My girlfriend went into our room earlier today when a group conversation turned to No Man’s Sky yet again. She’s sick of talking about it. I can’t blame her – only a few days after launch, and I’m already a bit weary of all the discussion surrounding 2016’s biggest hype fest. It’s been a long haul from this game’s announcement to its release, after all, filled with grand promises and slick buzzwords delivered mainly by executives wanting to drum up preorders. The whole affair’s been a bit exhausting. At long last, we can put the whole thing to bed.
Frankly, I’m content to put the game itself to bed as well. Because at the end of the day, No Man’s Sky fails to do anything worth remembering.
I say this because after spending so much time with the game, everything about the experience blurs together. Sure, I can remember naming a planet “Freaky Constantina” or a solar system “Chungus.” But what differentiated that planet from others? What made that system special? Nothing. The planet was made out of the same limited tileset that the rest of the game is drawn from. The system has the exact same space station in it as every single other system. I name some places, leave them behind, then go do the same thing to similar planets and systems, ad nauseam.
This is the No Man’s Sky experience in a nutshell. The basic premise of the game is that you’re an unnamed space explorer who’s broken down on a mysterious planet. Whether you resist it initially or not, you’ll eventually end up getting assistance from The Atlas, who promises you that something really, really cool is waiting for you at the center of the galaxy. Cue a relatively linear journey through several systems and across several, several planets all in the name of getting to the center of the universe.
I’m sorry if my description made No Man’s Sky’s journey sound interesting, because it kind of isn’t. I say “kind of” because for the first few planets, the game really does sell its sense of scale. My starting planet was a snowy, mountainous sprawl, with all the required minerals I needed miles (or “U’s”) away from me. Traversing mountains, running into weird animals, trying to figure out what the weird floating robots wanted from me – I was sold. Eventually, I got the resources I needed, blasted off into space, and landed on another planet.
Then I did the exact same thing. Over and over again, planet after planet, system after system. In the immortal words of DJ Khaled, every planet I came across was just “another one.”
This is what lies at the core of No Man’s Sky’s problems. It doesn’t matter if there are two planets or eighteen quintillion of them. If I do the exact same thing on every single one, why should I even bother? Because that’s exactly what you do – the same thing. Go to a planet, scan for resources, then build a thing to progress to another planet on which you do the exact same thing. Minecraft comparisons don’t hold water, because there are no buildable structures, terraforming, or sort of significant things you can do with the resources you find. You just pump them into yourself or your ship, then keep on trucking… erm, flying.
Because that’s the thing with this game. You can’t actually do whatever you want in it, despite the hyperbole surrounding the content. The game handholds you to each resource pit, lets you collect some stuff, then yanks you by the wrist in another direction. If you try to explore, you’re going to get more disappointed. Your jetpack is garbage, so flying around is out. Animals have two behavioral patterns, so engaging with them is boring. Heck, the game won’t even let you do fun things with your spaceship, intentionally steering you out of the way of collisions and encouraging you to stick to a path.
Exploring in No Man’s Sky is an absolute sham, basically. The scale of the game is irrelevant when you can’t actually just do whatever you want in it. With no emergent gameplay to speak of, you just go from one lifeless world to another until you get to the center of the galaxy, umpteen hours later. But why do you even want to go there? And what’s the point of the journey if genuine risk-and-reward exploration is off the table?
Oh, right. There is none. There is literally no point.
This might all sound very harsh, so let me be clear that No Man’s Sky is by no means a horrible game. It functions. Like, you can walk places, and fly places, and then shoot things, all with perfectly serviceable controls. Unless the game’s crashing, which it did to me and my roommate several times, it all works. The thing is, it’s just not very fun, nor is the gameplay particularly dynamic or interesting. Because, let’s face it, if the nicest thing someone can say about your gameplay is, “well, it functions,” you’ve built a very dull game.
Perhaps that’s No Man’s Sky’s biggest Achille’s Heel – it’s just a dull time, all told. The entire thing feels like an unsuccessful marriage of “walking simulators” and open-world crafting games, two genres that don’t belong together. It’s a slow slog through planets in which you collect limited resources to craft an even more limited amount of things, all while wrestling with a microscopic and obtuse inventory system. On top of that, it’s a slog in which the worlds you’re going through are drawing from an alarmingly small amount of textures, meaning those “unique planets” are practically just Lego bricks arranged in a slightly different way. Everything is a boring, same-y journey through a bunch of similar worlds to do the same thing over and over again.
For some, that might be great. Some people find comfort and solace in repetitious tasks in video games. God knows I’ve spent hundreds of hours in turn-based JRPG battles. But No Man’s Sky’s brand of repetition just isn’t for me. I’d also hazard to say that it isn’t for most people putting sixty dollars down on this game, when there are dozens like it on Steam for half the price, and with more features to boot.
No Man’s Sky is, ultimately, not the revolution we were promised. But let’s be real – it was never going to be. However, at the very least, Hello Games could have delivered something fun, engaging, and full of exploratory whimsy. Instead, we got another survival/crafting game to throw onto the growing pile of them, and a pared-down one at that.
No amount of “leafs on trees” or “immersion of worlds” that Hello Games might eventually deliver will ever make this pipe dream of a game worth investing a significant portion of time into.