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No Man's Sky

No Man's Sky

Written by Randy Kalista on 8/30/2016 for PS4  
More On: No Man's Sky

So many times it’s been asked: What do you do in No Man’s Sky? As it turns out, you do a lot. And then sometimes: not a whole lot. No Man’s Sky is science fiction, with particular emphasis on the fiction. This isn’t a simulation of a universe so much as it's a mathematical probability simulator. A team of about a dozen developers at Hello Games’ punched some math into a computer, and that computer birthed a universe filled with 18 quintillion planets. (That’s billion with a Q.) In this impossibly vast universe, planets run the gamut from dead planets to garden planets, every animal is a platypus of scales, hoofs, wings and tentacles, and every geological outcropping and piece of plant life has evolved to survive less in harsh planetary conditions and more on the covers of mid-20th century sci-fi novels.

If you put it in a pot and boiled it down, No Man’s Sky is Minecraft minus building stuff plus spaceships. It’s a Minecraft that is more interested in exploring than taping rocks and sticks together. And its exploration takes you inside yourself almost as much as it sends you out into a vast, colorful, pulpy, procedural universe.

No Man’s Sky doesn’t put its best foot forward. In fact, it more or less lets you stumble around on two left feet for a while. I started streaming my first hour of gameplay on Twitch, but shut it down after 30 minutes of flipping through menus, reading then-indecipherable text, and running around in circles that...well, let's just say it was getting embarrassing broadcasting my confusion. So I shut it off. Not that I couldn’t be bothered to learn a new game, but because slowly connecting the dots inside my head doesn’t necessarily make for good TV.

Bit by bit, however, No Man’s Sky pieces itself together. After several hours, a cohesive whole forms out of the starlight and space dust. During my first dozen hours, my impressions changed every hour, on the hour. It was love-hate at first sight.

So, in grand brushstrokes, you Explore, you Fight, you Trade, you Survive. You do all these things in capital letters. These are the so-called four gameplay pillars of No Man’s Sky. You will do them all, and you will do them over and over. And that's its first stumbling block. Every video game ever created is about executing repeated tasks; some games are just better at hiding it than others. No Man's Sky, despite a variety of paths to follow, buttons to push, and scenes to manipulate, never gets good at hiding the loop of repetitive tasks on your to-do list. Don't get me wrong, the explore-fight-trade-survive loop is a big loop with incremental payoffs. And that's good. But if you run around that track too many times and for too long in one sitting, your brain will probably pick up on it. 

Of this loop, exploration is key. If, in general, you don’t catch a thrill by panning around video game environments, angling for beautiful screenshots, or just taking those moments to stop and smell the roses, then that’s strike one against No Man’s Sky. But exploration is my bread and butter. I unlock a lot of achievements in my head simply by looking around and taking in sights and sounds.

There are three things worth mentions about exploration. One, it’s endless. With 18 quintillion planets to visit, it would take all of mankind every waking second until our Sun burns out to visit every one. You think I’m kidding. Two, there’s no need to draw up maps for even one of those planets, because if you walk 10 minutes in any direction, you’ll have seen most everything the procedural generation is going to come up with on any one particular planet. The dice roll only throws just so many variables your way at once. At first, that diminished my appreciation of exploration. It felt like no matter what planet I hopped to next, there was nothing new under the sun. Then, I fell into the gravitational pull of the procedural generation and the minute differences to be found from place to place. I could even appreciate the similarities. In a game that's teaching you not to settle down in any one place, each planet breeds tiny familiarities that I've grown to like. And the third aspect of exploration worth mentioning is more of a simple observation: What idiot called it No Man’s Sky when it clearly should’ve been called No Man’s Land? Space is cool and all, but the time you spend with your boots on the ground far outpaces the time you spend in the cockpit. Also, I’m just kidding: No Man’s Sky is actually one of the most beautiful names for any video game ever brainstormed.

In No Man’s Sky, you’ll fight. Robotic Sentinels patrol just about every planet in the universe. How they came about and replicated across the vastness of space is a mystery. Taking on those two-story-tall Star Warsian AT-ST walkers, though, is unpleasant. If one of those has picked up your scent, you’re in for a bad time. And this game isn’t going to sell you on its space combat either. Especially at first when an encounter with pirates pretty much just means you’re going to die, respawn at the nearest space station, and then go on a corpse run to regain your inventory. It's big loop-the-loop space dogfighting, the same kind I cut my teeth on in the '90s. Except, for some reason, you have to manually dig through your ship's cargo to replenish shields with minerals you've mined. It's a seemingly ill-informed design choice. It was likely done to ensure that space combat is (somehow) still informed by the game's mining aspect, but boy do I wish there was a different way of doing that.

You’ll trade. That’s how you get up in this world. Because you can mine and craft until you’re blue in the face, but there’s a lot to just sell off otherwise, and there’s a lot of build recipes to acquire at a drip-fed pace. You trade in order to bolster your starship, to outfit your exosuit, and beef up your multi-tool. And you trade simply to sell off that giant pillar of gold you found on that one planet back there.

And you’ll survive. This just keeps the walking-simulator portion of our game show exciting. Dust storms, toxic rain storms, ice storms, all kinds of storms will wreak havoc across planets. Your life support system slowly ticks down, because you might never find a perfect atmosphere for you to breathe in with your helmet off. All of these things require minute to minute upkeep from, of course, items you mine or perhaps find and earn in other ways. Some days survival is tiring. Some days it motivates you. Some days it keeps you around a planet for longer than you planned, whether that's because there's a nasty storm out and your ship is a 10-minute walk away, or because the air outside is lovely and you'd like to stick around awhile longer.

Survival-wise, I was ecstatic on my very first planet, seeing my exosuit protection dwindle down to five percent with a storm heading my way, knowing that I’d been dumb and had wandered far, far away from my ship. Then, just as my life support blinked offline, I fell straight down into a sinkhole, dropping me 30 feet into an underground cavern, nearly killing me when I hit the ground, but simultaneously saving me as the cavern provided natural shelter from the incoming storm. I got lost for half an hour in that cavern, figured out how to patch myself up, jetpacked my way out, and have pretty much stayed out of caves ever since. But it was one of those wonderful, chest-pounding, what-is-even-going-on-in-this-game moments that make the early game worth every dime.

No Man’s Sky is many things. And there are many things No Man’s Sky is not. The list is long for both. When Hello Games’ co-founder Sean Murray went on Stephen Colbert’s show, and Stephen Colbert told Sean Murray that Murray might be another God—right behind Morgan Freeman (riffing on Freeman's role in the movie Bruce Almighty)—then it became obvious that the pressure was on for No Man's Sky to somehow be The Game to End All Games.

What we’ve got here is a good game. Sometimes very good. Sometimes baffling. No Man’s Sky is a game of space travel, of planetary survival, of intergalactic trading, of plant and wildlife cataloging, of mining-laser sculpting, and of an unhurried pull to reach the center of the universe. The text-adventure writing, too, can be stunning. Of all the things your brain is trying to tell you about how there are too many repeating assets, or this landscape is too samey, or that ship is only one LEGO piece different from the one parked next to it—the writing never skimps.

It’s language, not monetary units, that make the world go ‘round in No Man’s Sky. Well, if you’re a player that’s tuned into an excellent turn of phrase, or a deliciously sci-fi snippet of prose. The small bits of text you get to read are almost always written with an eye for detail that’s unexpected. But you're a stranger in strange land after strange land. And aside from the less-intentional similarities carried across the universe, the writing is what threads it all together in less conspicuous ways.

It feels like there’s a lot to complain about when you first dive into this game. What do I do? Why are there so many menus? It feels like there’s too little variety in the gameplay. I don’t know, too many of these planets are just ugly, from an artistic and technical standpoint. Great, my game freezes once a day; always nice to lose a good half an hour of hardcore scanning, mining, and fighting off every unicorn-duck-beaver I find on these intergalactic Galapagos Islands.

The small, small inventory especially feels like a big problem, right off the bat. Since much of what you’re doing is collecting resources, fighting a severely limited number of slots seems like a great way to make you start clenching your fists. In the beginning, you're staring far too long at your inventory screen instead of at the landscapes. It felt like the game had an invisible slogan. “No Man’s Sky: Infinite universe, itty bitty backpack.”

But everything important is upgradable. You get that bigger backpack. You fly that cooler ship. You sprint that longer distance. You survive that unfair dogfight. You’ve stripped away the pre-launch hype, managed your expectations, and unpacked your preconceptions. And then it slowly dawns on you: You have arrived. You’ve finally found No Man’s Sky. You've survived your scrappy days on the outer worlds, pulled yourself out of that mud puddle, and now you're walking upright among the stars. Once you’ve gotten to that point, then you can finally appreciate (or depreciate) No Man’s Sky on its own merits. No, Sean Murray isn’t God, and his game doesn’t walk on water.

But if you work your way into the game’s deep tissue, massaging with your thumbs, pressing in with your fingers, and leaning your weight into your palms, then there’s a good, survival-lite adventure here. You’ll encounter a game whose ideas are bigger than its pieces and parts. You’ll have a chance to feel small in an unthinkably immense universe. You’ll be invited to set aside your completionist tendencies—if you happen to have any—and learn how to say goodbye to one solar system after another. If you come to the conclusion that it’s all for nothing...might that just be the point? And what if you make it to the goal line and find out that, hey, maybe the age-old expression is wrong and the destination was more important than the journey? And hey, what if you make it to the goal line and find out that the age-old expression was, indeed, right all along?

No Man’s Sky is a lot of things. And there are a lot of things it’s not. For a game with plenty of listable shortcomings, it might make you rub your eyes and show you a thing or two about our small, transient place in this universe.

The moral of this story is: No man is an island—not even Sean Murray and his buggy mathematical superformula. No Man's Sky is an ironically small game, but it has a big, beating heart at its center, even when the procedural generation and the sometimes narrow-scoped world building tries to hide it.

Rating: 7 Average

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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