No Man’s Sky Review (PlayStation 4)
Hello Games’ ambitious space explorer No Man’s Sky offers an entire universe to its audience of intrepid players, all set on the path of traversing and charting all systems, planets and life therein on the way to the center of the cosmos. In a universe that would take players ages to explore entirely, each jump into new space is a new adventure with new possibilities. In many ways everything that led up to No Man’s Sky felt like some sort of conscription ad campaign. “See the universe! Explore the unknown!” It’s all very enticing and delivers on a lot of amazing feelings, but like most things of this nature, it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be.
Players begin their journey stranded on an unknown planet with a dead ship that needs to be fixed. A soft tutorial guides players through the basics of their spacesuit inventory, ship systems and a multi-tool that you use for mining and personal defense. It’s a solid tutorial that guides players easily into most of what they’ll be doing. From the very beginning you can wander off into the wild yonder and forget about doing what the game continues to tell you to do if you don’t care. In fact, much of the game lies outside of objectives that pop up on the screen. No Man’s Sky is a game that offers tremendous freedom. That part wasn’t exaggerated and it’s refreshing in a lot of ways.
Indeed, exploring is quite a treat when you hit a new place for the first time. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to see the flora, fauna, and alien life you’ll meet in your expedition. Each planet has certain niches about it – from its life to its terrain – that make it just a bit different from other things you see, and arriving and leaving each one is a visual that never gets boring. You can find outposts and stations in every system that often house intelligent alien life. There are several races and though you begin unable to understand what they are saying. Planetary and galactic artifacts you discover – and the aliens themselves – give you bits and pieces of new languages, which eventually leads to being able to decipher the situations that arise when you deal with them. Situations are a grab bag of events, but often come down to a choice of three options, one of which will grant you better standing with the race and possible bonus equipment, items or technology.
Planetary encounters are also a grab bag. As you run the planet, you find minerals that either help you survive or can be sold for a profit. Different animals and plants live on each planet, and you can scan them to add them to an encyclopedia that will then pay you a sum for the discovery. Outposts, mining facilities, shelters, and abandoned buildings to name a few offer momentary rest from travel. Occasionally a member of one of the intelligent races will inhabit these places, though almost all of them feature one of the aforementioned situations that come down to deciphering alien language and answering correctly on a multiple choice question to resolve the problem. In a mining facility this will reward the player with new technology, where in a comm station this can offer to a new waypoint. Nonetheless, all of them lack any meaningful consequence outside of the moment and their usually insignificant rewards.
The problem that appears in all of this is monotony. Yes, planets are fun and refreshing and the journey is very open, but after the first few systems, you begin to fall into doing the same things over and over. Mining resources, searching for new animals or resolving regular situations reveal obvious patterns only hours in. You’ll see plants or animals on different worlds built a little too similarly or a situation in a whole new system use a similar riddle you saw in an earlier situation in your journey. What’s worse is that there’s no avoiding seeing these patterns because you have to do these things constantly in order to continue to fund your expedition.
You have four main enemies in No Man’s Sky. The first and most apparent is your depleting resources. You have to constantly remain stocked on a few key items to ensure you either don’t get stranded or outright die. Each of them is sort of like having to constantly drink water in the game so you don’t dehydrate, only far more frequent. The second enemy comes as a consequence of the first and the journey itself: inventory space. Honestly, much of a player’s biggest struggles will be making enough currency to gain just one more precious slot in their suit or swap out their ship for one with a bigger payload. Every step of the journey in No Man’s Sky left us begging for just a little more room to carry that one last lucrative piece back from the journey. The player resource sink and inventory space are the problems you’ll spend most the game battling.
The third and fourth frequent enemies in No Man’s Sky are actual hostile beings, but their place marks one of the least interesting aspects of the game. When you’re in your ship flying around, there’s a chance you can run into pirates. When that inevitably occurs, you’ll begin a volley back and forth between delivering damage to their ships and restoring your shields. You have a constant laser and one that runs like a machinegun. It’s hard to tell which one is more effective because they both get the job done. You’ll just spend these fights tracking your enemies, shooting at them until they explode and repairing your shields when they get low with resources. It never really changes and its simplistic novelty wears off in no time.
Finally, there are the sentinels. These sentinels are literally the fun police. Whenever you do anything outside of an outpost, there’s a good chance a sentinel will show up, scan whatever it is and then check you out to make sure your nose is clean. Sometimes they’re extra aggressive and just open fire outright depending on the planet. The sentinels are the most annoying part of the game. Almost everything in No Man’s Sky outside of your ship puts you in conflict with these “guardians” and you have to kill them or lose them. If you don’t, they’ll summon bigger, deadlier sentinels.
They’re supposed be protectors of some kind, and in a way that inevitably made us feel like the bad guy. There’s no way not to cross them if you’re going to get anything done. We found the best thing to do is just jump in your ship and fly around to get them to instantly call off their hunt for you. It’s a workaround built into an annoying concept that only serves as a nuisance to the overall experience.
For all of the freedom that No Man’s Sky offers, there is an actual quest line in the game to follow if you so choose. The path of Atlas is a continuing quest that runs through most of the game, giving you a trail to follow from an ethereal presence that guides you along to each of its mysterious temples. The biggest draw comes from Atlas stations, one of which houses wealths of language and the other of which allows you to craft a special key for doors that can be found throughout your journeys. The universe is full of stories and disjointed narratives to discover that expand upon the state of its inhabitants and Atlas is by far the largest plot device in the game. That said, for all its existential musing, even the Atlas storyline falls prey to a game where story is punctuated by arriving at a talking point, resolving it with a simple choice and leaving without any feeling of consequence.
No Man’s Sky is at its best when you get to take it in and enjoy it without stress for a moment. Flying around, arriving on a planet, leaving with a well-earned bounty, searching and discovering are the feelings and promises this game was sold on. Those feelings are great when they’re left intact. However, once the game starts to impose all of its little restrictions, it begins to weigh down under the burden of chores that break the illusion of freedom and sap it with repetitive tasks. The universe is huge. It instills such a feeling of insignificance and it is incredibly fun to think of all the possibilities when arriving in a new place, but when it inevitably requires the patience to do the same things over and over, the wonder of exploration loses out on some important magic.
This review is based on a purchased copy of No Man's Sky for the PlayStation 4.