Metro Weekly

No Man’s Sky (review): It’s flawed, but also phenomenal

No Man’s Sky is an infinite game filled with a very finite number of things to do, but it’s utterly exquisite

BlueSpace

I’m standing on the surface of a toxic, craggy planet. Acid rain is falling, causing my suit to issue numerous warnings, as its resistance to the harsh environment slowly depletes. All around are cliffs of brown, barren earth dotted with strange flora and fauna that somehow thrives despite the toxicity. Ahead lies my broken, battered ship, in desperate need of repair. No weapons systems, a damaged engine, only enough power to shield me from the elements and recharge my suit’s energy. I need to find the resources to repair it, but where do I even begin? How can I survive on this hellish world? And will I ever leave?

Welcome to my first five minutes with No Man’s Sky (starstarstarstar), one of the most anticipated games of 2016 — if not all time. It’s a game teased for a couple of years now, one shrouded in relative mystery, but with some impressive goals. It would offer one of the largest playable areas ever created, all procedurally generated by an advanced mathematical formula, which would calculate each star system, every planet, all of the moons, the weather systems, the plants, the animals, the resources, the space stations, the buildings, the alien races, the frequency of storm patterns and even accurate day/night cycles on each of the game’s worlds. And as for those worlds, there are a lot: 18,446,744,073,709,551,616, to be precise. Or, over 18 quintillion, to be less precise.

Let’s put that number in perspective. The Milky Way contains “only” 100 billion planets. There are 319 million people in the United States — if we each owned 50 billion planets, we’d still be short some 2.5 quintillion to equal the number of visitable, explorable, entirely unique worlds in No Man’s Sky. This is a game where seeing everything in the game isn’t just difficult, it’s physically and mathematically impossible.

So, it’s a pretty big game, but what do you actually do in No Man’s Sky? That’s the source of most of the controversy surrounding it. Unfortunately, indie developer Hello Games and publishing partner Sony shovelled coal into the hype train at an incredible rate. Gaming websites and mainstream media hitched their carriages to that train, eventually causing the populace at large to follow suit. By the time No Man’s Sky’s oft-delayed launch date had arrived, we’d learned much more about what we’d be doing in its 18 quintillion worlds — and the hype train promptly and spectacularly derailed. Perhaps it was the vague hints at multiplayer aspects that transpired to be false. Perhaps it was the (frankly obscene) decision to charge $60 dollars for it on PS4. Perhaps it was the revelation from those that got the game early that, without an extensive day zero update, this gargantuan universe could be “completed” in as little as 30 hours. Perhaps it was the fact that it was nigh unplayable on many PCs and prone to crashing on PS4. Or, perhaps it’s that, contrary to what many were expecting, No Man’s Sky is just another survival game.

Walkers

It is also a simple game. You scour a planet for resources, use them to upgrade your ship, your suit, your multi-tool (which doubles as both excavator and weapon), and then launch towards the next planet or the next star system, all part of an overarching goal to reach the center of the universe. At the very start of the game, tutorials are few and far between, which leads to a lot of confused stumbling around, as you get to grips with the controls and work through the basics of gathering items in your ludicrously small inventory, before crafting and repairing the ship. Heridium, the required element to get it up and running, was a concerningly long walk away, across a planet that was doing its best to irradiate me. Once secured, however, I hopped into the craft, fired up the engines and launched into space.

If you want a game to wow you, look no further. That first moment, as my craft left the ground and soared into the green, hazy clouds, before eventually bursting out into space, was nothing short of breathtaking. Seeing asteroids, two other planets, a space station, a couple of giant ships and a large, beaming sun burst into view was a phenomenal, dazzling experience. It also showcases the technological marvel of the engine Hello Games has crafted, which can launch you from planet to planet and star system to star system without any perceivable loading screens. My first few hours were filled with childlike wonder as I explored these planets, scanning and uploading the various creatures and plants I came across, gathering precious materials and selling them for profit on the Galactic Trade market, learning how to craft my first hyperdrive to leap to the next star system, and meeting the first of three alien races I would encounter in this universe.

For anyone still curious as to what you do outside of basic exploration, those aliens hold part of the answer. They can be found in space stations, as well as in scientific laboratories and other buildings on the surface of planets. They’ll try to speak with the player, offering them simple quests such as gathering a certain type of material, asking questions to improve the player’s standing with their people, or offering upgrades to the player’s suit and multi-tool. Learning the languages of these races is another aspect of No Man’s Sky, one achieved by finding knowledge stones, monoliths and ruins, which can be activated to provide single words, useful for discerning exactly what a certain being is asking you to accomplish.

NoMansSky_Monolith

Elsewhere, there are beacons to help you locate downed ships, secret bases, new technologies, distress signals, and other areas worth visiting. You can also do things the old fashioned way: activate your scanner, see what’s in the surrounding area, and walk there to have a look, or get in your ship and fly across the planet’s surface to try and spot anything of interest.

Unfortunately, it’s here that the technical limits of the PS4 and Hello Games’ vision start to creep in. Flying across a planet in particular, or landing on a new one for the first time, you’ll see the world slowly resolve into view around you, as the random generation creates the hills, caves, resource deposits and everything else across the surface of the planet. A side effect of this process is that close-up, the various textures that comprise No Man’s Sky can look particularly ugly depending on the planet. A snow-covered winter wonderland can be awe-inspiring with its frozen beauty, but a barren, hot wasteland can be a brown and grey mess of muddy texturework and all-too familiar terrain generation. You’ll start to spot patterns in the algorithms that form each world, hill, plant and tree, even though no two creatures or bushes are alike. The cracks in the facade will show, just as you become all too aware of how repetitive the gameplay is, as well.

Really, the biggest bugbear is that you’ll do ostensibly the same thing every time. Fly into a new star system, land on a planet, look for resources, or the oddly static aliens, or knowledge stones, and then move onto the next planet, or the next system. You’ll sell resources for units, upgrade your ship or buy a new one, or try to buy extra inventory slots for your suit. No Man’s Sky’s lack of handholding threatens to be its undoing, as it leaves you to a near-infinite world filled with an almost total lack of perceivable gameplay beyond “mine this, go here, scan that, go there, maybe make it to the center.”

Creatures

Unless, of course, you stop trying to play it like an RPG, or an action-adventure game, or a recreation of every classic sci-fi movie. No Man’s Sky is at its best when you stop, sit back, and just be. There’s the teasing storyline of Atlas, a mysterious, seemingly god-like force that implores you to abandon your quest for the center of the universe and discover its origins instead. There’s the lore of each of the three races to learn — why are there no cities, why are they so spread out, who created the Sentinels, the autonomous, robotic security robots and ships who guard the ecosystem of each planet (mine too much, or start murdering innocent animals, and they’ll deal swift punishment)?

I’ve spent dozens of hours in No Man’s Sky now, and most of those were planned short sessions that quickly turned into hours-long extravaganzas where I didn’t perceivably do that much, but loved every minute. It’s one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve had in a long time, as even with its overarching goals — discover Atlas or reach the center — I found I was creating my own mini quests. I wanted a bigger ship, I set about finding the resources I needed to sell in order to buy one. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the Vy’keen, the game’s warrior race, so I scoured every inch of a planet to find stones and learn their language. I tried attacking some of the larger freighters and ships that occasionally warp into view among the planets, and similarly had to engage in tense ship-to-ship battles as pirates sought to steal my carefully collected treasures en route to space stations.

There’s no penalty for death in No Man’s Sky, just head back to where you died, or your ship exploded, and gather your materials. The highest my blood pressure ever reached was when the game occasionally crashed during the warp sequences between star systems (I’ve had three crashes so far, but none caused any major issues to my progress). And even with its occasional annoyances and repetitive generation, there are still moments when No Man’s Sky can take my breath away, such as landing on a planet, looking up, and realizing there are four other worlds hanging in the night sky, waiting to be explored.

NewEridu

Is it for everyone? No. Many will buy No Man’s Sky and absolutely hate it. They’ll despise its slow pace, its relative lack of gameplay, its daunting size, and its occasionally frustrating mechanics (why is my inventory so small?!?). But for some, there’s a lot — good grief, a lot — to love here. Ignoring the incredible scale, the mind-blowing technical achievement of having 18 quintillion worlds and no loading screens, and the fact that it was cobbled together by just ten people, No Man’s Sky is a game that constantly reminds players of how small they are, how fragile they can be, how imposing space really is. It then hands them a ship, a multi-tool, and a space suit and implores them to get out there and explore it.

As the game’s gorgeous soundtrack swells, the algorithm loads in a world of dense plants, weird animals, and a burnt orange sky, and other planets loom large in the distance, begging to be visited, you’ll forget about all of No Man’s Sky’s problems. In those moments, it is utterly, completely perfect.

No Man’s Sky is available now on PC and PS4. However, PC players are advised to wait until a planned patch has been issued to fix a number of problems.

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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.