No Man’s Sky has received what could only be called mixed reviews. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game fit that description so perfectly. It didn’t receive average reviews calling it a middle of the road game. It actually got a mixture of very high and very low scores. There were a few in the middle, but most people’s responses were either overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative.
After being delayed repeatedly, No Man’s Sky was riding on a train of hype it almost definitely couldn’t live up to. The core premise of the game was pretty astounding. Players would be thrown into a world of fantastic dimensions. The planet would be full of rich plant life and wild creatures. You’d start next to a damaged starcraft with only the vague objective to repair it.
You’d spend hours exploring this world and gathering resources. Then you’d craft the necessary components and reforge your ship into something spaceworthy. Finally, you’d fuel it up and take to the skies. Then you’d discover that the game isn’t about this world you’ve started on. It’s about billions upon billions of other worlds, all as big as the first one. Each one is full of life and mystery for you to explore as you hop from planet to planet in your ship.
That was the promise, and to it’s credit No Man’s Sky delivered on everything I just presented. The individual worlds are truly gargantuan. It would take you hours upon hours to walk partway across a single one of the planets, and there are far too to explore. Each one has it’s own unique geographic landscape and geological history. Flora and fauna are never repeated from planet to planet. Instead, they’re generated using a complex algorithm that takes the planets attributes into mind.
It’s easy to spend hours in this game simply walking around and collecting resources. You can use your mining tool to dig up deposits of raw material. Then you can combine them in your inventory to create more complex components. These allow you to modify your ship or items, making it easier to move around or explore. This in turn makes it easier for you to get to new places and acquire even more or rarer resources.
And exploring the planets can be genuinely intriguing. The first time you crest a hill to see a multicolored horizon it’s breathtaking. The creatures are so interesting and strange. The scope of the game is shocking as well; there were times I was frightened by the size of rock formations I encountered. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back up.
No Man’s Sky is a game that’s constantly pushing you forward while giving you everything you need to stay put and still have a good time. You inch your way through the galaxy, exploring things nobody has every gotten to see before and getting the chance to name them yourself! All of the players exist in the same massive galactic map. That means if another player stumbles upon a planet you named, it will show up that way for them too. It’s also impressive and massive and wondrous.
But it’s an awful game.
It’s important to take a second here to clarify something. Many games nowadays tend to blur the line between “game” and “simulator”. The two things are very important to distinguish. A game is a framework of rules with a goal. You’re doing everything in your power to accomplish that goal within the bounds of the rules you’ve been given. Maximizing the potential of those rules is what makes the game fun.
Simulators, on the other hand, are simply trying to recreate an experience in a virtual space. You play them because, for one reason or another, you couldn’t have the experience in real life. They’re all well and good and I’m glad they exist, but they aren’t games. I don’t personally enjoy simulators unless their primary function is to tell a story or their core mechanics are completely enthralling.
Regardless, No Man’s Sky is an awful game because it isn’t a game at all. It’s a simulator, lacking any clear overarching purpose. There are rules to it, yes, but those rules don’t service anything. They exist arbitrarily, often doing more to hamper the experience then enhance it.
For example, you can’t crash your ship into a planet. Take off and landing are handled automatically with single button presses. If you try to fly your ship below a certain point it bounces off an invisible wall.
Okay, yes, that’s kind of a strange thing to complain about. But guess what? People complained about it. One of the first mods added to the game was a feature allowing you crash. Nobody wanted to crash, but they wanted to be able to. It makes flying more interesting and fun.
It could make flying interesting and fun at all, because in No Man’s Sky flying is boring as hell. There’s absolutely no interaction involved aside from pointing your ship towards your next objective and holding down the “go faster” button. Depending on how far away the next planet was and how much fuel you had, this journey could take anywhere from two minutes to half an hour of real time. Ostensibly this is to help build a since of scale, but all it does is build a sense of boredom. It’s frankly inexcusable, and extra frustrating because it was clearly just a disguise for loading the next area.
Let’s double back to the uniqueness of each individual planet for a second. Yes, each planet has it’s own unique geography. It has plants and animals that will never repeats from one planet to another. Technically.
But the truth is, while some planets will have startlingly diverse life, the majority of them are almost identical. The landscape is a weird mishmash of rocky ridges and water. Everything is the same vomit inducing shades of vibrant pastel neon that left me yearning for the dirt pallet of Gears of War.
The animals, while technically different, are so close to each other I actually made a game out of spotting the difference. In the first five planets I went to, all of them had creatures resembling a mix between a cow and a deer. The only difference was the number of and location of spikes along its body. Plants have even less variety. I honestly couldn’t tell you what the differences were between the ones I discovered. Though there was one instance where the mushrooms were strangely large and inexplicably gave me emeralds when I set them on fire.
The core mechanic of the game, mining for resources and crafting ship components, is bland beyond belief. I literally had to spend two hours finding a rare resource just so I could get off a planet where it rained acid (the fifth such planet I had encountered). Then I immediately land on another planet where it rained acid and begin my search again. Actually exploring was pointless. It only serviced finding more resources with which you could continue playing. It was an endless and incredibly frustrating loop.
All of which could I could maybe forgive if the game gave you an interesting and meaningful story. But it doesn’t. Instead, you’re left with vague impressions from a handful of stone structures. These try to entice you towards more stone structures elsewhere in the galaxy. When you reach them, the same thing happens again. None of it is satisfying and none of it made me want to play more.
Of the minimal number of NPCs you come into contact with, none of them have any personality. They are at best one dimensional script followers . At worst, they’re robotic shopkeepers on par with vending machines. There’s no actual voice dialogue, and even the subtitles are in an alien language. The game forces you to translate yourself by exploring worlds. Which is moot, since the aliens intentions are always beamed telepathically directly into your brain.
No Man’s Sky is a game that tries to do a great many things. Unfortunately the one thing it doesn’t do is make you have fun. It’s a simulator, and the core components of it are functional enough to service that task. The people who love this game love it because that’s al they want. They wanted a “fly around space slowly looking at stuff and mining” simulator, and No Man’s Sky certainly delivered. But I wanted more. I wanted a game. No Man’s Sky might be and incredible technical achievement that pushes the bounds of what gaming technology can do. But a game it is not.