No Man’s Sky opens up with the same level of ambition and promise that all its marketing has exuded for the past three years. The camera flies past thousands of stars, each with their own systems orbiting them. Hello Games, a small studio for the scale of the game, have been selling the idea of scale since day one. A staggering 18 quintillion planets, spread out across a shared universe just waiting to be explored. A universe that sadly is nowhere near as engrossing as you might have hoped it to be.
Drawing from an array of sci-fi novels and films and leveraging some incredibly complex (and fascinating) procedural generation algorithms, Hello Games set out to achieve the impossible. Creating a game world on this scale is unprecedented, never mind that the team creating it doesn’t break 20 employees. No Man’s Sky’s ambition is arguably what has sold the for all these years, with the promise of near infinite exploration kicking imaginative minds into overdrive. But once this paper-thin facade is peeled away, the only thing that remains is a pretty standard survival game. And not a great one at that.
No Man’s Sky is first and foremost about one gameplay loop. Using your multi-purpose gun, you’ll mine a variety of elements from planet surfaces and in orbit, quickly filling up your criminally limited inventory space (which is a pain to navigate from the get go). These elements are sorted into three classes to keep things simple, they’re the crux of what makes No Man’s Sky tick. Not only does the abundance of one or scarcity of another have a direct impact on the planet you’re exploring, elements are your means for survival For better or worse.
Every planet brings with it some form of hazard, keenly communicated through two life bars on the overcrowded HUD. The top refers to environmental effects that the planet might be imposing on you, be it radiation poisoning, freezing cold temperatures or sweltering heat. This bar changes according to what it needs to be, supplemented by an ever-present Life Systems bar below it. These both tick down constantly, requiring elements to keep them topped up and stay alive. It’s the carrot on a stick that splits in multiple directions, but taps into the primal need to simply survive.
Survival, as it turns out, is severely overrated though. Mining is the only meaningful way to obtain elements to stay alive, craft tools and complete recipes. It is also mundane and boring, requiring you to simply aim and hold a trigger until a crystal shatters, rock falls apart or carbon miraculously appears from strange looking space mushrooms. Most of your time spent attempting to explore this universe will be hindered by this too. It’s an inescapable part of No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop, but also one of its weakest.
Crafting is also just as important to progress, as hopping between star systems requires a resource known as Warp Cells. Each one of these requires a build up of four recipes and burns immediately once you make the jump, keeping you entrenched in the loop in-between stints of exploration. This grinds the sense of discovery to a halt almost all the time. Instead of being free to explore, you’re forced to touch down frequently on planets to look at the same elements and mine them again. Coupled with the ridiculously slow moment speed, it’s almost as if No Man’s Sky doesn’t want you to explore that much at all.