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