No Man's Sky Review

By Mark Delaney, 3 months ago
No video game exists in a vacuum, and as much as we try to steer clear of any pre-launch hype or controversy, it's hard to drown out all the noise for any game. That's especially true in the case of Hello Games' No Man's Sky. Only those just now waking from a three-year coma could go into it blindly, but over that time the game has also seen several updates and quality of life changes. Whatever it was two years ago when it launched on other platforms, today No Man's Sky is a daring and often exciting game, but it's not without problems some will find hard to forgive.

24/07/2018 - Carousel

No Man's Sky is an open-world space exploration and survival game set in a vast universe where every major and minor detail is procedurally generated. The game opens as the player character awakens from a crash on a deadly planet. You're forced to quickly get to grips with the game's many systems and menus as you restore your health, various tools, and eventually your spaceship. The game never really stops piling on more systems, gadgets, and ways to play which is eventually one of its greatest attributes. For the first several hours, however, it makes for a daunting and often tedious task log.

There are so many menus, so many resources to mine, refine, and combine to make different key ingredients that for a long time it just feels like you're constantly monitoring gauges and fighting to keep your cache of resources barely functional. No Man's Sky is beholden to the sort of grueling self-preservation loop that inhabits, if not befalls, so many other genre titles. This sort of high maintenance micromanagement will drive a great number of players away, but those that stick around will eventually find a world worth exploring.

It's around the time you unlock hyperdrive for your spaceship that No Man's Sky becomes something much greater. With that utility, you can exit your current star system and travel to others. At about that same time, the ebb and flow of gathering resources will take a back seat to the exploration. It stops feeling like a data entry job and starts feeling like a game, if only because you've figured out how to do it all much more easily. It's around then that you'll also get your first taste of structured story content, and though the game works well as an emergent storyteller, these more defined story beats are excitingly full of mystery and a real highlight of the experience.

Chasing messages in the interstellar static, maneuvering through various economies and cultures, and fighting space pirates are only the beginning. Every planet, satellite, or space station can be landed on and explored. Every alien you see can be spoken to, and they'll each either have something to trade, something to teach you or send you on various missions. Even with an empty mission log, you're encouraged to find your own path. Once I got past the initial struggle, I spent a lot of time chasing anomalies, system to system, as part of one particular story section, but eventually, I slowed my progress way down and began to seek alien stone monuments left around one particularly habitable planet. Each of them offered me a new translated word in foreign languages. By the end, I had learned over two dozen words of the Gek race and from then on when I spoke to them I could understand much more of what they were saying.


While it gets easier to manage after a half dozen hours or so, it's not as though that's when you've got everything figured out. Despite the game walking you through a lot of resource management early on, later it seems to let you figure it all out for yourself, even as entire sections of the game are introduced. It often feels like you're stumbling on something by accident in No Man's Sky and that's partly a good thing as such a feeling lends itself to the discovery spirit of the game, but it also means the several currencies, upgrades, and endless shop items are left unexplained.

It's as though the game's first six hours are a test to see who can get past them, and anyone still playing after that is trusted to figure the rest out. It may actually be a safe bet, but some more tutorial sections would help. Assuming you do figure out the countless stream of items and options, the rewards are worthwhile. They're incremental but always apparent, whether that's in improved tools, a sturdier spaceship, or a healthier explorer. It's a classically RPG flavor to observe that progress step by step. No Man's Sky exists on a treadmill of introducing new gameplay elements to the player and it's hard to get off once you've logged those first few miles.

For all the talk of multiplayer both at its original launch and now with the NEXT update, No Man's Sky is still a lonely experience for the most part. Intentional co-op means you don't need to go it alone if you have other friends playing at the same time, but otherwise, you're unlikely to stumble upon any other explorers, though it is possible. Alone or with friends, the game is mostly beautiful thanks to the palette and variety of worlds. Textures and character variety, including customization, are all impressive and made more so when you consider the team behind it all. Pulse jumping through space before breaking through a planet's atmosphere and landing on new foreign soil (or vice versa) is consistently awesome, though some slight frame rate drops and audio pauses accompany these moments too.

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Separate game modes come in the form of a more difficult permadeath mode as well as a freeform, much more laid back creative mode. The former is exactly what it sounds like, erasing your progress should you die. The latter is perhaps the game's greatest attribute, provided you don't care about achievements — they're deactivated in creative mode. Otherwise, the mode gives you every upgrade possible and lets you play however you want free of the strain of resource management. This mode is especially fun for those who enjoy base-building, as it's very deep in No Man's Sky but it takes a long while before you have all building options available in the main mode. Here you can build the space station of your dreams with some fantastic options and they're all impressively easy to use. It can feel like playing the game in spoiler mode as it reveals so many tools you won't see for a long time in the main game mode, but if you're just wanting to play without restrictions, creative mode lives up to its name.

If you are in it for achievements, it's worth noting right away that the whole list comes in multiples of 8 gamerscore. You'll never unlock less than 16 gamerscore for any achievement and for the most time-consuming achievements, you'll get 32, 64, or 72. That's an annoyance or even a dealbreaker to some population of our community, as we can see in this week's poll. If that doesn't bother you, the list is very straightforward in that it rewards you for in-game milestones like distance traveled on foot, words learned, or money earned. Like so much else with No Man's Sky, getting out of the introduction will bring lots of rewards in the achievement list.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox Survival Games to Play in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

No Man's Sky is tough to recommend because it doesn't nearly have mass appeal. It's a grueling game for far too long and even after that its loop is still too freeform for most players. For the right kind of player, however, it can be an exciting adventure filled with memorable moments and a real sense of discovery. With multiple intriguing storylines that can be chased or ignored, a ton of equipment and upgrades to unlock, and intuitive, easy to use base-building, there's a universe of possibilities to see, provided you can first get off the ground.
3.5 / 5
Positives
  • After a problematic intro, the game opens up to something much more exciting and worthwhile
  • Creative mode is a fun playground
  • Base-building is extensive and easy to use
  • Constantly adding new elements
  • Intriguing story threads for those who seek them
Negatives
  • An opening five or six hours of tedious micromanagement
  • A mess of menus and things missing needed tutorials
  • Audiovisual problems hinder one of the coolest repeating moments in the game, entering or exiting a planet's atmosphere
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent over 15 hours exploring an infinite universe, the first five of which were spent figuring out the nearly infinite HUD data. He gathered 9 of 27 achievements for 192 gamerscore. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist Podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.