No Man's Sky became an internet obsession in 2013, when the space simulation's creators promised the ability to explore an endless universe, much like our own. The tease looked spectacular enough that would-be space cowboys like me obsessively checked status updates. Following delays and ever-building hype, the dream is finally a reality: No Man's Sky is now out on PlayStation 4, with a PC release due Friday, August 12th.
For all the excitement over the game, there's also confusion: what does one do in No Man's Sky? After playing for six hours on the day of the PS4 release, I have a few ideas. If you're thinking about grabbing this long-awaited indie opus, here's what you need to know going into it.
What makes No Man's Sky so special?
The last decade has seen plenty of combat-centric space games set against starry backdrops. No Man's Sky more or less removes the barriers. Every aspect of the game is procedurally generated by algorithms, which means there are approximately 18 quintillion different planets to explore. Each world has individual terrain, weather, hazards, wildlife, homes, minerals, abandoned ships, and more to discover, and players can fly freely from the planet's surface into space and back again with no break in the action. That's a huge perk that fixes a common disconnect in games like these, where load screens break up the land and space adventuring. No Man's Sky is seamless.
What's the point of the game?
No Man's Sky is loosely structured, although the grand goal is to reach the center of the galaxy. Along the way, you can visit any planet, customize your ship and suit, and freely interact with the other inhabitants of this universe.
Based on my early hours playing it, No Man's Sky drops in little story threads along the way. Your choices shape the arc of the adventure. The earliest decision informs how you want to play the game: do you want instruction from a glowing light called Atlas, which points you to further objectives to help you gain new abilities, or do you want to wander aimlessly through the galaxy? How lost you want to feel is your call.
How long does it take for the game to be... fun?
A while. You begin not in the stars, but stuck with a busted ship on the surface of a random planet. In the early stages of the game, you'll spend a surprising amount of time looking for resources on each planet, looting items, and crafting gear and upgrades that enable your mobility. Once your ship is up and running, you can escape the planet and find your way to others.
What's particularly frustrating at first is the constant need to micromanage your inventory. The early hours are spent mining and scavenging to fix and enhance your ship, but you can only hold a handful of items on your body and a slightly larger stash on the craft. That means digging back into the menus every 5-10 minutes to transfer or purge items, which is essential if you want to be able to collect the stuff you actually need. Also, manually refueling your life support, mining gun, and ship components turns tedious. Like life, No Man's Sky has chores.
When do I start blowing up alien enemies?
It's minimal, at least early on. In my first few hours, I only blasted a handful of security drones on planets and myriad asteroids up in space. Later on, I tried blasting a gargantuan cruiser hovering over a planet and ended up shredded by its lasers. Not a very fair fight.
Trailers and screenshots show walking mech enemies and more enticing space battles, but hours in, I haven't encountered those confrontations. Some of that might be due to the game slowly revealing itself over time, but it's also thanks to the luck of the draw with procedural generation. There's no way to see what's happening on a planet without diving down to the surface.
Technically, this was the initial sell; No Man's Sky is an exploration game, not the next Destiny or Mass Effect. Promised updates will add things like shelters and freighters, however, so who knows? Maybe the experience could shift and expand further in the coming months. Or years.
Can I annihilate my friends in multiplayer?
Nope. No Man's Sky isn't a massively multiplayer game, nor does it have any sort of competitive play modes. Your dream night of Mountain Dew, nachos, and screaming at your buddies should still be reserved for Call of Duty. Sean Murray, head of No Man Sky producer Hello Games, tweeted this week, "The chances of two players crossing paths in a universe this large is pretty much zero." It might be exactly zero, actually; a couple players tried linking up in the same place, they appeared to exist in different universes. That's a shame.
Really, No Man's Sky feels solitary and quiet early on. It's just you making your way across the galaxy in a tiny ship, and any interactions with traders and random robots are canned and brief. It's not the kind of game you'll play for social or competitive kicks; it's the game you play while curled up on the couch in blankets, free from the demands of humans.
What do you actually discover in the game?
Our first "wow" moment happened while flying above the surface of our second planet, at which point I found a floating alien structure (above) lording over the planet in a very 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque manner. Then we interacted with it. My hero suddenly felt like his face was covered in squirming creatures. The game gave me multiple choices to rip my helmet off, try and wait out the hallucination, or fire my weapon at the structure. It was a test! By waiting it out, I was rewarded with a special item and better standing with that alien race, which I assume means something down the line.
There are many more breadcrumbs like this in No Man's Land. Each new planet I explored brought new species and sensational sights (one world was entirely covered in trees that looked like giant mushrooms with octopus tentacles). You never know what the next planet is going to look like, or what secrets lie within. The promise of endless discovery held my attention.
Should I drop $60 on No Man's Sky?
If you're put off by heavy item management, the grind of finding resources, or the idea of a sandbox game with minimal oversight or direction, then No Man's Sky is not what you're looking for. The constant temptation of the unknown, the fact that the next planet you blast into might hold something amazing, previously unseen, or totally tantalizing, is the only hook. There are hundreds of games that'll give you more moment-to-moment action, cinematic storytelling, or a structured campaign than No Man's Sky.
On the other hand, if your palms sweat at the idea of having your own universe to discover, catalog, and savor, then sign right up: No Man's Sky does space travel like no other game before it. Even from early hours of play, I can see enough here to keep die-hards engaged for ages. It feels a bit like "space Minecraft" on a much grander scale, and the early busywork is starting to seem like it gradually gives way to more consistently exciting experiences later on.
Fingers crossed, at least.
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