‘A near limitless universe doesn’t necessarily mean limitless possibilities for gameplay‘ – Bee Bonthuys on No Man’s Sky
Hours into No Man’s Sky, I had a moment of unplanned delight, where it felt like all my endless, aimless exploration had not been in vain.
Balanced on top of a ruin stood a man-sized golden metal ball. Bumping into it, I was amazed to find that it wasn’t nailed to the bedrock like most objects in this world. Accidentally knocking it down the crumbling stairs, I realised that I might’ve just discovered Giant Golden Ruin Football. This wasn’t just an anomalous decoration from some random building anymore – it was my ticket to fun town.
One thing was missing, though: I needed a goal. No far off, I found a smallish impact crater; it would be perfect for my golden ball of awesome.
I rolled, I dribbled, I manoeuvred. I could feel the planet’s zoomorphic Pineapple Creatures in the distance cheering me on. Dear god, man, I was the bloody Pelé of my randomly generated purple planet, as I finally kicked the ball at the hole – goal!
Only it wasn’t a goal, as the ball rolled to the side. That was odd. So I tried again. And it rolled off to the side. I pushed it again and it rolled awkwardly to settle right next to the crater. The hole was certainly deep and wide enough, but it simply would not stick. Just as things were about to get good, some invisible force within the game had ruined the moment.
This is pretty symbolic of my overall experience playing Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky. It’s a perfectly serviceable indie title in some ways – though an indie game with a triple-A price tag of €60 – but after hours of play, it’s not necessarily the mind-altering vision described in interviews and features in the run-up to its launch.
The seed from which designer Sean Murray’s vision sprung was rather humble – what would it be like to be the first human to set foot on an unexplored alien planet? From playing No Man’s Sky, the answer seems to be… well… that it’s kinda underwhelming.
This indie project, though backed by Sony, is a massive open-world space simulator with some survival and crafting elements thrown in the mix, and heavily reliant on randomly generated planets, flora and fauna to create a unique experience. That’s the game’s main selling point and there’s no question that it’s impressive when you first set foot on your starter world. What gamer doesn’t want the promise of jumping in a spaceship to explore the advertised 18 quintillion planets, and experience something boundless?
However, a near limitless universe doesn’t necessarily mean limitless possibilities for gameplay, and this becomes more obvious the further you explore. While every planet is different, they are all essentially made up of the same repeating ‘blocks’, just recoloured and jigsawed together. Some can be tropical paradises; others are barren, radioactive hell holes. But the differences are only skin deep. For example, the environmental de-buff you suffer from being exposed to toxins in one environment is the same as getting frostbite on another, and it never alters the gameplay in any significant way.
Every creature you encounter may look distinct, but their behaviour in the environment is essentially the same: carnivores are aggressive and herbivores skittish. While no reasonable gamer expected a bottomless pit of wacky antics, the well the game draws from appears to be a shallow wading pool. Players can ‘befriend’ creatures by feeding them resources, in an elementary attempt to add depth to your interactions, but the payoff – the occasional mineral – doesn’t feel worth the effort.
If cuddling up to the local wildlife isn’t your space jive, you can try to curry favour with the universe’s three factions, the Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen. But I doubt you’ll be bringing anyone home for Sunday roast. It’s ironic that in a game so focussed on constant change, the alien races are so static. Their basic design might be interesting, but they don’t amount to much. Interactions come down to a wall of text, and while the writing isn’t horrible, there’s no real sense of life behind the words. What’s more, you’ll never see two aliens in the same place. After a while, I started to wonder if having millions of sentient lifeforms stuck in small bunkers was healthy on an intergalactic scale; after all, it’s always the quiet ones.
The races do provide one of the more refreshing gameplay mechanics, however. As you traverse the cosmos, you’ll be collecting words to communicate. While I wish this system went further than just building an arbitrary dictionary, here at least No Man’s Sky gives you a sense of achieving something tangible.
Resource gathering, required for trading and crafting upgrades, suffers from a bare-bones design. Planets seem to have an abundance of the basic minerals you need; armed with your reskinned sci-fi pickaxe, just wander a bit and you’ll eventually have collected enough plutonium, carbon and iron to have you covered. The frequent ‘mining’ soon feels like a grind rather than a fun gameplay mechanic. Finding rarer minerals will be the highlight of your day.
For a game marketed as putting your survival down to the choices you make, I was never faced with any life-or-death conundrum. Maybe I was lucky. While this more sedate experience may appeal to many, those looking to play Bear Grylls might be better served with grittier survival titles such as The Long Dark.
But getting back to the main thrust of the game, which is exploration – planets in No Man’s Sky play host to a variety of shelters, transmission signals, caves, pods, ruins and monoliths for the player to find. The problem is that every planet seems to have an abundance of all these, making discovering your next one a bit less special after the 4,639 you’ve previously encountered. Some are guarded by vigilante squad of scanning ‘Eyebot’ sentinels, and pissing one of these off might get your ass fired, but mostly running a laughably short distance away from them will cool their jets, and before long every player should be prepared to outthink their beefier bros.
Sick of aimless wandering? Your one goal in No Man’s Sky is to follow the Atlas Path, a series of tasks that pull double duty as the game’s tutorial. This path beckons you towards the centre of the universe, but whether gamers who have completed the journey will be satisfied with what they find there is questionable.
If the promise of labelling the universe isn’t enough to keep you truckin’ through space, 65daysofstatic’s fantastic soundtrack Music for an Infinite Universe might just be the shot of awesome you needed. The Sheffield band adds some much-needed post-rock soul, reminiscent of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score. Instrumental dissonance, energetic drum beats and haunting electronic harmonies combine to create the perfect atmosphere of isolation, speed and vastness.
You might be wondering why I’ve not mentioned space very much in what’s supposed to be an open-world space adventure. That’s because space is where No Man’s Sky has its biggest failing. The simplistic astronomical model is no more than an attractive backdrop, and no matter how many spaceships you fly, they’ll mostly feel like a sasquatch trudging through sludge, with no discernible functional or handling differences apart from their appearance. The ‘flight assist’ function is overly protective, preventing you from crashing into most things (you’re always an infuriating height above the ground on planets), and every space station has just a handful of NPCs spawning in. That’s not to say the game is totally devoid of liveliness. The AI will start small space kerfuffles – pirates will attack larger freighters, for instance – yet while joining in can be fun, it’s frustrating due to the limited flight controls and fiddly UI. None of this evokes the epic scale of shifting faction warfare it alludes to.
PC players should also be aware that this version of No Man’s Sky suffers from port-itis, and it takes time to get used to the clearly PS4 controller-focused UI. Launch optimisation issues and late game-breaking bugs have reared their ugly heads. Hello Games has also confirmed that there is no direct multiplayer function within the game, a missing aspect many are furious about. No Man’s Sky only allows users to name and upload their discoveries to a universal database, with no easy way to map or track your path between the stars, which seems like a startling omission.
True completionists might never run out of things to do, but do they want to infinitely repeat those activities? This is one of the reasons why No Man’s Sky has become such a divisive release; while it’s technically unmatched when it comes to sheer scope, so many other games in the genre have done more with less.
Some gamers will be happy simply exploring, fascinated by the randomness they find. Others might be awed at the scale at first but grow bored once the resource grind sets in. Others seeking a more hands-on, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience will feel like this is still an early beta.
If you’re in the latter group and find No Man’s Sky too restful, might I recommend Luceon Studies’ Rimworld instead? Recently released on Steam Early Access, its designer Tynan Sylvester has taken a refreshingly honest stance on that programme, clearly stating that no design plan is set in stone and that things will change along the way.
This sometimes unforgiving survival title tasks you with governing a group of stranded colonists. Build a base, fight off raiders, take them as prisoners, recruit others – or harness them for parts. And remember to keep an eye on Keith, he might be a nudist cannibal.
While Rimworld is set on just one lonely planet, its trailer’s not as shiny and its design philosophy not as sexy as the competition, at least it delivers on its promises.