Review: No Man's Sky (PlayStation 4)
- Release Date (NA): August 9, 2016
- Release Date (EU): August 10, 2016
- Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment/iam8bit
- Developer: Hello Games
- Genres: Action-Adventure Survival
- ESRB Rating: Teen
- PEGI Rating: Seven years and older
- Also For: Computer
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
Space - The Final Frontier
Imagine waking up in an unfamiliar environment on a planet that seems alien to you, next to a space ship that you can only assume is your own, its cargo spilled across the landing site, with no memory of the events that transpired, or even of your own identity, with only one thing standing out on the scene - a chilling red orb, an orb that for some reason seems sentient... an orb that speaks to you, filling you with an overwhelming desire to reach out to the stars, to find your destiny somewhere out there, in a galaxy filled with quintillions of planets. Intrigued? That's exactly how No Man's Sky (NMS) introduces you to its world.
NMS became quite the contentious game, with opinions spanning the entire spectrum of scores you could give, from "Perfect" to "Abysmal". Upon completing the game's storyline I can absolutely understand why that's the case. This game is extremely hard to write about or classify, and not for the lack of content, as there is plenty of it to be found. The problem with the game, from what I observed in other media, is that it's severely misunderstood. There are numerous ways to look at it and I'll make an attempt to explore them all in detail, but before you dive into the meat of this review, keep in mind that this is my subjective view on what the game is, why it ended up the way it did and whether you should play it or not. I cannot stress this enough - NMS is not a game for everybody and if you start thinking that what I'm describing seems mundane or boring to you, assume that it is, because it probably will be. This particular title is aimed at a very specific audience and, accidentally or deliberately, it was advertised far too broadly for its own good. With the disclaimer out of the way, it's time to take off - engage!
These are the Voyages of the Starship No Man's Sky
NMS is the epitome of what you'd call a "survival" game, as that is your primary goal throughout the entire gameplay experience. As you awake from your slumber, you immediately realize that your starship is not exactly in great condition, and upon sitting in your captain's chair and checking through its systems, it becomes painfully obvious that you're not taking off anytime soon as several of the crucial systems are damaged and inoperable. It doesn't help that you don't remember how you got here, where you were heading or even who you are, which is disconcerting. Inspecting your cargo doesn't yield promising results - you didn't carry nearly enough resources with you to perform the necessary repairs. What you do find is a mysterious red orb which urges you to undertake the path of Atlas. This seemingly sentient orb seems to be the only means of discovering the secrets of your origin, so faced with no alternative, you agree to follow the path, wherever it might lead you. This relatively vague goal gives you motivation to explore the galaxy - you have a clear reason to leave now, beyond your personal safety, of course.
At this point the game provides you with some barebones training which gradually gets you accustomed with your gear. First, you're introduced to your personal galactic swiss army knife, the "Multi-tool", which you will use on your planetary journeys from this point onwards. The Multi-tool has two primary functions - it can be used to mine resources as well as your means of self-defense. Next come your visor - using it will allow you to zoom in and observe your environment from a safe distance as well as analyze mineral deposits, outposts and cargo as well as scan alien life forms that you come across. Objects analyzed by your visor can be named, so if you encounter a particularly interesting variety of a carnivorous giraffe, be sure to name it accordingly for everyone to admire. You're also equipped with a scanner - using it will allow you to pinpoint various points of interest on the map, from various minerals to alien relicts and technology. Last but not least comes your Exosuit - the protective layer of fabrics and alloys that come between you and the harsh environment outside, providing you with everything you need to survive. In addition to providing armor and life support, your suit is also equipped in a jetpack which will allow you to explore the often treacherous terrain, as well as a limited supply of oxygen for underwater exploration. Your Multi-Tool and Exosuit are divided into slots which allow installing further upgrades later down the line - buying them either unlocks new features or improves its existing functions. Armed with this knowledge you venture forth into the unknown with your first quest - getting your ship back to working order.
Its Continuing Mission - to Explore Strange, New Worlds
All of the planets you'll explore in No Man's Sky, all 18 quintillion of them, are procedurally generated - your starting planet is no exception. Abandon all hope, all ye completionists who enter - exploring the entirety of No Man's Sky's galaxy would take you several lifetimes, so let me dispel that notion right off the bat - you're not going to make it. On the bright side, each and every playthrough of No Man's Sky is unique and no two players should have the same experience as they explore the galaxy... at least in theory. Each planet you visit is unique in is own right, with its own ecosystem filled with procedurally-generated flora and fauna, unique terrain and environmental conditions. In addition to natural formations and creatures, even a barren planet is a host for other sentient beings - as you explore the surface you will quickly come across many structures, both modern and ancient, and members of sentient alien races who will happily engage with you in friendly... or less friendly banter - more on that later.
In order to fix your ship you will have to apply your newly-found knowledge, scan your environment and mine the relevant resources - in some cases manually, in others using your mining beam - it's standard affair for anyone who's ever played anything even remotely similar to Minecraft. The catch here is that the planet is dotted with Sentinel drones which, for whatever reason, are protecting the planet's resources from explorers who would pillage them - explorers like yourself. If said drones start scanning you, it's time to leg it. If they crossed your beam, took damage and decided that you're a hostile creature - watch out! Dispatching the drones yields useful resources and their dropped shells contain useful technology, but facing them in the beginning of the game can be challenging, not to mention that being unable to destroy them in the time allotted results in them calling in reinforcements. As you progress in the game, the Sentinels become more advanced and depending on the level of security of the planet they might call in the heavy guns - mechs which will prove to be far more resilient and dangerous than the average floating camera.
The biomes you get to visit range from tropical paradises to barren wastelands, and there's more to each planet than just the surface - each planet also has complex systems of underground caves and caverns.
The drones are not the only hazard you'll be facing on various planets - sometimes you also have to worry about the procedurally-generated fauna. Scanning the creatures you find in the wilderness prior to entering their territory is prudent as some of them are in fact predators which will attack you on-sight. Most of the animals you'll encounter look like things straight from the Spore Creature Creator, which speaks to the limited capabilities of the engine used for their creation and the available body parts, but many of the ones I found seemed interesting and pleasing to look at. Some attack you individually, others will attempt to swarm you relentlessly. Some are soft and fleshy, others heavily armored and lethal. You never really know what you're up against, so even if a given species seems familiar to you, keep in mind that unscanned creatures are all unique and can vary vastly, not only in appearance, but also temperament and, most importantly, diet - that diet might include space travelers. Naturally there are also peaceful creatures - some skittish, some relatively trusting. Feeding them their preferred resource will allow you to befriend them, which in turn will make them follow you around the planet you're on. Unfortunately can't take your pet on your interstellar voyages, but it's nice to have a companion with you for a change. Killing creatures nets some resources, but more often than getting them is more hassle than they're worth, so in my playthrough I limited myself to self-defense in order to conserve ammunition.
The flora is just as random as every other aspect of the game. Mining various plants will net you a healthy serving of carbon, your primary source of energy early in game. There are also some special plants which have to be collected manually - those will be marked on your map individually as they contain rare resources, for instance Platinum which is necessary for certain equipment upgrades or Zinc which is used for powering your shields, among other uses. Always being on the look-out for rare elements is an absolute must if you intend to get the most out of your equipment. Don't assume that the plants are harmless, either - there are some species, however few, which will attack you with their vines. Eventually you'll learn to spot them among the thickets, but sometimes they're well-hidden, and getting hit by one is never a pleasant experience - be vigilant.
Each planet has unique environmental conditions, which are often hazardous in and out of themselves. Some planets are extremely hot or cold, others have a toxic or radioactive atmosphere, and each of those hazards drains the life support systems at an increased rate. Depending on the upgrades installed in your suit you will eventually be able to protect yourself from them to some extent, however you always have to be mindful of them as venturing too far from your space ship or not carrying around the resources necessary to recharge your suit's systems can often lead to a frantic dash back to your vessel, hopefully a successful one.
Once you finally manage to collect and craft all the necessary components to get your space ship up and running, it's time to lift off! The space awaits, and in it are untold wonders!
To Seek Out New Life and New Civilizations
As I've mentioned before, you're most certainly not the only sentient creature around - you will often meet members of alien races, and interacting with them plays a big role in the game. Unfortunately, as you might expect, interspecies communication can be tricky, on account of your civilizations being separated by tens of thousands of star systems. NMS takes a realistic approach towards First Contact - when you start the game, you have no knowledge of alien languages and operate mostly on gestures. The game gives you a prompt describing what your character thinks the alien is saying, along with a transcript of what he or she actually said in the alien's native tongue. Relying on what the character infers from body language can often lead to funny innuendo - I don't want to brag, but during my adventures I was accidentally engaged to a lovely young warrior princess by a member of her family, or so I assumed post factum. Unfortunately, was not particularly... pretty. Arranged marriages are a tough sitch to deal with, aren't they?
Depending on which answer you choose, your standing with a given alien race might increase or decrease. You can find yourself getting showered with equipment, technology, resources or a brand-new Multi-tool, but you may also offend the creature and end up with nothing at all, or worse, you could become a part of some twisted experiment and have some weird substance injected directly into your eyeball - not a pleasant experience, and it does not give you superpowers - I checked.
It quickly becomes apparent that learning new languages will be a major part of the game, and you can do just that in a variety of ways. Sometimes visiting a new space station and greeting the warden or meeting a request of an alien might prompt him to teach you a new phrase, however your primary method of gaining knowledge about the aliens will be tied to exploration. Finding ancient ruins, monoliths and knowledge stones and studying them will allow you to learn new vocabulary and, in the case of the former two, learn a little bit about the history of a given race. There's plenty of backstory to go around, if you're fastidious enough to look for it.
Some of the aliens you encounter are traders who will happily do business with you, they are particularly easy to find as they tend to stick to Trading Stations on the surface or Space Stations in space. Getting used to how commerce works in No Man's Sky is essential as often times outright buying rare resources is simply easier than flying across the galaxy on a frantic search to find them. Not only that, traders will also happily sell their ships to you, and there's nothing better than a good bargain in that regard. New ships tend to have more cargo space, and increasing the amount of free slots available to you is something you'll always want to be gunning for - the more upgrades you can install and the more resources you can transport in one go the better.
Naturally not all the aliens you meet will be... well... alive. Having spent some time on the planet at this point you're aware that the universe is a dangerous place. Many of the stations you'll find on the surface are long since abandoned - some destroyed, some covered in disconcerting goo or pulsing veins, some going completely haywire and waiting for an adventurer to stabilize their systems and have a peek into their data banks. There's crashed ships all over the place as well - some containing valuable technology, some outright better than your own ship and thus worthy of repairs.
The system of conversations implemented has an air of a "Choose your own Adventure" book - it's all about figuring out what the alien wants and choosing an answer that behooves you the most. Interfacing with the aliens and the various forms of their technology is entertaining and there are many Easter Eggs hidden in the dialogue and descriptions, so they're worth a glance, however overall it's quite basic and could use some additional work. The "mini-quests" are limited to guessing a correct number in a sequence, delivering the correct mineral or answering a simple question which usually has an obvious answer, provided you know a little of the language and the overall traits of the alien race in question. The game could definitely use some polish in this department as it's very barebones while having so much potential. Intergalactic politics are actually some of the most interesting aspects of Space Sims and NMS fails to fully capitalize on their potential.
To Boldly go Where no one has Gone Before
Upon breaking through the atmosphere for the first time you start to truly take in the sheer scale of NMS. You quickly realize that every little speck on the firmament you've seen so far is an actual place that you can visit - a star, a planet, an asteroid. Flying in space is a very enjoyable experience and I quickly caught the hang of it - your ship's controls are very sensibly organized and require a minimal amount of buttons. Many people seem to complain about them, but I found them very intuitive. Much like your Exosuit and your Multi-tool, your space ship has a limited amount of slots which can either be spent on cargo or on various upgrades. How you'll utilize the limited amount of space is all up to you. You could build a powerful, fast ship for quick jumps from star to star or a less technologically advanced ship that amounts to a huge, flying cargo container - both will serve their purpose depending on your play style.
Space scenery is truly a view to behold as well - planetary landscapes are charming, but the game truly shines in space. Perhaps it's the immensity of space that causes this effect, but each new, wildly different galaxy is always pleasant to look at. The space around you is filled with smaller and bigger asteroids, all full of useful resources that not so long ago were comparatively difficult to find. You can see that there are other planets in the distance, planets that you immediately want to explore, not to mention space stations of various shapes - each star system has its own, where weary travelers may rest their feet after a grueling day of work.
Your tiny vessel will quickly prove to be just one of many - space is cluttered with huge trading frigates transporting resources between distant systems, coming in and out of warp at all times. It's at this point that you realize that... you don't necessarily have to be a good guy. Bands of Space Pirates consistently attack traders as they traverse the universe - you can observe their battles in the distance, and although morally speaking it'd make sense to help them, or at least avoid the fight altogether... joining in on the action... is well-within reach. Since you're a gamer and the prospect of untold riches is irresistible to you by nature, you test out your theory by firing a few shots at the containers... and quickly learn that the life of a Space Pirate is no chantey - Sentinels are present in space as well, and they're quick to dispense 10000 kilowatts of justice to any interlopers. The official letter of the law in NMS is "ganging up on whoever shot first", so if it happens to be you, here's for hoping that you're a great space pilot... or at the very least a fast one. Much like flight, space combat is very intuitive, The only thing you have to worry about is aiming at the red reticle as the game automatically calculate the optimal trajectory for your armaments, adjusting for the targeted ship's and your own ship's speed. The hard part is doing that while maneuvering and recharging the ship's systems, and that can be quite challenging at first, but you'll eventually figure out effective strategies.
Once you've learned your lesson, the lesson being that your starter ship is made of paper mache and you should probably attempt this once you've upgraded it a little bit, you turn back to the light side, the light side being mining asteroids and trading with other space travelers at the local space station. At this stage of the game your goal is to build a warp drive, and to do so you will either have to build a warp drive or buy a ship that already has one. You could try finding one that does, but assuming you're not the best treasure hunter since Indiana Jones, you're going to need some money.
The economy of NMS is very simplistic, but works fine for its intended purpose. The legal tender of the universe, Units, can be exchanged for goods, or the other way around, with any alien trader or at trading terminals. Each item on the list has two values assigned to it - one is the price of the item, the other is the relation of said price to the average price of said item across the whole universe, expressed in percent. Good deals are marked with green text, poor with red. Extremely profitable goods are marked with a star, which doesn't necessarily mean that they're in any shortage in the area, just that they're in high demand. Each trader has a different preference, so speaking to several as you stand by your ship can be quite profitable. The general idea is simple - buy low and sell high. Before long you'll have a small fortune to your name, a warp drive ready to go and a cargo load full of resources to trade with, at least that's the idea.
If trading isn't really your thing, there are other ways of earning a decent wage. If you have a passion for nature photography, you'll be pleased to know that you can also earn units by scanning, analyzing and cataloging your findings, and managing to scan each and every tree, bug and stone on a planet nets you a hefty bonus. Those binoculars could become one of your best allies if you feel particularly antisocial - scan your surroundings and upload them to the servers for some quick bucks!
A World of Endless Possibilities...
If you've been following the review so far, you'll notice that I didn't speak much about the story. The reason for this is simple - there really isn't much to speak of. You're on the path of Atlas... whatever that means... and only if you want to, really. NMS is not a game driven by any form of complex narrative - all you're really given is a vague goal, and for all intents and purposes you could ignore it if that is your wish. I believe that the developers intended to thrust the player into a massive, persistent universe in which they choose their own destiny, live a literal second life, and the game is probably played best in this fashion. The sheer vastness of space truly makes you feel small, and not in a bad way. There is so much out there to see, so much that you can never see it all, but you sure can try to make the best out of your stay.
Everything about the gameplay experience is a matter of choice, NMS provides you with an immense amount of freedom. For all intents and purposes you can "finish" NMS without... ever landing on a single planet, bar the starting one. You could very conceivably get all your resources from intergalactic trade, if you wish. If you don't want to trade, you could just steal the resources - you could become the best Space Pirate of all, the scourge of the seven suns. Conversely, you can also finish the game by landing on each and every planet - you could play the game as a miner, or you could spend your days trying to find each and every creature out there. You can even play the game without ever earning a penny - who says that you have to buy anything? Scour the planets for alien technology and crashed ships to your heart's content, eventually you'll find whatever it is you're looking for.
NMS offers you something quite unique - it's a persistent universe that's open for you to explore however you want, at any pace you want, and it's populated to the very brim with things to discover. Even after tens of hours of gameplay chances are that you'll keep finding new things that you've never seen before, and that's a tall order for most games. In that respect, NMS is truly ground-breaking and offers a unique experience that's hard to match.
...A World that's been Botched
...but there are negatives. There are many negatives which have to be acknowledged openly, in the interest of truthfulness and transparency. Almost every single criticism about the game you hear online is absolutely true, which is shocking. The game lacks polish in many areas - no, scratch that, it lacks polish in almost all the areas. In some cases it downright misses features that would seem obvious, even to people with no experience with game design.
There's a lot of various upgrades you can install in your equipment, but in many cases they do not provide a meaningful, immediately perceptible change in performance. For instance, buying an additional environmental shield is instantly beneficial on planets with that particular hazard, but buying a faster or more powerful laser module doesn't really make that much of a difference, at least not with the lower-level upgrades. Perhaps it cuts down on a shot or two, but you wouldn't really notice unless you count them. Moreover, upgrades seem like they're modular, but they're not - you can dismantle them, but you cannot move them to a different slot or a newly-found Multi-Tool or ship. All this completely jeopardizes the upgrade system as there's always an inkling at the back of your mind, a little whisper saying that there's a better ship or tool over the horizon somewhere, which means that upgrading the ones you have is a total waste of resources.
The game is "technically" multiplayer - all of the players exist in a single persistent universe, but you can't meet any of them as the game creates new instances when needs be. For all intents and purposes, you play it by yourself - there is no matchmaking to speak of, and that's a shame considering all the possibilities.
The economy can also be problematic. Ships in particular are specifically poorly priced - prohibitively so. Getting enough money for a new ship, even if you simultaneously use all of the methods I mentioned and more, takes significantly more time than just... finding one using one of the many antennas and a hacking chip which can be easily crafted. Traveling from planet to planet just looking for crash sites is significantly easier than earning enough to buy a new ship - you almost never want to buy one unless it happens to be a good bargain, which it very rarely is.
The implementation of factions is almost non-existent. Remember the demo where "two factions were warring" and you could "take sides"? That doesn't happen. You can help traders with fighting off pirates attacking them for a reward or attack the traders on your own, but you never encounter any conflicts between the races you encounter. The three races you encounter. In a universe of 18 quintillion planets there are only three sentient races capable of interstellar travel. Not only that, I don't remember ever seeing two different races in one system beyond one particular special encounter - each system is occupied by one particular race and that's it - they can't fight with each other even if they wanted to, they never meet. Your "standing" with a faction has absolutely no perceptible impact on gameplay whatsoever. Perhaps it influences prices - I wouldn't know, everyone in the galaxy loved me... regardless of my several attempts to burglarize their trading ships. "Good deeds" seem to have more of an impact than "evil" ones, or they have equal impact, when it would be sensible to do the opposite - gaining trust and respect of a completely alien race with which you can barely communicate should be quite difficult while losing them should be a matter of a simple quid pro quo, not to mention volleys of photon torpedoes which completely obliterate any form of peaceful relations, I'd imagine. The entire system of factions is flawed - they have some kind of relationships with you, but you can't notice their effects, and there are no space politics to speak of at all, which is a huge shame.
Then there's the whole "procedural generation" aspect of the game. Everything from simple rocks to whole planets, and even the space ships you can buy, is generated using various algorithms. It works quite nicely... for the most part. After several hours, once the splendor of a completely computer-generated universe wears off, once you've been to a galaxy or two, you start noticing similarities. You realize that this rock looks just like the rock you've seen an hour ago, except it's blue. That cat-like creature on the hill? It has the head of an animal you've seen before... or a head of a shrimp, which makes no sense. You can't quite imagine the evolutionary path the creature would have to take to get to this state - a state of a Frankenstein's monster with very obvious seams. The same can be said about the ships - they're a hodgepodge of different parts which sometimes fit together and sometimes feel out of place. I swear, I've seen a space ship with no wings whatsoever - it looked like a couple of shipment containers stuck together with a cockpit on-top and an engine on the back. To say that the system needs some tweaking would be an understatement, the problem being that the developers had no means of expecting these kinds of problems since, well, they didn't create the models, they only made the base parts and the algorithm did the rest.
Oh God, I just realized that this is the longest, most in-depth game review I've ever written, and it concerns a game about which there's very little to write about. The game has severe problems with delivering on the promises given by the developers, it lacks obvious functionality and the mechanics it does have are severely limited. It's quite buggy at times and very basic overall... however...
Even with all these drawbacks, I can't help but love NMS. I get the impression that this game is an art project that's gone far beyond its original purpose. A small group of developers came up with a brilliant idea that was far bigger than themselves, then the marketing spin created a hype so huge that they couldn't possibly deliver. NMS is yet another in a long string of games that fell prey to predatory marketing, to hype and overblown expectations. It does give me hope though, and the reason is simple. NMS goes to show that 15 developers can in fact deliver a product that can compete on the triple-A market dominated by large, multi-million productions. This game delivered something everyone wanted from Destiny, a persistent universe one can easily get lost in, and it didn't take 500 million dollars and an army of veteran developers to get there either. Hello Games needs this game to be a hit because, for all intents and purposes, it deserves it to be. It's a candle that deserves to burn bright, even if it is extinguished quickly afterwards, because even with all the glaring problems staring you in the face, you can see a small shimmer of brilliance deep under the surface. It's an unpolished diamond. Deep down, I think everyone should try this game out
+ NMS allows you to explore a massive, persistent universe of 18 quintillion unique planets
+ Graphics-wise the game provides beautiful sceneries to behold, both in space and on the ground
+ The procedural generation engine guarantees that you'll keep on finding new things you've never seen before
+ The random nature of the game allows for plenty of replayability
+ The game is littered with various Easter Eggs from popular Sci-fi franchises which are pretty entertaining to come across, although very subtle
+ Conversations with alien species are lots of fun and give me a very retro feel of a text adventure
+ Every single piece of equipment can be upgraded to suit your individual needs
+ The game somehow evokes the feeling of loneliness - you truly feel like an explorer in the vast nothingness of space, it's a very interesting feeling that
- The procedural generation engine, however advanced, isn't fully capable of generating creatures that "make sense", many seem like failed Spore experiments
- For a massive universe of 18 quintillion planets, the game can become quite repetitive. There's only so much variation between blue, red and green rocks
- The implementation of factions is lacking, working towards gaining their respect does practically nothing
- Often times upgraded equipment doesn't "feel" any better than before
NMS is stunning to look at, and although you sometimes encounter problems with the procedural generation, overall the graphics department is quite impressive, especially in space. There's nothing quite like drifting through space and staring at asteroid belts, suns and planets.
The gameplay of NMS is fun... provided you like this sort of gameplay to begin with. Most players will find the game very repetitive until they found they find their own way of maximizing profit and enjoyment. On the bright side, the game allows you to play it in any way you'd want and with a focus on exploration rather than the vague goal ahead of you, players who enjoy emergent storytelling will always find something to do.
The lasting appeal of NMS is a point of contention. In theory, you should be able to replay this game over and over again - with such a huge universe to explore and so many randomly-generated elements every single playthrough is unique and distinct from your previous attempts. At the same time one has to mention that the variation found in-game is sometimes limited to different colour schemes - you begin to notice similarities very quickly, and that alone lowers the score in this category. Future patches are supposed to bring further functionality, such as the ability to build your own structures, but I have to judge the game in the state I've played it in, and that state is unfortunately lacking.
out of 10
(not an average)
It's very hard to judge this game. On one hand, it has limitless potential, but on the other it's lacking in just about every area. It fails to deliver on the promises made by the marketing team, but I'm not sure to what extent I can blame the developers of the game in this regard. NMS doesn't feel like an attempt to squeeze money out of people's wallets, it's not one of those games that's sold unfinished, with gaps filled in with DLC later on. It's a genuine attempt at trying something new and innovative, in many ways it's a work of art, it simply expanded in scale so much sinceinception that it grew far beyond the developer's capacity to complete. I sincerely hope that they continue to build upon the solid foundation they've created so far because NMS is a diamond in the rough - it deserves to be polished and enjoyed. To me, this game is a solid 7-8 out of 10 - I had a blast playing it, but with all of its shortcomings I have to account for the fact that most people will not be as excited for it as I was, hence the lowered overall score.