No Man’s Sky: An Odyssey Across the Stars, or Worst. Game. Ever.®? A Biased Review

  • Graphics
  • Sound
  • Controls
  • Gameplay
  • Atmosphere

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If you listen to the Internet feedback loop for long enough, you will eventually hear No Man’s Sky developers Hello Games unfavorably compared with Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and whoever invented those clear plastic security packages that require a machete to open properly.

So, dear readers, is No Man’s Sky literally the worst thing to happen in gaming since the Crash of 1983? Well, no, actually. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the comments on any post about the game. From Reddit to YouTube, gamers are up in arms, accusing Hello Games (and lead developer Sean Murray) of lying about what their game would be, some even going so far as to call for a class action lawsuit for false advertising.

Whoa. Come on, now. Let’s just take a deep breath, shall we?

No Man’s Sky did not beat up your mom, spit on your dad, or eat your dog. Nor did it “promise” anything other than a procedurally-generated space exploration game of vast scope, where you could walk, swim, and fly around planets, hop in your spaceship and zap asteroids and space pirates, travel to another planet and land (with no loading screens), and hang out with space dinosaurs. In space.
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This nightmare is more docile than it looks.

I’m a bit baffled by the critical backlash, to be honest. I didn’t read anything about the game close to its release, or during the first week it was out. Why? Because I was too busy playing it, and I wanted to discover things for myself. And boy howdy, did No Man’s Sky deliver on that front. Before the game was a week old (on PC, the version I play), I had logged a full work week’s worth of hours playing it. At one point, I played it for 27 hours straight. To give you some context, I have a full-time job, and in nearly a quarter-century of playing video games, I have never played one for more than 24 hours in one sitting. Until No Man’s Sky, that is. As of this writing, I am at 85 hours, and this makes it my fourth-most-played game on Steam, behind Skyrim, Star Trek Online, and Saints Row: The Third. What’s so great about it that I would invest that amount of time? Well, I’ll try my best to explain.

Since I can only speak from my perspective, that’s the one we’ll going with for this review. I can’t speak to your experience with the game, but perhaps through understanding mine, you can determine whether or not No Man’s Sky is for you. As those other games I listed above might indicate, I like nonlinear, open-world games. I really like nonlinear, open-world games. Like, a lot. Like, almost exclusively. See, in most cases, I actively resent having a certain experience, character, or storyline forced on me by a game. If I want a predetermined (or mostly predetermined) narrative, I’ll watch a movie or read a book. What separates games from all other forms of media is their interactivity. If I’m given agency, I want as much of it as possible. I want the freedom to go my own way, make my own story, and have my own fun on my terms. Maybe it’s because I’m a creative type, but I like to be given the tools and then let loose.

That’s a big reason why No Man’s Sky is not only my cup of tea, but a nearly perfect example of such. In fact, my biggest problem with the game is that it’s first-person, as I prefer a third-person perspective that allows me to see a character I’ve created (and naturally, I want to be able to customize that character to my liking). However, given that a first-person perspective increases immersion, it fits this style of game. Getting past that, I was presented with a sci-fi universe straight out of the imagination of the 1970s, and I was hooked.

There is a peculiar quality to 70s sci-fi, and I personally love it. The isolation of exploring abstract alien worlds, the philosophical questions it explores, the almost psychedelic aesthetic… it’s all fantastic to me, in quite a literal sense. Indeed, I am a fantasy fan first, and sci-fi fan second, and the wild, physics-shattering quality of No Man’s Sky fits its inspirations to a tee. The game is beautiful, and fans are already coming out with mods to further enhance its beauty… at least if you’re playing on PC. But leaving aside mods, the vanilla game is an experience unlike almost any other.

 

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The “Big Things Mod” increases the size of various flora on the planets, particularly trees. The developers compromised on the default sizes, presumably for performance reasons, but if you have a beefy PC, the mod greatly enhances the atmosphere for exploring.

Back in 2004, I spent some time playing a sci-fi MMO called “Project Entropia” (today known as Entropia Universe). If you’re unfamiliar with it, the game’s gimmick is its “real money” economy, through which you can deposit and withdraw actual currency. Indeed, some people have made substantial profits through shrewd gameplay, which at times have spawned headlines. All that said, this meant nothing to me when I played it. I was solely interested in the prospect of exploring a strange, alien world populated with – you guessed it – space dinosaurs.

I didn’t have actual money at the time to spend on the game, however, and this severely limited my options for playing it. There was one resource you could harvest as a F2P player, called “sweat,” and you could then sell it to other players who had a use for it. There were only certain creatures from which you could harvest it safely, and it took hours of grinding to make minuscule profits. As I recall, the most I was able to do with the money I earned doing this was purchase some bland new clothing and a couple of weak weapons that broke easily.

In the absence of more exciting gameplay, I chose to make my own fun. I’d see how far I could travel, climb high peaks and meditate, and just take in the weird landscape and atmosphere. My greatest accomplishment came through what I’m pretty sure was just a weird glitch in the game: a creature (called an “Atrox”) started chasing me. Defenseless, all I could do was run from it, but it was persistent. I hopped into a river and started swimming, and it followed. Over time, however, I noticed that its health was going down, as it was effectively drowning. Eventually, its health dropped to zero, and I counted that as a victory. I even dubbed myself, “Drowner of Atrox” in my in-game profile.

While the allure of “Project Entropia” wore off in the end, the sense of fun and adventure exploring alien worlds did not. Flash-forward a dozen years, and I got No Man’s Sky, a game where I could do everything I did in “Project Entropia” and far more… and I only had to pay $60 for the game one time. Now, a lot of people are complaining about the price, a complaint that speaks far more to how spoiled we’ve become with cheap indie games, Steam/GOG/PSN/etc. sales, and Humble Bundles than to the game’s quality. We’ve learned not to value games. However, I can’t help but wonder how many people who’ve complained about the price of No Man’s Sky were perfectly happy to shell out the same $60 for broken, unfinished, uninspired, or otherwise disappointing games from AAA developers. Things only have the value that we give them, but value is very subjective when it comes to No Man’s Sky.

Many reviewers have commented that you get out of No Man’s Sky what you put in, and I think that’s quite true. The game does not hold your hand, and some of its features and mechanics are admittedly obtuse, but that just makes it feel like a throwback to when games were made for a more niche, intellectual audience that was expected to “figure it out.” The inventory system, how upgrades work, how to progress in the game, these are all points of criticism, and some are understandable. But the point is that you can get past them and adapt to the game’s idiosyncrasies if you’re willing to put the work in… or just look up guides online if you’re lazy or impatient.

But be warned: this game does not reward impatience. It takes time to appreciate its appeal and subtleties. I would go as far as to classify it as an “art game” of sorts, for lack of a better term (All games are art.) It’s a grind in the way that Dragon Quest is a grind. It’s vast in the way that Minecraft is vast. It’s alien in the way that Another World/Out of This World is alien. And it’s lonely.

 

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A barren world, but a pretty horizon. Reminds one of old Atari games.

SO lonely. This is not a multiplayer game, though some got the impression that it would be. Perhaps it was even considered during development, but it was made clear that it wasn’t going to be a multiplayer experience as time went on, even if some didn’t get the memo. Personally, I prefer it that way. I’ve dabbled in various MMOs over the years, but I don’t care much for the genre in general, especially those that favor cooperation and/or competition. I’ve always approached MMOs as single-player experiences. Call me antisocial, but if I’m going to play with others, I like them to be in the same room. This kind of game should feel lonely. You’re a lone explorer making your way in a cold, indifferent universe… just like real life. But unlike real life, you can battle space pirates and meet space dinosaurs.

Despite this, there is an online component, in that you get to name your discoveries and upload them to a server. Others can visit places you’ve explored, and while what you did won’t be reflected (for practical reasons, so visitors won’t find a lack of resources, not to mention keeping track of all those variables for that many planets for that many players would be unnecessarily complicated), your username and the names you’ve assigned to your discoveries will. This is a feature I’ve wanted to see in MMOs for years, but is seldom implemented: the idea that you can leave a unique, persistent mark on the virtual world that others can see. In a lesser game, 10,000 people would discover the same planet, and each would be told they were doing it for the first time, because that is the nature of most quests in MMOs. In No Man’s Sky, you really do get to discover things for the first time. I’ve explored at least one system discovered by another player, and contributed my own discoveries within it. That’s my kind of multiplayer.

The nature of procedural generation means that each player is going to have a slightly different experience playing through No Man’s Sky. With 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets to explore, you can rest assured that you’re going to start on an “undiscovered” planet, and have access to plenty of the same along the way. It also means that you never know what you’re going to get when you start. Some will start on peaceful, lush planets with abundant resources, relaxed space police (called “Sentinels”) and docile creatures. Or, you might just wind up on a barren hellscape with frenzied Sentinels who will shoot you as soon as look at you, and carnivorous monsters everywhere. You just don’t know, so your starting experience of repairing your ship and setting out among the stars might be easier or harder, more fun or more frustrating. Personally, I’d rather have it that way than go through the same dull tutorials as every other game.

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The always-watching Sentinels are often your only companions on your journey. But be careful: they’re not your friends. [Note: “Big Things Mod” used in screenshot.]

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to the starting experience, but to the whole game. You might run across a string of ten rocky planets with a bunch of variations of deerlike or doglike creatures in a row, and draw the conclusion that there’s not much variety in the game. However, if you keep playing until Planet #11, you might just find a beautiful water world teeming with giant flying eels and weird, bouncing plant-like creatures. Even after tens and tens of hours in the game, I’m still finding new stuff, and there are aspects of the game that I know for a fact I haven’t experienced yet.

Yes, there are bases and necessary resources on every planet, to prevent gamer frustration. Yes, it’s not the most challenging game in the world once you get some good upgrades under your belt. Yes, the NPC interactions are minimal and eventually repeat. Yes, it’s a bit weird that every base has one alien, and that you’ll meet the same traders again and again. But those are only there to facilitate the “game” part of the experience. The controls are fluid, the visuals are gorgeous (albeit with some pop-in as you approach the surface of the planet), the music is on-point, and the atmosphere is perfect for what No Man’s Sky is trying to achieve. If the developers add in more to the game over time as they have announced plans to do, great, but I’ve already gotten my money’s worth.

Oh, and before I forget, the Gek (one of the game’s three sentient species) are adorable. I met one named “Captain Golf,” and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Seriously.

 

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If you don’t like the Gek, we can’t be friends. That’s just all there is to it.

I’ll freely admit to having very particular tastes, and maybe I’m just lucky that No Man’s Sky has hit so many of my checkboxes for what I want in a sci-fi game. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it also didn’t break any promises. Games change during development. Hell, everything changes during development. It’s called development for a reason. I think it’s a bit juvenile to take every comment made about the game during development as gospel truth, and to cry, “Liar!” when it doesn’t include a discussed feature.

To better illustrate my point, let’s say you are an actor, and you get cast in an upcoming film. A magazine interviews you, and you mention that you’re going to appear in said film. Then let’s say that the film is released, but all your scenes get left on the cutting room floor. You’re not in the film, but you said you were in that interview. Are you a liar?

If that analogy doesn’t work for you, fine, let’s call you a director. Same scenario: interviewed before the film’s release, and you talk about a certain scene in the movie. Maybe it’s been filmed. Maybe it’s just in the script and storyboarded. Either way, you end up cutting it out for one reason or another. Are you a liar?

I’d say in both these cases, most reasonable people would say no. If so, why is Sean Murray or anyone at Hello Games suddenly a liar for talking about canceled features before the game was released? Hype is a two-way street. You can say the game was hyped up by the developers… but what else were they supposed to do? Say their game was going to suck? Not say anything for three years, despite constant badgering from excited fans? Publish a detailed list of every cut feature in advance of release? Yeah, because that makes business sense. There is a difference between talking up a game and deceptive marketing.

No Man’s Sky is not guilty of false advertising. You get the game as described in its promotional materials. There was that incident with the stickers covering up the “multiplayer” message on some game boxes, but I see no evidence of deception there, given that it was an error that was corrected in advance of the release, and could just as easily be down to miscommunication. Hardly torches and pitchforks fodder.

People got themselves hyped. They projected their own desires onto the game, and took every official word as the final word. That’s on you, disgruntled consumers. Instead of accepting the game you got, you’re crying over the game you thought it would be. “Failure to accept reality is the greatest cause of human suffering,” as one of my friends is fond of saying.

And hey, you have a right to be disappointed. But given that Hello Games is a small team that came out with a very ambitious game (and I continue to maintain that we got that game), and had no small share of hardships along the way, I think it’s a bit crass to start pointing fingers and calling for lawsuits. Their offices were ravaged by floods during development, an event that might have torpedoed other studios, but still they kept going. People suggested that they crowdfund to help speed up development, but they spurned that in favor of doing it the old-fashioned way. That sure doesn’t seem like the behavior of a bunch of mustache-twirling moneygrubbers, but hey, what do I know? You could argue that Sony helped eliminate the need for crowdfunding… but then, how many successful, respected gaming Kickstarters got most of their backing from corporate sources? Indeed, No Man’s Sky has been compared unfavorably with Star Citizen, an actually-incomplete game that’s had numerous delays and controversies, and has actual crowdfunders to answer to for it, unlike Hello Games. People are acting like they personally invested money into No Man’s Sky, but they didn’t: they purchased a product, that’s all, and a product which meets the description given for it.

 

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Space dinosaurs. Promised and delivered.

And in case you think I’m just trying to convince myself the game is good because I want it to be good, think again. I don’t stick with games I don’t like. I’ve paid as much or more for less. I wouldn’t choose playing over sleep, or keep playing for several days’ worth of game time if I were just trying to justify my purchase. I’d cut my losses and move on. No Man’s Sky isn’t for everyone. It may not be for you. But it is for me, and many others who enjoy it. I look forward to the backlash dying down, so that those of us who do like the game can play and discuss it in peace.

And hey, if you want to see my first impressions of the game while eating 10 tacos, feel free to look at this:

But don’t take it too seriously. I certainly didn’t.