The Sunny Side of No Man’s Sky

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So, after years of what has to be some of the strongest hype we’ve seen in a very long time, further enhanced by a couple of delays and a general premise that promised so, so much, No Man’s Sky has dropped. As many may have expected (myself included), the game didn’t quite live up to the lofty ambitions of its creators, and importantly, the hopes of the fans. Let’s face it, how could it?

No Man’s Sky was a game that aimed squarely for the jugular from the very first trailer. I remember seeing that first glimpse of the game at E3 and feeling totally blown away by the sheer scale of the game and the potential Hello Games’ project offered. It rightly ‘won’ E3 in my opinion, so impressive was the reveal. This was surely going to be one of the best games ever made, wasn’t it? I mean, come on. A mind-bogglingly enormous universe with 18 quintillion planets, each of which was around the size of a single world in Minecraft, or bigger? Count me in. All of this would be wrapped up in a full-on space trading/combat sim with massive on-planet exploration and survival. Totally random ships, animals, planets, conditions and even plants? How could this go wrong?

To infinity, and sky high expectations!

That question would be answered upon release, and it’s something anyone who’s spent time online, or played the game themselves, will already know. Now, I’m not going to go in-depth about the overall quality of the game. Charlie already did that with his review. What I want to talk about is where I feel No Man’s Sky got it right. Yes, grab the pitchforks, I actually like No Man’s Sky. Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to fire off death threats or abuse those who don’t like the game, I’m not that kind of ‘fan’. I perfectly understand why people don’t like the game, and I actually agree with most of the complaints. The game is severely lacking in content, for example, and the universe is far too barren and devoid of civilisation, especially when there’s so much trading going on. Where are the cities and empires built on all of this commerce? Where are the billions and billions of aliens that must make up these empires? Why do all aliens seem to be super-glued to the ground?

They’re all questions worth asking, but alongside these faux pas I found a genuinely enjoyable and immersion-filled game, one that I actually believe delivered on most of the promises Sean Murray and Hello Games made.

Like trading posts, they’re in there!

Upon firing up No Man’s Sky I was presented with a colourful landscape of purple grass, blue trees, undulating hills and strange flora and fauna. The music playing was gentle and poignant, as I was alone in this alien world with only a broken ship and a few strange lifeforms for company. I had no idea why I was here, what I needed to do, or where I had to go. Other games have taken this approach, but few manage the same general feel as No Man’s Sky. I actually felt like I wanted to be here. The feeling wasn’t oppressive, or frightening, it was calm, even, as Sean Murray might say, chill.

I was lucky, I admit, to spawn on a planet that didn’t immediately want to murder me with radiation or extreme temperatures, and I was able to wander for a while, getting my bearings and gradually fixing up my ship. It was a great introduction to a game that would, for the most part, present a very unique atmosphere, one that’s so different to the norm, and it’s here where I feel the game does things perfectly.

Space combat though? Debatable.

Today’s games have drifted away from the colour and creativity of the past. Whereas the 8 and 16-bit era saw developers excel at teasing the most out of limited hardware, I feel many teams these days have too much tech at their disposal, and relatively little effort needs to be put in to crank out something playable. Too often games are generic and lacking in any original ideas, and colour is usually something reserved for ‘childish’ platform games, or titles like Pokemon. Graphics take the priority over gameplay, and unique features are few and far between.

Sci-fi titles, especially, seemingly have only a grey, brown, and black colour palette to choose from, as our future is almost always depicted as the clichéd dystopian vision we’ve seen a million times. This can work, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of the darker side of things, but occasionally everyone needs some colour and some sunshine.

This is where No Man’s Sky excels. It’s a visual feast of old-style sci-fi goodness, and just as Sean Murray often commented, it’s just like stepping into one of those classic sci-fi book covers by artists like Chris Foss. Worlds are strewn with bright hues and crazy, acid-trip visuals. Even grimy barren worlds look oddly appealing in their often twisted designs, and at no point does the game ever feel like just another sci-fi title. Even the clean and clinical space stations, which could so easily be generic constructs are unique, with their varied geometries and altered architectures, that’s not to mention the ominous, but still appealing nature of the Atlas stations.

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Ah yes, ominous, ominous red…

At all times, the aesthetic of the universe holds true, and when you consider that everything within is procedural, it only makes it all the more impressive that this style holds up so well throughout. It would be so easy for the random element to disrupt this, causing problems and creating content that simply doesn’t fit, but the algorithm used to create this vast universe succeeds in holding everything together.

Even when you can’t help but laugh out loud at some of the downright bizarre creatures you discover, or the occasional phallic rock formation you stumble upon, it’s all in keeping with the crazy, sci-fi weirdness. This is a universe that isn’t supposed to make sense. It’s inhabitants aren’t supposed to conform. It’s full-steam, balls-to-the-wall sci-fi at its most imaginative, and it’s all the better for it. Give me a T-Rex with chicken legs and fairy wings over yet another muscular reptilian humanoid any day.

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Or Chicken-Gnomes. More of them too.

The general tone of the game is well handled too. By this I mean the delivery of the story, the feel of the worlds, and the whole slightly off-kilter experience you have as what I assume is the only human in the universe. The game focuses on relations with the three different races, and your character’s insight to what’s going on, and it does this in a way I personally found to be superb.

As a huge fan of sci-fi books and choose your own adventures when I was young, I really appreciate the approach the game takes to character interaction and storytelling. Instead of the usual dialogue system with aliens that oddly speak our language, even in the depths of space, here communication isn’t so easy. You begin without any knowledge of alien languages at all, and the text shown on screen is gibberish. Only by uncovering artefacts and totems throughout the universe can you learn words, which can then be used to gradually understand what the different races are saying.

This is important, as in most interactions you need to pick a response. To help you, the game presents you with your character’s description of what’s going on, and how they perceive the situation. This can make it hard to actually judge what the correct answer is, but even a single word in the alien’s dialogue could help provide a clue.

The descriptions of the aliens and their mannerisms, as well as the general storytelling passages you get to read are all great, and I felt a genuine dose of childhood nostalgia, remembering those old sci-fi stories I read way back when.

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Nothing to say, too pretty.

The story is delivered in small, often vague snippets, but it’s done so in a way that keeps you wanting to know more. The Atlas path, for example, is deliberately clouded in mystery. Even upon completing it, it’s not entirely clear what it is you’ve been doing, but you feel nonetheless accomplished when you do. Instead of sitting there, demanding a crystal clear answer, I was perfectly happy with the ending to the story, leaving me to reflect on it and ponder its meaning. This won’t please everyone, of course, but I felt satisfied, and given the game’s overall nature, I think the ending here fits.

It’s another big cliché, but No Man’s Sky is a game that truly exemplifies the importance of the journey, not the destination. The truth here is that no ending could live up to a game as huge as this. How could any single story fit into an entire universe and make it feel adequate? It couldn’t, really. You’re just a teeny, tiny speck in the grand scheme of things, and this is a point the game always emphasises. Even the accomplishment you do manage, whilst impressive, is nothing in the face of an entire universe.

Another aspect of the game I feel is handled well is the gradual advancement you make as a player. From a tiny ship and limited equipment, you eventually end up flying much larger ships and have much better gear, all of which you earn with your own hard work, either by gathering resources and crafting equipment, or earning enough money through trade to buy better ships.

Sure, as with any game, there are shortcuts to be found, and various exploits, but doing this can ruin the experience, and I tried to avoid this. Having said that, I was lucky enough to land an a couple of different vortex planets strewn with vortex cubes. These netted me millions in a short time.

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Much to the Sentinel’s displeasure.

For the most part, though, you really have to work hard for what you get, and by looking at the local markets and locating the best sources of elements to trade, you can make a lot of units quickly. This made for an unexpectedly addictive gameplay loop. The simple act of landing on a planet, locating resources and mining them before selling them on for a profit quickly became an addiction. This is coming from someone who quickly tires of the likes of Minecraft and other, similar titles. With No Man’s Sky, however, I was deeply absorbed into even this usually mundane task.

This could all be down to the simple fact of the game taking place in an entire universe. Although it may not seem like much, being able to look up into the sky to see a distant planet and to realise you can just jump into your ship and fly there, is something few games have managed properly.

It reminds me of an old game I played on my Atari ST called Starglider II. This was a 3D space shooter where you could fly from one planet to another, seamlessly entering the atmosphere or ascending into space at will. For the time, it was incredible, and I’ve never felt the same sense of amazement I had then until now with No Man’s Sky.

Maybe that’s the point, and the game is less about traditional gameplay and game-like qualities, but more about a general feeling, be it nostalgic or otherwise. It’s a game that you can identify with on some level, and become absorbed in because of more than simple combat physics or levelling up. Like Sony’s other indie-darling, Journey, it’s a game that you feel much more emotionally attached to as it’s your own personal experience. This is enhanced more by the fact the planets you explore and discoveries you make are yours, and yours alone. It’s very unlikely anyone else will ever see them (although not impossible), and this means it’s private, in a way. The creatures you find, battles you fight, aliens you converse with, they’re all part of your history. Few other games can say the same thing.

Simply put, No Man’s Sky is your own, personal experience, and for me, that experience was thoroughly enjoyable.

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