No Man’s Sky review: Ground control to major disappointment

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6

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Reviewed on: PS4. Copy supplied by publisher.

In my 12 hours of game time I’ve found No Man’s Sky to be equal parts compelling and boring, some aspects of it are amazing, and others are a galactic snore fest. Arguably the sheer amount of hype after years of anticipation, mixed with the lack of any concrete info in the build up, let minds run wild as to what No Man’s Sky could be. Sadly it doesn’t live up to the possibilities, but it’s still a pretty decent game… if you have patience and a big imagination.

It's life Jim, but that's not what we'll name it.

It’s life Jim, but that’s not what we’ll name it.

Players start their galactic adventure next to a wrecked spaceship on a unique alien world, and in that moment it’s hard not to be wowed by No Man’s Sky. Colours pop all around you, and the surreal experience of discovering new alien creatures and plants is exciting. The look of the game is refreshing, especially considering that vibrancy is somewhat a dying feature in games. Seeing emerald skies and seas of red is stunning, and really help the game feel otherworldly, at first anyway.

There are a lot of novelty factors that make the first couple of hours in No Man’s Sky great fun. Naming a system, planet or animal whatever your filthy mind wishes (within the confounds of the profanity filter) is amazing, and venturing into a seemingly endless universe is thrilling, but these bells and whistles soon feel hollow.

The sheer magnitude of the game is overwhelming and impressive, yet ultimately it’s like generic Easter chocolate, pretty from a distance, but chalky and bland once you bite into it. The real innovation in No Man’s Sky comes from the procedural generation, yet it’s also the game’s biggest flaw. What seem like alien and original landscapes to begin with soon become a random mash up of the same elements.

No Man's Sky_20160812134104

To boldly go where you feel you’ve been before.

For example, the first space goat you see will appear kooky and original, but once you land on a planet several million light years away to find essentially the same goat now with fins on its legs, it becomes painfully obvious how limited in variety the 18 quintillion planets in the game really are. The presence of the same minerals, advanced alien species, enemy sentinels and outpost models on every single planet make the universe feel even more uniform and less impressive. Pretty soon you realise that each planet is just a pick and mix of instantly recognisable features.

A main point of difference is atmospheres, but in my experience they just hinder the exploration process. Having to waste resources on preventing your dude from dying of radiation poisoning just means it’s better to pull anchor to find the same shit on a hospitable planet elsewhere. If each planet had more unique elements it’d be worthwhile sticking around and investing time and resources on the place, but there is no incentive to do so unless you’re in a one planet system and need fuel to jump out of there (pro tip: don’t jump to systems with a small number of moons or planets).

There's my flying lack of inventory.

There’s my flying lack of inventory.

The real meat of the game comes from mining fuel to continue on your journey to the centre. This process is painful at the best of times, and made even worse by the lack of inventory space. Upgrading to a sufficient amount takes time, and it becomes a vicious cycle. You’ll find yourself consistently mining gold to get more slots, so you can carry more gold to afford more slots.

Don’t get me wrong, mining isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact it’d be a great feature if it were complimented by well thought out mechanics, but sadly it isn’t. Crafting is basic and ruined by small inventories, and the combat that awkwardly populates the galaxy is painful at the best of times. The FPS elements are basic and seem like an after thought, with your weapon needing sufficient upgrading to become useful. The issue with this is upgrading takes up already limited inventory spots. It’s a constant struggle, and one that is far from fun to undertake.

T profanity filter did not like any of my suggestions for the flying dick monsters.

The profanity filter did not like any of my suggestions for the flying dick monsters.

Your main land based enemies are sentinels, which are dotted around every planet. Alerting a sentinel army just becomes another eye rolling thing you have to deal with, as they attack you for mining, which as I mentioned, is pretty much the core game mechanic… so doing what the game teaches you to do results in getting attacked by boring assholes. Yay?

Occasionally alien creatures will attack you too, which is usually avoided by jetpacking away. The AI isn’t particularly clever here, they all just rush. Having some creepy space monsters hunt you in a giant mushroom forest could have been cool, but nope, just straight up Zerg mentality in this universe. Combat  just is not fun in No Man’s Sky, and it has no evident place in the game. I guess I can see why it has been included to add variation, but it needs a lot more attention and love.

Space combat certainly doesn’t fare any better. Enemy ships are about as welcome as Donald Trump’s comments, and their appearance adds little to the game at all. Shooting them requires a lot of strafing and concentration, but in the majority of encounters you’ll barely get a look in as they ruin your shields and blow you up before you can go full Picard and make anything so.

Space pirates can chew on one of these.

Space pirates can chew on one of these.

Avoiding death in these encounters again comes down to inventory space, as upgrading ship shields takes up valuable slots. Of course you can buy ships with better weapons and armour, but they are ludicrously expensive and it goes back to the mining loop again. Should you wish to purchase a ship you need to either find a ruined one and fix it up, or talk to an advanced alien.

These alien species should add some flavour and depth to the game. Learning their language is a cool feature, something which you do by discovering artifacts or having positive interactions. However their role in the universe is static and uninspired. They can be found standing in trade centers, space stations or spoken to through ships. It feels like a text based adventure when dealing with them. Something which I am fundamentally all about, but when it’s in a game that should feel immense and broad, it just becomes a narrowing experience. The same can be said for the overarching plot to reach the centre of the universe. It should be cool, but it just feels like another poorly fleshed out element in a game with lots of that going for it.

Maybe you wouldn't be so sick if you moved for once in your life.

Maybe you wouldn’t be so sick if you moved for once in your life.

Performance wise No Man’s Sky is adequate (on PS4 at least anyway). It could of course be a lot better. The draw distance and way that items pop up is jarring and ugly as sin. Trees and mountains just blur their way onto your screen, hoping you won’t notice the eye jabbing hideousness of it. Leaving atmospheres too can be a jarring experience, as transitions often become spiky jittering across the screen as sky turns into outer space. Like with everything in No Man’s Sky, the thought is there, and you can see why everything may have been done or not quite work, but it still doesn’t make it more palatable.

I really wish I could have been more positive in this review, as I really wanted to like the game, however after a while it just becomes painfully obvious how small No Man’s Sky really is. Like I’ve said, it’s still compelling, seeing what a random universe can throw at you, but really it boils down to a lot of boring tasks for little reward. The most fun you have will be the times the universe turns on you and you need to think on the fly, like it did with my fellow Editor Tom, but those moments are rare. If you have an active imagination I could see how No Man’s Sky might become an endless barrel of fun, but for the majority of gamers I just don’t see it being a memorable or worthwhile venture.

Good

  • Looks pretty
  • Exploring the universe can be fun
  • Initial novelty of the game is impressive
  • Can be weirdly addictive at times

Bad

  • Combat is beyond terrible
  • Inventory system is woeful
  • Some performance issues
  • Interactions leave a lot to be desired
  • Not as much variation as it would appear

Summary

Had I not heard about No Man's Sky until last week, I would have thought it was a quirky little indie game with some impressive elements, but the years of overhype have really let this title down. It's not necessarily a bad game, but it certainly isn't a showstopper. It's fine to fill time for those who like hoarding, exploring and trading. However those looking for a galactic adventure for the ages will be best to hold off.

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