No Man’s Sky by developer Hello Games was recently released for both the PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. Announced at E3 2014, and worked on for three years before that, No Man’s Sky was pitched as a space explorer’s dream. Many gamers were enthralled by the promises of visiting an infinite number of planets and discovering an infinite number of life across the universe.
The technology behind No Man’s Sky is impressive. The game boasts over 18 quintillion planets to visit (18,446,744,073,709,551,616, to be exact) all of which have been procedurally generated, or in other words randomly created by algorithms written by the developers. Each world contains a finite number of procedurally generated creatures, all of which are unique to their world, and there could be an infinite number of creatures in the game itself. In fact, at the time of this writing, there have already been more creatures discovered in the game than there are life forms in all of Earth’s history! Given the number of planets, it’ll be unlikely that we’ll see all the of the game’s content by the time our great-great-great-great-grandchilden are born (mostly like never). Pretty impressive indeed.
The player wakes up on a random planet on the edge of the universe, finding that their spaceship needs repair. Multi-tool in hand, the player scans the planet they’re on for the minerals they need to mine in order to repair their ship. Every player’s experience will be unique. I woke up on a barren ice planet and needed to walk miles for resources, all the while continuously needing to find shelter before I froze to death. I really enjoyed this experience, as it felt like a survival game. Walking on the surface on another planet has been a lifelong dream of mine, part of which why I enjoy playing video games, and knowing that the planet I woke up on has never been seen by another person other than me made my time on the planet all the more rewarding.
However, after visiting several planets, I began to have a significantly reduced amount of enjoyment out of the game. Visiting the different variations of planets is a great novelty, but after a while they all kind of feel the same. Infinite variation only extends to planets and their life forms, sadly. Upon landing on a new planet, you’re faced with the same tasks to scan for points of interest, mine for minerals, and scan for ruins or drop pods to increase your knowledge of an alien language or inventory slots, respectively. No Man’s Sky effectively turns exploration into a grind, and without the immediate missions such as repairing your damaged spaceship or building a warp drive, there’s not much reason to mine for materials other than to make money to buy bigger spaceships (of which are also procedurally generated). I never felt the need to go forth and explore, which, as you might expect, is a huge problem for a game about exploration.
The weirdest thing I noticed is that regardless of the size of the planet, they all have the same strength of gravity, which means your weight and movement speed is the same no matter where you are in the universe. This is a huge problem for me, not because of the inaccurate physics, but because the standard movement speed, and the run speed for that matter, are just too slow for my liking. The slow movement speed just makes the game feel overly sluggish, which wouldn’t be a problem if it were only on large planets, but if I had to move at a crawl through every single planet in the game? No thanks.
During my play time, I didn’t notice much difference in the ships I piloted. They all felt the same and had the same limitations where I couldn’t turn in the way I expected, slow down enough so I could shoot at something on the surface, or for that matter, look down at the surface so I can see where to land. No Man’s Sky is pitched by the marketing team as a sandbox game, a genre where if you want to do “x” in the game, you can do “x” in the game. For example, I was mining for gold on a planet and started getting attacked by a less friendly creature. I was out of ammo at the time, so I thought I’d run to my spaceship, take off and circle around to shoot the creature and kill it so I could continue mining for gold. Nope. Once you get into the air, the game’s graphics engine removes the creatures from the environment so that it can display a farther draw distance. Sure okay, I thought, it’s a limitation of the graphics engine. Well, why don’t I just use my laser cannons to shoot at the mineral deposits and mine that way (since you have to shoot at asteroids in outer space in order to get Thamium9, a resource required for your hyperdrive engines). Nope. Laser cannons don’t have any effect on the planet environment. For a game marketed where the universe is your sandbox, it felt pretty limiting.
I had a lot of fun in first couple of hours of No Man’s Sky and I recommend that every gamer experiences it – just don’t pay the $60 asking price. The technology that made No Man’s Sky is quite impressive and it’s really cool to see the different environments and creatures, but unfortunately it couldn’t live up to the hype, as impressive tech alone doesn’t equal a video game. My issues with the game play design decisions aside, I feel the game is missing a narrative – that drive to keep playing. Hello Games could have added a small narrative about finding their home planet when the player wakes up on the planet they crash landed on – that alone would have done wonders. Some gamers will appreciate the full sandbox game play style No Man’s Sky provides, leaving you, the gamer, to come up with your own narrative.
On paper, No Man’s Sky is a very interesting concept and while the game that Hello Games has delivered lives up to the initial promise of exploration of an infinite number of planets, it falls apart is when you start looking for more than what’s at face value. The game starts out great, but after visiting a handful of planets, you realize the experience becomes the same each time: land on a planet, scan for life and materials to mine, give the planet a name, look for ancient ruins, pillage the planet dry, and then leave for the next one. Getting to the center of the universe isn’t a big enough draw for me to go through the repetitive game play.