It’s impressive. It’s beautiful. It’s deeply introspective. For many reasons, it’s brilliant.
But it’s not necessarily... fun… per se.
It’s certainly occupying and addictive – more so than most video games, in my experience – right up until it achieved a sort of critical mass, at which point I put the game down. And I have yet to pick it back up again.
No Man’s Sky’s singularly defining attribute is also its greatest weakness: it’s not so much a game as it is a philosophical exercise. It uses the tools of a video game to enable you to take yourself on a vast and incredible journey of self-discovery. One which may ultimately come to show you an unsettling truth: that perhaps you never really needed to play No Man’s Sky in the first place….
I, at least, was glad I did.
It has the controls of Halo (the author’s personal favorite video game of all time), including – thank God! someone finally figured it out – a jetpack (standard), and it also heavily borrows its sci-fi aesthetic. But rather than focusing on fast-paced, first-person combat, or dazzling 3-dimensional space battles (though it does have limited approximations of both), No Man’s Sky is all about exploration.
And so purely is focused on exploration, it’s like Gene Roddenberry's ghost was summoned as an executive consultant. “Don’t even bother trying to kill anyone,” No Man’s Sky tells you. “If you really must kill something, then there’re these robots everywhere for target practice. You’ll encounter a variety of extraterrestrial beings, but you actually can’t kill any of them no matter how hard you try, except, maybe, if you shoot down one of their starships. But even then, (though ‘Crashed Starships’ are a resource to stumble across and pillage) the ships you drop yourself will disappear instantly, so for all you know they were piloted by drones all along, and, either way, there is no incentive to kill.”
The only pressing objective the game provides you with is to remain alive, and threats to your survival come from one environmental hazard or another. The easiest way to deal with them is simply to move on to someplace different. (Re: exploration.)
The game takes place in a galaxy-sized galaxy nestled inside a universe-sized universe, and it therefore incurs a good bit of mind boggling as you skip from one system to the next, investigating the always-different, eternally-changing topography and ever-varying life-forms which are populated for you.
But here is where No Man’s Sky begins its spiral of disappointment, for some (like this one, and this one, and this one.) Because although the planets can do infinite things… you can only do about five. Again and again and again. You can mine planets for resources. You can mine space rocks for resources. You can manufacture goods from resources. You can buy and sell stuff with AI aliens and at space stations. You can upgrade your ship and equipment to be more efficient, and if you save your space pennies for long enough, you can buy a whole new ship, too.
And that’s about it.
Story wise, the game gives you a decent start: “choose between a harrowing journey to the Center of the Galaxy, or follow the path of a mysterious quasi-religion towards an unknown end….” But not too long into the game you’ll discover there’s not much more to be discovered beyond this general summary. In other words, this premise is the extent of the game’s storyline. There’s not a whole lot of development afterward. Because, I can only conjecture, the game’s designers wanted this game to be about the pursuit, not the end.
No Man’s Sky is the first video game for which I felt compelled to take notes for. That’s right, I learned to keep a notebook at my side to keep track of the tedious formulas required to manufacture warp drive fuel (and other things), so that when I stumbled across a necessary resources somewhere I’d remember to stop and collect it. Or when I was trading, to remind me not to sell certain items. Again, I found this helpful to do, but I can’t say that it was much fun.
For the hardline sci-fi fans out there, No Man’s Sky goes to great lengths to keep things accurate-seeming in some neat ways… and then just totally drops the ball in others. For instance, to decelerate in space, you’ve actually got to ride the brakes for a while to cancel out your forward momentum. There is no gravity to assist you, as there is on earth (and as you’ll miraculously find in some space-faring games where earth-based aerodynamic physics is strangely used in their spaceflight programming. Thanks a lot, Star Wars). This makes for a slightly more frustrating way to cruise the cosmos, sure, but I appreciate the attention to detail.
As for the things that are NOT very accurate, well….
Your ship’s guns fire eternally without ever needing fuel or repair, and your jetpack only needs to recharge for a few moments, though your launch thruster can only launch your ship five times before it needs to be refueled (meanwhile everything else you use will break down over time and will require some kind of fuel, repairs, or both).
Though there are some-quadrillion planets, yet unaccountably every star system has almost exactly the same number of planets. Individual planets are also lacking poles, and their geography is freakishly uniform. So if you find a planet with snaking rivulets, then there are snaking rivulets covering every last square kilometer of that entire planet’s surface. There is no variation to be found on the planet itself, as there would be on, you know, ...actual planets. Also, there’s somehow not a single gas giant in the whole universe.
What’s more, though you are the one given credit for planetary discovery (you even get to name it!), it turns out that each and every planet you stumble across is already littered with outposts, settlements, trading posts, alien life forms, ancient relics, and, of course, the obligatory armada of patrol drones. Aside from the fact that you have no friends (and are not allowed to gain any), there is surprisingly very little to convince you that you are supposed to be alone roaming the frontier of space, discovering the undiscovered.
And speaking of those alien races (there are three), where the hell are their homeworlds? Why can’t I make it my goal to visit one of them? Where are the centers of population concentration? What if I want to visit the space equivalent of New York City? Coruscant? Well, it doesn’t seem to exist, or at least it’s kept quite secret from you, and you are not allowed to interact with any of the AI enough to even ask about it.
You can climb the economic ladder only so high because you are restricted to what you can personally do on your own. This frustration peaks as soon as you buy your first new starship, which will cost many space dollars that it took you a long time to save up. What happens with your old one?
Well, you automatically abandon it.
Does the guy you bought your new ship from get the old one?
So you just paid a fortune for a new ship, and then junked your old one at the spot of the transaction?
Yes. That’s exactly what you did, and what you have to do. There is no alternative. If you want a new ship, you lose your old one. So every time you upgrade your vessel, you’re out the cost (and use) of your last one.
And don’t get any ideas about assembling a fleet, buying or creating structures, or any kind of capitalist growth such as that. No Man’s Sky has no room for fatcat tycoons – your destiny is to be a lonely fighter pilot and that is that. Now get out your hand-laser and harvest that mountain of gold all by yourself, for the millionth time.
And while you’re at it, perhaps you’ll fend off the mind-melting boredom of the monotony and force yourself to consider why you were ever born at all, and what value there is to be found in searching for the “point of” anything, including your own existence and that of the cosmos at large.