by Josh Vollmer
No Man’s Sky is a space exploration game for PS4 from indie developer Hello Games that incorporates some survival, combat, crafting and trading components. Players begin having crash landed on an alien planet and are tasked with locating resources to repair and fuel their ship in order to leave the surface. As you hop from planet to planet, players will need to prepare in order to survive extreme temperatures, radioactive storms, poisonous atmospheres and predatory creatures. During your time with the game, you will encounter alien life forms, both friendly and hostile, robotic ‘Sentinels’ that seem to police every corner of the galaxy to varying degrees, pirates that will attack in open space if they detect valuable cargo, fugitive spacecraft that will have a bounty available for their destruction, and rumors of a secret at the center of the universe. You can follow said rumors, or explore the beyond in your own way and at your own pace.
There’s an almost overwhelming amount of ‘beyond’ to explore here too. The universe Hello Games has given to players is nearly limitless, containing over 18 quintillion (1.8×1019) individual planets, many with their own unique ecosystems, flora and fauna. The immense scope of the game is achieved through procedural generation, meaning that instead of having to create all of these planets and their environments manually, Hello Games instead uses an algorithm that determine’s each planet’s characteristics from a list of possible attributes.
While this type of content generation can be great for variety and unpredictable gameplay, it doesn’t allow for extreme individualism between one location and another. Since all the major features of each location are pulled from the same pool of choices, everything seems unique at first, but over time starts to feel generic. The indigenous life forms on each planet suffer from the same setbacks. The first time you spot say, a snake-headed, zebra-striped bear-like animal with antlers and vicious looking claws, it’s can be an impressive sight. However, by the 100th such encounter with a conglomeration of random physical features, it’s lost a little of the magic. This limited randomness in the No Man’s Sky universe can be also be problematic in its own right, especially when just starting out. If you’re unlucky enough to begin the game crash landed on a planet with aggressive Sentinels or extreme atmospheric conditions, locating the resources you need to repair and refuel your ship can be a daunting task. A few hours into your space exploration proper though, and the various landscapes and weather conditions seem to lose meaning. Every such environmental challenge is essentially solved with the same tech, in the same way, with the same resources that are found in varying degrees on pretty much every planet you’ll encounter. As such, over time the whole experience kind of devolves into a back and forth between exploring to find resources and then spending said resources to continue exploring.
If you’ve been following the hype leading up to the game’s release, and the press it has received since, you’ve probably determined that the game is pretty polarizing. Some people seem to love it, and a lot of people seem to hate it. While the former can be attributed to occasionally impressive graphics, the sheer scope of what can be explored, and an understated charm in flying through space exploring and discovering new worlds, the latter can be partially attributed to the lack of a storyline and technical glitches such as unfortunate graphical ‘pop-ups’ and occasional crashing. However the biggest strike against it comes from Hello Games over-promising and under-delivering on in game features, including things included in game play trailers and videos leading up to the game’s release. This resulted in a lot of consumers feeling they had fallen for a kind of bait and switch situation, so much so in fact, that the PC game portal Steam has offered a large number or refunds to people who bought the game through them. The fact that Hello Games has been continuing their work on the title (they are up to revision 1.08 as of this writing), does offer a bit of a silver lining as several bugs have already been patched and the possibility of additional content and/or features being added is always a possibility.
Unfortunately the bad press, word of mouth, and refunded copies are all overshadowing the fact that No Man’s Sky is not a bad game. If you’ve seen the trailers and are expecting some of the absent features, or are expecting an epic space opera storyline, this game is probably not for you. Still, if you are into quirky indie games, don’t require an explicit narrative to follow, have a penchant for exploration and like to play in big sandboxes, there’s a lot for you to get excited about here. At the very least it’s worth checking out just to experience a game so large you could literally spend a lifetime exploring it, even if the initially fresh/ultimately generic feel of the game will likely have you putting it away after 30-40 hours max. Look for No Man’s Sky at your local Slackers today.