REVIEW: No Man’s Sky [PS4 / PC]

Announced all the way back in 2013, No Man’s Sky from Hello Games has been atop a lot of people’s most wanted lists ever since. Promising 18 quintillion planets, crazily diverse flora and fauna and a plethora of spaceships to explore the galaxy, the game was finally scheduled for release in June!

And then delayed until August because it was not quite ready.

Booting into the game for the first time reveals the vastness of space, punctuated with tiny pinpricks of light. Stars; thousands and thousands of stars. Each one its own little system, with planets (and sometimes moons) for you to explore. This wondrous display also serves as the game’s only load screen, as after a short while drifting through the cosmos you awaken on a planet to begin your journey.

No Man's Sky

No Man’s Sky

Every player in No Man’s Sky is said to start on an entirely unique world. Some get lucky and find themselves in a garden paradise. Some, like me, start on a toxic, mostly barren homeworld and have to learn the ropes mighty quick.

While the main showpiece of the game is the 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets, at the core of the game you’re just trying to survive. And, hopefully, flourish.

Environmental hazards abound. Radioactive atmospheres and rain, toxic dust and plain old extreme temperatures, all must be overcome while you scavenge resources to improve your spacesuit, multi-tool and starship. Along the way you can catalog strange animals, plants and… rocks. Each of these can be named by the player when submitting them to the central database, in case other players ever find them.

Planets and star systems can also be renamed, making it slightly more likely a random interstellar visitor will drop in. If you’re still there when they do, you might be able to meet the other player at the system’s starbase. You might be able to, if Hello Games can ever get that working. Developer Sean Murray has claimed that players will be able to see each other, but thus far players in the same system have reported failure.

Being an exploration and survival game the storyline is a little sparse, dealing with whether the galaxy is truly real, or just a simulation of some kind. Won’t spoil that one for you. With the resource gathering required to make enough hyperspace jumps to hit each of the arbitrary waypoints it will take 12-24 hours to hit the end of that thread, if you’re mostly focusing on that.

You’re never forced down that path though, instead being granted the freedom to go anywhere and do whatever you like once your ship is repaired.

No Man's Sky

No Man’s Sky

While you’re off going anywhere and doing whatever you will likely see flying robots buzzing about the place, seemingly doing much the same thing as you. Scan this plant, analyse that creature, move on. It’s only when you start interfering with the world that they become more than slightly incongruous inhabitants.

Mine a little too much of that rock or start taking potshots at the wildlife and the nearest Sentinel will buzz over and commence scanning *you*. If you put your multi-tool away at this point they will generally just follow you for a while, noting what you’re up to, before moving on.

If you carry on blasting away at the landscape, or try to shoot the Sentinel itself, it will fight back. One Sentinel by itself should be easy pickings, particularly if you’ve upgraded your multi-tool with some combat modules. If you don’t destroy it quickly enough it can alert other nearby sentinels, which can quickly turn ugly. If you continue fighting there’s a good chance they will summon ever more powerful forces, including giant walkerbots with frickin’ laser beams attach to their… heads?

On standard planets it is easy to avoid this situation by not blowing up great chunks of the landscape. On more exotic planets the Sentinels can be hostile from the moment you set foot planetside, forcing you into frequent firefights to get anything done. Firefights which will drain your multi-tool’s battery, requiring a recharge at often the very worst time. Fortunately, plutonium is scarily common on a lot of planets, with giant red crystals of the stuff jutting up out of the ground. Having plenty of it at all times is definitely a good idea.

Because it’s so easy to get, plutonium also serves as an easy way to make money at a trading post. The galactic currency, known as Units, can be used to buy ships, backpack upgrades and even resources. In theory you could live your No Man’s Sky life as a trader, buying low and selling high. And then get attacked by space pirates because of all the pretty rocks you’re carrying.

Space combat is… underwhelming. It mostly comes down to a series of jousting runs, with both ships trying to come around on target before the other to get more shots in. Get yourself a Phase Beam for this as it has a heck of a lot of auto-aim built in. So long as you’re pointed in roughly the right direction it will lock on and do most of the work for you. Recharge your shields instantly with all that Titanium you’re lugging around and dogfights become a lot easier.

Flying around in general is also not the best experience. You can only get so close to the ground on a planet without landing, and trying to crater your ship reveals an incredible, invisible forcefield that gently nudges you away constantly. No awesome passes under land bridges, no buzzing the tower, just gentle swooshing across the surface 100m below.

No Man's Sky

No Man’s Sky

That’s not to say there aren’t any crashes. Because boy howdy, does No Man’s Sky crash. A lot. Which is not unusual for a newly released game these days, but it was pushed back from its initial release and received a fairly hefty patch right out of the gate. I’m fairly sure I’m missing at least one blueprint for my multi-tool because the game will reliably crash when trying to unbox certain ones. Hope it’s nothing important!

It feels a little unfair to be hard on a small developer for bugs in a game that is of unprecedented scale… but when you’re hitting up every save point you can find to avoid losing 30 minutes of progress on a regular basis? It’s not a problem that can be ignored.

The problems are frustrating, as the game is otherwise truly exceptional. Hours can fly by as you explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy, gawking at amazing alien vistas and planning out your upgrade path. You can try to reach the centre of the galaxy, or deliberately go the other way. It’s entirely up to you.

Explore? Fight? Trade? Survive? Yes, please.

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