they are nothing your multi-tool’s weapon systems can’t handle. (Here’s a tip that the game doesn’t bother telling you: if you equip a weapon module to the Multi-Tool, hit Triangle to switch away from the gun’s mining laser.) Sentinels, robotic drones that patrol the planet, will attack if you do enough environmental damage in their vicinity or try to break into locked facilities. Creatures and Sentinels are easily waylaid and/or killed. When death comes, it’s either intentional or accidental. You have to make your own danger in No Man’s Sky to make things exciting. I did so by accident on a planet that had all the important resources except Zinc, which is used to power the ship’s pulse engines which allows of in-system boosting. More on that in a bit.

Despite the randomness of the planets you’ll visit, there are threads of familiarity that permeate even the most alien worlds. Resources are universal, meaning elements like Gold, Zinc, Plutonium, and Copper, all come from the same objects. The big red crystals will always yield Plutonium, yellow flowers Zinc, and big white broccoli-looking things Carbon. I was disappointed by this initially and then I realized it’s wise to make the materials be easily recognizable as you jump from place to place. There are cases where certain elements do not thrive on planets with adverse conditions. I found this the hard way when I visited a particularly hellish hunk of rock devoid of plant life. I found a crashed ship, a decent upgrade from my starter ship, that was unable to fly because important flight components – hyperdrive, launch thrusters, and pulse engines – needed to be repaired. While the planet had enough materials to repair the hyperdrive and thrusters, there was no Zinc to repair the pulse engine.

The absence of this now valuable resources led to a four hour recreation of The Martian as I searched the planet on foot looking for an outpost with a galactic trade console. Literally four hours of walking, sprinting, scanning, walking, sprinting, scanning. For reasons I cannot fathom, my ship was incapable of surface flight even though the launch thrusters, the engines that initiate vertical flight, repaired and fueled. The pulse engine is designed exclusively for in-system travel, so it makes absolutely no sense why I couldn’t fly without it. The real kick in the balls was when I reached an abandoned manufacturing facility that had a “Call Ship” beacon. I thought, “Nah, this probably wouldn’t work.” Sure enough, activating the beacon summoned the ship to my location. What gives? Frustration aside, I won’t lie that I felt a thrill as I tromped along the dry, dusty planet, hoping that the waypoint on the other side of the hill would lead me to my salvation like an oasis in the Sahara. I stress though, that this experienc was entirely my own making. This sort of thing isn’t scripted or triggered or hard wired in the game’s code. When it comes to No Man’s Sky, you’re going to have to create your own fun.

It’s not a simulator. It’s not an action adventure. What the hell is No Man’s Sky. From what I’ve experienced, I feel comfortable calling it a sight seeing game. Again, this is what the game does best. Let’s appreciate that a crew of fifteen – FIFTEEN! – people developed a game code that generate hundreds of millions of unique looking planets is a technological achievement. So many variables come together to create unique looking planets whose terrain unfolds before your very eyes through seamless space to planet surface transitions. That’s a damn fine feat that’s only been done in modern space games like Evochron Mercenary and Elite: Dangerous. Speaking technically, No Man’s Sky is amazing.

With as beautiful as the sights can be, Hello Games needs to answer for a glaring omission.

Why, in God’s name, is there no photo mode?

For a game that is all about exploring, seeing the unknown, marveling and lush fields of alien grass, and making contact with alien life, why is there no way to turn off the UI to snap good screenshots. There are so many opportunities to get lost in the game’s beauty – you could easily fill a coffee table book full of them – only to have it squandered by the radar tracker and location markers. UGH!

No Man’s Sky has a long way to go. Personally speaking, I’m pretty OK with the game and I’m keen to see where it will be in three or four months. There are talks of adding new features through free expansions, so who knows what it will look like then? There’s a rock solid foundation in its current form, and the relaxing nature of exploration makes this a fantastic game to play in between bouts of Overwatch rage quits. Is it worth paying $60 for it? For most people, absolutely not. Through Sony’s marketing and Hello Games’ nebulous presentations and evolving media, No Man’s Sky was made bigger than it meant to be. The reality is not even close to the monumental expectations Sony’s hype machine created. There isn’t enough to satiate the action crowd and the flight sim market will be frustrated by the hamstrung simplicity of space travel. On the other hand, gamers who clocked hours, days, and weeks with games like Minecraft and Skyrim might find themselves sucked in faster than Matthew McConaughey through a black hole.

Did I miss the boat for Interstellar jokes?

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