After years of anticipation, interviews, Stephen Colbert and delays – One of the most hyped indie/AAA hybrids in recent memory has finally landed. Let us all take a deep breath.
Now, with that out of the way there is no doubt that many of you have already sunk your teeth into the brain-child of Sean Murray and his talented crew at Hello Games, a little indie studio (less than 25 peeps in fact) out of Guildford in England who prior to letting us roam the skies had created the Joe Danger series.
First and foremost, No Man’s Sky is one extremely ambitious title, especially coming from a company of such a small size. A game that let’s all of us live out our wildest sci-fi fantasies of discovering unknown worlds and life throughout a universe of mind boggling scope, above all else I want to throw the biggest kudos to the team at Hello. An experience like this is no small feat and requires some truly fantastic pioneering in the art of procedurally generated technology, and this superhuman effort and dedication to an idea should not be overlooked.
Stripping accolades and back-pats away however, how does this hype train juggernaut handle after such a lengthy period of cooking in the oven? After a solid 30 hours or so, I feel I have barely touched the surface in a title of this size, but the general niggling is that Hello Games have delivered an experience that is going to please as many people as it disappoints. I guess not all of us were destined for the interstellar path of Matthew McConaughey after all.
My world 2.0
The Great Beyond
No Man’s Sky is at its heart (and at its best) an open world exploration game, in which you are free to ignore any of the vague descriptions of what to do next and just chase the sun. The game does offer objectives for those who like to have their hand held tight, and this will see you on the path of reaching the centre of the universe and chasing down the secrets of the Atlas (as ominous as it sounds). To be clear however, NMS has no real end to it. With a casual 18 quintillion unique planets floating around in the vast nothingness that have been procedurally generated thanks to the wonders of algorithms and science, you will quite literally never run out of new things to see (unless you have 584,942,417,355 years to spare). What we have is a game that, above all else, delves into our fascination with discovery, of finding things that nobody has (or probably ever will) lay eyes upon.
I have spent my time so far paying very little attention to explanations in my HUD and simply flying in blind. While sometimes frustrating during the first five hours or so, I began to come to grips with what it was I was actually needing to do in order to stay alive and move on to my next planetary adventure. NMS is at its core a sci-fi survival game with a lot more in common aesthetically with say Minecraft as opposed to its sci-fi brethren like Spore, Elite Dangerous or EVE.
You will spend the majority of your time hunting down minerals to mine that are used to upgrade and refuel all aspects of what you need to stay alive. From your health, ship fuel, thrusters, warping capabilities (to get you to another galaxy), everything has a price, and while the hunt over these actual life-size planets can be pretty spectacular- there is also a creeping sense of sameness that begins to linger after your 10th planet discovery. Although each planet is truly unique in terms of its procedurally generated flora, fauna, weather and terrain, a lot of things will indeed become familiar such as alien outposts and the general way things play out (like getting offered an multi-tool upgrade or a new alien word to learn). It is a process that becomes routine, but the fact that planets can be so varied does indeed break this cycle up however and I found myself having the best experiences when I simply tuned out and started walking off the beaten track with a focus on simply seeing what I could find. One planet for example, was pouring with acid rain and had a bleak green tint to it all but I was curious to see if any lifeforms would indeed be living in such a tumultuous environment, and to my surprise (and after many cave stops to get out of the face melting weather) I came across some giant winged slugs with wings like dragons soaring through the sky. It was quite the sight to behold and made my 20-minute trek through the unknown worth it.
Another aspect that should certainly not be overlooked is the game’s soundtrack, a wonderful mix of stirring post-rock rhythms and quirky sci-fi synths that never feel like they overstay their welcome. The ambient sounds really do give each planet a feeling of place that when switched off, simply doesn’t feel the same.
These creatures I mentioned are all weird and wonderful, with some you can feed as well if you can get close enough. The beauty of the procedurally generating algorithm is that, like the planets, no two species will look the same. Sure they may be similar but little distinct details set everything apart- which is kinda cool. Pretty much all of these creatures, as well as the flora and fauna can be scanned and uploaded for in-game credits, but it can be a slow process and the lack of an “upload all discoveries” function is a bit strange, especially when you have over 50 discoveries in your log. Sentient beings also inhabit the game in the various planetary outposts and space stations, and although these various aliens are well written and provide some cool sci-fi nostalgia, they never really seem to be doing anything but stand and be a part of the scene. Obviously, this would probably fall into the capabilities of the technology Hello Games are using that, while impressive with its scope, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of setting up living, breathing interactions with the game’s written characters. They just speak, give you some cool shit (or bark at you), and that is that. It isn’t a huge drawback, but typifies the tone of the game’s major issues: sameness. The option to partake in space dogfights attempts to shake up the tasks of trading and exploring, but you will find (at least in the early hours of the game) that an encounter with these space pirates will be a death sentence; they will shred you. I can see the appeal of this element to the game to keep you on your toes between exploring planets, but I just found it annoying when all I wanted to do was simply travel to and from my destinations. The combat itself is fast and furious however, but it won’t be until you have a better ship purchased (it wasn’t until I had my third one) that dogfights will seem like a fair fight.
Retired from the music biz, Daft Punk returned to space
With all the joy of exploring aside, there will come a time (quite often in fact) where you need to check up on your health or boost your ship’s capabilities with a plethora of various scientific elements that are scattered around the planets in the forms of rocks, plants and materials. You mine these with your trusty aforementioned multi-tool, a device you can upgrade as you progress and earn more credits or find rarer materials to become a fully-fledged gun, grenade launcher and scanning tool.
As you mine these items, they are slowly but surely stacked into your inventory, which has an aesthetic and feel straight out of Bungie’s Destiny (this is not a bad thing mind you). What isn’t too great however is the amount of damn time I actually spend in that inventory screen sorting my crap out and figuring out what I need to find next to build a ship upgrade or create another warp drive. The menu itself is a bit of a pain to use, with no clear way of tracking multiple items or moving certain upgrade modules around. My screen would often become a jumbled mess that I tired of looking at very quickly. Hopefully down the track the Hello team looks at ways to refine this system, and I believe they will to make it a little less of a headache to maneuver. As trading is one of the most important features in the game, being the function by which you will get those rare materials you need or purchasing a new ship with your in-game credits (earned by selling rare elements or random items of value), your inventory and how you manage it is of paramount importance; the menu will stare at you a lot, and you will stare back at it. I ended up keeping a somewhat organised stash that was a little easier to quickly pick and choose what I needed or had ready to sell, but it’s definitely not where it needs to be.
Another much debated aspect of the game is the multiplayer component. Now to be clear, NMS has never been marketed as a MP type of game, yes the elements are there (you can see other discovered planets, flora & fauna), and apparently on the very odd chance you can run into other players. How this functions exactly remains to be seen. NMS works as a title for the solo explorer; having multiplayer lobbies or constant text chatter on a side bar would be a seriously distracting addition to a game that prides itself on being a slow moving adventure of discovery, free of the distractions of the outside world.
Warp speed? make it so!
At the end of the day, No Man’s Sky won’t be for everybody. Gamers looking for a focused single-player campaign, clear objectives or multiplayer probably won’t find much to enjoy here. Those looking for a title they can lose hours in by simply being a part of a universe and exploring at their own pace will have a blast however, and this is where the game truly shines. No Man’s Sky is a testament to what even the smallest of development studios can achieve and sets a new standard for procedurally generated technology. Although at times things can feel like a drag, this is still one of the most important titles of the year that does indeed live up to the hype, just in a way we may not have expected.
Reviewed on PS4.