Discover aliens and mine minerals in a procedurally generated universe.
PC Release: August 12, 2016
There’s a lot to be said for the enthusiasm of the gaming community. It has the most bombastic trailers and some striking pieces of art. It also has the greatest penchant for hype trains, wherein overzealous fans take a few crumbs of marketing material and run with them. These super-fans create a grand, near-religious level of fantasy for what a video game will be, and are inevitably disappointed when a studio made up of mere mortals fails to deliver. Of course, whether No Man’s Sky is a failure is a matter up for debate, but with a video game this anticipated, dissecting what went wrong and who’s to blame is no less contentious of a venture.
No Man’s Sky is a first-person exploration game set in an entire universe. Literally. The game runs on a combination of algorithms and procedural generation to create a universe that, according to developer Hello Games, contains an excess of 18 quintillion planets. That’s a number that bears repetition: 18 quintillion planets. Each planet is a self-contained world with its own environments and ecosystems. Players can explore each planet at their leisure, before hopping into a spaceship and taking off to another one. There’s no chance that a human player could see all the game’s planets in one lifetime, which is one of No Man’s Sky‘s most awe-inspiring and yet pointless qualities.
Following its unveiling at a 2013 expo, No Man’s Sky became one of the most anticipated video games of all time. The hype exuded by both the press and the game’s proto-fan base was unmatched by most, if not any, other video games. Indeed, it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if No Man’s Sky was the most anticipated video game of all time. Hello Games was certainly happy to ride all the positive buzz, as millions of gamers became swept up by the prospect of exploring an entire universe. And to be fair, the concept sounds great. The idea of spending hours exploring vibrant worlds appeals to the wonderment in all of us. The execution, however… leaves a lot to be desired.
As No Man’s Sky opens and the universe is generated, players awaken on a random alien planet, with nothing but the “exosuit” on their back and a heavily damaged spaceship not far off. The player’s dilapidated encampment is rounded off by a few other pieces of equipment lying around and a mysterious red orb sitting next to the spaceship. No Man’s Sky doesn’t have a central narrative, per se, but the player’s suggested goal is to try to reach the center of the universe. It sounds like a herculean task, but the red orb in the player’s camp is confident that they can see the endeavor through.
Most gameplay in No Man’s Sky revolves around gathering resources, which is how the game begins. Players start out armed with a mining laser, a tool that can be upgraded with more attachments and power as the game progresses. Resources like iron and carbon can be gathered from the environment around the player. Most minerals can be gathered from certain rock formations, but more carnivorous players can also harvest materials from planets’ alien wildlife. Players can do whatever it takes to gather some materials, craft some tools, and fix some spaceships!
Almost immediately, No Man’s Sky‘s gameplay is derivative of Minecraft. Gather resources, craft items, and build one’s way up from there. The environment looks a little less blocky, but the core concept of harvesting materials to build bigger and better items is front-and-center in No Man’s Sky. There are a few noteworthy differences that help promote exploration, because while players in Minecraft can plonk down in one area no problem, No Man’s Sky is a little different. Harvesting too many resources from one area will attract the attention of sentry robots, little flying machines that buzz over and shoot the player for exhausting a given area. This forces players to get out and explore.
The beginning of No Man’s Sky is certainly conventional, but the tutorials are not very helpful. The game will briefly flash a few keys for a few basic functions when the player character wakes up, but everything else is lost in a jumble of poorly designed menus. The crafting and inventory screen, for example, are merged together into an awkward facsimile of a workshop. Players have to craft their items inside of an inventory slot, which, while not a deal-breaker, is not exactly intuitive. No Man’s Sky attempts to streamline its item menus by dividing them up between the exosuit, the spaceship and the mining laser, but a lot of this effort is put to waste by the strange menu design. It doesn’t help that the options menu for No Man’s Sky contains precious few options for getting the best PC experience. Some options even require starting the game over to see the effect, though No Man’s Sky won’t admit it.
Although the scale of No Man’s Sky is certainly impressive, its central gameplay gets very dull, very quickly. Aside from mining, players can visit each planet and catalog its various features, uploading them to a central index fittingly called the Atlas. Players can notate a planet’s weather and topography, as well as catalog its alien wildlife and come up with a name for each space-rock. Again, because No Man’s Sky is so huge, players could invest hundreds of hours into the game and not even explore a tenth of a percent of all that’s out there.
The problem with this approach is that scale is no substitute for substance. It sounds cool at the outset to spend all of one’s time cataloging wildlife, but a game can’t be built solely upon approaching an animal, pressing a button, and going to the next animal. The same can be said for uncovering every planet’s last radiation pit or ocean. No Man’s Sky bills itself on being as wide as a universe, but the game is about as deep as a penny. Ironically, most of the animals on different planets end up sharing more than a few features, further diluting the diversity that exploring an entire universe would imply.
To be fair to No Man’s Sky, the game does have something of a central narrative, though players are certainly free to just explore. What little backstory the game has confirms a war between a few alien species. The player can become bound up in this war on the quest to reach the center of the universe, or leave it be. The problem is that the narrative and lore aren’t particularly interesting. The player can’t speak and the aliens all talk in gibberish, so there’s no sort of dialogue or interesting character development. Indeed, the aliens are basically just wonky-looking item kiosks. Everyone exists to trade, not to talk.
Most missions in the storyline revolve around acquiring more and more advanced equipment, rather than advancing any kind of narrative. So really, to call No Man’s Sky‘s story a story is disingenuous. It’s clearly just a device to help players explore more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but gamers who enjoy stories or who were expecting a deep sci-fi narrative will want to check out a different universe.
In addition to the aforementioned bugs, No Man’s Sky looks nothing like the screenshots being posted throughout this review. Even on high settings, way too many of the planets simply look unfinished. The textures on grasses and wildlife are hideously muddled, and the colors used to paint each world are muted. Sounds come through subdued and popping with static. The wildlife’s simplistic programming causes animals of all sizes to clip through each other, run into walls, and display nothing of the sophisticated behaviors shown off in the trailers. It’s a far cry from what the game was made out to look like.
It’s just… Good Lord.
Thus far, at worst, No Man’s Sky is a middling zoology/mineralogy simulator with unprecedented scale. If that were its only or biggest problem, that would be one thing, but anyone who’s paid attention to the gaming press this last week knows that boring gameplay is the least of No Man’s Sky‘s concerns. The game’s initial launch on PC was a disaster, with most players unable to even launch the game without it crashing back to desktop. Thousands more experienced every problem from lag to hitching framerates to audio bugs. These bugs are the main reason that No Man’s Sky is being reviewed this week instead of last week. This game runs very poorly on PC.
To be fair to Hello Games, a lot of these problems may have been caused by a quarter of a million gamers trying to access the servers at once, but there’s no question that No Man’s Sky was not ready for launch. The red flags were there for anyone not blinded by the hype. No Man’s Sky was delayed many times throughout the course of development, culminating in a four-day delay that pushed the game’s first PC launch from August 9th to August 12th. Unfortunately for Hello Games, 96 hours wasn’t nearly enough time to remedy the situation, and the outcry has been steady ever since.
If boring gameplay was No Man’s Sky’s only problem, that would be one thing. If the fact that this game is the shoddiest major release since last year’s Batman: Arkham Knight was its only problem, that would be one thing. But the most damning indictment of No Man’s Sky to be found is how very different the final product is from what Hello Games said it would be. Ever since No Man’s Sky‘s announcement, Studio head Sean Murray has been frustratingly vague on nearly every aspect of this game’s design. He, at various points, confirmed that the game would have multiplayer, only to walk that claim back in the days before the game launched. Similar claims were made and then changed in regards to everything else from the game’s scale to its basic mechanics.
And sure, any game under development is going to be subject to some changes, but Hello Games’ firm commitment to being mysterious does a grave disservice to its customers. Telling someone how a game works is not the same as, say, spoiling a major plot twist, but it’s hard to say if Sean Murray & Co. are aware of that. Many gamers pre-ordered No Man’s Sky with the hopes of playing with friends. And who can blame them? For Sean Murray to say that the game would feature multiplayer and then retract that claim only after millions of pre-orders is lazy at best. No Man’s Sky is also missing dozens of other features that Hello Games promised would be included, such as rocky planetary rings, different classes of flyable spaceships, and huge fleet battles.
Although Hello Games is ultimately to blame for their woeful under-delivery of No Man’s Sky, the game’s zealous fans have themselves to blame as well. Far too many gamers allowed a relatively tiny bit of marketing to overcome their judgment. They saw the prettied up concepts that Hello Games presented and allowed themselves to believe every single thing produced to build up the hype. When this happens, gamers inevitably expect the game to be a messianic product, one that Hello Games never could’ve delivered even if No Man’s Sky ran properly. Any gamer who sees five minutes of marketing material and infers a divine revelation has only themselves to blame for such a colossal abandonment of common sense.
There’s nothing wrong with being excited for a video game. But everyone should know that trailers and marketing material are not representative of the final product. If that were true, every film would win an Oscar, every book would be a magnum opus, and every video game would be on the level that everyone thought No Man’s Sky would pioneer. Instead, be skeptical of marketing material. Don’t buy into hype trains. Because while not every widely anticipated game is doomed to fail, consumers have nothing to gain by proclaiming a game to be perfect before it’s even been released.
At best, No Man’s Sky is a horribly under-polished snapshot of all the amazing trailers Hello Games presented. At worst, it’s a skin-deep mining simulator whose gameplay holds little lasting power. Hello Games is apparently hard at work producing a patch to address many of the aforementioned issues, but even at full capacity, this game is not worth sixty bucks. Would-be explorers would be wise to wait for both a patch and a sale before getting this game, but anyone with that itch should probably just play Spore or Elite: Dangerous instead.
There are a few lessons to be learned from this fiasco. One, never jump onto hype trains, and two, wait until after the game comes out before proclaiming it the Lord and Savior of video games. No Man’s Sky had that aspiration, but ultimately, its reach falls woefully short of its grasp. Do not purchase this title.
You can buy No Man’s Sky here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.