No Man’s Sky is a hard game to quantify. I mean, we initially included it on MMORPG’s list because we (along with many others) expected it to be a multiplayer experience akin to say Elite: Dangerous. But as launch drew closer, we began to realize that No Man’s Sky is indeed a single-player experience. Multiplayer modes may be coming, but for now what we have is a massively single player exploration RPG, sort of what would happen if Pokemon Snap (remember that game?) and Interstellar had a baby in video game form. The question is, after all the hype and all the waiting… is it any good?
I think that answer can be divided pretty squarely into two main schools of thought. The first school is for those folks who have been following every single tidbit of information about No Man’s Sky – waiting with bated breath for this to be the game of the century. Those people, like fans of Fable, Daikatana, SWTOR, and more are probably not too happy with the product they received in No Man’s Sky.
What’s the other school of thought? It’s the one I belong to: the people who knew about the game, watched some trailers and maybe read a few articles, but pretty much went into the game with a blank slate as to what they were going to see in Hello Games’ technological marvel. For those people, No Man’s Sky can be an altogether amazing and enthralling experience. Indeed, in my 20 or so hours so far, I’ve seen minutes turn to hours as my desire to see what’s over the horizon set in.
That said, the game is most assuredly not perfect, and I can completely grasp the boredom sensation many people feel when it comes to jumping around from planet to planet and harvesting materials while cataloging species. It’s not exactly the most thrilling scripted experience. And that’s part of its draw. Whenever I power up the game, the experience I’m having is entirely unique to me. That’s true in a lot of games, but with No Man’s Sky plentiful algorithms and procedural universe, it’s especially true. And that’s why it’s so sad I can’t share it with my friends in their own ships (or dare I dream, my own ship) alongside me.
The basic loop of gameplay, from step one onto your first planet, never really changes. You wander around, you find landmarks, collect resources for crafting and staying alive, all while working towards unraveling the mystery the game sets before you. Along the way, you’ll meet tons of indigenous species, some will be weird, some beautiful, and some downright terrifying. What’s a shame is that intelligent life is limited to what basically amounts to NPCs on space stations or at camps littered around planets. They don’t do anything, you can’t interact with them beyond basic transactions, and they’re not interesting. It’s a real missed opportunity to not have these species be your primary reason for combat and or conflict in the game.
Speaking of combat, it’s not great. It’s not terrible, but it’s basic FPS shooting on land against animals and galactic sentinel robots. In the sky, it’s very basic point and shoot dogfighting against pretty minimal AI. As a game with so many different ideas and premises, it’s clear that Hello Games didn’t have enough time or staff to fully flesh out everything. And that’s just depressing, because the worlds and procedural tech is downright amazing. If they would have been able to take even more time to fully bake the alien species, the combat, and the factions it could have been something truly special. Instead, we’re left hoping that time and DLC bring in the stuff that’s missing.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the many issues found with the PC port. Besides being one of the most crash-prone PS4 games in recent memory, it’s also just chock full of so many issues across both systems. But a patch is on its way (as of this writing) that very well fixes a lot of PC problems. It’s on the experimental branch of the Steam build, and anyone can play it now if they’re sick of waiting. This, combined with the poor performance on many high end systems leaves many people (myself included) simply confused as to why the PC and PS4 versions weren’t delayed again. People never forget a piss-poor launch (Anarchy Online anyone?), but they also never forget a fantastic complete experience at launch. And far and away, everyone forgets delays as long as the final product is exemplary.
Graphically, No Man’s Sky is a mixed bag. Its art direction and the vistas created by its tech are second to none. But that same tech has its limitations and there’s a whole load of pop in and weird dithering effects as you fly over planets that’s just hard to ignore and pulls you out of the experience anytime it rears its head. In terms of ambiance and music, well the work in No Man’s Sky is nothing short of sublime. Surround sound and a quiet place to play really make the exploration of these planets and the stars feel like something altogether epic. Kudos to the sound team at Hello Games.
When the dust settles, it may be too early to tell if people will remember No Man’s Sky for its shortcomings or the amazing design and tech it brought to the industry. The hype, sales, and general buzz basically mean that we’re going to see more and more procedural style games come out in the future. Imagine what a studio could do if they somehow mixed narrative and scripted content with procedural generation? The technology, more than anything, is what No Man’s Sky will be remembered for, if not its mountain of promises. No matter which school of thought you wind up in when it comes to critiquing NMS, chances are we can all agree that it’s a work of art when it comes to the driving technology of its limitless universe.
For me, despite its missed opportunities and forgotten promises, I’m still glad I dropped the money to experience No Man’s Sky. It’s something unique in a world where most of what we get are sequels or off-shoots. Fortune favors the bold, and I hope this is just the beginning of the type of innovation we can expect to see from Hello Games. And frankly, I hope they take all the time they need with their next game.
GAMEPLAY – 7 | The core loop of hopping planets, harvesting resources, and chasing the mystery of the Atlas is good, but damned repetitive. Combat, crafting, factions, and flight all feel half-baked. They’re passable, but could have been more.
VISUALS AND SOUND – 8 | The game’s gorgeous, but it also suffers from quite a few technical glitches, pop-in and weird dithering effects. The soundscapes and musical accompaniment are damned fine stuff though. I want the soundtrack after playing the game for a couple dozen hours.
LONGEVITY – 9 | Whether or not the gameplay is your style is debatable, but no one can deny that you’ll be hard-pressed to run out of content in No Man’s Sky. It is, for all intents and purposes, an endless universe to explore. That said, you’ll likely get bored of the repetitive nature of the game before you ever see 1% of those worlds.
POLISH – 3 | It’s a shame the game didn’t get the time it deserved to shore up the core systems and make sure the PC version as ready for launch. There was a tremendous amount of hype, and for many the game is still one of the best out there, but its lack of final touches and hitting all its promises may hurt its legacy.
VALUE – 7 | Some won’t see No Man’s Sky as a $60 game. But as I’ve already put 20+ hours in and I’m nowhere near the “end” of the story I’m fairly confident that I’ll get my money’s worth out of Hello Games’ opus. Your mileage may vary.