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, allowing you to return to your grave to collect your wares (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.
At its core, No Man’s Sky is a classic indie survival game – not unlike Terraria, Minecraft, or even Don’t Starve. Progress is paced with the promise of better upgrades, and while it’s not mandatory, upgrading your equipment and ship will certainly make venturing further to the galaxy’s centre (the game’s only real objective) more manageable. The closer you get to the centre, the more space pirates you’re likely to encounter. Whether you try and avoid them or destroy them is up to you. There is freedom in the game, and selfishness can be just as rewarding as helping others. In this way, there isn’t necessarily a way the game is ‘meant to be played’.
Twelve hours in and I hadn’t killed a single thing, not even a Sentinel (the game’s robotic planetary police who don’t take kindly to over mining resources). I may have destroyed some since then, but at no point is it ever a requirement (you can hide if you alert them). Mainly, I’m a pacifist explorer; my goal is to seek out fauna and wildlife and learn about the culture of the galaxy. I’ve learned quite a bit about the Gek – a toad-like alien race whose etiquette is governed by basically farting (seriously). Building 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.
With that in mind, let’s talk planets. The make-up is random in a geological sense, but more procedural when it comes to conditions and life. For example, if you land on a planet with an abundance of water, the chances are you’ll find lots of planets and alien creatures. However, travel to a barren land, and you may be met with radioactive storms and almost no plant or animal life, but perhaps loads of rare minerals or cave networks filled with precious treasures.
There have been several occasions where I’ve really fallen for certain planets and found myself exploring their surfaces for hours. On one particularly beautiful and hospitable planet, I came across a creature, kind of a cross between a pig and a turtle. I scanned him and discovered he was an herbivore with an ‘amenable’ personality. The little guy ran up to me making excited squeals, so I offered him some carbon – after which a smiley face appeared above him. He then gestures for me to follow him, at which point he digs up some dirt to reveal a valuable resource, otherwise unfindable. I named him ‘Helpful Pig’. No Man’s Sky is full of moments like these. Even now, countless hours into my journey I’m discovering strange and surprising things – as you get closer to the centre, things get weirder.
There is a story here, built by ancient, fragmented messages, and other, more subtle clues. Your understanding of the narrative is based on how much work you want to put in to piecing it together; in that sense, it’s lore more than a straightforward tale. I won’t go into detail here regarding my discoveries as it’s something players should experience themselves.
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).
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. There are valid criticisms with a lack of individuality in the game’s customisation. Different ships don’t handle differently, so any purchase is cosmetic (outside of an extra inventory slot or two). The same goes with the Exosuit and Multi-Tool (the game’s mining, shooting and scanning side-arm). This feels like a missed opportunity. Everything else in the game is so unique and one-of-a-kind, it would’ve been nice to be able to alter the jetpack for instance to perform differently (besides just having a longer boost).
The gamer who will appreciate No Man’s Sky 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.
No Man’s Sky is far from the perfect game, and it will disappoint people for what it isn’t, rather than what it is. If you’re looking for a hardcore space-sim, this isn’t the game for you. If you’re looking for a combat game, this isn’t for you. No Man’s Sky might just be a proof-of-concept, tech demo that offers us a glimpse of a new type of procedural development system.
However, if you want a game that truly captures the aesthetic and thematic essence of its psychedelic, hard sci-fi inspirations, you’ll be rewarded with a game that encourages feeling and imagination over binary gameplay reward systems.
With the promise of continued support and new features, I’m not ready to leave this galaxy yet. No Man’s Sky is a compelling experience that finds humour, melancholy, and awe – all in an experience that is building itself around you without a script to read from.
While not without mechanical flaws, No Man’s Sky is a unique game that should be experienced by anyone who has looked at the stars at night and felt a sense of existential wonderment.