No Man's Sky
I'm torn over No Man's Sky. I have a very real love-hate relationship with the game, and it represents a clear dichotomy that pulls me in either direction. I love the old-school sci-fi sentiments and visual style, but I loathe its monotonous simplicity and the rote, formulaic approach that slices through the immersion like a hot knife through butter.
It's hard for me to say if No Man's Sky is worth your money or not specifically because the game's enjoyment factor is so extremely conditional. Whether or not you'll like the game depends on so many different factors, proving the game is more of a niche experience than a mainstream mega-hit (at least in spirit, not sales figures). To know if you'll like No Man's Sky, you have to understand what it is and what it isn't. With any luck, this review will help point you in the right direction, and you'll understand what to expect from the game.
To many, the game is just a chore simulator that's not worth their time. To others, the game embodies a breathtaking adventure across the uncharted corners of space. My experience lies somewhere in the middle, and the scale slides, either way, every time I play.
The main problem with No Man's Sky is that the visual style sells you a game that doesn't exist. The game is quite literally a feast for the eyes, but this is actually its worst enemy. The visuals are a double-edged sword.
As soon as you fire up No Man's Sky, it triggers something deep within you, awakening that inner astronaut in all of us. This space-faring mind's eye is especially keen in sci-fi nerds like me, who grew up avidly consuming Star Trek and Star Wars. So when we saw this game, it immediately clicked with us and conjured up an entire galaxy of possibilities.
Those beautiful planets swirling in the scintillating firmament are something right out of John Berkey's imagination.
Starships soar the heavens as bizarre animals roam across a strange and alien landscape. Impossibly weird flora twist and snarl every which way as toxic irradiated rain falls across the calcified flats. Eldritch monoliths tower in geometric shapes that bring to mind secrets of some long lost race, entombed in mystery and wonder. Space stations orbit the planets, and outposts right out of an Isaac Asimov book cover provide a safe haven for would-be explorers.
When we sci-fi nerds see these things, everything we've ever experienced within the genre's vast realm comes flooding into our imagination. That's not necessarily Hello Games' fault; to their credit, the team has told us what to expect from the game (despite tons of misleading hype and outright lies). But if you're going to make a game that's literally built on "making gamers feel like they've stepped into a 1970s sci-fi book cover," there's going to be tons of expectations.
Sadly, the game's wonder is just subterfuge. It's an exotic mask veiled upon tedium. The atmosphere and visuals call forth images of epic interstellar derring-do and infinite adventures amidst the stars, when in reality, the game is reduced to an obvious rote formula after a few hours. The mask starts peeling away, and you see the game for what it is: an experience sabotaged by its beauty and betrayed by its soul.
This, to me, is the heart of why No Man's Sky has gamers so divided. In its very nature, it promotes divisiveness by not delivering the very things that gamers (and most notably sci-fi nerds) naturally expect from a game such as this. The game wants to take advantage of that wonder, that sense of freedom and awe, that deep soul of the stars that's in all of us every time we look up at the night sky and wonder "what's out there?" but it doesn't--and apparently can't--deliver on it.
Even still, there's magic here, but I can't help but recognize this magic isn't in the game but in our own imaginations. If anything, No Man's Sky just focuses that magic, the same way that a lens can focus a beam of light. The game channels all of our dreams and hopes of the stars above by reinforcing specific motifs and themes found in the sci-fi genre.
No Man's Sky is very much an homage to the "golden age" of science fiction, the days where Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke spun tales of aliens, rocketships, and ray guns.
And like our imaginations, No Man's Sky never facilitates the very thing it's trying to sell you. It never makes that sense of wonder corporeal; it's just on the faraway horizon, or in the distant stars. It's not really there, just a trick, just a titillate ruse that makes you almost believe you're part of some amazing jaunt across the cosmos.
Like any game built on grinding, it urges you forward, promising you that fun will be had on the next planet, with the next starship, with the next Multi-Tool upgrade, but ultimately, the game isn't about the grind or progression, it's about getting lost.
SSDP: Same Sh*t, Different Planet: intergalactic tedium
The odds are so supremely stacked against the game right from the start because it tries to exemplify that golden age of sci-fi without capturing the core essence: immersion. No Man's Sky's immersion breaks down quite fast, especially when you realize that the game is built on rote mechanic grinding. Every planet might be different, but they're also the same: since every planet has pretty much the same resources, the "infinite" universe is made extremely derivative.
The crux of No Man's Sky is its repetitiveness. This isn't a game of instant gratification. It's a space survival sim, and that means grinding--lots and lots of grinding, and lots of time.
The grinding elements eventually erode the immersion and reveal the sameness at the game's core. You don't just grind resources to progress in No Man's Sky: you grind them to stay exactly where you are. Just standing still drains your Life Support systems, and every time you take off your ship, you use Launch Thruster fuel that needs to be replenished.
I understand that the game is a simulator, which means grinding. But a good portion of No Man's Sky's gameplay feel like a chore--it feels like work, with no real immediate payout. You're constantly micro-managing your inventory space and stacking up resources and unloading them for Units to buy more ships, Multi-Tool upgrades, and Exosuits.
Your warp drive, which allows you to jump to different planetary systems, adds another few layers to the grind. So instead of being a tool that represents the ultimate freedom in the entire galaxy, the warp drive adds even more weight to the mentally exhausting tedium.
Grind resources. Fill your inventory. Sell your inventory. Buy upgrades. Charge your warp drive. Jump to another planet system so you can do it all over again. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over--no matter what star system or planet you're on, this remains the same. Tedious grinding is the heart of the game.
Apart from very light "exploration," deciphering alien languages, and some mediocre FPS gunplay, this is basically the game's mechanics. After a while, you start to think that grinding has been emphasized so strongly to create the illusion of progression, and that grinding is the dev's way of propelling your journey onward.
The worst part about the experience itself, but your expectations of what could and should be. No Man's Sky's trailers show gigantic slithering sandworms straight out of Dune, but I've yet to see anyone discover such a thing, let alone any other mammoth creature.
Your "discoveries" bring on this sense of the unknown, of embarking on an epic journey to unexplored space, but it ultimately boils down to the same experience you had before, just a little different.
You don't explore in No Man's Sky--you just observe
So many people describe No Man's Sky as an exploration game. There's a very real problem with this description. The truth is that No Man's Sky is more about observing than exploring.
In reality, No Man's Sky doesn't make you feel like a participant in your own journey. After a while, you feel like a factory worker that's just pulling levers and pressing buttons. Your decisions don't amount to anything really, and you don't make a dent in the universe; you just drift across the cosmos like some planet-hopping passenger.
Exploration implies charting unknown space and meticulously cataloging your findings. Players don't even really chart their "discoveries," and we only really get a rather lacking Pokedex-like bestiary would ultimately amounts to nothing because the information literally doesn't help you--the only thing you need to know about animals is are they hostile and what do they eat--and an extremely disappointing list of places you've been.
Related: What is No Man's Sky? A primer for curious gamers
You can name everything you discover, from plants, animals, outposts and planets, but that doesn't mean much as you can't plant specific waypoints on your findings. Scanning a nearby outpost adds a blip to your HUD, and visited outposts are green whereas unvisited are white, but you can't tell the green from the green and the white from the white. So retracing your steps and coming back to certain outposts can be difficult.
So ultimately your "discoveries" are scattered on a planet's surface, and you're never really sure where to find them again.
You can't teleport to a discovered outpost, nor can you plot a custom HUD icon to ensure you'll be able to find your way back. There's no mini-map. Hell, there isn't even a basic compass. As such, your spatial orientation is off-kilter, and you're constantly getting lost, even in the very places you've already discovered.
Exploration isn't about getting lost in places you've been. You should only get lost in the unexplored, and that shouldn't even last long. Once you explore something, it should be mapped in some form or another on a static system, a planetary catalog.
If you're the type of gamer who wants to discover everything, No Man's Sky will punish you over and over and over. On top of wasting your time by constantly grinding mats to refill your ship's thrusters, you'll sometimes have to turn your back on new Multi-Tools or Exosuit upgrades because you don't have enough Units to buy them.
There's a severe disconnect with the game's so-called "discovery" and "exploration" elements, to the point you sometimes feel that certain things just aren't worth your time anymore. I've often found myself not even bothering to name certain things because it feels like a chore rather than the neat novelty it initially was. There's the bonus that most people won't even see your named creations, so it's only for your personal reference--much like everything else in this game.
Another reason I think No Man's Sky is more about observing is how you "interact" with aliens. You don't make any real meaningful impact on alien species or their factions. In fact, the "encounters" are multiple choice dialogue prompts that ultimately amount to a new upgrade or some Units.
The NPCs start to feel stale and act as nothing more than item dispensers. You feel like you're observing them from afar, not making contact with some exotic creature--and certainly not having an actual real effect on their lives.
You can't overthrow an empire, nor can you disrupt a faction's trade system. You can become a pirate of sorts, but there's really no incentive to do so other than easily gathering mats--providing your ship is up to snuff. The game is intimate and personal, and you won't be building up a massive legion of alien allies nor will you be helping them survive in the wilds of the universe. You simply drift along, eking out a "journey" across the stars.
Animals are a big part of No Man's Sky's observation-not-discovery mechanic. "Discovering" (more like scanning them into a Pokedex) the strange creatures is interesting, and it can be fun. For a bit, at least, until you realize how hollow the creatures really are.
The randomly-generated engine ensures this can also be horrifying, with freakish permutations that would make Dr. Moreau cry in shame. Basically, the animals are only there to look at--for better or worse--and give you some cash for each discovery.
You don't interact with them except for feeding the nice ones and shooting the hostile ones, and they don't actually do much except run around. They can, however, show you "secrets" if you feed them and take the time to follow them, but these are things you would've found anyway.
Soothing and Cathartic
No Man's Sky is oddly soothing and cathartic
Despite all the frustrations that can occur with annoying inventory management and constant resource mining, the game can be immensely soothing. The facade of freedom isn't responsible for this feeling--you are free to determine how you spend your time, to an extent, even if it's limited--but the simple joy of getting lost.
You see, No Man's Sky might be a game built on so-called "discovery," but it's really about getting lost. The game teaches you to go with the flow of the cosmos and not to fight the whims of the Great Magnet (what fools we were to think we could defy it). Can't buy an exosuit upgrade? Pass it up. Don't have enough mats to keep landing everywhere? No worries, you'll always find more outposts. Soon you stop caring about specific things because it feels better not to, and that's usually the sign of a bad game.
This kind of lazy attitude permeates the game in such a way that makes you feel at ease, but at the same time, it works against you and punishes you. For example, you can't afford to be lazy about vital resources like Oxides for your Hazard Protection Suit, or Isotopes for your Life Support System.
It's a strange dichotomy that shows No Man's Sky is built on a twisting webwork of things that both conflict and synergize with one another. It's rather fascinating, to be honest. The game is both its own best friend and its own worst enemy, and it clashes with itself and harmonizes at whim.
"I had the ambition to not only go farther than man had gone before, but to go as far as it was possible to go." -- Captain Cook
But honestly, firing up No Man's Sky after a tough day's work can be a treat. There's something mesmerizing about drifting in the vibrant nebulae-ridden cosmos and listening to the eerily beautiful and haunting electronic symphony of the game's soundtrack.
There's a beauty in its isolation, too: being alone with nothing but a giant alien planet to keep you company. It's oddly comforting to break away from the hustle and bustle of our lives and step into the shoes of an interstellar astronaut and roam the galaxy.
This is really how you enjoy No Man's Sky.
You have to look past the grinding, look past the sameness of the universe, and be willing to tune yourself to a different frequency: the frequency of the lonely stars. You have to be able to disconnect and drift, care-free, and just admire. You have to let go and give in, to stop fighting it and swim across the waters of celestial wonder.
There's a truly intimate feeling in discovering a planet that no one will likely ever see but you. To watch a sun set across an irradiated emerald sky, knowing that someone out there is probably looking up at the stars and seeing the very planet you're standing on. But they'll never be here. This is your planet. This is your game, your journey.
"It's human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really; it's an imperative." -- Michael Collins
Don't look too close, or you'll break the illusion. It's like a good magic trick: you know it's fake, but you don't care. You want to believe. That's how you enjoy No Man's Sky.
You have to want to believe in the universe around you, want to invest yourself. You have to be willing to imagine yourself being there the same way you imagined yourself stepping into those old retro copies of Amazing Stories and even The Twilight Zone. The only difference here is that there isn't a distinct payoff, more of a slow, long-term drip-feed of feels.
Last but not least, you have to be willing to look past the game's many flaws to enjoy it. You don't have to ignore them, perse, but you do have to be willing to look beyond them, to look in its layers and be okay with the things that are missing and incomplete.
It's a hard thing to do for any extended period of time. I certainly can't, and I think that's why so many people have mixed feelings about the game.
Beyond anything else, what you do in No Man's Sky is see. To fully enjoy the game, you have to want to see what's out there. That's the drive, the motivator. What you see isn't necessarily in your control, but how you see it certainly is.
What's Hot, What's Not, and Final Thoughts
I have an involved love-hate relationship with No Man's Sky. I genuinely enjoyed the game at times, and I approve of its overall message and what it's trying to do, but other times I swore it was an overpriced beta test. Even still, I find the game addicting, especially went put up against the instant gratification games I'm used to.
No Man's Sky is a feast for the eyes and ears, but it genuinely feels unfinished and hollow. The game may be near-infinite, but those planets lose all meaning if they're empty and extremely repetitive. Gamers would rather have small, feature-rich condensed areas with meaning than huge, wide open expanses that are devoid of any real semblance of life.
Hello Games would've benefited tremendously from a series of beta tests, and even with all the talk and promises of adding more content via free updates, I'm skeptical. I don't really think this can game be fixed without fundamentally re-working the entire framework, essentially turning it into something else.
At its core, No Man's Sky is a shallow experience that makes us dream big. The incredible visuals represent a game that doesn't exist, and that's its blessing and also it's curse. It's a game about being lost, for better or for worse.
This procedurally-generated universe is tailor-made for those who love to wander, whose main goal is to roam aimlessly. No Man's Sky breaks the conventional norms of a beginning, middle and an end, giving players a journey whose entire goal is to drift throughout the universe.
It's not about adventuring across the stars, or taking part in a galactic conflict; it's about simply gallivanting across the stars.
And for some, that's enough.
Amazing soundtrack and audio - No Man's Sky is full of incredible sound effects and music that add tons of immersion to the game.
Absolutely beautiful visuals - The planets are the strong point in this game, especially considering your primary motivation for playing is to see all the unique variations of the flora, fauna, and brilliant celestial bodies.
Soothing and cathartic - Apart from the annoyances, this game can be a serene and enchanting experience that melts stress away. Getting lost is rather comforting at times.
Missing features makes it feel unfinished - No Man's Sky needs so many basic improvements that I'm curious why it wasn't beta tested. Players need some way to orient themselves planet-side, whether it's a simple compass, a mini-map, or some sort of planet grid map to chart findings and plant waypoints.
Hollow and devoid of life - This is a lonely game, and not just because there's no multiplayer: the NPCs feel like shells, and the animals feel like they're just smaller eye-candy. The worlds are devoid of any real "life", and there's no civilizations, no huge space cities, or the millions of different things a sci-fi exploration game should have.
Tedious grinding - The grinding is boring, meticulous, and will frustrate you quite often. I understand this is a space sim and grinding is par for the course, but I don't like it when I have to grind just to stay where I am. I'd like my grinding to mean something, to fuel a progressive experience, to accumulate towards a goal. In No Man's Sky, there really isn't a goal.
Exploration feels unrewarding - Exploration isn't a goal in this game. In fact, I'd say this game isn't about exploration--it's about observation. Players don't feel rewarded or engaged, making it feel as if we're not necessarily participating in our own adventure, but watching someone else's.
Texture pop-ins - The game's planetary environments pop into place in an obvious way, making for some jarring transitions. This isn't just isolated to the PS4 version, and the pop-ins are present on PC, too. They're just a part of the game that we have to get used to, but that doesn't make them any less ugly.