As a result of a big technical update that goes live tomorrow and thus with very little time spent with the final build of the game, this following text is more of an impressions piece on No Man's Sky. The game is gigantic, expansive and deep, and therefore we wish to have a little more time with Hello Games' adventure before we put a score on it. For now, here are our impressions.
No Man's Sky may not technically constitute an eternity, but it might as well (with its 18 quintillion planets that'd take 585 billion years to see). The much talked about project has been a source of controversy ever since the original reveal at The Game Awards in 2013. There we saw the chief architect of this universe, Sean Murray, nervously telling a awestruck audience: "We have created an eternal universe. Billions of planets, and you're able to explore all of them".
This has been a difficult project to wrap one's head around since its grand unveiling, and since that day a lot of people seem to have struggled to fully grasp No Man's Sky, and therefore the game has been the target of high hopes as well as critical questions. What are you supposed to do? Where are you supposed to go? What are you able to do on the planets? Why do anything at all? What is the point?
No Man's Sky's procedurally generated galaxy has been created using a custom made engine to create these billions of planets, each with their unique plant life and visual design, and they rise above all these questions with one clear answer: do whatever you want. You are the one that is supposed to experience it, and you're the one who has to feel the weight of a billion worlds on your digital shoulders. There are mechanics to learn and utilise, but somehow it still manages to feel like more than the sum of its parts.
The whole thing starts with you, the sky and a spaceship. One simple goal: you need to get to the centre of the galaxy. Like the mountain in Journey, you feel drawn to this destination. Beyond the horizon awaits hundreds of experiences, and to prepare yourself for your journey towards to centre, you have to explore the outer layers of the galaxy first.
From here No Man's Sky will open your eyes. It begins with a tour through the vastness of space, showing you countless planets. Small flashes of light in the everlasting expanse. You fly with enormous speed across the galaxy until your character finally opens his eyes. We won't spoil too much, but your ship has crash landed, and before you can access the galaxy of No Man's Sky, you need to repair your spaceship. Here you will be introduced to the crafting system, how objectives work, and how you get new resources. You'll progress quickly through this tutorial and then the game lets you go. From here on out you will have to plan the trip to the centre by yourself.
Sean Murray, the creative mind behind No Man's Sky, has revealed his primary visual inspiration: science fiction books from the '70s and '80s. The pale colours, the strange creatures, the romantic aesthetics, it's a far cry from the dark hallways on Sevastopol in Alien: Isolation, and we'd like to thank Hello Games for that. Far too many movies and games are based on the terrifying unknown, and it sucks the joy out of discovery when everything you might meet wants you dead. Instead, No Man's Sky opts for colours above anything, a visual design that constantly jumps out at you. Gone is gritty realism, replaced with a chaotic kaleidoscope. It's always exciting to land on a new planet, and you'll always feel the urge to see more of the local flora and fauna. No Man's Sky has enough beautiful visual detail to hold your interest, and that is one of the primary reasons why it actually manages to achieve some of its lofty proposition.
But the graphics comes at a cost, and you will feel this from time to time. Even though the colours, the animals, the plant life and the wonderfully varied planets are impressive, the game doesn't always manage to load them all quickly enough. A lot of objects and even whole sections of the landscape are only partially loaded, and it's often easy to see if there is an invisible barrier where content hasn't been generated yet. This is something that is also visible in a lot of the pre-release trailers, but it should be noted that it's still the case in the final game. It's an annoyance, but you quickly get used to it. Maybe you'll feel like the limited field of view prevents you from enjoying the planet fully, but the simulation is so rich in detail that you'll quickly learn to take in what's nearby rather than gaze at the horizon. There is more than enough to feast your eyes on close by.
You constantly get the feeling that each individual part of the game feeds into the joy of exploration, the hunger for new experiences in the seemingly infinite reaches of outer space, and this is why the visuals aren't the only star here. The music is produced by the band 65daysofstatic. Of course, it's not just a case of 12 carefully selected songs, but rather long, deep melodic sequences that accompany you much like an orchestrated symphony would. The difference is, the band has created something more akin to a living soundscape than what you'd hear in an orchestrated score. If you start a space war with a fleet of merchants, then the psychedelic but controlled indie-sound increases in intensity, matching the ferocity of combat.
It's pretty overwhelming to see the engine at work, constantly working double time to generate planets, animals, plants, colours and much, much more, but still somehow maintain the studio's artistic vision (a beautiful one at that). It's rare to experience a game where the technical aspect is as admirable, while the beauty and art is also able to shine through. No Man's Sky doesn't just manage to create an entire galaxy, but it also manages to make it interesting. We'd go as far as saying that even if No Man's Sky didn't have a goal, the exploration would be enough in itself.
But there is structure. There are missions and things to do on these planets. No Man's Sky lets you navigate on your own, without holding your hand. You have a goal; you have upgrades to buy and battles to win. However, the structure is not as integrated into the game as you might expect. Some planets have an incredibly destructive atmosphere, poisonous seas or high temperatures that prohibit exploration before you can upgrade your ship and gear, and the planets become more treacherous the closer you get to the centre.
Along your way, hopefully you will - like us - get distracted again and again, both by the game's aforementioned beauty, but also by it's various elements and features. You have new languages to learn, new resources to trade, and new upgrades to buy, but the most central aspect is the stuff that's happening around whatever the game is telling you to do. The objectives don't dictate the experience. The quality and length of a game is defined by how many missions there are to complete, how many upgrades there are to unlock, or how long it takes to complete the game itself. No Man's Sky on the other hand is all about the things to the side of the road, about allowing yourself to get lost, to fly around without a goal and just explore the vastness of space. It's the biggest strength and probably also something some people will find a bit difficult to come to terms with.
What you can criticise is the controls, which really ought to be more intuitive. Sometimes the camera and your movement feels way too heavy, while at other times they can feel light as a feather. Your experience will constantly switch between those two extremes. Maybe you can find your happy medium, but it's far from ideal. It's sad, because you want to be able to move carefree through the universe.
No Man's Sky is a difficult beast to handle and particularly difficult to review. It offers something different, something new, something difficult to take in. There is structure and there are missions to complete, and even though it's not possible to complete it in 30 hours, it's probably possible to complete it "quickly" (this according to YouTubers who like that sort of thing). The thing is, No Man's Sky is about more than just finding out what's at the centre of the galaxy. It's about the experience, and like Journey, Abzû and even Elite: Dangerous, it's about your personal journey. This is where No Man's Sky shines with the strength of a thousand suns. The technical aspect lags behind a little, but so far No Man's Sky manages to live up to its promise. It's a hugely impressive construct, and unless the technical limitations become more troubling the closer you get to the centre of the galaxy, then we truly have something special on our hands.