It was always going to be like this, and Sean Murray knew it. The Managing Director of Hello Games introduced the world to his creation and his team of four’s fascinating science-fiction love letter, No Man’s Sky in 2013. In December 2013, at the VGX awards, the world caught its first glimpse of the procedurally generated, primary-coloured sci-fi exploration opus. And from that moment on the expectations were higher than Murray had probably ever imagined. So high that it was never going to meet them. Even he knew it as he talked before the release of the game onto PS4 and PC in August 2016. Whilst there is a lot about No Man’s Sky which impresses, it doesn’t hide the fact that the game is fairly boring. It’s repetitive, full of life, whilst still bizarrely lifeless and it’s not really evident what the makers expect you to do. Recently we were told it’s not the game we might have expected from the trailers (many of us knew this - unfortunately many did not) and it’s a “very, very chill game” according to Sean Murray. If that’s the case why do some of its systems jar so much? Why isn’t it what the trailers told us? What is it actually like when you take the hyperbole wrapper off and look at it in the cold hard light of day?
No Man’s Sky presents itself as a mystery with you, the traveller, finding yourself on a strange planet (strange to you anyway, we don’t know about our avatar’s history) armed with a multi-tool, exosuit and broken ship. On this planet you learn about three of the basic four mechanics which are the central tenets of the game: exploration, survival and combat. Trading, the fourth, comes later. The planet is new and quite reasonably you want to fix your ship. Actions are popping up in the bottom right of the HUD telling you what you need to do to get going. To fix your ship you’ll need to gather some materials. So you start to walk around and perhaps fly away with your weedy jetpack, which has finite power and therefore isn’t going to let you hop all over the place. You analyse the fauna and the flora. You harvest some items by picking them up and others by shooting at them with your multi-tool. Suddenly, before you can do anything about your ship you’re told repeatedly that your inventory is full. This will be a familiar message very soon, and one which quite frankly will make you want to throw your controller through the TV screen. You can move things from your ship’s inventory to the exosuit and back again but there are limited slots. When the game is all about collecting items, harvesting goodies and using them to complete your quest actions, upgrade your kit or, latterly, trade, then why is it so limiting? It’s just not fun spending time moving things around, exhausting supplies by refuelling or upgrading, and then dropping in and out of menus to see what you need for item A and item B. It’s just not fun. Is it realistic? I don’t know; other games seem to get by fine as they realise this is not fun. Fallout 4 obviously has a limited inventory, forcing you to slow down when full. But this limitation comes far later than here. Seriously, on your first planet before you have fixed your ship you’ll find your inventory is full.
Anyway, let’s assume you’ve gotten around that and have fixed your ship and want to continue exploring the world you’re on, and then more worlds. Moving around a planet can be a little tedious. Walking pace is slow, and running is dependent on your stamina. You can get a little extra impetus via other methods and on the whole this is ok. It will take you a while to work out how to get around sheer drops or rises, but clever use of your jetpack and the fancy way you can climb vertical rises without necessarily exhausting your jetpack’s energy does help. None of this is signposted, so it might frustrate at first but eventually you’ll work out how to move the most distance in the quickest way. If you have a ship you’ll want to use that for even short hops along a planet - it saves so much time and given wherever you go to on foot, you need to get back to your ship, the exploration itself can quickly become grind-like. Yes at first you find new species of plants and animals (which you can upload to the Atlas and be rewarded with credits for) but then, well, you don’t.
As you collect things on your travels and do so by way of your multi-tool (reminding you of home DIY, just as you’d want an escapist game to do) you will catch the sensor of a flying drone. This drone will come over to you and start shooting. This might awaken another drone which in turn will come and shoot you. At this point you need to use your multi-tool (it really is) to shoot and down these drones. This is your introduction to combat. It is awful. First you need to work out where the things are shooting from, then track them, and finally hit them repeatedly. It is boring, it’s repetitive and it is not an overly elegant mechanic. This game isn’t an FPS and the shooting bits don’t pretend it is. But you still have to do them. It’s frustrating as it takes you out of the chill game mode into something else. So the game isn’t very, very chilled after all. Why is this part of the game even there? Because every game needs it? No Man’s Sky doesn’t. Yes, the combat evolves a little over time and you get some space fights too but it just doesn’t add good value to the game.
Space exploration once you leave a planet is less exciting than you’d expect when you’re in a universe with 18.44 quintillion planets. As we set off from our opening planet having finally fixed our ship we had a few highlighted places to go - a space station, a beacon that had been detected, but otherwise just space, that often termed final frontier. Space stations enabled trade to kick-off, whilst any beacon that’s been detected will likely relate to your story. But, given there are all those planets to find - and the ones you’ll find will not be the same as anyone else’s unless you’re headed to coordinates they’ve provided - you’ll want to go explore and do what No Man’s Sky is there for you to. Good luck with that. We flew all over the galaxies we visited and often we found nothing. At times it seemed like we’d had to have found it by way of some beacon, or locator, or quest item guidance. Not always the case, but when travelling from end to end, bottom to top and all around in a random walk style, well, you might hope you find any number of unexpected havens of brilliance. Nope. This game is all about space exploration and all about those fantastical planets yet, for a large chunk of playtime you find nothing.
The game itself takes the guise of you landing on a new planet, harvesting its resources, discovering new species (and perhaps changing their names to something funny before uploading for cash) and then going out to use those resources to upgrade all your kit, or trading it to obtain credits which allow you to buy new items to upgrade your kit. Or buy a new ship. Rinse and repeat. There are other parts to this as you and your character grow. For instance you’ll over time find various items which teach you an alien language. This will start to reveal what is being said to you at a trading station. You’ll learn to respond in a better way and build your relationship with said alien. Space combat can help here as well if you choose to help a particular faction. But you’re still using all of this to continue that upgrade route and new exploration.
None of this would be so bad except for the fact it’s all the same just dressed in the Emperor’s new clothes. Every shiny planet is procedurally generated using the same set of basic assets. You get your jungle planets, your ice planets, your wet ones, your dry ones. You get flying things, swimming things and walking things. Big animals, small animals. Colourful flowers and dead-looking flowers. Wonderful. You see these, you analyse or harvest them and you move on. You fly to a new planet, land and press the same buttons to do the same thing. You might talk to the alien lifeform. You go to a third and fourth and a fifth planet and press the same buttons to do the same things again, and again, and again. It’s not real exploration because you’re doing the same steps to add new items to a rolodex which will never be completed by you and probably not at all full stop. So why bother? If it was really as idealised then great, but it isn’t as you’re happily pressing buttons to gather that funky new resource and bang, drones are on you. Just. Go. Away.
Once you realise the above and understand what No Man’s Sky isn’t you can get on and recognise it for what it is. Namely, that is that it’s a technical marvel. I mean, EIGHTEEN POINT FOUR QUINTILLION PLANETS. That should impress everyone whether you realise the skill that went into coding it or not. The soundtrack is excellent too and with the vibrancy of the primary-colour graphics it really does create an enjoyable and otherworldly atmosphere. There’s also a story and a way(s) to complete the game. So there is a real point to it for those players who don’t get the game just to explore (and who love walking simulators), and relax.
If you’ve ever seen The Prestige you’ll know every magic trick has three stages: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is where the magician shows you something ordinary. A new game from Indie developers Hello Games perhaps. The turn is where they change that something ordinary into something extraordinary. In this case the time from that VGX announcement to release day. At this point you might want to look for the secret, ask how are they pulling this off? But most of the world didn’t look for it as they didn’t want to stop believing in the extraordinary. Unfortunately for those people, whilst playing the game might not reveal the secret as to how the trick was pulled off, it doesn’t deliver the prestige either - it falls flat and shows itself to be the very ordinary game it is.