No Man's Sky

Archive – No Man’s Sky: Review

Note: I wrote this review in 2016 after the game launched. The game has received updates and changes since then, so this review is no longer accurate. It exists only as an example of my writing.

With its innumerable star systems, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky appears to provide endless adventure for those willing to pilot a ship across its colossal star map. It is an optimistic, daunting premise for a game, but does reality line up with these ambitions?

Beautiful, exciting, repetitious, and lonely.

Space is wild. This concept of something so vast and seemingly infinite is equally humbling and exciting. If you are anything like me then you’ve had daydreams about exploring that vast sea of stars.

Hello Games seeks to impart a similar feeling of awe in players with No Man’s Sky. The game boasts a mind-blowing eighteen quintillion planets for you to visit. The sheer scope of its universe means its impossible to see all of it in one lifetime. No Man’s Sky appears to promise endless adventure across its colossal star map, but how well does it deliver?

You begin No Man’s Sky on an alien planet without context. Instead of answers, you’re prompted to repair your starship and multi-tool, a device that doubles as a weapon and a mining laser. Once your life support systems and shields are powered up you’re given data on the planet’s ecology and then, finally, control of your astronaut. Much of what you do beyond that initial tutorial is up to you, for better and for worse.

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In No Man’s Sky you can go almost anywhere.

No answers, many questions.

No Man’s Sky expects you to infer or make up your own reasons for advancing through the universe. Where are you going exactly? Who knows. Looking at the star map there is a very specific path you can follow: an orange line that points to the center of the universe. What will you find when you get there? Like the game’s opening moments, there are more questions than answers.

There is nothing in-game that explains your motivation behind heading to the center of the universe. In fact, if not for pre-release info (and a glance at the back of the game’s box) I wouldn’t know that was the main goal of the game. As far as I know, my astronaut simply decided to go to the center of the universe because why not?

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Might as well head to the center… I guess.

Looking for purpose.

It’s almost like the game is indifferent to your existence. Why should you do any of the things that you do? You are prompted to fix your ship, then later to acquire the blueprints to a hyperdrive so that you can travel anywhere you want. Every bit of No Man Sky’s sparse story after that is drip fed to you through flavor text and the occasional waypoint that pops up while you are traveling.

Even the game’s systems are largely obfuscated, forcing you to dig into menus to understand what they do. I spent most of the game’s early hours passing beacons and various doors that required a bypass chip to open. I had no idea that the ability to craft these chips were available from the beginning. This crucial bit of information simply was not relayed to me.

On the one hand, No Man’s Sky is frustratingly obtuse and offers very little in the way of direction. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to be given the keys to a starship and endless planets to visit with no hand-holding. It depends on your perspective and what you personally bring to the game.

What flavor of Sci-Fi are you looking for: a structured space opera like Star Wars or Mass Effect, or a solitary experience like Andy Weir’s The Martian? Your preference will dictate how (and if) you enjoy No Man’s Sky, with those preferring the latter sure to enjoy the game’s loneliness and survivalist gameplay the most.

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No Man’s Sky is a lonely, solitary experience.

The (unending) gameplay loop.

And that is the crux of what No Man’s Sky is–a survival game. Its primary enjoyment is derived from the act of exploration. Here’s how No Man’s Sky breaks down as a whole: it’s primarily space/planetary exploration with a loop that requires harvesting materials to refuel your ship, life support systems, and to craft items and upgrades.

Crafting upgrades for your ships, exosuit, and multi-tool is done so that you can explore on foot and in space for longer periods while harvesting resources (or attacking enemies) with increased efficiency. It’s a loop that can (and will) feel repetitious and monotonous the longer you spend wading in No Man’s Sky’s universe.

Despite the vast number of planets, what you end up actually doing on most of them is this same cycle of mining, refueling, and exploration. Aside from the occasional attack from frenzied sentinels–the game’s robotic space police force –there just isn’t a lot of surprises out there. Most of the game’s enjoyment comes from its bizarre flora and fauna, and breathtaking vistas

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Much of what you’ll see in No Man’s Sky is gorgeous, on and off planet.

Beautiful and weird.

No Man’s Sky is gorgeous. There is a beautiful thrill to standing on the surface of a colorful planet, looking out toward the horizon, and seeing a massive planet looming over you from space. Or hopping into your starship and taking off from the planet’s surface into the sky, breaking through the atmosphere, then hurdling through space to land on that other planet–all of which occurs seamlessly with no visible loading screens.

Despite the moment-to-moment gameplay wearing thin after several hours, the act of traveling between planets remains just as thrilling as the first time you experience it. Regardless of your opinion of No Man’s Sky, you owe it to yourself to see this particular aspect of the game at least once. It is simply astounding.

Besides space travel and on-foot exploration, cataloging and renaming the various planets, star systems, flora and fauna you encounter is similarly engaging. Seeing weird Lovecraftian aliens and giving them silly names is a joy that has not gone away, even after dozens of hours of play.

Gotta catalog them all!

Of course, you will likely not have the patience or time to name everything. In this case, No Man’s Sky offers plenty of pre-generated names to use when you are not feeling creative. You may not want to rename it all, but being able to name creatures and planets is a welcome option.

I named the first creature I came across Cave Spaghetti because it had a shell and lots of legs. I learned that I could feed it, and when I did a smiley face appeared over it. This all took place on my starting ice planet, Vanilla Ice. It’s exciting to know that another player might one day stumble across this planet and its race of Cave Spaghetti.

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The legendary Cave Spaghetti.

The problem with NPCs.

Besides the game’s variety of flora and fauna, you’ll also encounter many of No Man’s Sky’s NPCs. These NPCs are typically sentient aliens that are capable of trade, have their own unique culture, and can provide rewards or interesting bits of dialogue if you know their language.

Unfortunately, these alien NPCs are few and far between. They, like you, are often solitary and are disappointingly static. They don’t sleep, they don’t move from their seats, they don’t do much of anything aside from checking their devices and eyeing you derisively.

It is so rare to see more than one NPC at the same time that I was excited when I saw two together. Of course, they didn’t interact with each other. They just stood feet apart and endlessly checked their handheld devices, ignoring everything around them until directly engaged.

You can learn a few different alien languages in No Man’s Sky. Interacting with monoliths, plaques, or modules will teach you new words, and some NPCs may also improve your alien vocabulary. Understanding an NPC you couldn’t before feels satisfying and rewarding. Unfortunately, beyond some dialog and a reward for saying the right thing, there isn’t a lot for them to say.

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Learning the various alien languages and culture is, perhaps, the best part of No Man’s Sky.

Conclusion.

In the end, No Man’s Sky feels lonely. It’s like The Truman Show on a galactic scale. The universe is really an elaborate math equation, and the NPCs are simulations. This doesn’t break the game but there is a nagging sense that everything you are doing is hollow and inconsequential.

No Man’s Sky has sparse NPC interaction, repetitive gameplay, and unengaging combat. However, the game’s unlimited exploration is intoxicating. I can still feel its pull when I’m not playing, It beckons me to hop into my starship so I can see whats beyond the horizon and among the stars.

Ultimately No Man Sky is the perfect wind-down game, the no-stress pallet cleanser after a long day. Despite its problems, it’s easy to recommend to those who want an excuse to explore the vastness of space. Just try not to look too hard behind the curtain, and instead look toward the stars.


Bottom Line:

No Man’s Sky is not without its problems. However, despite the game’s pervasive feeling of loneliness and repetition, there are still many reasons to explore its vast universe.

Posted by Stan Guderski