Game Review: No Man’s Sky 

18 quintillion planets and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

click to enlarge The ambitious and beautiful "No Man's Sky" offers a disappointingly shallow experience, but hints at exciting possibilities.

Hello Games

The ambitious and beautiful "No Man's Sky" offers a disappointingly shallow experience, but hints at exciting possibilities.

Let's get this out of the way first: What kind of video game are you looking for?

If you're in the mood for one that's chill, good-looking and allows you to gently explore the universe at your own pace, then Hello Game's "No Man's Sky" may interest you.

But if you're looking for a space simulator with engaging progression, complex trading systems and thrilling dogfights in space, you may want to think twice.

Of course, you'd be forgiven for thinking that "No Man's Sky" contains these features if you watched any of the trailers or listened to now-famous lead developer Sean Murray talk about the game before release.

At its core, the ambitious "No Man's Sky" is a space simulator that procedurally generates planets to explore. The developers promise 18.4 quintillion planets in total, an impressive number to be sure, if true. In that aspect, the game is a technical marvel and one that hints at the future of gaming in exciting, if brief, glimpses.

You start the game crash-landed on your own planet. You may be facing a radioactive wasteland, a blazingly hot ball of rock, or a lush paradise teeming with wildlife -- but your experience will be different from anyone else playing the game.

Luckily, repairing your ship and your tools are a simple matter of harvesting resources from the planet. Your mining multitool -- which also functions as a weapon for protection against hostile creatures and robots -- allows you to extract minerals and isotopes from the rock formations and plants you see scattered around.

Your ultimate goal is to repair your ship's hyperdrive, which allows you to leave the planet and explore your way to the center of the galaxy.

The opening minutes of "No Man's Sky" certainly are memorable. As you explore your planet you'll encounter windswept valleys, luminescent caves and mysterious alien ruins, watched over by tantalizing distant planets hanging in the sky. That you will eventually be able to blast off and explore those new horizons is thrilling. After all, who knows what secrets you'll discover in a game that promises endless variety?

But recall that feeling once you're a few planets in, because you may start to realize how disappointingly short the game falls in its current state. Maybe it's due to the computer-generated design of "No Man's Sky," but it's quickly apparent that the game is drawing on a palette of basic experiences to populate its universe. The variation promised is ultimately shallow.

There are ice planets, grassy planets and toxic rainy planets, but none of these variables has much impact on your chances of survival or what you'll be doing when you visit. Never once in my play-through did I encounter a planet so hostile that survival was any more complex than blasting an isotope out of a rock and recharging my environmental suit with the press of a button. The game doesn't even bother to challenge you with finding necessities like food, water or shelter.

There are weird animals populating some of these planets. Some of them are cute and some of them are big, goofy space monsters that will attack you on sight. But all of them wander aimlessly from place to place, as if they were plunked down moments before your arrival and aren't quite familiar with their surroundings. I never see a single nest, or herd or indication that the animals are in any way adapted to actually live on the planet.

There also are alien ruins or abandoned outposts to explore. Some of them even have an alien inside, sitting immobile at a table and waiting to give you a part for your ship. Technically, you can learn more of their language by studying odd stones scattered around the landscape, but that does little to change your interactions in any meaningful way. These are beings that have mastered faster-than-light travel, yet I never encounter a city, a bustling port or even two aliens in a room together.

click to enlarge HELLO GAMES
  • Hello Games

Every planet I come across has these base experiences in common: minerals, plants, animals, ruins and aliens. Same deal, different planet. And moving into space doesn't really broaden your options, either. Every solar system features a huge, empty space station orbiting a planet containing -- you guessed it -- yet another lone alien sitting in a room. It's here that the cracks in the procedural generation start to show. What's lacking here is the human touch seen in other open-world games such as the Far Cry or the Elder Scrolls series. Those worlds feel lived-in, whereas for all its vastness, the universe in "No Man's Sky" feels devoid of life. What good are 18.4 quintillion planets if there's nothing to do on them besides gather more resources to visit the next planet?

I should say that there is a loose story connecting your journey across the universe, but it speaks volumes that you can accidentally skip the entire thing if you miss a red orb sitting in a box near your initial crash site. The story feels like an afterthought. There's not enough meat there to even dream up your own supplemental narrative as you explore, unless your idea of a story is mining a cave for plutonium and hassling grumpy cat monsters. Must every game have a strong story? No, but ideally it should have enough moment-to-moment play to keep you engaged.

Then there are the technical issues. The game suffers from fluctuating frame rate on my PC, even though it is well above the game's requirements. The game also seems to run no differently on its lowest or highest settings, so I eventually got a refund and instead continue with the Playstation 4 version. This is a much smoother experience, which perhaps is unsurprising considering that Sony locked down the console exclusive halfway through the game's development. Still disappointing, though, for a game that started out life as PC-only.

But even in this console version, "No Man's Sky" has its share of annoying problems. On my very first play-through, an alien outpost containing a necessary part for my hyperdrive spawned sticking halfway out of the ground. The door to the facility is inaccessible under the level geometry and when I land my ship nearby, the game sucks it down under the dirt as well. Try as I might, there's no way to retrieve my ship or access the building. So I must entirely restart the game, hoping that this time I won't fall prey to such a goofy glitch.

"No Man's Sky" started life as a passion project for the small Hello Games team and ballooned after high-profile E3 showings and late-night talk show demos. After a potent cocktail of vast developer promises and the Sony hype machine, it's little wonder that the game fails to live up to such tremendous expectations. Very few games could under the same circumstances. Whether you're willing to give this a pass ultimately will depend on your experiences with the game.

click to enlarge HELLO GAMES
  • Hello Games

Despite all this, my final take-away is one of vast potential. We're living in a world where the new normal for gaming is massive updates that fix or change huge aspects of games. This is the era of games as platforms and many times a title that gets reviewed at launch is not the same game months or even years down the line. Take, for example, the near-ubiquitous "Minecraft," a game that was first released in 2011. It too was initially developed by a small team and was similarly criticized for a lack of content right out of the box. But the bones were good and, over years of updates, the Lego-esque "Minecraft" grew to be a huge property that is instantly recognizable to anyone born after the year 2000. It grew so much that Microsoft purchased the game and its studio whole-cloth for $2.5 billion in 2014. Talk about a mission change.

The difference here is that while "Minecraft" couples its open-ended exploration with an addictive crafting system that allows players to literally reshape the world in their image, the same can't be said of "No Man's Sky's" largely sterile universe. But I still get the impression of possibilities with this game, even if those possibilities aren't totally delivered at launch.

Assuming Hello Games makes the right moves, we could be looking at the next "Minecraft", but this time on an interplanetary scale. That's an exciting prospect and one I would gladly revisit once the technical kinks have been ironed out. Is that too much to hope for when modern science tells us that most of the universe is actually just empty space? Well, maybe we just don't need our space simulators that realistic.

If you haven't already decided to check out "No Man's Sky," give it six months. By then, the launch issues may just be a twinkle in some forgotten galaxy.

"No Man's Sky" is available on PS4 and PC. $60.


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