In crowded expo halls and at private demo sessions, No Man’s Sky has impressed and intrigued with promises of a massive, gorgeous, and diverse galaxy of space exploration—and one that, developer Hello Games insists, no two people will play the same way, since the game’s 18 quadrillion planets are built using a web of criss-crossing math formulas. But now, brief demos give way to the real, final game—so how much does No Man’s Sky live up to its hype?
Ars Technica was fortunate enough to land a single day’s advance play of the game before its Tuesday launch on PS4 in North America (it’s released in the UK a day later, on August 10), which isn’t enough to constitute a full review. I mean, I still have, er, 17,999,999,999,999,999,992 planets left in my completist run of the game. But after a 12-hour marathon on the eve of its retail launch, I’m getting a sense of the game’s potential, its limits, and whether I see myself continuing this epic quest to the center of a mysterious galaxy.
Ars’ full review is forthcoming, but for now, let me kick off my marathon impressions with an atypical proposition: that No Man’s Sky is the rare game that is better when spoiled.
Oh, no, another loot cave?!
Hello Games founder Sean Murray has said otherwise—and in fact personally rebuked anybody who posted footage of the game’s leaked launch by asking fans not to spoil it for themselves. But having seen zero holy-cow twists in the game’s first dozen hours, I believe curious players shouldn’t fear hearing how the game works.
No Man’s Sky is both enormous and remarkably simple. Understanding that yin-yang is the first step to settling into the game’s mix of comfortable rhythms, bursts of excitement, and mounting tedium.
Players wake up on one of the game’s procedurally generated planets with only a laser gun in their pocket and a weak jetpack on their back. Every player’s first mission in this (mostly) single-player game is the same: repair the busted spaceship that you woke up next to and launch your butt into space. How that opening mission plays out, however, is really up to the planet you wind up on, as everyone’s starting position is totally different.
You’ll see brief, on-screen notes about whatever issue is at hand. Everyone will be told to collect resources—specifically, the ones needed to repair your ship—which can be accomplished by shooting elements on your planet with that default laser pistol. Some players will get nagged about hazardous conditions, since they might wake on a blisteringly hot planet or one covered in toxic gas, and therefore be ushered more quickly into a series of item-crafting menus to save their hides.
Other factors could come into play right away. If your game starts out near hostile creatures or drone-like, laser-shooting robots, you’ll start leaning towards the game’s combat mechanics. If you spawn near a giant cave, you may spend more time amassing resources and wondering what the heck they do. If your spaceship crash-landed near an alien obelisk, you’ll find out about the game’s language-learning system right away—which asks players to scour planets to learn a single solar system’s language, one word at a time. If you crash-landed next to a gibberish-shouting alien, on the other hand, you might be a little more put off by the confusing introduction to whatever race your planet came with—but also wind up with recipes for various items and power-ups and have no context as to what they’re for.
I’m not saying this type of introduction is difficult for a video game fan to wrap his or her head around. No Man’s Sky‘s mix of exploration and survival is proudly derivative of many successful games that have come before it, and your first steps will probably feel comfortable, even while you get used to the game’s menu and control system.
But it’s very easy to start the game poorly—as in, losing an hour at a time to mundane tasks because you make faulty assumptions about what’s coming next in the game. NMS‘s procedural generation doesn’t help matters there. My own quest started with a painfully dull dive into a cave, which I followed because I did what the game told me to: I clicked the left joystick down (the “L3″ button) and looked for on-screen icons for the items I needed to harvest in the game world. There’s no map, by the way; whenever you’re on the hunt for a specific resource or location, you must click a “scan” button and look around the 3D world for icon-marked estimates of where to walk or fly.
My starting path led me down a giant pit that I could neither walk or jetpack-fly back up. I wound up wandering around a giant cave for about an hour, looking for an exit so I could repair my spaceship and (hopefully) never again be stuck on foot in this game. The cave’s various tunnels and paths would either lead to interlocking circles or dead ends, and none of these were marked with lights or particularly telling physical features; instead, they repeated the same textures, plants, and rock formations over and over, since these were unique to my planet. The game doesn’t let players either mark a map or drop identifiable breadcrumb items, and your ability to terraform the ground—meaning, blow craters through paths to get the heck out of dumb caves—is limited until you find a “launcher” weapon, which might not happen in your procedural playthrough for many hours. Until then, you’re stuck with whatever path or opening the system has cooked up for you.
I decided to stick with my early cave-dive, as opposed to restarting or having my character die, because I had amassed a ton of resources, and the only frame of reference I had for the stuff I’d grabbed was paragraphs of menu text telling me how rare my elements were. The game hadn’t yet encouraged me to craft or introduced me to the game’s recipes, and I assumed I would unlock some sort of vault to stuff all this loot into for future use on some other planet.
I eventually realized that every single thing I’d found in that cave could be found more easily—though that would come hours later. Having full access to a spaceship changes everything about the game’s introductory perils. I never again needed to dig into a cool-looking, high-difficulty cave to accomplish an objective, nor did I have to sweat the game’s heat, ice, or poison zones (though deadly elements may very well grow worse as the game progresses).
I never did find a convenient vault. Instead, I found a pretty big pain in the neck.
No Man’s Sky is a loot-management nightmare in the early goings. Half of this is due to annoyingly tiny storage holds, but the other half is that every single element in the game is available from the get-go, even the high-level ones that players won’t have any use for until dozens of hours later—and all of these crafting elements take up a ton of inventory room. If you’re the kind to devote a sliver of your inventory to your shiniest shinies, assuming that your devotion to gold and aluminum will pay off in time, prepare to feel deflated.
Great views—from a distance, at least
Okay, let me take a breath. In fact, let me do so while standing on top of one of No Man’s Sky‘s average viewpoints. Whew. That’s relaxing.
Hello Games’ procedural generation system never fails to produce an impressive, expansive vista. Out of everything the team has built here, it’s probably the game’s color-balancing system that deserves the most kudos (though that’s a hard-won victory). The colors always look both incredibly rich yet somehow remarkably sun-scorched, meaning there’s a hard edge to every sunset (or suns-set, depending on the planet) and a shimmer of impressive color to every poisonous-, mud-drenched hole. And the game’s cast of apparently randomly generated creatures and monsters get right what Spore wished it could do a decade ago, especially in terms of smooth animation. (I expected all of these critters to glitch out, considering the game’s random nature, but I haven’t found any Skate 3-caliber glitches just yet.)
The game’s good looks, especially in this giant scope, come at a pretty big cost. For one, Hello Games clearly dialed back on the textures here. No Man’s Sky has a lot of blotchy, badly defined textures that you might have seen in a polished PlayStation 2 game, and other than some cool foliage design and solid dynamic lighting effects, you won’t see a lot of other visual polish to help smooth out the bad textures. Also, while the scenery looks remarkable from the vantage point of a giant hill while on foot, the game’s engine can’t keep up with the speed of a spaceship, as pop-in plagues every single planet in the game. Hello Games employs an interesting dithering effect when it fades geometry into the view, which actually looks handsome on some occasions—but kind of cheesy on others.
Ultimately, Hello Games had to cut some corners to stabilize the framerate, and considering how much geometry gets packed into an average No Man’s Sky scene, I’m ultimately pleased with what Hello Games pulled off, but the game’s original trailers sold us a much smoother-looking game. (We’ll have to wait and see if the Windows version, coming August 12, gets us closer to the team’s original vision of draw distance and texture polish.) Also, whatever version of the game you get comes with arguably the most moody and atmospheric sci-fi video game soundtrack in years, courtesy of electro-indie band 65daysofstatic.
Four elements—and some are worse than others
After my bumpy start, I shook off what I felt like were personal-bias quibbles and focused on the game’s systems: exploration, crafting, combat, and survival.
Survival, as I hinted to above, has proven the least interesting. I’ve yet to struggle with dangerous elements, and the game doesn’t otherwise hamper players anywhere near the extent of survival-genre games like ARK: Survival Evolved. You have health, armor, and “life support” bars to keep your eyes on, and that’s it. The elements you’ll need to refill those bars are plentiful, as well.
Combat on the planets’ surfaces starts out feeling pretty floaty. Enemies don’t visibly react to being shot, and it’s hard to tell whether or not your shots actually connected—especially since a lot of game’s hostile creatures don’t have sensible AI. Sometimes they lunge towards you to bite; otherwise, they run around in erratic circles and zig-zags—in ways that make them both hard to hit and hard to fear. The floating drones, meanwhile, mostly just float right above your head. By the end of my marathon, I’d seen upgrade options for a wide-blast laser (pretty much a shotgun) and a ground-busting launcher, and those made me feel a lot more powerful. The game’s creatures, on the other hand, didn’t give me much to do with those weapons. Other than the aforementioned crazy ones, most of the game’s animals are docile.
Everything’s a little more fun on the spaceship. Exploration, in particular, absolutely explodes once you realize you can fly for hours and hours over and between planets, using a mix of semi-fast boosters to coast over surfaces and full-on hyperdrive to bounce from planet to planet. Space combat is rendered a little simple by every ship’s basic, lock-on laser attack—which is far more effective than the optional rockets—though any enemy spaceships you meet have far more teeth than the AI creatures on planets. This isn’t a pure dogfighting game, per sé, so you’re not getting customizable rocket placement, mass arrangement, pitch/yaw adjustment, or other fine-tuning tweaks, but if you want to dogfight between loot-grabbing sessions, you can shoot off a few satisfying rounds in space.
Space also hides some of the game’s more lucrative battle possibilities in the form of massive, turret-mounted freighters. I died a few times trying to take those on. They’ll have to wait.
But most of your gameplay will revolve around landing on planets and getting enough loot to craft necessities. As a result, NMS can feel incredibly repetitive. One major reason: Its devotion to icons as a UI anchor.
Wherever you go in NMS, you’re expected to scan for and follow icons. Every planet may have a procedurally generated series of creatures, formations, and plants, but they all abide by a core assortment of about 12 elements, including basics like carbon, iron, plutonium, and heridium. Some have exclusive elements that others don’t (gold here, aluminum there, emeril way out there), but because it’s so difficult to read individual elements from high up in the sky or far off on a giant hill, NMS relies on shoving these icons in your face as your motivation, whether they’re guiding you to inventory, to vocabulary monuments, to item sellers, or anything else.
And, in very bad news, NMS has already proven itself a major content recycler. Every planet I go to has the same “settlement” and “mural” structures, right down to the north-south-east-west positioning of iron-built buildings in a mountain’s pit. The dynamic content generators have their limits, and it didn’t take me long to find them.
Bottom line (for now)
This all comes back to the earlier proclamation that this game is better spoiled. After making my peace with the game’s most redundant elements, I refocused how I played the game—and just liked it more that way. My best time in NMS has come from when I ignore its UI and structure elements—which ultimately goad and prod you to move toward the game’s major goals, one of which is “fly to the center of the galaxy”—and run wild over a given planet instead. Maybe I soar through a cool mountain range. Maybe I blast a hill with grenades so I can tunnel through it on foot. Maybe I burn through most of my spaceship’s fuel so I can find me a good dogfight in the middle of nowhere. NMS supports this kind of diverse, lose-yourself play with its endless galaxy generation, and that alone has enthralled me enough to return.
The “follow icons, gather loot, visit same structures” system of play, on the other hand, has not. I’m getting new weapon and item recipes, but many of them are clones of each other, just with different loot requirements to craft. New spaceships and weapons only differ from each other in how they look and how many inventory slots they have. As of right now, I feel like I’m the one doing the heavy lifting to keep this game interesting.
I hope that more secrets and exciting systems await me deeper in this galaxy, and I can already tell, based on how much loot and progress I’ve accumulated thus far, that I’m not mere inches away from the center of the galaxy (and thus at least one of the game’s endings). This far already, however, I’m starting to run out of plutonium.