No Man's Sky Review - Looking For Depth In All The Wrong Places

Hello Games' No Man's Sky is one of the most talked-about titles this year, and not always for the right reasons. If the extreme range of Metacritic user scores is any indication, some love it and some hate it, but one thing is definitely true: this was a clear case of an indie developer biting off more than they could chew.

No Man's Sky was a hit at E3 2014. Game Director Sean Murray, who began developing the game on his own as a side project, had spent years talking up this title. He went on press tours and even appeared on TV promising tons of AAA features, many of which sounded too good to be true, especially for a procedurally generated game, let alone one made by a very small studio. (The initial development was done by just Murray, who then expanded the staff to 4 people, which grew to 13.) Sure enough, a lot of the variety Murray promised, such as unique physics on each planet, different classes of ships, trading being a viable way to play through the game, etc., all but disappeared in the final build.

One poster on the subreddit /r/NoMansSkyTheGame made the case that pre-release bugs forced the developers to cut a lot of the promised content. And in game design, once you cut one major feature, it triggers a chain reaction: others will be affected and must also be cut. That's why a lot of content that was advertised just four months before the game's release ended up not making it into the final product.

That said, the core draw of No Man's Sky is and was the promise of a vast, procedurally generated galaxy, where exploration and discovery, not violence, were emphasized. And on that front, the game's engine really shines in allowing for a diverse range of environments. Planets and moons can indeed have a vast range of landscapes. Some may be overflowing with flora and fauna but subjected to toxic rain. Another planet might have humongous, arching land bridges across vast valleys. I once landed on a moon that possessed very few colonial stations but many lore-giving monoliths, and another that was mostly covered in water with just a few islands to land on. Some will be barren on the surface but have vast cave systems, and so on.

Although the game doesn't have the most detailed textures, the varieties in the color palettes and atmospheric effects really sell that you're on a distant planet, one likely no one else will discover; most likely, the sights and creatures you'll encounter will be unique to your playthrough. And there is a real sense of joy and wonder in being able to take off from a planet, fly to any of the other ones visible in the sky, scour the surface, land, and explore, all without any perceivable loading times.

Even though exploration is fun, its charm doesn't last forever. It isn't that there isn't much to do, per se, in No Man's Sky, it's more that what you can do are tasks that go towards the same ends – mine resources, solve puzzles to find crashed ships or points of interest, upgrade your inventory, scan plants and animals and name them, break into facilities for blueprints or minerals, and trade with lifeforms – all to craft upgrades for your exosuit, multi-tool, and starship. The thing is, aside from dealing with hostile environments, there isn't much of a challenge in any of these tasks, and some are time-consuming, so they can get to feeling repetitive.

Much like the classic works of science fiction Murray cites as an inspiration, No Man's Sky is best when it toys with larger ideas. The lore behind the races and the writing for the monoliths, interactions, and various story elements are all handled very well. Often times trying to piece together the lore of the three non-Sentinel factions – the Korvax, Gek and Vy'keen – were what kept me going. The history of each race, their connections with the other races, and the mysterious Atlas are all enticing and worth the time spent to learn the languages and undergo the various monolith trials. The game's dynamic score, by electronic group 65daysofstatic, is another highlight and really helps sell the old-school sci-fi mood. Too bad the core gameplay doesn't achieve the same level of immersion.

Trading, for instance, is one mechanic that was given the short shrift. There isn't much point to trading early game except to make bank and clear your inventory, and you may end up feeling like you've wasted a time looking for that one NPC that will buy at or above market price. Whereas mid-to-late game, you might get frustrated traveling between merchants and space stations in search of a certain item needed to upsize your Warp Drive and thus allow you to reach further star systems more efficiently. Until you can upgrade your initially limited exosuit and starship inventories large enough to consider farming for upgrades, you've got to micro-manage your space.

Space combat also feels like it is lacking in depth. Unlike your exosuit, you can't simply upgrade your starship with money. In order to boost your starship inventory, you can either find and repair crashed starships (recommended) or buy them at ridiculous prices. All starship physics are essentially the same, so your ride is only distinguished by the systems you install, whether they are upgrades to your photon cannon, beam, shields, or maneuverability. If you are carrying precious cargo in your hold, space pirates will often spawn and launch an all-out assault on you. These battles are very intense but are often more trouble than they're worth. Defending frigates from space pirates is more fun, since the frigates can also defend themselves and you can maneuver around them for cover.

Contrary to earlier information, you can't pick and choose factions to support in space battles (since the Gek, Korvax, and Vy'keen no longer fight one another), nor can you side with space pirates in any conflict. Also, at the moment it isn't possible to dock at or trade with the large freighter ships that you encounter in space – another wasted opportunity. While decent, No Man's Sky's space combat would definitely benefit from future patches.

Cave-diving for minerals is fun for a spell. When you strike literal Gold or Emeril, it feels great. But often times, it's easy to get lost in the labyrinthine cave systems, especially since there is no mini-map, and from my experience, you're likely to encounter far more Plutonium than anything truly useful. What I found efficient was flying low and slowly over planetary surfaces in search of large structures of rare minerals, then landing to explore, scan, and harvest for a couple of minutes at a time. Thanks to the simplification of the game's engine, after twenty or so minutes of thorough exploration, you can safely say you've seen most of what that rock has to offer.

The supposedly deadly Sentinels hardly posed a threat. With a couple of Boltcaster upgrades, a single shield upgrade, and good use of the melee-jetpack boost the game never tells you about, at most, even the bigger Sentinels are little more than an annoyance. The most fun I had fighting them was on planets that were farms for expensive trade items such as Albumen Pearls or Gravatino Balls. Picking up one of said trinkets triggers Sentinels to chase you down, and you can gather quite a few before you need to take them out. Destroying Sentinels nets you Titanium, a useful resource. But what's missing are any repercussions for your actions, since your “Wanted” level decreases so quickly.

Controversy over whether or not the game has actual multiplayer is well-deserved, especially after vague and contradicting statements from Murray. Shortly after the game's release, two people infamously 'met up' at the same location on the same planet on stream, but they could not interact nor see one another. This could be explained by there being many separate servers for the game, or a bug, but nevertheless, there do not seem to be any multiplayer elements thus far in the release. Murray did explain on Twitter that people should not expect a multiplayer experience from No Man's Sky, but some players hold out hope that this will be addressed in an upcoming patch.

On the whole, it does appear that No Man's Sky failed to fulfill its potential. It was released in an incomplete state with exploits, bugs, and missing or simplified features. However, all in all, I found much more to enjoy in No Man's Sky than to dislike. I really dig the exploration aspect of the game, as well as the lore. However, a lack of challenge in the objectives and a sense of repetitiveness does set in after 10 or so hours of doing the same things on different worlds and feeling no closer to unraveling the meaning of it all. Games-as-art scholars might argue that perhaps that's the point Murray was trying to make, but it's not what most modern gamers expect from a heavily-hyped, full-priced release.

Reviewed By: Joseph Choi


7/10


+Pros

  • Exploration is fun and awe-inspiring
  • Trippy sci-fi soundtrack by 65daysofstatic
  • Cool lore bolstered by good writing
  • Everyone's experience will be unique

- Cons 

  • Survival and on-foot combat are not much of a challenge
  • Overall feeling that the game is incomplete
  • Space combat and ship variety are lacking in depth
  • Inventory management can be tedious

During episode 139 of the TMG Podcast, the crew discuss No Man Sky and what they experienced during our Quick Look session.