Given To Fly.
Game: No Man’s Sky
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
(Review copy provided by the publisher)
So, how do you review a game like No Man’s Sky? I’ve offered some initial thoughts on the game here and, having spent more time with Hello Games’ mashup interactive experience I’m still not entirely sure how I REALLY feel about the game. I mean, I’ve had a great time. A truly GREAT time. Yet, at the back of my mind, I can’t deny that No Man’s Sky is a game with problems. Over the last week it’s truly polarised the gaming community, one that’s been waiting anxiously for this epic looking title for the past three years.
What is repetition? Imagine a day job where you get in at 9am, push a red button and then sit there, waiting until at 10am you have to push the button again. Repeat for every hour until you knock off at 5pm when perhaps some other button pusher comes in to do the night shift. It’s a bit like Desmond in the hatch in Lost, only with less smoke monsters and an easier to follow plot. That’s repetition. Many people accuse survival games of repetitive mechanics and, yeah, I guess to an extent I agree with that. Things like Don’t Starve and DayZ and the survival mode on Minecraft – they all have these little bars telling you how hungry you are, how injured you are, whether you need to take a massive dump or not. You need to address these bars to keep on going lest you die of something horrible and you tend to do this by gathering resources that you can keep your bars topped up with. A bit like in real life. If you don’t eat, you die. If you don’t patch up that seeping wound on your arm, you die. But it’s what survival games do around the repetitive mechanics that count.
What does this have to do with No Man’s Sky? Well, we’ve already established that NMS’s more immediate trappings are that of a survival game, all resource gathering and meter topping up. Having spent even more time in the game, this is certainly the most immediately overwhelming gameplay loop. If you don’t have the right resources on you when you need to refuel your ship’s boosters, you ain’t going anywhere. If you can’t top up your life support, you’re dead. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is entirely up to whether you see this as fun or work. If the survival elements were the only thing that No Man’s Sky has going for it then it’d definitely be work, but the game breeds enough familiarity to make the process easy enough to manage. Generally you gather the requisite elements for keeping your systems ticking over from the flora you find on the planets you visit. One of the smart things that Hello Games has done is to make this plantlife look as familiar as possible across the galaxy so you can easily pick out the type of resource you need from densely populated chunks of rock.
Conversely, however, many may feel that this lack of uniqueness in some elements of the design undermines the mission statement for the game of these 18 quintillion unique planets. Indeed, my exploration of the various star systems has delivered, so far, less of the epically unique vistas that the early imagery and trailers have promised, however there is evidence out there that these planets exist. That brings us on to two key issues with the game – varying mileage and what we should call Molyneux Syndrome. We’ll come onto that possibly controversial subject in a moment. We all know that NMS starts players in a random corner of the galaxy before letting them loose, but that means that there is an equal chance of you starting in a beautiful, diverse solar system with all sorts of amazing things to see, or being dumped in Blandsville where all you get is variants on the same boring Antilope-Tiger and a few differently coloured desert planets to mooch round. That randomness can definitely cloud a players view on the scope of the game and, unfortunately going by a lot of early (dare I say, premature) reviews several people have found themselves in this situation. I’m probably somewhere in the middle. A lot of the systems I’ve visited are Samey McSamepants but there has been the odd diamond in the rough – a barren moon devoid of much life but rich with rare upgrades, an icy Hoth like planet where rapidly shifting weather provided me with a unique challenge, or a nasty, toxic environment where even the sea was out to murder me. It’s these little variations that can deliver a different experience to the norm.
But that brings us onto the Molyneux Syndrome part. Hello Games’ head honcho Sean Murray has been talking up NMS for years now, always painting a grand picture of this varied ecosystem that even the developers don’t fully understand, of the way that players will likely never meet each other and how profound the overall experience will be, all the while keeping up the enigma of the game. It’s a lot of talk and a lot of promise, all building expectations and allowing potential gamer’s tiny little minds to run wild and create an experience that, let’s be honest, Hello would likely never be able to deliver. Personally I skipped out on a lot of this, preferring to go in blind, but, as with a certain other developer from Guildford, making these kind of statements and driving the hype train straight into your prospective audience can only end in tears if your final product isn’t up to those crazy expectations. A case in point is the issue of players meeting each other. Murray never committed to whether the game is multiplayer or not and, it would now appear, that it is most certainly not. While the universe exists as a persistent online entity to log discoveries and name changes, as two Reddit users found out you can be on the same planet as another player, in the same place as them, but simply not see them. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m skewing to the former. Not committing to synchronous multiplayer does not mean that Hello should guarantee the ability to SEE another player. No Man’s Sky isn’t an MMO and it isn’t sold as one. It is most certainly a single player environment that exists in a world that is influenced by EVERYONE playing the game. But by not committing to how this mechanic works, Hello builds expectations from the player base which is more than likely to skew the final opinion of the product they are playing. Being enigmatic doesn’t always work – see the aforementioned Lost (for the record, I actually really liked Lost but, as with No Man’s Sky, I can see why many didn’t).
Anyway, back to the game! That’s what you’re here for, after all! Earlier we talked about a survival game only being as strong as the elements that surround the core gameplay loop. Where does that leave No Man’s Sky? I’ve spent a lot of time exploring, gradually progressing and, if that’s your thing then you’ll have a good time. I’ve personally found this element of the game to be a mite repetitive and a bit grindy. Other than the resource gathering, the main reason to explore is two-fold; firstly, it’s the way you upgrade your character, by finding better equipment, doing mini quests for aliens (normally gathering the requisite amount of resources), learning languages and other activities. It’s a bit like finding random upgrade elements in games like Torchlight. Other than that, the exploration element is one of the ways to tackle the games three (that I can see at the moment) main quest lines which has you following cryptic, hard to find clues across the galaxy. I see this as being for the invested gamer that is willing to overlook the repetitiveness and put away tens, perhaps hundreds of hours.
The other two quest lines, however, are where the game gets… interesting. One of them is the much touted “Journey to the Center of the Universe” which involves following a prescribed line through the star systems in your galactic map, the other – well I’m not going to spoil it but it is a bit more involved than that and follows a gradually emerging story. Both of these are well telegraphed routes through the game and offer a bit more urgency than the somewhat more Zen exploration track, often encouraging you to keep your foraging to the minimum to survive in the wilds. It’s interesting that the game offers these choices in a very subtle way and it’s only when you start to tire of the core exploration element that you realise there are other paths to choose. Are they good paths? Honestly, I still don’t know. I don’t feel like I can put a number on this game and, when I do, what would that number be representative of? No Man’s Sky is such a potentially polarising experience that is so guarded with its secrets that I feel (I hope) we’ll still be discovering it for a few years to come.
I think there are some deeper narrative elements at work within the game. It’s clear that Hello Games really want No Man’s Sky to be seen as an an analogue to classic Sci-Fi fiction, the kinds of works where humans are not necessarily the first race to truly “find” something but we join them on their journey of discovery, of interacting with these advanced races for the first time. This is probably hammered home when you look at the trophies for the PS4 version of the game, named as they are after novels by high concept sci-fi authors such as Iain M. Banks (Use of Weapons – a book I can very highly recommend), Robert Heinlen, Arthur C. Clarke and others. Another concept you can take away from the way the player is made to farm resources and the way that you can, if you so wish, rename (not name) the flora and fauna you discover is evocative of colonialist ideals, the concept that humans feel they are “rediscovering” these planets and taking ownership from what they may perceive as weaker races, exploiting their resources and giving them more acceptable names than those that the natives have given them. Considering that makes some aspects of the game slightly darker, but not so overtly that you can’t admire the technical achievements on display.
And the technical achievements are many. Yes, it is possible to find boring planets but when you do come across something that is truly stunning it’s hard to turn away and move on. The feeling of flying down to a planet’s surface for the first time is genuinely exciting – what will you see? A snowy forest? Towering fungal structures? A desolate desert? How will the environment treat you when you step out of your ship? For all the familiarity that is there purely for the “game” there are many things to find which will be completely alien. You can stand and soak them up, or you can simply rush past them, top up on isotopes, refuel your hyperdrive and head off on the mission path you’ve chosen. Choice. No Man’s Sky is a game about choice and how you choose to spend your time with it. Whether Hello has anything planned post launch remains to be seen, but the game in its current state gives many, many things to be built on and there is a lot of potential for adding to it.
On a final note, I should say that I did experience some technical issues with the PS4 version of the game. A few times the whole thing seized up and completely crashed out, once requiring a full system reset. There didn’t seem to be any reason for these crashes but I did notice that they increased in frequency when the game properly launched, leading me to assume that they are perhaps related to server issues. The randomised nature of the planets also lends itself to some… odd… scenery; this could include animals stuck in terrain, foliage clipping through buildings and even some buildings not fully sat on the land. These kinds of things take you out of the moment although are perhaps slightly more forgivable given the scope of the randomisation. Less forgivable, however, is the fact that many objects such as creatures and other starships have no mass. You can pass through them, or they can pass through you, so anyone planning on riding a funny looking dinosaur creature around is sadly out of luck. It’s an odd choice and hopefully something that can be rectified in a future update.
I find it hard to put a numeric value on No Man’s Sky. On one hand it’s a stunning achievement that’s utterly engrossing and all too easy to get lost in. On the other hand, it contains a very shallow pool of gameplay with, at present, only limited scope. It’s easy to see why many don’t like it and, in some respects, why Hello Games have been cagey about what you actually do in the game. There is so much scope for them to evolve this galaxy, to have constantly changing events and shifting stories; whether they do this remains to be seen but the potential is almost infinite. At present, however, it’s an enjoyable, slightly relaxing space adventure. Your mileage may vary as to what you get out of it, but if you’re willing to lose yourself, you’ll have a great time.