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What is No Man's Sky? A primer for curious gamers

What is No Man's Sky? Here's what you should and shouldn't expect from Hello Games' new infinite procedurally generated space sim
By: Derek Strickland | Gaming News | Posted: Aug 10, 2016 4:16 pm

No Man's Sky isn't the end-all space exploration sim, and it's not Minecraft in space. So what is it exactly? After playing for two days now, we aim to answer that question, and tell you exactly what you should and shouldn't expect from Hello Games' infinitesmal exploration simulator.




Such a lonely game


Let's get one thing out of the way first: No Man's Sky is a lonely game. It's not a multiplayer game, and when you meet someone in the vast expanse of the universe, you won't even know it: other players are invisible to you. But that's okay, because it's not the strong point of the game. The point of the game is to see what's out there. You're driven by one of man's strongest motivators: curiosity. You never know what you're going to find out there, and that's really the magic of the game.




You're not a hero--you're an explorer


You don't place as a space marine in No Man's Sky. You're an explorer who starts off with the basics, and you build up your tools--Exosuit, Starship and Multi-tool--with random upgrades. Sure you'll get more powerful, but you'll never really be Rambo. It's not that type of game: it's not about killing, or conquering. It's about serene exploration and discovery, an intimate look at the exotic far-reaching depths of space.




There's tons of tedious grinding


Like Minecraft, you're going to spend a lot of your time grinding materials. The difference here is your motivations aren't exactly targeted in a linear way; you're not grinding mats to build a house before the creepers show up. The resource gathering is incredibly organic and fits in with your overall goal in the game: discovery. You will, however, need to grind materials to ensure your Life Support system doesn't run out and you die from lack of Oxygen, or freeze to death in the cold.


The more you find, the more you want to continue looking--No Man's Sky feeds itself and taps into that curiosity quite well. But you are going to run out of space and have to manage your materials and inventory carefully, and there's a chance you won't find any real Exosuit inventory upgrades for a while. So what do you do? Keep looking, of course.




It's a simulation game


No Man's Sky has players maintaining basic sim elements like recharging their spacesuits, blaster power and starships with fuel. The game reminds you when fuel or power is getting low, but you'll have to pay close attention on your resources and your tech in order to survive, so resource management is a bit theme.


It has survival elements, and depending on where you are, these can be minor or major. Some planets are extremely hazardous and require thermal protection whilst draining your Life Support systems quite quickly. Others, however, are tropical paradises that offer sanctuary against blistering planets. Make no mistake, though: the game is built around simulation elements.




Lots of inventory management


Since you constantly need to charge your items, you're going to spend lots of time managing your inventory. There's no way to quick-charge items, and you can't pause the game, so don't go into your inventory while you're getting attacked. And the inventory screen is pulled right from Destiny--it's not similar, its a straight-up copy with little tiles and everything.




No real meaningful NPCs


NPCs are interesting at first, but they only just sit in their predefined areas and feed you items and the like. They don't really do anything, and they don't fight you. You won't ever see a group of aliens walking around outside; they're always indoors. In fact it's not necessarily the NPCs themselves but the monoliths that make the characters somewhat interesting.


The Gek are neat, but reading about their history and strange creations gives us backstory...but too bad we never really get to interact with them on a meaningful level. That really breaks the immersion.




No civilizations or cities


No Man's Sky appears to be on the vast rim of unexplored space, but then again there are ships and bases and outposts. But there's no cities or signs of civilization. The outposts usually have one alien in them--if that--and the aliens remain static and seated. There's no amazing bizarre towns to explore, and there's no actual ships you can interact with really--everything seems kind of lifeless in a way, which is ironic given how beautiful the game is.




The visuals sell you something that isn't really there


The game is beautiful, and I really enjoy it so far. But I have a feeling the veneer will fade away quite fast, and I'll be left with the same rote rinse-and-repeat mechanics through and through. The only real thing that keeps me going is to find a way to get more inventory space so I can hold more stuff.


The game promises exotic worlds with tons of things to explore, but honestly, the exploration is one-dimensional and based on a specific formula. Sure it's "infinite", but it never really deviates from that formula regardless of how the planets and animals change.


In fact, I'd go so far as to say you shouldn't marathon run this game, as the more you play it, the more stale the formula gets. It's the type of game you should play in small chunks, something to enjoy when you've had a bad day at work or had a fight with you significant other. Something you play to cool you down.




Two environments: planets and space


No Man's Sky is built around two areas: planets and deep space. You can drift in deep space for as long as you want, but you'll have to go planetside to find specific resources to refill your warp drives. There's an organic need to land on planets that synergizes quite well with the curious desire to explore. In space you can dogfight against other pilots (NPCs, not players) and land on space stations to trade with the Gek, the main alien syndicate.


Planets have tons of resources to gather, animals to discover and rename, monoliths that decipher the Gek's language (think Al-Bhed Primers from Final Fantasy X), and trade stations. There's also secrets strewn across the planet's surface, and you can literally spend days exploring any given planet. They're absolutely huge.




Naming planets is fun at first


Sean Murray says that players have named 10 million planets and animals since the game launched yesterday, and there's a good reason for that: renaming is fun. It's like putting your own personal stamp on the universe. Well, it is at first, until you realize how many creatures and planets there are, and the fact that no one will really see it but you. Other planers CAN visit your planet, but the odds are astronomically against you. So again, its only for your personal benefit.


Sure you can leave the names alone, but why not change them to something goofy like Skuttlebutt for a crab chimera, or naming a huge flying fish-like leviathan a Spess Wyrm? It's a small thing, but it's quite hilarious and it's a nice touch. Until it wears off.




You can play offline


No Man's Sky can be played offline, but you won't be able to upload any of your discoveries to the servers. For example, if you play offline and name a ton of planets and animals, no one will be able to see it except you. Also you won't be able to run into any other players, but this isn't a big deal considering two people have already met and nothing happened. Literally nothing happened--they were invisible to each other.




It's not perfect, and there's tons of small problems


No Man's Sky desperately needed a beta test. There's tons of small little issues I have with the game that weigh you down--like not being able to exactly tell how much Thamium-9 you have when you recharge your Life Support system. All you see is a small bar which gives you a general idea of how much you have, but it doesn't explicitly tell you. Also these little indicator bars are hard to see sometimes, as the bars are literally white on white.


Have to be close to your ship to grab items stored there. What's more is that you can't transfer items from your ship to your person without being near your ship. Essentially your ship is like a stash, and you can remotely teleport items to it regardless how far away you are from the ship. This can be a bit frustrating when you're far away from your ship and need to grab that huge Carbon stack you have to recharge your gear.


The game also needs a map of some sort. When I find an outpost on a planet that has a trading station--not all outposts and shelters seem to have them--I want to be able to mark it. Once I leave that planet, I want to be able to check where that outpost was and come back to it to sell items. The outposts are randomly generated: some have Multi-tool upgrade stations, some have Exosuit upgrades, and some have trade stations. Others don't. Sure you can hop over to a space station and try to trade with traders who dock there, but they don't always buy the items you're trying to sell. Gamers need to be able to make waypoints.




Running out of inventory space is a big problem. You're going to run out of inventory space, and when you do, you'll have to manage your gear carefully. Sometimes you don't know what's safe to get rid of, as the game doesn't explicitly explain what's what.


You can, however, get more inventory space with Exosuit and Starship upgrades. Sometimes you might have to scrap a huge stack of materials, or scrap an upgrade to make room for something. If you do scrap an upgrade, don't worry: you can always make it again. Trade Commodities are only used for selling, so don't be afraid to scrap them if you have to. When it comes to the Power Canisters, those are used to instantly refill your gear's charge; Power Canisters refill your Exosuit and Multi-Tool systems, but not your Starship.




There's no quests or main story


No Man's Sky isn't built around a storyline, and doesn't have any quests. It's not an RPG, so to speak, even though it has RPG elements. Honestly, uncovering secrets and upgrading your gear is motivation enough--for now, at least, but that motivation might wane over time. What doesn't wane, however, is how the game blows you away with its incredible and vibrant visuals.


Don't expect a huge, over-arching interstellar opera to unfold before your eyes, or to relive the archetypal Hero's Journey in No Man's Sky--you're just a spacebound misfit looking to peel back the rim of the universe and see what the heart of space has to offer.




There's action and space dogfighting


Not every planet is full of peaceful indigenous flora and fauna. You're going to uncover hideous monstrosities that want to eat you for dinner, and pirates who want you dead. NMS does have a FPS element to it while you're on a planet, but you can only gun down creatures, not aliens. Be careful what you do as sentinels will swoop in and start zapping you--think of these guys like the interstellar police, kind of like the sentinel guardians from Halo.


In space, you can use your blasters to take on huge federation flagships and pirates, much of which can result in disaster.




No planet is the same


Every planet is different: each planet will have a varying size, atmospheric effects, weather, flora, fauna, etc--every variable that can be tweaked, will be tweaked. Expect to see the most exotic and truly amazing things you can imagine recreated before your eyes in an absolutely majestic way.




It's a photographer's dream game


No Man's Sky is beautiful. In a way, I'd say it's beauty eclipses our imagination simply because the game can create such vastly different planets and visual feasts for us to take in. Photographers will get a huge kick out of No Man's Sky, and every screenshot you take is worthy of a wallpaper. It can be vibrant and colorful, sterile and frozen, or tropical with everlasting beaches that stretch out across the horizon. I've taken some 2GB worth of screenshots already, and I've only discovered four planets so far.




Discovering alien animals makes you feel like an interstellar Steve Irwin


The animals in No Man's Sky are amazing. You'll find strange fanciful alien chimeras like serpent-tailed turtle-dogs and hulking elephantine brontosauruses with bizarre crests, and maybe even some freaky dragon-fish that soar the skies. If you're really lucky you'll find a behemoth alien--there's been talk of "space whales" and those crazy huge, slithering "worms" straight out of Dune.


When you find these beasts you genuinely feel like some space zoologist that's keen on discovering all of the creatures in the universe. It's a great feeling, especially since no two creatures are the same.




Is it right for you?


As you can see, No Man's Sky isn't necessarily for everyone. It's Hello Games dream game, and the experience is built around intimate, serene exploration. It does have RPG elements and action, but it's not the kind of game that really ends. You can play it forever, provided you have enough motivation to discover and continue onward. And it's not a multiplayer game; you're going to do everyone by yourself, but the amazing visuals, bizarre flora and fauna, and sense of sci-fi accomplishment keep you coming back.


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