No Mans Sky Review: An Acquired Taste
By now everyone has been appraised on the pre-release hype and the post-release controversy surrounding No Mans Sky. From the bewildered and awe-struck postulation at its E3 reveal to rants and exclamations of disappointment at its playable state, the gaming community has continued to remain opinionated about its existence.
Some have termed it as an elaborate tech demo while others have found the game to be featureless. One day the game boasted enormous number of concurrent users and the other day it became a source for large number of refund requests.
On the other hand there are many gamers that have continued to play No Mans Sky ever since its release and derive enjoyment from the content it has to offer. A concept that I don’t find foreign or bewildering for I have already put more than 80 hours into the game and continue to add to that number with every passing week.
How can the same game be an utter disappointment to some and totally gratifying to others? The obvious answer to such divisive opinions usually resides in differing preferences, however for No Mans Sky it is also because of clashing expectations.
Even though the game’s content is unique and is perfectly placed on console and PC, its messaging is what truly takes it down.
Publishing aspect for No Mans Sky got at least 2 out of the 4 Ps of marketing wrong. There is a complete mismatch between the perfectly fine Product and its Placement with its Promotion and Pricing.
This has created a situation where customers are left expecting AAA product from an indie game. A sound pricing and promotion strategy would have tempered gamers’ expectations and made people appreciate the game for what it really is; an amazing experimental concept executed by a small indie development studio.
Instead No Mans Sky’s hyperbolic advertisement campaign and $60 price point places it among the big budget games available in the market and perfectly sets it up for disappointment.
So what does all that mean for you? Does No Mans Sky provide a satisfactory gameplay experience? Does it have enough content to warrant its price? Is it a game worth investing time and money into?
The answer to all three questions is a resounding; Maybe.
For those not in the know, No Mans Sky is a first-person survival/space simulator that gives players access to an entire galaxy containing millions of star systems and trillions of planets to explore.
The game features a procedural generation system that assures that those trillions of planets and their ecosystems generated by the game’s algorithm require no data to be stored on hard drive or game servers and still stay the same for every player at given coordinate within the game-world.
With an exosuit, mutli-tool, jet-pack and a spaceship at their disposal, players can explore every inch of these humongous planets, encounter spaceships, space freighters and space stations as well as warp to different star systems.
In essence, the game-world of No Mans Sky is the ultimate expression of a sandbox where whatever you can see, you can reach, climb and explore. The game gives players free reign to trade, combat survive and explore this vast open-world which works as its biggest triumph and its biggest downfall.
The vagueness of the No Mans Sky’s marketing, presentations and trailers is reflected in how vague the game is in explaining its game mechanics.
While the game takes an almost dark souls like approach to communicating gameplay controls and directing player’s attention to its mechanics, the reason why it works in souls games and doesn’t work here is due to the core difference in game worlds.
The difference is that the Souls games make players learn about a game world which has been meticulously created to cater to specific gameplay elements and evoke certain player response, whereas the procedurally generated universe of No Mans Sky is random and therefore not conducive to organic self-learning.
Therefore the procedurally generated world of No Man’s Sky acts as a detriment to the age old technique of teaching the mechanics of the game to players through sequentially building difficulty of challenges and purposeful game world design.
This issue is most evident in how No Mans Sky utilizes its obtuse user interface, which is not only unintuitive but also requires players to constantly rummage through it.
From the start the game expects players to navigate its menus and integrate items without revealing any mechanics, leaving the character scrambling like a headless chicken in face of dwindling Exosuit health and prospect of endless possibilities with zero agency.
However that is not to say that the game is totally open from the start.
At the start No Mans Sky gives the players certain objectives to complete. Starting from repairing your ship’s Launch Thrusters and Pulse Engine and refueling them. Then it asks player to go off-planet, visit a Space Station, build a Hyperdrive and create warp cells to fuel it.
Once the player is able to warp to different star systems the player is given free reigns to do whatever they want and are able to pursue the following objectives:
1) Discover and name new star systems and planets as well as their flora and fauna.
2) Become a Trader by mining and trading minerals and artifacts across the star systems.
3) Seek knowledge of alien languages and their ancient civilizations.
4) Spread anarchy by fighting sentinels and battling space pirates
5) Journey to the center of the galaxy
6) Follow the Path of Atlas.
Of course, none of these objectives are done in isolation as each builds onto the next and progression in one benefits the other objectives as well.
This variety in gameplay paths might seem astounding and perhaps too good to be true, and it is.
There are some games where the more you play the more you appreciate the design and thought that went into them. No Mans Sky is not one of those games.
Like its marketing and promotion, No Mans Sky makes a great first-time impression when you boot up the game but the more in-depth you go with its game mechanics the more predictable it becomes and more it devalues the experience.
Cataloguing new planets and moons is fascinating at first, but then you realize that there is no real variety in gravity of planets, there are no extreme hot or cold desert climates, no gas planets and it’s all a random mixture of hills, plains, caves and canyons with a sprinkle of outposts and no inhabiting civilizations.
Similar lack of depth can be found in other aspects of the game; from looting minerals and artifacts for trading, to learning languages of only 3 available intelligent life forms by locating ruins and monoliths.
The mechanic behind battling sentinels and pirates, is as one note as the process of upgrading the cumbersome inventory system through piece meal addition of exosuit slots, as well as upgrades to personal mutlitool and spaceship that cannot be personalized.
Additionally getting new technologies also takes up space in the already constrained player inventory and after first few acquisitions collecting new technology only affects the stats and cooldowns of existing tech.
Whether it is mining minerals or cataloging discoveries, fighting sentinels or learning alien words, eventually the repetition gets to you as the patterns become obvious. Binging it just exposes its flaws at an even greater pace and makes the experience go sour very quickly.
In every aspect of the game, any effort to learn the system and game mechanics makes the player almost too good at it and completely eliminates the challenge and engagement.
That’s not to say that game does not offer any new challenges or technologies as it progresses. It is just that there is a lack of payoff for the amount of time put in by the player for any of the above stated objectives.
Even the sole story aspect of the game that comes from following the Path of Atlas and reaching the center of the galaxy is a cumbersome affair that requires countless warps across star systems with a payoff that takes a very “journey is more important than the end or the start” approach and is absolutely not worth the effort it requires.
In addition to the abject lack of payoff in all aspects of its gameplay objectives, No Mans Sky also suffers from lack of polish.
Aside from the game breaking crashes it had in couple of weeks of its release, No Mans Sky also contains disappointing draw distance and texture pop-ins while flying on planet surface, senseless A.I. like sentinel drones floating in front of mining beam and turning hostile, as well as failure of planet physics as minerals float in the air when their bottom is mined out.
Having said all of that, despite its short comings No Mans Sky is a game that can still provide an experience that is wondrous and gratifying.
There is something absolutely magical about having the freedom to look up at a moon through a cloudy sky and have the ability to hop into your spaceship and seamlessly leave the atmosphere of a planet, enter space, navigate through asteroids and then land on another distinct celestial body.
That sense of freedom and scale is No Mans Sky’s strength and what it excels at.
Whether it is looking at the planet-sized celestial bodies from the passive glow of space or noticing the glint of a skyscraper-sized mineral deposit through field full of lush grass and dense mist, No Mans Sky continuously delivers breath taking vistas.
Everything in the game is presented through its clean and simple art style which features a weird mix of pastel and neon colour themes that act as a perfect throwback to the visuals of 70s’ and 80s’ science fiction artwork.
Complementing its visual aesthetic, No Mans Sky features sound design that not only gives homage to that era of science fiction movies but also subtly changes in key, tempo, instrument and tone to match what’s going on in the game and creates dynamically generated variations in the game’s core synth soundtrack.
With this mixture of audio and visual presentation and gameplay that lends itself best to short bursts of play, No Mans Sky is best experienced as an Ambient Game. A relaxing experience that one can come back every week to unwind, instead of a one and done 60 hour binge of roller-coaster ride full of exhilaratingly deep gameplay.
And while No Mans Sky’s overall gameplay lacks depth and is certainly not an experience that keeps the player on the edge of the seat, it does offer a unique ambient experience that might appeal to a niche audience.
Is that experience worth the price of a full AAA game? No. However at a more discounted price, the game’s unique content does merit a purchase if it strikes your fancy.
If you are looking for a space explorer that provides distinct storyline, deep crafting mechanic or challenging battle system then No Mans Sky is not the game for you. You are better off looking at the 2D roguelike explorer; Starbound, which is available right now or try the alpha build of the massive open-world space sim; Star Citizen.
Those that are looking for an ambient, almost passive, space exploration experience are advised to give No Mans Sky a try, as it is unparalleled in delivering grand scale wrapped in a soothing audio visual gameplay experience.