No Man’s Sky

EDGE - - GAMES - No mat­ter what form crea­tures take, there’s lit­tle in the way of unique be­hav­iour to ob­serve

PC, PS4

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

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