Video Games Review: No Man’s Sky (PS4, 2016)

Usually, the kind of backlash that Hello Games’ ambitious space explorer has received would be reserved for something from Ubisoft (Watch Dogs, The Division), but it would appear that we’re in a golden age of broken promises, embellishments and flat out lies, with No Man’s Sky leading the charge.

I wanted to write a review that reflected how the game played at its time of release, one that was unburdened by the obnoxiously loud hype train and creator Sean Murray’s muddling of the truth; but the fact is that even without Sony’s E3 presentation and the industries relentless drive toward turning No Man’s Sky from the year’s hottest indie title to a AAA blockbuster, the game just simply isn’t that crash hot.

If you have indeed been living under a rock, then No Man’s Sky’s premise is this: Sean Murray and his very small team have literally cultivated an entire universe comprising 18 quintillion planets (yes that’s a number) and your job is to traverse different systems until you reach the centre of the galaxy.

No Man’s Sky’s breadth is undeniably impressive. Using ‘procedurallly generated’ planets, each one is diverse, harbouring their own eco-systems, flora and fauna, terrain and species. Nearly everything from giant stones to small flowers can be mined for resources that will in turn help you upgrade your suit, weapons and ship, allowing you to push further towards the core and survive on harsher planets.

… And that’s pretty much it. This is what you’ll do for your entire journey whether you choose to race to the finish or explore planets to your hearts content. Which is what brings me to its first flaw: mind numbing repetitiveness. On each planet there are outposts, beacons and knowledge stones to be found but eventually you realise how limited No Man’s Sky’s gameplay is when these few landmarks are all your reaching for. Prepare to do a lot of walking toward scattered waypoints that — while they do reward you with new technology and necessary resources etc — are ultimately all the same. In my playthrough, I never uncovered any mysteries or bonus objectives; your presence on these planets is merely to suck it dry and bounce, which is a very tedious, monotonous way to spend your time.

Although it’s been heavily touted that every planet is different, eventually you’ll find that they just offer variants on the same concepts. Animals are still as unimpressively random as the last planet, flora and fauna largely remain the same and outposts and their inhabiting aliens aren’t distinct at all. Weather patterns and hostile conditions including toxic rain and policing sentries may switch up but they end up repeating themselves in due time. The illusion that there are an infinite amount of planets out there is a nice one but it is just that, an illusion, because No Man’s Sky just isn’t diverse enough to make you feel like that next planet is going to offer something unique and remarkable.

There are different creatures to discover and name and while the appeal of finding a dinosaur-like beast may sound inviting, the animal AI is too stupid and non interactive to encourage it any further. In demos, you may have seen creatures moving in herds, walking gracefully or with different cadences and stopping at lakes to drink. That is a far cry away from what the final product entails. Animals don’t have any routines or patterns, they just stumble around at a very comedic pace and while a scan will list their temperament, it really only comes down to which ones will attack you and which ones won’t. The excitement for discovering new species wears off fast, especially when most of them looked deformed.

Flying off into space doesn’t really spice things up either. Once again, don’t expect any Star Wars like battles, weaving around carriers, and sharing the stars with trade transports like we were previously shown. Nope, it’s pretty barren up there and the only real reason to head up high is to travel to another system. On the odd occasion, you may encounter a couple of enemy ships but combat isn’t very satisfying (which goes for land too) due to an unpredictable and faulty lock on system and an asinine requirement to pull up your inventory mid-battle to repair your shields.

The UI and inventory system is frustrating all round. Upgrades take up coveted slots, you need to hold a button on everything instead of just clicking and you spend half the game in the menu because there are no quick select buttons to recharge or repair items. The inventory UI is very reminiscent of Destiny and while I wasn’t a fan of Bungie’s shooter, at least its menus were easy to use.

Things just aren’t that great but there are small moments of redemption. The soundtrack is fantastic, its hard rock and orchestral combo add a nice backing track to your exploration.
The core premise is a good one too, being able to discover planets that no one has been before, the feeling of being the first and perhaps the only one to see its wonders is a fresh approach for gaming. It’s just unfortunate that said wonders aren’t exactly…wondrous.

No Man’s Sky is a strange beast. Its vision is too expansive and fresh to be a quiet indie title but it almost feels as though Hello Games simply weren’t equipped to live up to its blockbuster status. Nevertheless, as a video game, it just isn’t that entertaining. It looks and sounds great but it has no soul or substance. It’s repetition is grating and its planets are vapid. There are no side missions or anything to drive you forward and just about everything is frustrating or time consuming and forces you to throw your hands up in the air questioning its inclusion.

I appreciate the scope and intention of No Mans Sky. It’s just a shame that Murray and his team didn’t think as hard about everything else after they finished telling the world that there are “18 quintillion planets”…

Review Score: 5.0 out of 10
Highlights: Cool soundtrack; Being the first to discover things is a fresh feeling; Scope is impressive
Lowlights: Boring and Repetitive; AI is bland and dumb; Game is ironically empty; Annoying UI and inventory system; Infinte amount of planets sounds good in theory, fails in execution
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games
Released: August 10, 2016
Platform: PS4, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4