Hello Games’ space exploration title is a soulless drag.
Although it’s been touted as one of the most ambitious indie titles in years, No Man’s Sky is anything but. Sure, there are 18 quintillion planets, but developer Hello Games’ forgot to create a compelling reason to go out into the unknown.
After exploring several different galaxies and dozens of planets, it became apparent that the procedurally generated worlds aren’t all that different. Barren wastes, lush neon landscapes or planets covered in water — those are really the three things you’ll stumble upon in your adventure.
What you do on each of these planets is largely the same thanks to a pathetic excuse for narrative. The only real objective is to keep moving towards the center of the universe. Moving from galaxy to galaxy requires you to gather the same resources in the same order making for a particularly grind-y progression system. There is a flimsy side plot regarding “The Atlus,” which you can make various decisions, but they all feel unimportant with little impact on gameplay.
Gathering the same resources every galaxy is exacerbated by an atrocious inventory management system that requires the player to shuffle your exosuit and ship inventories constantly. In the initial hours, the inventories are both so limited that progression feels infuriating. The crux of inventory system is that you have to collect other resources to sell in exchange for units (the in-game currency) so that you can pay for to add a slot to your inventory. So, to recap, you have to gather valuable resources to sell for units so you can buy additional inventory space so you can collect more valuable resources.
In addition to gathering resources to move from galaxy to galaxy, Hello Games’ also forces players to gather resources constantly to keep your suit powered and your shield charged. In fact, No Man’s Sky is much more a survival game than it is an exploration game. If you want to explore the deepest oceans and the coldest caves, you’ll need to have ample resources in your inventory to keep you alive. In this way, No Man’s Sky tells players that have to grind to get to something interesting, which spits in the face of discovery.
Both in space and on planet surfaces, you’ll have to take part in some seriously underdeveloped combat. While dogfighting in starry vistas is at least made semi-interesting by the ability to move your ship in any direction to evade and attack swarms of space pirates, ground combat is decidedly bland. Little flying robots called Sentinels will occasionally see you as a hostile threat and swarm you with precision lasers that cut through your shields. They’re not hard to kill thanks to auto-aim and some exceedingly generous hitboxes. No matter how many times you fight Sentinels, and their more powerful allies should you stick around, every fight is the same: weave left and right to try to break the enemies’ lock on you while holding down the trigger and pointing in their general direction. This sense of monotony is made worse by generally sloppy controls that can’t be fixed even by adjusting the game’s sensitivity.
While No Man’s Sky’s worlds become less impressive the more time you spend on them, the procedurally generated creatures you encounter are always at least interesting. Some, like a flying space eel, were incredible yet others look like some abomination begging to be put out of its misery. This leads me to one of the biggest pitfalls in Hello Games’ universe design: procedurally generated worlds can feel bizarre and soulless should there not be hand-crafted locations, events and species to make the worlds feel real.
Nothing seems remotely grounded in No Man’s Sky. There’s no emotional story, no memorable characters or even galaxies. It’s all neon mush and barren rock. The 18 quintillion planets might be real, but there’s little reason to see more than a dozen of them. If you find anything interesting on a planet and tell yourself, “I’ll come back and explore more later,” you likely won’t because the idea of spending time gathering resources to go back to a planet instead of spending the same amount of time and resources to travel to the unknown feels insane.
No Man’s Sky maintains the illusion that there’s always something worth seeing over that next hill, on the next planet or in the next galaxy. The sad truth is when you reach the top of the hill or planet or galaxy, you’ll see you were wrong, only now on the horizon, you’ll see another hill planet or galaxy, and you’ll tell yourself the same lie. Hello Games’ has created an illusion that there’s something wonderful out there and that you only need to look a little deeper to find it. It’s only when you take a step back away from the game you’ll see you’ve spent countless hours slightly bored clinging to the thought of finding something more compelling than a bizarre space creature or pink grass.
Beneath the façade, No Man’s Sky is just another survival crafting game with fewer features and a bigger world to explore. Game design should be about more than size; it should be about crafting a memorable adventure for the player where they aren’t tricked into believing there’s more to be seen and done. If Hello Games’ crafted No Man’s Sky with love, I can’t feel it.
With a virtually non-existent story, a limited inventory system and repetitive grinding, No Man’s Sky is decidedly not much of a video game. Instead, Hello Games have crafted a job simulator with an occasionally interesting backdrop. While the mellow game design might appeal to some, those who enjoy video games because they want to explore the unknown won’t find much worth remembering in Hello Games’ universe.
After two delays, loads of promises and immeasurable hype, No Man’s Sky fails to deliver in nearly every way. The game isn’t terrible by any stretch, but it’s so run-of-the-mill mundane that it’s hard to not think of how great the game could have been.
No Man’s Sky was reviewed on a PS4 retail copy.
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