Post Script

When ac­ces­si­bil­ity and sim­plic­ity share the same space, who wins?


Get­ting around No Man’s Sky’s galaxy is al­most fric­tion­less. Epic jour­neys from planet to planet or across light years be­tween so­lar sys­tems are ex­e­cuted with the tap of a but­ton (or two), re­quir­ing you to do lit­tle but point the nose in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of your in­tended des­ti­na­tion and hold on to some­thing. It means hop­ping be­tween colos­sal ce­les­tial bodies is a tri­fling mat­ter. Which is not to say that the re­sult doesn’t feel epic. That, even com­pared to other space-based games, it man­ages to de­liv­ers sights that feel fresh is a re­mark­able tech­ni­cal achieve­ment. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence born out of the idea of a bound­ary­less galaxy that lets you ex­plore at ev­ery scale.

Yet while the ex­pe­ri­ence of land­ing on a new planet never fails to get the blood flow­ing, the whole process feels a lit­tle de­tached. Sure, the oc­ca­sional oddly shaped as­ter­oid might tempt you into a brief de­tour, and ag­gres­sive pi­rates will some­times pull you out of warp speed to have a pop at ac­quir­ing your cargo, but for the most part there’s lit­tle to do while the stars flick past your space­ship’s canopy. It’s symp­to­matic of a wider malaise that runs through ev­ery as­pect of the game. De­ci­sions on whether or not to stream­line pro­cesses feel a lit­tle off.

When we re­viewed Elite Dan­ger­ous, we praised Fron­tier’s un­flinch­ing em­brace of the mun­dane, nec­es­sary as­pects it imag­ines might go hand in hand with ad­vanced space travel. Ask­ing for land­ing per­mis­sion at a space sta­tion, for ex­am­ple, and care­fully man­ag­ing your quite ter­ri­fy­ing ve­loc­ity so that you don’t over­shoot a des­ti­na­tion, bring­ing your speed down grad­u­ally to make your ap­proach as ef­fi­cient on time and fuel as pos­si­ble. Even us­ing a scan­ner in Dan­ger­ous re­quires you to in­ter­act with your ship’s com­plex cock­pit HUD and menus for aux­il­iary sys­tems.

In No Man’s Sky, every­thing is han­dled for you. You’ll be slowed au­to­mat­i­cally when you’re next to a space sta­tion or breach­ing the at­mos­phere of a planet. Land­ing is as sim­ple as tap­ping a but­ton and let­ting your ship’s au­topi­lot worry about the lo­gis­tics. Plan­e­tary flight is sim­pli­fied, too, as your ship will stick to a min­i­mum height above the planet’s sur­face. You can bar­rel roll us­ing the left and right shoul­der but­tons, but don’t ex­pect heart-in-mouth dashes through canyons, loop-the-loops around nat­u­ral bridge for­ma­tions, or ill-ad­vised rocket-pro­pelled spelunk­ing. No Man’s Sky isn’t de­signed to de­liver those things.

At first, the stripped-down me­chan­ics feel like a boon, with lit­tle stand­ing in the way of your vo­ra­cious ap­petite for ex­plo­ration and the pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated won­ders that lie ahead. But af­ter a short time, the shal­low na­ture of the me­chan­ics of flight start to feel op­pres­sive, and sub­se­quently repet­i­tive. There’s plea­sure in dis­cov­er­ing some­where new, and there’s cer­tainly ex­cite­ment in an­tic­i­pat­ing what might await along the way, but there’s lit­tle to be de­rived from the ac­tual act of fly­ing or trav­el­ling it­self. Your wings are clipped above planet sur­faces, and mov­ing in a straight line be­tween plan­ets is, me­chan­i­cally at least, joy­less. This is a par­tic­u­lar shame given the fun in­volved in the spo­radic dog­fights, but even these are marred by the de­ci­sion to lock your view­point to a scant few de­grees of for­ward-fac­ing move­ment. The meat of the game in­stead lies in in­ven­tory man­age­ment and re­source gath­er­ing. A smartly de­vised setup plays like a sim­ple board game in which care­ful place­ment of com­po­nents prof­fers bonuses, and avail­able space must be jug­gled with re­sources and other finds. But while the rough edges of some parts of the game are smoothed al­most to the point of ba­nal­ity, here there’s a stul­ti­fy­ing lack of short­cuts when they’re needed. Tinker­ing with your setup in the safety of a space sta­tion or some harm­less planet is di­vert­ing enough. But when you find your­self with fail­ing shields in the mid­dle of a huge space bat­tle and must man­u­ally, and la­bo­ri­ously, dip into your in­ven­tory – which doesn’t pause the game – to recharge it, your fi­nal mo­ments will be oc­cu­pied with a long­ing for some kind of quick com­mand.

On terra firma, there are sim­i­lar prob­lems to worry about. If you choose to fo­cus on min­ing for re­sources, there are plenty of up­grades to build for your mul­ti­tool to ex­pe­dite the process, but the fact that every­thing you own is fu­elled or re­paired by gath­ered re­sources means that it never feels like you spend any less time hoover­ing el­e­ments out of the ground. There are some short­cuts put in place for later on in your jour­ney – At­las-Pass-gated cargo and doors, for in­stance, will of­ten yield rare re­sources or more com­plex com­po­nents that save you the ef­fort of min­ing the con­stituent parts. But by the time you reach that point, you’ll have a great deal of the rel­a­tively shal­low pool of avail­able tech­nol­ogy al­ready in­stalled. The Anal­y­sis Vi­sor, mean­while, with which you must scan fauna and flora, en­joys no such stream­lin­ing and re­mains a clunky tool through­out – so much so, in fact, that scan­ning in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals and plants soon loses its al­lure. The re­sult is that any­one set on the idea of earn­ing their cred­its solely through ex­plo­ration and cat­e­gori­sa­tion will find them­selves in a dis­ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion. Rather than free­ing play­ers by re­mov­ing com­plex­ity from their jour­ney, No Man’s Sky’s un­even ap­proach to sim­pli­fi­ca­tion ends up feel­ing like a bur­den in it­self.

Your wings are clipped above planet sur­faces, and mov­ing in a straight line be­tween plan­ets is, me­chan­i­cally at least, joy­less

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