Review: No Man’s Sky

August 10, 2016

No Man’s Sky gives real thought to what it would be like to be marooned on an alien planet. What would it look like? How would it feel?

British indie developer Hello Games has created an algorithm-based universe containing a mind-boggling number of planets to explore, far more than will ever be seen by human eyes. My experience began on a real-life Arcadia, a yellow planet with a pleasant climate and breathable air, its ground covered with gently swaying grass, giant mantis-like creatures grazing its plains. It was every bit as impressive as the tantalising screenshots that have dropped from time to time over the last three years. But another players’ baptism of fire might involve cowering from the 90 degree midday sun on a barren, unforgiving lump of rock.

Whether you get the paradise or the hellscape is down to dumb luck. The only certainty is your character wakes up beside the smouldering remains of a wrecked space-ship on a planet unseen by anyone else. Shit. Better use your handy multi-tool to mine some stuff to fix things up.

And herein lies No Man’s Sky’s biggest flaw: mining for resources soon becomes crushingly dull. Beyond the spectacular vistas lies a simple resource management loop: mine, build, upgrade, repeat. This alone isn’t fatal: endless exploration with no focus would soon lose its lustre. But your ability to carry stuff is so overwhelmingly insufficient that it suffocates the sense of limitless possibility. There are mysterious items scattered about that you’re forced to abandon because you need zinc to build a new thingamabob for your space-ship. I spent the first two hours marvelling at the environment and the second two cursing my shallow pockets.

When you finally take off, the sense of wonder kicks back in: you roar into the sky, not a loading screen in sight, choosing which of the distant planets you feel like exploring next. My “home” star system also included an ice world, a toxic rock, and an aquatic realm teeming with bipedal chameleons.

But the resource management soon creeps up again: there’s always more to mine to craft your next upgrade: a pulse-drive so you can get places quicker, a warp-drive to visit new parts of the galaxy. After about 10 hours I’d all but given up exploring planets on foot, instead cruising along in my ship looking for promising loot. Eventually I found an alien trading station fortuitously located in the middle of a solid-gold asteroid belt, and spent an hour mining enough to trade for a bigger ship, which recalled the nightmarish grind of games like Destiny.

A pre-release fear was that No Man’s Sky’s algorithm-based universe would soon start to repeat the same tired old landscapes, populated by variations on a dozen or so templated creatures, but each of the planets I’ve visited have felt distinct, with an impressive diversity of plant and animal life. At its best, the planet design is so seamless that it tricks you into assuming a degree of authorship that the algorithm can’t possibly provide. After finding an underwater monolith, for instance, I spotted a tunnel encrusted with glowing coral. There must be some treat hidden in there, right? But my exploration just took me to a watery grave: as in real life, you explore submerged caves at your peril.

It is disappointing, however, that every planet is already populated by hundreds of alien bases and buzzing “sentinel” drones, while each star system is already peopled by myriad traders and pirates, all of which detracts from the sense of virgin discovery.

There are relics of other civilisations littered across the universe, with a vague lore you can start to piece together adding to the feeling that this universe existed long before you crash-landed. You’re also silently guided by a mysterious force intent on taking you to the centre of the universe, a quasi-religious presence that hints at something profound lying at the end of your journey. You can ignore it, of course, but the quest to find new challenges will spur most players to take the bait.

If No Man’s Sky had landed without the years of anticipation, it would have been mind blowing. But hype can be a cruel mistress: she’s elusive when you need her most, and demands a heavy payment after she’s gone. This game is an incredible technical achievement, but it oscillates between moments of profound beauty and deep frustration. If you want to know what it would be like to be stranded in an alien galaxy, this is probably the closest you’re going to get.

First published in City A.M.