Billed as a game that introduces players to a whole universe just waiting to be discovered, No Man's Sky is promising players the stars. Composed of beautifully rendered landscapes that offer some truly stunning vistas, the worlds of No Man's Sky are certainly enticing. But can such an open-ended premise, one with seemingly little direction other than seek out and explore, hold players' attention for long? Can a game which has had its development followed so closely for the last three years, one with almost unlimited potential, live up to the hype?
The concept of No Man's Sky takes open-world design to its largest extension, creating 18 quintillion planets filled with interesting fauna and flora and lets players travel wherever they please - assuming you've collected enough resources to power your ship, exosuit, and life support. It's exploration paired with survival, eventually leading to instances of combat and trading, but those four options comprise the whole of No Man's Sky's gameplay. And those four ingredients can vary wildly for each player, depending on what they enjoying doing, and what the game itself presents. That's the unpredictability of what creator studio Hello Games calls procedural generation - where everything within the game is created not deliberately, but as a product of an algorithm, offering a unique but untested experience.
No Man's Sky released earlier this week, allowing players their first taste of just what exploring the unknown would be like. Of those earliest impressions all we can say is, they're mixed. Some reviewers, like Polygon's Phillip Kollar, were awed by the game's expansiveness:
"The rush of blasting off from a planet, zooming into space, aiming to another planet, rushing into its atmosphere and landing — all with no visible loading — is unmatched by anything I’ve ever experienced in another game. That’s not hyperbole; the sense of scale is just amazing."
But after players have zoomed to a few planets, traveled between far off systems, what was once fascinating begins becoming more mundane, routine. As Gamespot's Peter Brown notes:
"Even a few hours in, however, there comes a point where the loop of seeking and acquiring gear begins to sag, and the vastness of the galaxy sinks in. With an unfathomable universe beckoning, and hundreds of thousands of light years separating you from the intended finish line at the center of the galaxy, it becomes far too easy to question the meaning of your pursuits."
It's along those lines which players are being divided by their experiences with No Man's Sky - is it simply enough to explore endlessly or does there need to be a larger purpose? It's interesting that we can draw a parallel between the question of No Man's Sky central dilemma and the same we have with our lives in this universe. What is the point of it all? Why are we here? Are we merely travelers, or is there a grand reason behind everything?
No Man's Sky isn't here to answer those questions, or any others. Not really. Instead, what it's offering is just what it promises - a chance to seek out the unknown, without any guarantee we'll like what we find. From my own experience with the game, I can agree that the the vastness of the universe is both exciting and daunting. Fear of losing my "home" planet (which I felt the need to name Moranova, after myself) made me mark it with a waypoint so I could find my way back, but I can't tell you a single reason why the game would ever need me to return there. The ability to rename just about anything you discover loses its novelty once you realize uploading all your findings earns you in-game currency. I need those credits now, so I can't waste time thinking up clever names for every weird reptilian goat or massive mushroom I discover.
The exploration angle has certainly been the highlight so far, though admittedly after a visiting a dozen or so planets they do begin blending together, almost beginning to feel like the same worlds in different colors. I did eventually find a planet that was mostly water and that proved to at least offer something new, even if was just the realization that my exosuit won't allow me to stay underwater indefinitely, and that when I resurface I'm immediately set up by super aggressive Sentinels (tiny robots that police your behavior). Still, there is just enough mystery to keep me coming back, and that's from the strange alien ruins I keep finding. So far I've learned about the Gek - a race which sounds positively genocidal, though I do have good standing with them - and the Vy'keen - a clearly more passive race, with their references to not impeding the travelers (which I think means us).
For all it's wide open exploration, No Man's Sky does offer a couple of different paths for players to follow - one that has you seeking out the path of The Atlas, and the other sending you straight to center of the galaxy - but neither is presented as the "definitive" story of the game. That can be frustrating, especially for players who like to play through the core aspects of a game before checking out what else is hidden throughout. And No Man's Sky seems to be all about what's hidden throughout its many, many worlds.
Though it's still too early to give No Man's Sky a clear thumbs up or down, the game is without a doubt already one of the most popular this year. Available on both PC and Playstation 4, we don't have any hard figures for how many copies of the game have sold, but we do have the stats of how many were playing it on Steam on launch day - a staggering 212,620 people. For some perspective, that's 46% more at-launch players than any other game released this year.
Only time will tell what kind of legs No Man's Sky will have, and again, the monotony of 'land on planet, discover cool things, collect resources, trade, leave' is already showing. But as players explore deeper into the universe, there's no telling what they'll uncover. There is definitely joy found in wandering somewhere no one else has ever been, even if we're talking about a purely virtual world. That alone may no be enough for everyone, but for anyone looking to spend a few hours here and there just taking in what's been created within No Man's Sky, that in itself can be its own reward.
No Man’s Sky is now available on PC and the PS4.