I awaken on an unknown planet, my ship half destroyed, with no idea how I ended up here, or even where here is. My Exosuit loads up, displaying information about my current environment alongside my suit’s Life Support readouts. Above this graph another glows brighter, drawing my attention to bright green symbol written next to it. That’s when I realize the line is growing smaller, shrinking away as the toxic and acidic rain of my home planet slams into my suit over and over again. I panic, unsure what elements I require to refill this gauge, rushing in all directions for any sort of clue. No Man’s Sky feeds off this unbridled and unobstructed gameplay, and it does so exceedingly well.
Free Form at a Cost
But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. I'll admit it. I haven't seen all that this ever expanding universe has to offer. But with over 70 hours in the PlayStation 4 version, and an addition 30 in the PC version, No Man's Sky has been like a Thanksgiving meal that's chock full of all kinds of goodies and wonderful things to explore and experience. At the same time, however, it also feels like that first Thanksgiving after your favorite aunt passes. You know, the one where the homemade cheesecake is missing, and dinner just feels like something big is missing. While expectations for No Man's Sky have ran wild, the game has turned out to be a fairly solid experience, if you can get past the glaring scars that dot its landscapes.
One glaring issue is the constant need to recharge your various systems in both your starship and your Exosuit. When you’re exploring the surface of planets your Life Support, Hazard Protection, and other modules wear down, slowly discharging the energy that you’ve siphoned into them. I don’t mind having to recharge, but this same system applies to your starship shields in the middle of intense space battles with upwards of three to four space pirates zipping around you. Let’s just say it’s clear that the mechanic could be fine-tuned to make things more accessible to the player.
Another inventory-based issue is the game’s small inventory space. While it isn’t unusual for games to force players to upgrade their inventory space, No Man’s Sky tends to make things a little harder than they should be, making many items non-stackable, and limiting elements to stacks of 250 within your Exosuit’s storage slots. The extreme cost of the storage upgrades doesn’t really help out, as they start off at 10,000 Units a slot, and continually go up by 10,000 Units each time you purchase a new one. This leads to a single slot of inventory space costing a upwards of 200,000 Units as you progress throughout the game.
This issue continues as you make your way through the game world, searching out different starships to purchase – that’s the only way to increase your starship’s inventory space. The biggest problem here, however, is that there isn’t really a set place to purchase ships. You simply have to save up your money, go to a Space Station or Trading Outpost on a planet, and wait for a ship to land so you can offer to buy it from the current pilot. You can also find new ships crashed on the surface of various planets as well, but more sporadically. Sometimes you might come across better ships, sometimes you might not see anything better than what you have for a while. It’s a big bundle of randomness that feels out of place in the world that Hello Games has created. I mean, just off the top of my head, I imagine there would probably be dedicated starports in at least a few spots throughout the universe.
In my almost one hundred hours of time with the game I have only met a total of eighty to ninety alien lifeforms. That’s one NPC for every hour of play time, excluding NPCs inside of starships (because they apparently don’t count). Now, mind you, I haven’t stopped on every single planet, or explored every nook and cranny of every system that I’ve jumped to (I’ve been to over seventy-five systems so far), but I’ve explored quite liberally during my time with the game, and I can’t help but feel like the world is empty. Sure, there are various types of creatures roaming most planets, but they aren’t really on the same level as the alien species that make up the NPC roster. Every world I’ve been to is barely colonized, with only a few different buildings spread out across the surface, and it really makes the universe feel lonely and empty. There are thousands of starships flying through the universe, so who the heck made them all? That lonely Gek back on Sosians-Auran Ommer? The lack of large civilizations, or even small bustling cityscapes of any sort makes No Man's Sky feel emptier than it should, especially considering the amount of concept art that Hello Games has showing such scrawling landscapes.
Those complaints are about function more than form, however. When you step back and look at No Man’s Sky you can actually see how well it shines, and just how much love and devotion was put into each piece of the universe. It’s a procedurally generated world, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hello Games breathed life into this world. While some mechanics can be grating, it succeeds fairly well at its vision of delivering an eerie galaxy and the sense of discovery in exploring it.
Though NPCs feel rare, they fit well into the world. You won’t meet any characters named stupidly, like ‘Bodyguard’ or ‘Minion’, and they all feel like true individuals. The same goes for the various animals which you meet throughout the universe. While many of them share common parts and genetic makeup, their differing personalities, diets, and nature can make for some unexpected encounters. I’ve come across many creatures across several worlds, and I still have no real idea what to expect when I pull up my Analysis Scanner to document the local wildlife. One particularly nasty looking species I came across resembled a large Tyrannosaur, however its diet was that of a herbivore. I won’t pretend to understand how the procedural generation system works, but I can say that Sean Murray and his team put a lot of work into it, and it shows.
At the end of the day, No Man’s Sky isn’t a perfect game. It’s really not even close. The ride has been bumpy, with Murray and the team keeping their lips sealed tightly about anything and everything pertaining to the game, and the overhyped nature of this industry has pushed many away from the title. But if you’re just looking for a game that can be both intense and relaxing, while offering lots of opportunities to explore colorful and interesting worlds, No Man’s Sky fits the bill perfectly.
Yes, there are some changes that could make it better. Sure, the team could have been a lot more open about what exactly fans should have expected. But, when it is all said and done, the product speaks for itself. You just have to be willing to give it a listen.
This review is based on a physical copy of the game that was provided by the publisher. No Man's Sky is available on PS4 now and PC August 12 for $59.99. The game is rated T.