Hello Games shocked the world when they announced No Man’s Sky back in 2013. It sounded too good to be true –a procedurally-generated space exploration game with 18 quintillion planets made by a team of roughly 10 people. I, like thousands of others, have been eagerly awaiting it’s release ever since. After years of an impossibly active hype machine and a couple of delays, the wait is over. Is No Man’s Sky the next big thing? Will it be bringing home tons of game of the year awards? Probably not, but I’m enjoying it nevertheless.
- TL;DR: Procedurally-generated space exploration. Very, very pretty. Gets repetitive quickly if you don’t set your own goals.
- Platform: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
- Time Played: 22:00
- What I Played: Landed on ~60 planets in 22 star systems, met 42 aliens, destroyed 122 sentinels
No Man’s Sky can best be described, I think, as Minecraft in space. There is an overarching goal to get to the center of the galaxy, which even after 22 hours of play is still 173,000 light years away from me, but the real name of the game is to explore and discover.
Every one of No Man’s Sky’s 18 quintillion planets is randomly generated which means that no two will be exactly alike. My starting planet, after waking up at the site of my crashed ship, was a withered and grey desert-like planet with little plant or animal life. You are immediately asked if you want to accept the guidance of a red stone called the Atlas. I recommend doing this at least to start as it really helps you learn the ins and outs of the game. Your first mission is to fix your crashed ship by repairing the launch thrusters, refueling them, and getting off the planet.
Similar to Minecraft’s system of whacking stuff until it breaks apart, in No Man’s Sky you simply point your multi-tool’s mining laser at something and shoot it until it’s destroyed. Whatever you are pointing at will tell you what element you are going to acquire like plutonium, iron, heridium, or any of the couple dozen other elements. There is no secondary pickup button, either. You just point, shoot, and automatically acquire. Surface travel is painfully slow, though, so here’s a tip: press the melee button and quickly jetpack afterwards to shoot forward and fly quickly.
Most planets have a robotic police force known as sentinels. These robots are mostly harmless unless you start mining too many resources or killing too many animals in which case they will attack. You can attack them back, naturally, and you should as they are a great source of titanium. They don’t pose much of a threat, which is unfortunate. I was hoping that they would be more dangerous as even the simplest gun upgrade on your multi-tool can easily take down up to level three sentinels.
Upgrading your equipment is the only way to further yourself in No Man’s Sky. You have three main things to worry about: your suit, your ship, and your multi-tool. You’ll be inundated with blueprints for upgrades to all three things like better heat protection or longer underwater breathing in your suit, faster cannon fire on your ship, better cooldown on your mining laser, etc. One important thing that the game doesn’t tell you is that while you can build these upgrades anywhere, building them next to the thing they affect will increase their potency. If you want your scanning visor’s range to be the best it can be, build the upgrade right next to the visor.
Analyzing plant and animal life, along with planets and star systems, is how you will update the global shared encyclopedia. Anything that you discover, which should be anything you come across due to the vastness of the game world, can be named and uploaded for units. You should be sure to upload everything, even if you don’t name things, for easy money. While you can name every single thing you find, I don’t have the creativity or the patience to do that. I’ve fallen into a cycle of naming each star system the same thing with a numeric suffix so I can keep track of how far I’ve gone. I also name the planets and animals that seem the coolest/weirdest and inspire a name.
The UI in No Man’s Sky is very clean and immediately reminds me of Destiny with its evenly-sized squares and circular cursor. The pause menu keeps track of all of your milestones like distance traveled on foot, units accrued, and sentinels destroyed. Landing on a planet gives you a quick rundown of it’s important features — weather, sentinel level, plant density, and animal density. Icons are overlayed on your screen for various points of interest like trade outposts, alien ruins, and downed ships. Ever-decreasing resources like your shield, life support, and mining laser charge are kept in the corners of the screen and there is a small, Skyrim-esque horizontal compass in the top middle. Other than that, the beauty of No Man’s Sky is readily available for you in HD.
Once you finally fix up your ship, which took me about an hour because my starting planet was practically devoid of the necessary zinc, it’s time to take to the skies. Flying your ship is as simple as holding R2 to speed up and pointing yourself in the right direction. You can cruise around the planet just off the surface, although each takeoff spends 25% of your launch thruster. After perusing the landscape for a while, I was ready to leave the arid hellhole I started in, so I aimed upwards and flew. To my surprise, there is absolutely no loading screen when you transfer between a planet and space or vice versa. It’s really a technical achievement.
You can fly much faster in space than you can on a planet with your ship’s pulse engines. It’s a good thing, too, because some planets in a star system are minutes apart even with these ~20x faster engines. Each system has a space station which is primarily used for trading. I was able to dump the gold and platinum I found on my starting planet for slightly above market value. Each station shows the price it will buy and sell things for relative to the galactic average, which is a nice touch to keep things fresh. You’ll see NPCs flying into stations, as well, You can buy and sell items from them and even buy their ships.
Alien NPCs come in three races: the lizard-like traders of the Gek, the warrior race of the Vy’keen, and the intelligent electronic Daft Punk helmet-wearers of the Korvax. No Man’s Sky doesn’t use the crutch of a “common tongue” or automatic translator technology, so it takes a fair amount of time for you to learn each race’s language by finding ruins on planets that will teach you single words at a time. Speaking to any of the aliens results of garbage text unless you happen to know one of the words they are saying, which will then be translated. The game does a decent job of semi-translating each alien’s body language as you talk to them and gives you a few options on how to respond. For example, you might not know what a shifty-eyed Gek is trying to say to you but you understand the word for “isotope”, so giving it some carbon might be your best option.
From space you can travel to the handful of planets and moons in your system. Thanks to the procedural generation, each one can be pretty unique and while you will find your fair share of barren, lifeless rocks, you will also find some diamonds in the rough. If you do find a particularly cool planet and truly want to master it, there is a hefty unit reward for completely documenting all life on the planet. That is, assuming the planet doesn’t kill you first. I found one planet that I named Tundrino with extreme cold weather that was regularly -101°C and fell to -139°C during storms. If I stayed outside my ship for more than 30 seconds, my life support would be practically drained and my field of view would start to ice over. On the other end of the spectrum, I found a planet with a dangerously hot atmosphere that reached 295°C during a storm. I nicknamed this one Burning Hell. Another planet had an abundance of a resource called sac venom that sold for 27,000 units per piece. The planet was chock full of sentinels, too. I spent about an hour making runs between the planet and the space station to fund the purchase of my first new starship.
After a couple of hours playing around in my first star system, I was given the recipe for a warp cell. Warp cells fuel your hyperdrive which lets you jump to a neighboring star system. The travel time between systems, and also the only visible loading time in No Man’s Sky aside from the pop-in of planet textures, is about 15 seconds. Once you can warp between systems, the name of the game becomes exploration and slowly creeping towards the center of the galaxy. The cycle of entering a new system, checking out a few planets which are primarily dead, building another warp cell and inching slightly closer to the galactic core can get repetitive pretty quickly.
I believe that setting small goals for yourself is a much better use of your time. After 22 hours of play, I’ve moved from 179k lightyears from the center of the galaxy to about 173k lightyears. It’s clear that I’m never going to get there and creating warp cell after warp cell was becoming a slog, so I started making little missions for myself. When I found a planet with incredibly aggressive sentinels, I decided to see how many I could kill before they took me down. I already mentioned the planet I found with expensive materials, so I spent some time their farming for currency. If you want to be a space pirate, shoot down every ship you can find. I did just that when I warped into a system that had 22 enemy ships attacking a freighter which I spent 15-20 minutes defending. If you really do want to see the center of the galaxy, you can do that too. Build a ton of warp cells and don’t stop to explore anything if you aren’t out of materials yet.
Even in a game with more planets than you could possibly explore in a lifetime can get surprisingly repetitive quickly. It sounds weird, but it’s true. Many players are pointing towards the promises in various trailers and interviews and saying that we, the community, have been shorted. I disagree and say that what a team of roughly 10 people has put out is remarkable. That being said, I do have a small wish list:
- Base building, which is supposedly coming soon, would make it more viable to stay on a planet long-term.
- Finding settlements or cities of aliens as opposed to always finding exactly one alien in a building would make planets feel more alive. I’d love to run into a cluster of buildings with 10-20 aliens all working together. Or even neighboring cities of different races at war.
- Another way to add some liveliness to the galaxy would be with quests. An alien in a space station needs you to bring something to someone on a planet, another alien is looking for his friend who was last seen at this location, little things like that.
- Creating a warp cell is a pain because it requires three or four intermediate items. If I have all the materials required for each intermediate stage in a later item, let me directly craft that late item. Inventory management is time consuming enough as it is.
- Some kind of an in-game friend system would be a nice touch. Whenever a friend of mine finds something cool he has to either explain it to me or send me a screenshot via PS messenger. It’d be cool to check out his screenshots in-game.
No Man’s Sky is a very cool experience, both from a technical and visual standpoint. Being able to jump between star systems and explore randomly-generated planets is fun, there’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that it gets boring fairly quickly. Since there is no real quest aside from moving forward and you can’t see other players, despite the best efforts of some, No Man’s Sky quickly becomes whatever you make of it. That works well for a while but the game could simply use some more things to do. I really like this article from Polygon that equates the No Man’s Sky launch to Destiny. Both games promised the world and didn’t quite deliver, but Destiny has become better and better with each update. While No Man’s Sky doesn’t quite have the manpower and funds behind it that Destiny has, I hope it has a similar future. For now, I see myself exploring space for an hour or two here and there between other games.