No Man’s Sky
While No Man’s Sky delivers on its promise of lushly forested planets populated by strange and unique indigenous creatures, the most affecting moments in Hello Games’ ambitious space adventure occur further from the seeds of life. Despite the added time pressure of an issue cycle bisected by Gamescom, we find ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time stood on clifftops looking out over barren, but astonishing, landscapes. The rocky, Prussianblue surface of a planet baked dry by a nearby sun that sits in pink and turquoise skies, for example. Or the one in which undulating, dark purple tubes of rock snake across a craggy landscape bathed in a green-blue dusk. And then there’s that memorable, deep-red sphere whose horizon melts into an amber firmament that is broken by giant, towering pillars of copper. No game has ever made us feel quite this alone, or this small.
But despite the scale of No Man’s Sky’s playground, it’s best sampled as a short journey punctuated by lingering stopovers. In fact, if you commit to one of the game’s narrative threads, it’s possible to reach the centre of the galaxy in relatively short order. And for all the dizzying potential diversity contained within the clever algorithms at the game’s core, attempting to see too much of it inevitably begins to unpick the captivating spell this galaxy initially casts.
The game begins with us waking next to a crashed spaceship, a plume of smoke denoting a host of shot systems that will keep it, and us, grounded for the time being. The first order of business is to set about repairing the damage, and it’s here that the fundaments of No Man’s Sky’s gameplay make themselves explicit. Every component in your ship and exosuit can be crafted, repaired and fuelled by materials collected from plants and mined from the ground. You extract the various elements on No Man’s Sky’s embellished periodic table using your multitool – a mining gun, laser beam and environmental scanner rolled into one convenient package. Most plant matter yields carbon, while iron can be pulled from the majority of rocks and boulders. Rarer elements, meanwhile, such as aluminium, gold and the fictional heridium can be found in pillars that rise from – or float above – the ground and in larger asteroids and crystal formations.
In an appealing touch, the conditions of your starting planet will affect how your early forays play out, and influence what you prioritise. The sphere we begin on, for example, is a less-than-balmy -56 degrees centigrade during the day, which places a heavy load on our suit’s environmental shielding. A more hospitable environment would allow for a more leisurely pace of exploration, but we must regularly duck into caves or hop back into our ship’s cockpit in order to avoid freezing to death. The final push for heridium – which, on the three occasions we start the game, is always a slow-moving nine minutes’ walk away – is a fraught journey even without aggressive wildlife to contend with.
Once the ship is up and running, the game is a little too keen to get you into space, our next two objectives being to go into orbit, and then jump out of the system altogether. While some players will be eager to travel, at this early point we’re far from done exploring our first planet, let alone the two or three others in this closely grouped solar system. We choose to ignore the insistent requests that remain in the bottom right of our screen and set about scanning every creature and planet we can find with the multitool’s inbuilt analysis visor.
Everything you discover and scan nets you a small payment of credits, with further remuneration for uploading your finds in the pause menu. Plants and rocks are worth 500 credits, creatures between 1,000 and 2,000, while systems provide a 5,000-credit windfall. If you manage to find all of the animal species on a planet – each species contains a number of variants, but you only need one example to tick off the order – you’ll get a sizeable bonus payment. Discovering and naming things that no other player, nor even the game’s developers, has ever seen is intoxicating at first, and we hoover up every bit of data we can find from that first rock. But committed naturalists will start to notice repetition quickly. No two animals are ever exactly alike, but you’ll spot similar structures and body parts after only a few planets. There’s plenty of strange and wonderful life to discover along the way, but it’s rarely graceful, and no matter what form creatures take, there’s little in the way of unique behaviour to observe.
Plants are even more similar system to system. Part of this is down to smart gameplay design: zinc can always be found in drooping yellow, single-pistil flowers, for example, while thamium9 sits in fruiting, multi-headed red plants. They’ll have a different name on each planet, but vary little aesthetically or structurally. While this makes sense from a design perspective, the less-specialised carbon-yielding groups also tend to sit within a narrow spectrum of shapes and sizes. A few outliers will surprise you, but a growing sense of uniformity, combined with their low discovery value and the fact the analysis visor can’t be upgraded or its process accelerated, means that we soon stop bothering to scan plants at all. You have to upload each discovery individually, too, quickly making the whole thing feel like busywork rather than adventure.
Mine too heavily or kill too many creatures and a host of environmentalist drones will make their presence known. Escaping is simple enough, and shooting back will also prevent reinforcements being called, but on-foot combat is rarely enjoyable. Finding drones on every planet and moon also contributes to
the ever-building sameness that weighs more and more heavily on your wanderlust.
Each planet contains a variety of structures, such as giant trading posts, observatories, manufacturing facilities and ruins. There are supplies and save points at most, along with the possibility of discovering or being given new technologies for your suit, ship and multitool, and either trading computers or aliens, which allow you to buy or sell resources, tech and rarer trading items. You’ll only ever encounter one alien at a time, and they’re always rooted to the spot, but their presence offers welcome respite from the loneliness of your journey. But, as with so many aspects, over-exposure begins to grate as you start to see repeated passages of text, already know the answer to riddles or problems they set, and wrestle with the agonisingly slow process of engaging with them. On each occasion, the UI elements for trading fade in one by one, you’re forced to use two separate inventories for what’s in your suit and ship, and selecting an option requires you to hold the button down as a circular meter fills.
Away from conversations, however, those dual inventories provide an engaging management minigame. Each slot in your suit can hold 250 of any resource, while your ship’s slots can hold 500 each. As long as you’re in range of the craft, you can teleport any items in your possession between the two inventories, aspiring to the most efficient use of your upgradeable, but minimal, available space. Any tech you install will take up a slot, too, so you’ll have to decide whether the ability to stay underwater for longer or a higher resistance to toxic environments outweighs your capacity to cart valuable trading items. Further to this, upgrades all stack, and placing them adjacent to tech of the same type will proffer an additional bonus. If you commit to searching out exosuit capacity upgrades and saving for a larger ship, much of the system’s initial stress can be mitigated, but you’ll still need to prioritise your kit based on your particular play style.
Offworld, space flight feels epic, and combat, while lightweight, is thrilling for the most part. Your view will zoom a little when you target an enemy, and you can switch between phase beams and photon cannons depending on what you’ve installed. The inability to move the camera more than a few degrees can be frustrating, but an Elite- style radar means you can easily keep track of enemy positions and enjoy the spectacular explosions that occur when you down them. But these encounters highlight a problem with the need to refuel every aspect of your ship’s tech, as when you lose your shields you’ll have to dive into the inventory, locate your shield, click on it, and then click on one of the appropriate resources to repair it. There’s every chance you’ll be dead before the process is complete.
Despite its sizeable achievements, No Man’s Sky is beset with niggling problems. But while some poorly designed systems and mechanics chip away at your patience, the feeling of flying seamlessly from space down to a peninsula you spotted from orbit never fails to enthrall. And for all the familiarity you’ll experience despite travelling hundreds of light years, the pull of the unknown raises the pulse on each planetfall. Ultimately, No Man’s Sky feels like a foundation for a vision that’s yet to be fully realised.
NoMan’sSky frequently throws incredible views at you, both from the air and the land, although a heavy-handed LOD system – which is at its most prominent when you descend to a planet – is both distracting and ugly