Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: August 9, 2016
No Man’s Sky is the embodiment of a creative entity larger than life itself. After a monumental wave of hype leading into its release, No Man’s Sky has finally arrived. And simply put, it’s not the game many of us had it pinned as. On one hand, No Man’s Sky is a groundbreaking technical achievement, yet on the other, Hello Games’ galactic endeavor is frustratingly obtuse, lacking in personality, and drenched in inescapable repetition. For every moment I spent succumbing to the palpable scale on display throughout each realm of the universe, an equally as revelatory drawback revealed itself. No Man’s Sky lives on the whisking fumes of novelty, a driving force that initially carries the experience to great heights, though eventually fades into the background as more unsavory elements set in. There’s an unprecedented range of emotions that come with embarking upon the adventure that awaits; some exhilarating, others infuriating. Pushing the extremely overhyped expectations aside, No Man’s Sky is a fascinating, occasionally beautiful, and unique game, weighed down by impending pressures of boredom and redundancy.Encompassing some of the most ambitious concepts in a video game to date, No Man’s Sky is still worthy of praise on many levels, even when taking into consideration its abundance of shortcomings. Marketed as one of the largest games ever created, Hello Games have kept to their bold claims regarding scale. Impressively following through with the proposition that players are free to explore within a procedurally generated universe–including over 18 quintillion planets designed to scale–No Man’s Sky feels unfathomably expansive. However, that scale comes at a cost. In the process of focusing on size and the expanse therein, the character of the game is lost somewhere in space. We’re left with a static personality to carry No Man’s Sky’s galactic charm, a weak link in the initial hours that slowly begin to become more problematic.
Lacking any real clear means to an end, the act of playing No Man’s Sky is built upon a seemingly endless churn of activities, much of which fall short of their intended substance. You’ll explore various systems among the stars, mine resources, trade goods, attempt to survive within harsh conditions, and engage in occasional combat. As far as structure goes, No Man’s Sky isn’t much of a committed facilitator. It’s a game of no concrete guarantees, instead reliant upon one’s own burning motivation to explore. There’s no promise that what you’ll find in a solar system will be of any interest, or even enjoyment, but there’s something to be said for No Man’s Sky’s dedication to vision. Constantly keeping in mind its priorities, the title is able to achieve moments of pure, awe-inspiring wonder, yet they are short-lived. Ironically, for as open ended as No Man’s Sky prides itself at being, it can feel cripplingly small-minded. It’s a game of fleeting, though triumphant success, rooted in commendable ambition that leads to both grand highs and devastating lows.
NO MAN’S SKY LIVES ON THE WHISKING FUMES OF UNEXPLORED NOVELTY
Atop No Man’s Sky’s strongest elements sits the joyful wonder of unfettered exploration. Never before have I felt as sizably insignificant in a video game. Witnessing the sheer vastness of the universe is a special collection of moments that deeply impresses within the opening hours. However, the same level of amazement which elevates No Man’s Sky’s relatively positive, first impression, fails to stick around; their initial presence can’t be restated enough.
These embryonic instances of atmosphere and design coming together as one, act as some of the most powerful revelations I’ve experienced in a game. While the sustainability of these emotions are brief, No Man’s Sky still touts its ability to evoke them in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s about where No Man’s Sky’s skill to conjure genuine excitement and entertainment stop. The experience is intricate and frequently daunting, however, its complexity isn’t earned by interjecting depth into moment to moment gameplay. Instead, No Man’s Sky achieves its complexity by hounding the player with an array of tasks to engage in, many of which begin to grate on the enjoyment of the larger picture. With so many systems to constantly be aware of, there are moments where No Man’s Sky feels like yet another installment in the crafting-centered genre of survival games. Without the intriguing procedural world design and aesthetic heavy setting, No Man’s Sky is just another example of a resource management survival game. Many core elements essential to the package are seemingly overlooked or utterly forgotten in the wake of mismanaged execution that prioritizes scale.As I traveled further into the galactic expanse, I found my mind drifting back to where my adventure began. Following the greeting title screen, No Man’s Sky starts by placing you on a planet with the objective to repair your damage spacecraft using resources found within the environment. What makes the checkbox task feel special is how it’s presented within the surrounding setting. The planet in which you start the game on is unique to you, specifically, with each player beginning their journey on their own home planet. It’s a small, but effective touch that instills the sense of scale to come. Immediately overwhelming, No Man’s Sky resists holding your hand as soon as you step forward.
There’s no flashing arrow or checkpoint to follow, only your own set of priorities. Once overcoming the slightly confusing inventory collection and management system that ties back into the core gameplay, it can feel freeing not to be pushed in any one direction. Narratively passive, No Man’s Sky takes a backseat approach when it comes to steering the player in a certain direction. The closest it comes to a mainline story or path to follow is twofold. First is the Atlas path, second is finding the center of the universe. Neither path holds the necessary involvement long enough to maintain a quenching motivation, curtailing the desire to continue. Both options feel unnecessarily prolonged, unsatisfying, and destructively repetitious.During your journey, a myriad of tasks will surface for you to take part in. Chief to them is touching down on planets to explore, discovering new life, and mining for resources, among other menial endeavors meant to aid your venture. Repeating this process every time you enter a new solar system is the name of the game, taking up the lion’s share of the gameplay. Reinforcing the resource-geared gameplay loop is a trading ecosystem spanning the entire galaxy. With a currency incentive to collect and sell what you find on planets, No Man’s Sky deeply roots itself in a routine churn of boxes to check.
Past a certain point the luster is lost in playing your role in the ecosystem. This takes a consequential chip out of the potential longevity that’s touted to be a pivotal aspect of the experience. When it comes down to it, the short list of exercises that occupy the space of what you’ll actually be doing in the game grows dull and succumbs to a tiresome slog of mind-numbing repetition. At times it can feel like No Man’s Sky is trying to hide its problems behind the scale it embodies, in turn, devaluing the success of its most significant accomplishments.
A SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF IS NEEDED WHEN LOOKING TO IMMERSE YOURSELF
No Man’s Sky isn’t what I’d anticipated in many respects and that’s perfectly okay. However, even with my conservatively optimistic expectations, one aspect in particular stood out as a major letdown: immersion, or the lack thereof. I was by no means looking to No Man’s Sky for it to be the end-all of video games, but I did hope for it to provide a level of escape driven by unique scale. On paper it wildly succeeds, presented with a seemingly boundless universe to explore, ripe with galactic intricacies. Nevertheless there’s more to the picture than simply size. Personality and character account for a lot in games, and No Man’s Sky struggles to interject much of these traits into its building blocks. I couldn’t help but to get ripped out of the experience on numerous occasions do to the overall stiffly staged quality the presentation personifies. From static interactions with NPCs that go no deeper than text conversation with simplistic pop-up character models, to the bland routine of farming resources, the entire universe feels lifeless and unmoving come a certain point. The galaxy comes across devoid of its own character, acting as if it’s the player’s duty to imagine their own version of it.
While a technical marvel on so many levels, No Man’s Sky also falls victim to an assortment of performance hiccups. Ranging from notable frame rate drops to numerous hard crashes, No Man’s Sky is by no means in great technical shape. Within my collection of hours spent flying around the universe, I’ve been interrupted by just short of a dozen crashes. Frustrating and discouraging, these bumps in the road are heightened by considerable losses of progress and long load times to reenter the game.No Man’s Sky is visually competent, only occasionally rising above the simply passable graphical quality that hangs in the air for most of the experience. Out of the large portion of planets I touched down on, very few stood out as aesthetically striking. And even then, distracting from their temporary beauty is excessive texture pop-ins, visible from on foot and in the air. Additionally, when utilizing your mining to collect resources, taking chunks out of structural deposits doesn’t engage any sort of physics reaction once having removed the base. This leaves the remaining resources to statically float in air, restating the required suspension of disbelief if looking to truly immerse yourself within No Man’s Sky.
Each time I boarded my ship, having stepped away from the game for any increment of time, I was engulfed with a brief, though reoccurring, sense of hope. The proposition of No Man’s Sky’s near infinite world still had me wanting to believe in its magic, even when the problems came knocking. This optimistic revelation proceeded to repeat itself for hours, until one minute as I stood at the peak of a quiet ridge, they stopped. With my motive to continue, fading alongside the breeze moving the grass at my feet, I’d come to terms with the fact No Man’s Sky had no closure to offer me. I’d spent hours following the Atlas path, only to lose my will to see it through. I then transitioned to finding the center of the universe, and eventually walked away from both treks without resolve. Each journey lacked the pace and consistency to align with the gameplay in a satisfying light, managing to extract the perseverance necessary to see either one through. Standing on the ridge with all these realizations rushing to me, I let out an audible sigh. I knew this planet would be my last stop. I knew this is where my journey would end.Conclusion: No Man’s Sky is an oxymoron of design. Sprawling in scale and groundbreaking in technical execution, Hello Games has created a genuinely pioneering piece of work. Yet, in the process of sizable expansion, much of No Man’s Sky ends up feeling constrained, staged, and shallow. In its best moments, the game is beautifully introspective. Simply being left alone with my own thoughts in the face of an incomprehensibly expansive universe, culminated into some of the most profound moments I’ve witnessed in all of games. The loneliness of the entire galactic undertaking is also impactful, though little is done to refine it into a prominent strength. Even the initially meditative routine of traveling through space looses its calming charm in the presence of irrefutable repetition. No Man’s Sky is a wonderful idea, but in its current shape, it’s far from reaching the potential that sparked its initial hype. I was constantly left asking the question “Is this it?” as I continued toward the next solar system. By the end of my tedious, awe-inspiring, and exhaustive adventure, I did get an answer to my much raised question.
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