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Technology and Gaming

No Man’s Sky: An Equal Measure of Beauty and Monotony

 

Reviewed on PC

No Man’s Sky is a shell of the game we were promised. A sprawling universe spanning 18 quintillion life-sized planets, yet falling short of matching the variety of a basic crib mobile, much less the depth of a compelling space adventure.

See one star system and you’ve seen them all, more or less. Every planet is generated randomly from the same paltry selection of structures and points of interest, sprinkled across the surface in suspension of disbelief defying quantity and layout. The same basic resources needed for crafting will be readily available at every juncture, with a chance at some of the marginally rarer minerals or the occasional exotic element popping up here and there. Plants and animals are hastily mix and matched from interchangeable parts by thoughtless algorithms.  And while the initial excitement of discovery is firmly tangible the first time around, the mundane task of scanning and uploading infinite variations of the same tree or rock formation gets old very quickly.

The much hyped element of naming discovered worlds, places, plants and life-forms equally falls apart with the realisation that exactly none of these planets are actually uninhabited. Alien dwellers can be found anywhere, making it hard to accept that this person’s evident home does not yet have a name already.

No Man’s Sky manages to inadvertently mount an impressive argument against its own genre of procedurally generated exploration games. What use is a world the size of an entire galaxy if there is hardly a square mile of unique content?

(Visually speaking, the game has its moments, but lush and beautiful planets are the exception.)

Similarly, it doesn’t take very long at all to see through the shallow nature of the simulation on display here. Contrary to what we were led to believe, not to mention explicitly told, this universe makes no effort to disguise its artificiality.

Planets are not rotating on their axis (making day/night cycles arbitrary), much less around a sun, which itself is little more than a JPEG hanging in the skybox. Asteroids are not a permanent part of planetary formations but spawn into existence anywhere around you once you decelerate to a certain speed. AI ships can be seen flying in the distance, but none have any actual destination or indeed purpose other than to act as window dressing.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Hidden beneath the cloud of lies, dishonesty and broken promises is a game boasting a long list of baffling design decisions, janky controls and missing features.

First of all, the game doesn’t tell you anything. There is no tutorial whatsoever, leaving the player in the dark about countless vital gameplay systems and features.

(On PC, mods like “Big Things” are a game changer, turning previously dull planets into truly alien landscapes.)

Navigating both planets and space is a pain, and that’s putting it mildly. There is no map to speak of. Waypoints can be placed manually on buildings in front of you (after finding out about this feature on Reddit) and appear as generic white dots on your visor. They may disappear however, should you travel too far away and there is no way to set a waypoint for previously discovered points of interest, only the last six of which are remembered in the menu. Finding your way back to a previous location is next to impossible. The ship’s scanner is borderline useless in space and virtually non-functional in orbit, glazing over locations on the ground as if non-existent. And once you’ve left a system you can be almost assured that you will never find it again. Getting the cursor to highlight a specific system on the galaxy map is an exercise in naked vexation. All this is aggravated further by unimaginably poor flight controls that obstruct the simple act of looking around and steering towards the ground.

At the centre of No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop is the gathering and mining of crafting materials on the ground to upgrade your exosuit, ship and multitool. There is no intrinsic goal to this exercise other than the satisfaction derived from the process itself. This, more so than anything else is the heart of No Man’s Sky’s appeal and sure to satisfy a niche audience of players looking for a laid-back experience.

It bears mentioning that there is no risk/reward to any of these endeavours. Robotic sentinels patrol the surface to protect the planet’s valuables, but can be dispatched or fled from with laughable ease. Space combat is crushingly hard initially (largely due to the poor controls), but becomes similarly trivial after a few upgrades to the shields and ship’s cannon.

(An intimidating battleship appears once your wanted level with the sentinel space police escalates to a 5 star rating. Spoiler: It looks a lot scarier than it is.)

After the first few days had passed, I finally started to settle into the rhythm of No Man’s Sky, mining away at gold deposits and making millions of space quid, upgrading my gear to sprint for longer or make my mining laser more effective. Admittedly, there is an odd satisfaction to be gained from these ventures (especially considering the severe limitations of your starting gear) and muting the volume and replacing it with music or a podcast can make each session downright enjoyable. However, my newfound affection did not last long, as I soon discovered a source of yet deeper frustration.

By design, rather than letting you find that one ship or multitool you really like and letting you constantly improve it over the course of the game, No Man’s Sky asks you to replace your gear all the time. Unlike your exosuit, ships and multitools cannot be outfitted with additional inventory slots needed for upgrades. This means having to discard them frequently in exchange for ones with higher slot counts. Worse yet, the models available for purchase will deliberately only ever present a slight upgrade over your current setup. This means in order to obtain a ship with the maximum slot size of 48 for example, you would have to burn through dozens of incrementally better throwaway ships first before being offered such an option. Ludicrous prices for ships only exacerbate the frustration further. The only alternative is spending hours upon hours searching for crashed ships (which will purposely represent an even smaller upgrade due to being free) and claiming them regardless of whether you like them, only to advance the asinine progression path, and then grinding out enough money to buy a ship you actually like. Furthermore, any upgrades you had installed cannot be transferred, forcing you to reconstruct them every time you acquire a new ship or multitool.

In addition, shopping for either is an incredible pain in its own right as each system will offer a limited and never changing selection of half a dozen ships or so, only two of which will likely be of the type you are looking for. All of them will spawn randomly, requiring a lot of standing and waiting around until you’ve seen the entire selection. Multitools can only be found in a specific building type. Hunting them down demands both dumb luck as well as boundless amounts of patience.

The upgrade system itself, which calls for strategic placement of upgrades within the inventory for increased potency, might be the only sign of depth you’ll find in this game, but ultimately represents a heady exercise in min/maxing stats, the mechanics of which are naturally not explained anywhere.

(A fully upgraded multitool. Upgrades of the same family will receive boosts when placed next to each other. Not that the game will tell you that, though.)

No Man’s Sky does have one asset, however. Wrapped inside the web of clunky systems and mechanics is an incredibly beguiling set of mysteries and story threads to follow, if one cares to.  The huge time investment necessary to track down each piece of lore might not necessarily prove worthwhile, however, especially given that all of it can be looked up online in a fraction of time.

Becoming invested in what is undeniably No Man’s Sky‘s biggest strength added immensely to my enjoyment and appreciation of the world Hello Games created and ultimately fuelled my desire to see this journey through to the end.

(Meet Nada and Polo. My interaction with these two quirky, but lovable characters made for some of my fondest memories in No Man’s Sky.)

At the end of the day, No Man’s Sky is a game with many faults and few redeeming qualities, leaving me with a lasting impression primarily coloured by a laundry list of problems. And yet, I have no doubt that a certain subset of gamers will find enjoyment in this universe. As someone who finds it easy to forgive mechanical flaws in games with decent narratives, No Man’s Sky managed to tip toe the line between decent and tosh in my book, eventually landing somewhere in the realm of just alright.

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