A bit of hype can be a dangerous thing and, from the moment No Man’s Sky was teased by Sony two years ago at its E3 Show press conference, it has been hailed as one of the most anticipated games in the works. Guildford-based developer Hello Games, which created what is an epically huge game with a tiny core team, has been under immense pressure to deliver on the promise offered by its labour of love, so has it risen to the occasion?
Early indications suggest that it has – annoyingly, early indications are all we can currently offer, since (carrying on a disturbing 2016 trend) in common with all other reviewers, our first chance to play the game came a matter of hours before it went on sale. In the past, such control-freakery was invariably the sign of a game whose development process had gone badly wrong somewhere along the line but thankfully, No Man’s Sky is far from a disappointment.
It is, however, a game which requires an open mind and an approach free from preconceived notions – already, the Gamergate tendency has showered bile on it, essentially for trying something different and daring not to be a first-person shooter. We’re rapidly reaching a point at which a thorough Twitter trolling is becoming a reliable indicator that a game might actually have some merit.
Pre-launch, despite the secrecy in which No Man’s Sky was shrouded, we knew that it sported an eye-catching, near-psychedelic art-style and a game-universe which approached insanity in its range and scope, consisting of 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets waiting to be explored. Which, Hello Games points out, will be an impossible task for mere mortals: if you were to alight on each planet for a second, it would take you 585 billion years to visit them all.
But beyond the headline-grabbing structure and visuals, No Man’s Sky’s gameplay remained a mystery. Now, at least, we have an idea of what it’s like (although it may take weeks of play before we can offer a comprehensive insight, and thereby bring you a proper review). It starts off very gently – its initial stages provide a mix of exploration, resource-gathering and crafting. But it swiftly becomes obvious that, gameplay-wise, it’s much more structured, sophisticated and layered than, for example, Minecraft, with which those who seek to disparage it have compared it.
All No Man’s Sky players begin in the same situation: on the surface of a previously unexplored planet, on the outer fringes of a galaxy, with a crashed spaceship that must be repaired. You’re equipped with a multi-tool which lets you fire a laser at rock outcrops and plants, thereby harvesting elements which can be used to repair your ship. The multi-tool also contains a scanner which can be used to log local flora and fauna. Plus there’s an inventory system – which initially seems a tad problematic. You have a finite number of storage slots in both your exosuit and spaceship, and can transfer items between the two but at first, in your eagerness to collect everything (abundant crates yield more exotic items), you quickly fill them all, and have to decide what to keep and discard. Later, you discover that storage stinginess is a means of getting you to upgrade your kit, a key mechanic in the game.
Survival is a consideration, too: on planets where radiation is high, you must charge your exosuit’s protection system, and you occasionally encounter sentinel drones which will attack you if they see you, but can be shot down with your multi-tool. Fix your ship’s pulse-drive, however, and you can start traversing your planet and getting to know it. Or you can just point your ship vertically upwards, blast out of its atmosphere and see what other planets are knocking around in the vicinity.
A mysterious red orb by your ship hints at the vague stirrings of a storyline, involving an ancient race called the Atlas (in a manner lightly reminiscent of Destiny or Halo, and elements of No Man’s Sky’s user interface will also feel familiar to Destiny players). It supplies you with a few waypoints to check out once you’ve fixed your ship, and that marks the game’s real beginning. Every planet is studded with a number of structures, encompassing the likes of shrines and ruins, trading posts, observatories, transmitters and shelters. Every one of those will yield something useful, including new technology that can be used to upgrade your multi-tool or ship, new locations to explore or chances to trade (also a vital part of the game given your inventory constraints).
You often encounter little logic puzzles – particularly in manufacturing facilities, which earn you vital blueprints for spaceship part, and when you visit ancient ruins. Sometimes, you bump into aliens, and in such instances, communicating with them is a puzzle in itself. Although knowledge-stones (generally found at ruins) let you learn the local language, one word at a time.
Journey to the centre of the galaxy
After repairing your ship, the first big gameplay-leap occurs when you acquire the plan for a hyper-drive, along with the means of crafting one: a cleverly convoluted process which involves crafting a succession of objects that can then be fashioned into other objects. With a hyper-drive, you can escape the confines of your immediate planetary system and begin your journey towards the centre of the galaxy.
Which brings us to the slightly knotty problem of No Man’s Sky’s storyline. It simply isn’t one of those games which has a tight, plotted storyline, relayed via cut-scenes. Instead, you get a series of airy, oblique references to the Atlas, and you’re informed (by text, in a manner that has echoes of old multi-user dungeons) that you have an urge to head towards the centre of the galaxy, to find out more about the Atlas and the story of the galaxy. If you absolutely can’t exist without a structured storyline, you might find No Man’s Sky’s approach problematic. But its vague storyline, which merely operates as a device to pull you into the galaxy, is entirely in keeping with the game’s ethos of exploration above all else.
Once you get your hyper-drive running you can access a galaxy map which lets you hop between star systems – although there’s a line which shows your most direct path to the galaxy’s centre, you can also target random star-systems. But at this point, No Man’s Sky executes a change-up: you start to encounter space-pirates, for example, who will attack you in the hope of stealing your cargo, and the planets begin to exhibit more hostility, with greater numbers of sentinels (mechs appear along with the drones) and local wildlife which will attack you. So now, you must start thinking about upgrading your ship with better weapons systems and shields (the space combat, at least at first, is pretty basic but decent, and quite satisfying when you repel attacks).
Plus you begin to find upgrades that add slots and abilities to your exosuit (better multi-tools become available right from the start of the game). Whenever you hit a space-station or a trading post, you find AI players arriving with spaceships which you can buy; at one point, we even located a crashed spaceship which, when we fixed it up, offered an upgrade on a ship we purchased from some alien Arthur Daley for hundreds of thousands of Interplanetary Units.
No Man’s Sky constantly rewards you, which is central to its appeal. Whenever you discover a new planet – and even though all players exist in one game universe, there are so many planets that in practice every one you get to will be undiscovered – you can rename it and upload it to the server, in return for in-game cash. Scanning and uploading flora and fauna also earns you cash, as does uploading waypoints. Most of the aliens you meet give you something, as do the ancient ruins.
Gradually, as you discover what you most like to do in the universe, you start to experience an almost zen-like, mystical vibe. Strangely, even though the nature of your quest is solitary, it feels like a very personal game – you really believe you are making a pioneering mark on the galaxy, and you cut a swathe through a string of planets which somehow feel as if they belong to you.
Plenty of question-marks, even 15 or so hours into No Man’s Sky, remain, such as whether the storyline will become more overt as you near the centre of the galaxy, and what will happen when millions of players occupy its servers (at times, it told us the servers were unavailable, but it seemed happy enough to carry on offline, even when we uploaded new discoveries). And there are visual glitches – inevitably, given its procedurally generated nature. But they are sufficiently few not to mar your experience.
No Man’s Sky is a triumph: it feels as fresh and original as we hoped it would, and its contemplative, exploratory quality sucks you in, offering a deeply soothing means of whiling away endless amounts of time. It offers an extremely clever demonstration that games need not be about shooting hordes of enemies in the face and for that, it should be lauded rather than trolled.