Speeding through clouds of interstellar gases, dots of light blur past your field of vision. Navigating through mineral-rich asteroids, you rapidly approach a nearby planet – one that has yet to be discovered. Breaching the world’s atmosphere you land firmly on the rocky environment below and set out from your ship to explore this new world. An arid, barren wasteland, there is very little wildlife to be seen or heard, but what it lacks in creatures it makes up for with rare and valuable minerals. You get to work mining a nearby deposit of Heridium to help keep your ship in prime condition, all while appreciating the gorgeous purple sky and multiple suns on the horizon.
First showcased at E3 in 2014, No Man’s Sky featured a procedurally-generating universe open for exploration, including first person shooter elements on the ground as well as in space. This piqued the interest of many, and since then gamers have been eagerly awaiting its arrival. Hello Games didn’t even provide early press copies of the game, as they were busy polishing a day one patch to address some story and inventory concerns at the last minute. After nearly 3 years of frivolous lawsuits, spats regarding multiplayer functionality, and undoubtedly a fair share of Hello Games blood, sweat and tears…is it worth the wait?
As it turns out – the answer is a bit more complicated than I initially thought.
Behold – The Vastness of Space
The first thing you need to know about No Man’s Sky is that it’s huge. No, seriously. There are 18 quintillion worlds currently in play, and by many estimates it would take the average gamer 5 billion years, in real time, to explore the universe that has been created by visiting every single planet. This staggering size is impressive, but admittedly there are gamers out there who wouldn’t see the point in dedicating countless hours into a game like that.
You begin to appreciate the size of the game when you get the chance to view the “galactic map”. Every dot of light represents a system that can have anywhere from 2-6 planets within it, and you will find that no matter how far or how long you scroll in a certain direction, you will find no end to the planets that await you.
Each of these planets has its own unique ecosystem, minerals, plants, animals, and other alien life-forms. The various alien races that you encounter have their own unique language, and also feature a reputation system that ranges from viewing you as “irrelevant”, to identifying you as a “co-conspirator” or “close ally”. Of course, you can make enemies in the universe as well, which will not go over well if you stumble into one of their shelters on a random, faraway planet. But – that is entirely your choice. You could be the galaxy’s greatest diplomat, or effectively give every alien race you encounter the middle finger (or pinky, or whatever they find insulting).
In order to explore this vast universe, you are aided by your trusty Spaceship. This solo-seater has a variety of speed settings to help you navigate the stars as fast, or as slow, as you’d like. Featuring inventory storage and advanced technologies that you can update as you explore, your starship is your partner in crime on your intergalactic journey. To keep your ship in tip-top shape, elements must be mined from the various planets you explore to keep its pulse-engine running smoothly, and its shields fully charged. Maintaining and upgrading your ship can become a source of pride over time, as it’s the closest thing to a partner that you’ll have in the game, with the exception of your exosuit and multi-tool (more on that later).
Despite the variety of rich planets to explore, the real star of No Man’s Sky is the majestic and expansive cosmos within which the entire game rests. That being said, it’s also the most striking downside for many gamers. If you know what you’re getting into, and appreciate the solitude and sheer magnitude of the No Man’s Sky universe, you’ll have a blast. If you’re looking for something more refined and handcrafted, you will be sorely disappointed.
Exosuits, Multi-Tools, and You!
Of course, you can’t be a proper spacefaring adventurer without proper gear! This is where the exosuit and multi-tool come in.
It’s important to have the proper gear for exploring planets that have temperatures that range from -166 degrees to 608 degrees (fahrenheit). The exosuit is just the tool for the job, as it offers you inventory storage and multiple slots to customize it as you see fit. Maybe you are coming across more ice-planets and need to tweak your suit to be more protective in cold environments. Maybe you want to be able to run longer, or faster, or have a stronger shield. All of these are options as you explore the universe and come across discarded technologies and abandoned shelters.
Where the exosuit has some serious opportunities is in its inventory storage. This was a major gripe pre-launch, as alpha versions of the game had excessive inventory management due to limited slots to store elements and items. The day one patch increased limits across the board, but until you’ve made a number of upgrades to your exosuit, the burden of managing your inventory is hard to shake.
In addition to your exosuit, you’re also armed with the trusty multi-tool. The multi-tool is a swiss-army-sidearm that can help you perform a variety of tasks, whether you’re mining for plutonium or trying to take out a pesky sentinel guard. Of course, in this vast universe you can’t expect to find ammunition on every planet, which is why the multi-tool is a rechargeable device that hungrily devours carbon-like elements in exchange for its continued use. Of course, this works out great as you won’t find yourself without ammunition on a hostile planet – there’s always carbon to be harvested somewhere!
I’m only about 25 hours in so far, so my improvements upon the multi tool are a bit limited, but it doesn’t take long to transform your mining gun into a grenade launcher, machine gun, shotgun, or any other manner of destructive weaponry as you see fit.
Yes. You Are Alone In The Universe
One of the first things I imagined after seeing the early trailers for No Man’s Sky was the thrill of a multiplayer experience in a game like this. You partner up with two or three friends, they warp to you with some in-game teleport feature, and you take off in a squad to explore planets together, mine resources, document your journey…maybe engage in some friendly games of hide and go seek. Who knows? The possibilities could be endless.
As it turns out, there are other players in the game with you – but much like with our own universe, the chance of you encountering someone else are slim to none.
Creator Sean Murray commented on the multiplayer functionality a few days ago, explaining that while they have added features like scanning the nearby galaxies for players, there’s simply too many people playing and not enough infrastructure to facilitate more robust multiplayer features.
So, while I can dream about what the future of No Man’s Sky multiplayer might offer, the game as it stands right now is a single player game, and almost achingly so. Sure, you encounter your share of alien settlers and creatures on other planets, but with no central antagonists or social hub, exploring the universe can quickly become a hollow and lonely experience.
That being said – many of the games strongest supporters went into the game expecting exactly that. A vast, vacuous single-player adventure that allows players to appreciate their very small place in a big, big universe. The journeys I go on through the stars have a cathartic feel to them; a digital meditation of sorts. While others may see this the same way, I can understand the frustrations many are expressing with the disconnected feel of a single player game as large as No Man’s Sky.
No Man’s Sky is a love letter to gamers who have seen ever-broadening iterations of the “open world” game concept. While previous titles such as Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V and Witcher 3 offered a sizable world to explore, they pale in comparison to the awe-inspiring scale of the No Man’s Sky universe. The game is effectively able to capture the wonder and majesty of the universe, with a game that literally offers an endless amount of exploration. Gamers will still be uncovering the mysteries that No Man’s Sky has to offer many years from now.
Yet, bigger doesn’t always mean better. As is to be expected of an engine that is capable of generating 18 billion billion planets, you begin to see similar elements as you visit more and more planets. The first planet you encounter with an earth-like atmosphere will likely take your breath away. The second might give you some pause. By the time you get to the third or fourth, you may find yourself zipping past it in search of something more interesting. The creatures you discover border on the absurd, as they too suffer from being generated by an engine that cares little for physics or realism.
As a solitary adventure it can be disheartening at times. Without other players, or even many NPCs to speak of, traversing hundreds of planets to collect resources and document your discoveries can seem far less appealing. Sure, there are improvements that could be made with forthcoming patches to help address this specific shortcoming, but as it stands now, I can see a lot of gamers getting burnt out after 20-30 hours of play.
Still, for those who thrive on solo adventures, No Man’s Sky offers one of the largest and most inviting playgrounds we’ve seen in a video game since Minecraft.
Overall, the ambition and scale of No Man’s Sky deserves recognition and respect, even if the game itself isn’t the best fit for your play style. As for me, I’ll be off exploring the cosmos for a while…at least until Final Fantasy XV comes out.
(All images courtesy of Hello Games)