“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
The radiation levels were off the charts. I got out of my ship and darted across to the trading station in order to offload the vast chunks of aluminium I had gathered from my previous stop on the neighbouring planet. The station looked familiar. Despite the billions of light years I had travelled so far on this journey the buildings all looked the same. I was greeted by a Gek who squawked at me whilst tapping his tablet screen. He has a name but he looks just the same as every other Gek I’ve met so far. Maybe that’s space racist.
No Man’s Sky is a really big game. It’s probably the first detail that we were told upon the game after being announced two years ago. A vast number of planets, probably far too many to compute for any human mind, stretching out into a map of stars upon stars. So large is No Man’s Sky that developers Hello Games said there was minimal chance of ever meeting another player online. Anybody who thought it was going to be a console version of games such as Eve, with players joining together in gargantuan space wars, was to be left disappointed. No Man’s Sky is very much a solitary experience designed around the single player.
As you awake on a far flung alien planet at the beginning of the game you find the burning hulk of what used to be your ship. Your ownership of the vessel is assumed because there’s no other indication as to why you’re there or what happened previously. The first few hours of No Man’s Sky find you searching around your environment trying to find the minerals needed to get the ship in a condition to take off again. The game doesn’t want to guide you through this process too much. Space is a lonely place and you won’t get anywhere needing somebody to tell you what to do all the time. Once you’ve fixed the hull, put the thrust boosters online, made sure there’s enough fuel to get the thing off the ground and perhaps equipped a laser or two should any pirates find some cargo they feel is worth the firefight for then you’ll be off into the stars beyond.
Pointing your ship towards the next planet, flying towards it and then watching the heat of the atmosphere burn the outside of your ship before landing on a new place is a certain thrill. Knowing that you’re probably the first player in the game to actually arrive here and getting to name the planet so that others will come to refer to it by that name is a good feeling. The flora and fauna need to be documented. These moments of turning around corners and muttering ‘What the heck is that?’ to yourself are a high point of the game.
No Man’s Sky is a game built on mathematics and systems designed to generate new lands and planets. It’s not long though until you become part of a system as a player also. You’ll find that your ship will need fuel even for the simple act of taking off so unless you fancy walking for a long while to all the locations you want to find then you’ll need a constant supply of plutonium to keep it going. You inventory space is so limited at the beginning of the game in both your exosuit and your ship’s cargo hold that you’ll often receive the dreaded robotic drones of ‘Inventory Full’ from your system software. Spaces in your inventory are also used for any extra equipment you wish to install meaning you often have a hard choice between upgrading and making life easier with mining or combat as opposed to just leaving it and having more room for things to sell and use towards the ship’s demands for power and shielding. There are plenty of blueprints for new technology to be gained from searching abandoned buildings and factories but it’s often a case of forgetting all about them because the room in your inventory is that scarce. The game becomes a process of land, seek, gather, build, sell, take off and repeat. No matter how different a planet looks from the last, the buildings you visit and the processes you have to go through are the same.
The in game story is left incredibly vague, The stated aim of reaching the centre of the universe is the main thread. It’s shown as a line on your star map but you’re never given any reason to actually go that way. You seem to be expected to make that long journey without any reason to. There’s also ‘The Call Of Atlus’ which sees a strange signal appear on your charts. Following that seems like the preferable option if only because it actually has some sort of detail to it. A third choice of simply wandering the stars of your own free will appeal to begin with but the similarity between each space station, trading post and factory will mean you would quickly see what the game has to offer. Many games have large maps and yet it always feels like something is happening even when you are not there at the time. The planets are just sat in space waiting for you to mine them. Everything is reactive to you.
The closest I got to a small scale story breaking out of the game was arriving at a trading post and seeing a Gek (standing in exactly the same position every Gek does in every other trading post). Upon interacting with it the text revealed that I had caught him stealing from the storage vaults. I had a choice to either split the spoils with him and say no more or call the security forces down on him. I choose the latter and a message popped up saying I had been rewarded by the local police. There was no animation to show this, the guilty Gek was still standing in the exact same position even after all this had happened and I could still trade with him as normal. No Man’s Sky is such a slave to its own process it cannot deviate from them lest something truly spontaneous shine through.
Add to this the fact that the game seems to have some strange design choices that seem to make the game more frustrating on occasion than it really should be. Why is the visor you use to scan animals part of your mining tool and not part of your exosuit? Why do you need an inventory slot free to even talk to some traders? Why is it possible for pirates to scan your ship and find out what’s in your cargo hold yet impossible for you to do the same to them? Why does your ship’s engine run on both Plutonium and Thanium 9 meaning it’s easy to fill yet the thrusts used for take off exclusively use Plutonium? There’s a long list of odd things that could so easily be remedied to make for a better experience.
Getting over all of this however, somewhere in the deepest core of No Man’s Sky, is a game seemingly wanting you to switch off and let your brain operate on a subconscious level. It wants you to not think too hard, admire the green sunsets over the mountains ahead whilst you laser through some iron and carbon, fly through space learning an alien language whilst trying to find your place in the world. Even after all the faults I’m still playing No Man’s Sky in blasts, clocking up at least twenty hours or so now, still forging through to the next star system whilst naming planets after former Glasgow Rangers players (you must visit The Laudrup System sometime).
Just try not to think to hard about it.
Because space might be big but the theatre curtain that reveals the inner workings behind it all is extremely thin.