On a technical level, No Man’s Sky is staggering. The beautiful bright colours almost betray the sheer scale of what you’re experiencing. When I land on a planet and explore its surface for two hours, I may have travelled the distance of an average sized town – but this planet could be ten times the size of Earth. Completionists beware.
The fact that No Man’s Sky doesn’t really explain anything is both a blessing and a curse. The game is far from unforgiving, more concerned with allowing discovery than punishing risk-taking and the death system reflects this (no permadeath here). I may sound like an apologist here, but No Man’s Sky’s lack of explanation feels wholly deliberate. I get the impression that Hello Games wants to overwhelm me. For some gamers, this will immediately turn them away from the game because decades of playing games based on some type of ruleset will shape how we experience the things that come after them.
I’m around twelve hours into the game, and I haven’t killed a single thing. I haven’t even destroyed the a Sentinel (the games robotic planetary police who don’t take kindly to over-mining resources). I’m a pacifistic explorer – my goal is to seek out fauna and wildlife, and learn about the culture of the Gek; a toadlike alien race whose etiquette is governed by basically farting (seriously). Whether I can build up my relationship with them is based on whether I can understand them. As you progress around planets, you’ll find ancient artefacts that give you glimpses into the culture or belief system of the alien race that inhabits that star system. From these artefacts, you’ll learn words so that when you encounter puzzles in the respective language, or trade with a creature who speaks it, you’ll be able to pick out words to help you act appropriately.
Sometimes this works out – when I know the Gek word for Carbon, I can make the right offering to be rewarded with an improved standing and a reward of some sort. However, the Gek might ask for something with one word I recognise (Oxide) but I might not know the word for the specific type, leading to a guessing game.The trading is simple, but highly rewarding. Obtaining Zinc from a planet with an abundance of it and then trading with an alien in an area without Zinc increases its value, making trading an entirely viable option for a whole playthrough. In fact, you wouldn’t even need to land on a planet. You could buy Zinc at a low price on one Space Station and then sell it at a much higher cost at another, never even setting foot on a planet.
No Man’s Sky won’t be a game for everyone. It will frustrate gamers who are looking for more complexity in every one of its rudimentary systems. The gamer who will appreciate it is one who is open to doing some of their own analogue roleplaying alongside the game. No Man’s Sky doesn’t feel like a game that is desperate for you to master it. It wants you to feel awed, tense and overwhelmed, and I’ve felt all of these so far.
Focusing on the game’s mechanics almost feels reductive from what matters about the game, but they are part of what makes up the whole. The UI is simple and well laid out, with two inventories; your exosuit and your starship. The exosuit has a smaller capacity than the starship, but objects from it can be teleported back to the ship (unless the player is too far away from it). Almost immediately, I found myself constantly managing my inventory, which was frustrating. Alongside this, many aspects of your suit and ship require recharging or refuelling very frequently. This means that pre-planning is encouraged. While the key resources used for these are plentiful, you still don’t want to run out of the fuel required to launch your ship on a barren planet (although this could lead you on a fun on-foot adventure into a cave to find the right fuel).
While the centre of the universe still feels a long way away, I feel like I’m slowly building up to that journey. I’ve just bought another spaceship with a larger inventory, so I’m definitely feeling more prepared.
I think a fitting way to sum up the ethos of No Man’s Sky is the following tweet (a reply from Sean Murray):