We've spent the last week or so working towards this review, and as such it's an updated version of the Review Impressions article you may have already read if you're a frequent visitor to the site.
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. It makes for a compelling journey through the stars, with new wonders at every turn. But despite grand design and a lofty concept, all those question marks still remain even after lunch. However, Hello Games has risen above all the questions with one clear answer: you can 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. You have but one simple goal: you need to venture to the centre of the galaxy. Like the mountain in Journey, you feel drawn to this final 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. A creature or being called Atlas is calling you, it's your maker, in fact it's the maker of all life in the galaxy, and your journey represents an existential passage for you, the player. You must head out into the nothingness to find the eternal, in order to reconnect with Atlas, your creator.
From here No Man's Sky will open your eyes to almost unlimited opportunity for exploration. 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/her 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 ride. Here you will be introduced to the crafting system, how objectives work, and how you get new resources. You'll likely progress quickly through this tutorial and then the game sets you free. 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 dazzling colours above anything, a visual design that constantly jumps out at you. Gone is gritty realism, here 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 come 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 a dozen 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 this 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.
No Man's Sky doesn't need the framework that it has. The experience is enough, the exploration is enough. Several other media outlets have updated their reviews-in-progress with paragraphs about the gameplay, stating that it becomes stale and boring, and that mechanically and structurally, nothing new happens after a certain amount of hours spent playing. We don't feel the same way, and we instead think it renews itself constantly, just not in terms of structure, there's no mechanical evolution. This is the complete opposite of a platformer which constantly needs the addition of new features to keep every level feeling fresh. There's no structure, there's no game changer waiting around the next corner, nor an obscure 2.0 style upgrade when you're about halfway through. It's just about the experience.
But there is structure here and there. There are missions and things to do on these planets that you might visit (well, we can't speak for them all of course). 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 experience as much as you might expect. Some planets have an incredibly destructive atmosphere, with 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, thus requiring better and upgraded gear.
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 on the periphery of 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.
The reason we held back on scoring the game initially was that we didn't know at the time whether the game could create enough variation to keep the experience entertaining over a prolonged period of time. That's the reason why this text is largely unaltered from the initial impressions article, because No Man's Sky feels exactly the same 50 hours in as it did during those first hours. That may sound like a weakness, but for us it's one of the game's single greatest strengths. No Man's Sky knows itself, and it knows what it must do. They've created a gameplay loop which is simple yet entertaining, accessible yet deep, understandable yet complex. It keeps its head above water by just having enough systems to make you feel like you're doing something different from time to time, without that really being the case. It's quite repetitive in a sense, but in the best possible way, as there is also tremendous variation.
Therefore we can now safely score No Man's Sky. At times the technical aspects do disappoint a little, and both the frame-rate and objects aren't always where they should be, but this game is actually a massive triumph, something that should be experienced by everyone who's gazed up towards the stars and wondered what it would be like to step onto a distant planet for the very first time. No Man's Sky is like that every time you play it, not just the first time.
No Man's Sky is actually a tricky beast to handle that's particularly troublesome 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" (we wouldn't know as that's not how we chose to play it). 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. It's a never-ending galaxy out there, and you can explore it all.
Three days ago we found a beautiful, serene moon with floating stone plateaus, red grass and gorgeous pools of azure blue water. Ever since then we've spent nearly 10 hours charting its various animal species, the plants, and we've mined its many resources. We get the sense that we're going to be there for a lot longer. When we feel done, we'll get into our spaceship, and fly off in search of another place to explore. It's not an adventure that will appeal to everyone, but it's one that we're still happy to be on and that has the potential to run for a long time to come.
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