It’s been a while, a while since we were wowed by No Man’s Sky being revealed at E3 and a longer while since I cut my teeth in space dreaming of a game like this. There’s no doubt the unique selling point of NMS is the scale of this operatic vision.
Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games have delivered what they set out to do, a near infinite gaming playground that humbles you into submission, it offers up a diluted offering of space travel and interplanetary jumping that sits happily in the realm of any hokum sci-fi.
Murray has a vision, that much is clear and with such vastness for people to play in he has delivered a sizeable chunk of activity and potential to keep a near infinite number of space travellers entertained. There will obviously be attention goldfish that will fall away once they think they’ve seen everything – probably the same people that couldn’t live without Pokemon Go a few weeks ago.
Then there will be the others, the players that have been yearning for an experience like this either since they heard of it or since they played Elite for nights on end in the back of a wardrobe.
That’s me. Over thirty years ago I set my humble Commodore 64 up in my bedroom cupboard along with a 23″ CRT TV and that was my spaceship. Night and day all through the summer holidays I would trade my way across wireframe spacelanes, often creeping downstairs to the galley retrieving space food, (cheese sandwiches).
These were joyful days, I would keep logs of my activity and dream of the days when a game would let me visit a planet, interact with the environment and add my own twist on the universe. I would have to assume Murray was one such traveller, seeing the potential in such an accessible classic and offering up so much more.
As a consumer entertainment product NMS is a hard puppy to label in a review, while there is a goal (not really critical or enforced) there is no real end-game, no narrative driven bad guy to hunt down, no Boss structure and no score other than a log of statistics. As a tech demo, it’s a marvel, but the magic comes somewhere in between the two camps.
I’ve seen reviews and they are rushed, possibly based on pre-patch versions of the game – it was held back for valid reasons, so pumping out a review based on an early retail copy can only be seen as misguided. If a review is meant to inform then how can a few hours give a solid impression of the experience? There is such a grand scale of playground on offer sprinkled with treats and Easter eggs that writing off the experience based on the set dressing is tantamount to judging a book by its cover.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game that stacks wow moment over wow moment on a regular basis. NMS is the sum of its parts, yes there is repetition in the environments and puzzles, but Hell there always is. Hello Games may be talented, but who expects them to procedurally generate a galaxy of inhabitants and puzzles on the same scale as their universe algorithm.
Just because they playground is so unique, it would be unfair to expect the content to hit the same heights. As players we generally perform mundane tasks over and over to reach a goal, NMS is a grinding experience, but no more so than Minecraft.
In fact the mining and resource gathering here feels more educational, if in name only as you collect oxides and silicates in great abundance. The mining tool that combos as your weapon is effective and by installing mods into its limited slots it can be enhanced, notably these slots work better when adjacent to a similar item. Make friends with the locals and you are likely to be offered a new weapon from time to time, anything with more slots is a no brainer.
This pretty much goes for ships too. Just remember to breakdown your current installs so you can slot them into the new one. The inventory system can be a little clunky, but it does serve its purpose and one of the main complaints I have seen is from people running out of space in their suit. Well, finding expansion slots is pretty easy once you know what to look for, it just take a little exploration and off track thinking.
Its also nice to be able to add a personal touch, scanning and uploading named versions of everything you come across planets, moons, flora and fauna alike, names that one day may give some other traveller a laugh or a peak of curiosity should they stumble across them.
To be frank I’ve not experienced much joy in ship to ship combat, having explored and experienced the planets I tend to spend more time stacking my ship with inventory rather than weapons systems. That balance will redress when I find a big enough ship, but for now I’m happy to run away as often as possible. This isn’t a combat simulator for me – it’s about exploring one of the most expansive and encouraging open environments ever created.
This is also true of the alien languages, originally we expected to be learning languages, but the system is a simplified version of the truth where your actions add the knowledge of alien words to your game persona. While not being the experience it wanted to be the system adds satisfaction when puzzle or conundrum is much more easily solved because half the text is in your native tongue.
Thankfully for me I am a gaming Kleptomaniac Nosey Parker (KNP – it’s a thing). This means that I will scour every location for goodies, pressing every pressable button and trying to carry as much as I could. My first hour was spent ignoring the tutorial call to fix my ship, I was off in a nearby cave system feeding and befriending strange creatures before gathering everything shiny.
NMS gives you freedom, but with a healthy dose of curiosity, it’s a game in name and an experience in nature. You are very gently pushed toward the centre of the universe, but how can you blaze past systems full of planets that are waiting to be explored and while they do bear many similarities there is enough variety to keep you looking around the next corner. Thankfully I have a baby in the house, so I have an excuse to be up and awake at three in the morning.
A few days later and I’m still no closer to the centre of the universe, I spent the most time on a planet with hostile Sentinels which was pretty barren, but encouraged me to hit and run locations quickly. Not only that it was a farm for artefacts.
Once I’d filled my suit inventory with new slots: grind artefacts, sell artefacts, find a pod, buy suit upgrade. I was happy to try the next system leaving the robotic Korvax race behind I thought I’d found a more temperate planet only to discover it is classed as ‘forsaken’, yay for danger and more loot.
I assume that some people were expecting more, what that was I don’t know, because NMS does give me what I needed and that is cemented every time I break or enter orbit, or skim a planets dark surface only to be greeted by a rising sun and the silhouette of a space station basking in its glow.
The centre of the universe is far away and I may not have the motivation to go there, mainly because I’m enjoying forever voyaging, in a game where I can stand on a planet big enough to spend weeks exploring, look in the sky and see another that I can fly to and spend just as much time on, without ever considering one of the other 18 quintillion on offer…