No Man’s Sky
Lots of aliens
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…a fascinating experiment in game design…
No Man’s Sky has been the Schrödinger’s cat of gaming since Sony first unveiled it at E3 2014. Was this the procedurally generated space exploration game to end all games, or was it an ambitious exercise in hubris like the similarly-hyped-but-ultimately-disappointing Spore? Until it was let out of the box, it was neither and both. To say that the anticipation has been high would be a massive understatement. Now that the game has finally been released, No Man’s Sky is… well, it’s okay, pretty good even, but doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Then again, perhaps nothing could.
For those of you unfamiliar with the title, No Man’s Sky is a space exploration game. The biggest selling point has been Hello Game’s unique algorithm that generates planets as you travel along, ensuring that no two players will have the exact same experience. This has led to a staggering 18 quintillion planets being available to explore, document, and mine. That, in theory, offers a game that essentially never ends. The problem with No Man’s Sky is that despite 18 quintillion planets, there isn’t all that much variety in what to do on them.
The game starts with you marooned on a planet. You need to fix your ship, craft new parts, and get out into space. It’s a confrontingly vague opening to a game and, ironically, one of the best bits. A fairly obtuse tutorial takes you through the mechanics of mining, crafting, shooting, and finally powering up your ship. When you first take off from the planet and launch into space – all without loading screens – it’s an amazing experience. Awe-inspiring even. Sadly, that’s about as good as it gets.
No Man’s Sky offers a lot of beautiful-looking, colourful planets with randomly generated flora and fauna, but you end up doing the same things over and over again, and it doesn’t take long before you find yourself asking: is this all there is? Sure, you’ll visit wild places, interact with alien races, and even unravel an extremely vague mystery about what lies at the heart of the universe, but the mechanics to do so are extremely simplistic and not a lot of fun. Games like Destiny are mind-numbingly repetitive but enjoyable because the core concept – say, shooting – is fun. In No Man’s Sky, none of the mechanics, other than zipping around in space, are particularly enjoyable. Mining is repetitive, crafting is cumbersome and initially annoying thanks to a bafflingly convoluted inventory management system, and shooting – both on land and in space – is a disaster. Finding various alien creatures and naming them is cute, but after the first dozen or so planets, not much changes.
That’s not to say that No Man’s Sky is bad, but it should be viewed more as a Minecraft-style chill out game, to be played in short bursts rather than epic sessions. It’s a glorious concept undone by mediocre mechanics, but it remains a fascinating experiment in game design…if only it were more fun to play.