Friday, 19 August 2016

No Man's Sky - Review

Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PC

The first few hours of No Man’s Sky are its most impressive. Alone, trapped on an unknown planet in the middle of nowhere, the isolation is palpable. In my case, my character was trapped on a snow-covered planet, where the temperature was permanently stuck in the negative. My life support bleeped at me every so often to point out it was running out of fuel to power my exo-suit, reminding me I was about to freeze to death.

Other players perhaps got to start with warmer climes than I did but the effect is still the same. The freedom with which No Man’s Sky opens is genuinely impressive. It shows a considerable amount of trust in the player. Even non-linear games like Skyrim feel the need to usher players down different routes, as if they’re terrified they’ll not have anything to do. By contrast, No Man’s Sky simply lets you be. The tutorial, for that’s what those opening few hours really are, is powerful, sums up the games ethos perfectly, and does so without treating the player like an idiot.

There’s an unsettling tone to No Man’s Sky exploration. It’s not horror in the traditional sense, but rather, in the way that it makes you feel utterly alone. Alien races will chatter to you in incomprehensible languages, with hours of play only yielding you a few bits and pieces of their language. Meanwhile, for every planet teeming with life, they’ll be one ominously devoid of it, with alien monoliths punctuating the landscape. The lack of any fixed goal in No Man’s Sky is oddly frightening; its universe doesn’t care about your existence, you are insignificant; play or don’t play, it doesn’t seem to give a damn. For all the flaws of the game, (and there are many), it’s when it attempts to touch on this Lovecraftian notion that the game threatens to become something far more poignant.

Then there’s the crafting. For all that the game stabs at a sense of existential nihilism, the core of your time spent with No Man’s Sky will be spent hoovering up various resources. Crafting mechanics are always an awkward inclusion to any game that’s not called Minecraft. When your game isn’t solely built around the act of creating things, then resource gathering can quickly devolve into fussy item management and repetitive tasks.

Which is the exact trap that No Man’s Sky falls into. Whilst the PR buzz prior to the game’s release hinted that you could play the game as some kind of rogue trader, the reality is that the resource system is so bland and simple that anything as interesting as that is impossible. At the same time however, you need to engage with resource gathering in order to do anything. Fly around and your ship will pester you for more fuel, be it Plutonium or Thurium9. Land on a planet and your life support will soon start pestering you, “Life support power, low” it will chime repeatedly, even when you’re at 75%.

Resource management is the ball and chain you have to lug around wherever you go explore. What’s even worse though is that the resources are in such large supply, that it’s never a challenge. It’s almost impossible to land on a planet and not find some fuel for your ship within two minutes. Your sources of fuel, along with Heridium and Carbon, are your primary ingredients for essentially all of your space travel in No Man’s Sky. Yet, they’re so easy to obtain that there’s very little tension in having to acquire them.

Which aptly leads into the game’s combat. Combat is a non-issue in No Man’s Sky. This is primarily because there’s little need to engage in it. Technically you can be a pirate, robbing resources from the same static group of ships that seem to be aimlessly floating through each galaxy you jump to. When those very resources are in huge abundance on the nearby planet however, there’s little need to bother doing it. Why risk being shot at when you can go bag whatever you need from the nearest lump of rock?

Sentinels, small robotic drones, will frequently follow you whenever you explore more populated planets, and, depending on where you poke your nose, they might turn hostile. Piss them off enough and you’ll eventually have a giant sentinel to deal with. That’s hardly ever an issue however, given that simply avoiding their line of sight, or better yet, blowing up the drones before they can call for help, will ensure you’re never under any significant threat.

This leaves the raw exploration as the sole redeeming aspect of No Man’s Sky. Indeed, it is the game’s most fascinating feature. The gigantic universe that stretches out is impressive on a technical level, with the number of procedurally generated planets and star systems staggering. The influences are clear, landing on a new mysterious planet is meant to evoke that same feeling when Luke first landed on Dagobah; that raw adventurous spirit coupled with a fear of the unknown. There’s also the vibrant, acid-soaked visuals similar to Hyper Light Drifter. No Man’s Sky wants its journey to feel like a dream, a transcentdant experience, as much as it does a simulation.

It’s not long however, until you notice the patterns. No matter how impressive its technical achievements, computer-designed game spaces lack that human touch. The flora and fauna, for all its variety, inevitably begins to meld into one another and look the same. One dinosaur creature is hardly any different from another dinosaur creature that’s light years away on another planet. And despite the planets varying visuals, there’s still overwhelming similarities, whether they’re battered by toxic rain or suffer from frequent storms they’ll always have (almost) the same resources, and near-identical buildings with an alien inside them. When you begin to see the artificiality behind the game’s design, and it doesn’t take that long, any sense of magic and wonder it had quickly vanishes.

This is also where No Man’s Sky begins to fall apart from almost every angle. The trading is bad because the resources are simplistic. Harvesting resources is boring because there’s no challenge to it, and there’s no challenge to gathering resources because the combat, and threat of survival, is so minor. Furthermore, because each of those elements fails to work, the central thrill of exploring the universe becomes a soulless routine of repeating the same shallow chunks of gameplay; scrounge, resupply, trade and explore, across a world that feels increasingly artificial and hollow. Every major aspect of No Man’s Sky is underwhelming to a degree that the game in its entirety fails to become something greater than its individual parts.

Other aspects baffle with how half-heartedly they’re approached. Crafting and scrounging take up so much of the game’s playtime, yet, the game won’t allow you to customize your ship. New spacecraft must be bought from other aliens, and come in around five basic varieties. Nothing feels personal about your journey in No Man’s Sky because you can never leave your mark on it.

No Man’s Sky will still, for good reason I might add, go down as one of 2016’s most important releases. It’s a relatively small, independent game in the grand scheme of things that got a big “AAA” push by Sony, and its technical achievements will likely go on to inspire a number of future games. Talk will also have to shift to how games are advertised, and how the gaming press reports on game releases. It’s rather telling of the state of video game “journalism” when the most investigative piece of writing about the game didn’t come from a gaming site, but from a fan on Reddit. The No Man’s Sky we were shown is very different from the No Man’s Sky we got, after all.

Putting all that extra baggage to one side for one moment, No Man’s Sky is a huge disappointment simply as its own game. It fails as a space simulation because the various mechanics are underwhelming, whilst also failing to be something more abstract and minimalist because it has all these irritating mechanics, the lifeless crafting and combat, that keep getting in the way.

There’s plenty of potential ideas nestled within here, we just didn’t get to see any of them.


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