One of the biggest games of the year is out tomorrow or in a few hours for UK but does the PS4 exclusive live up to its hype?
Normally when a heavily anticipated game is this close to release, there’s no need to bother with anything but a perfunctory reminder of what it is and how it plays. But with No Man’s Sky we feel the situation is different. Most people will know the basic gist – a universe filled with 18 quintillion planets to explore, chart, and mine for resources – but even we weren’t quite sure how that was going to work in practice.
You start No Man’s Sky as the victim of a spaceship crash, with no indication of what’s happened or who you are (since the game’s first person it’s not even clear if you’re an alien or not). But you immediately discover a strange red globe call Atlas, that wants you to journey to the centre of the universe… and promptly disappears before telling you why. If you agree to its suggestion, then the game provides you with a bread crumb trail of hints as to where you should go and what you should do. But if you ignore it, you can immediately go off script and just explore wherever you want.
Your first objective is to locate the resources you need to repair your ship and equipment, which turns out to be a key gameplay loop for the whole game. Although every planet is different they all contain similar minerals and resources that you can mine or collect, from iron ore and organic material to plutonium and various imaginary elements. These are then used not only to create and repair items, but also to fuel them.
Most planets are dangerous in some way, whether it’s radioactivity or volcanic temperatures, so there’s a fairly strong survival element where you have to keep a check on all your systems and make sure you can sustain your explorations without keeling over miles away from your ship. Once you get it up and running you can pilot your ship anywhere you want (you can’t crash it, as it simply refuses to fly below a certain altitude) but on foot it’s almost impossible not to get carried away, as points of interest pop up on your display and caves filled with minerals gleam invitingly in the distance.
On the planets we’ve visited so far you’re rarely in much physical danger, although given every animal has a temperament rating we suspect the game is just easing us up to the point where the giant dinosaur-looking creatures act as fierce as they look. We’re not sure if the spaceships you see cruising around ever engage with you but the little flying ‘Sentinel’ robots certainly do – scanning you disapprovingly if you start mining and attacking if you get too destructive.
We only died once but all that happens is that you go back to the nearest save point and lose the contents of your backpack; which can be recovered, Dark Souls style, by returning to the point where you died. How difficult the game gets later on we can’t say, but the only other time we bought it was when attacked by a gang of pirates in outer space.
Escaping your first planet is a key milestone, and although it was a bit later before we got into a fight we’re relieved to find the flight controls and combat are actually very good. They’re simplified in the sense that you have no control over yaw (so you can often be flying upside down – not that that means much in space) but otherwise it does play like an old school combat flight simulator. To to the point where you have to lead a target with your laser fire, with a special targeting reticule to help you do so.
The on-foot combat feels less dynamic by comparison but it’s still fine, and better than something like Fallout 4. In terms of gameplay we have few complaints so far, and instead our primary concern is variety. That may seem an odd thing to say for a game that simulates an entire universe, but in the half dozen planets we’ve visited so far they are all quite similar looking; with a lot of palette-swapped vegetation and wildlife that’s only slightly different to each other.
We’ve not come across anything that counts as a puzzle yet and there doesn’t seem to be any objective more complex than collecting resources – even if that’s already leading to some quite complex trading sequences. Said trading takes place at spacestations, or certain small buildings found on some planets, both of which are typically manned (as it were) by a single alien. But apart from approaching ships docked alongside you that’s the only sign you ever see of other intelligent life, despite the other ships that are always flying around.
There’s a very empty, lonely feeling to the game, at least at this stage, with what little character interaction there is taking place only via flowery little text snippets. It’s the most obvious compromise in the game, and although we’re not sure what else could have been done, without quadrupling the budget, it does spoil the impression that you’re operating in a living, breathing universe populated by multiple alien species.
We can’t yet say whether this element of the game will change over time, but the one area where we feel there will be disappointment is the graphics. The work developer Hello Games has done to generate billions of worlds from nothing but (non-)simple algorithms is astonishing, but the enormous scale of the game does place some limitations on the visuals. In particular, there’s an ugly dithering effect that happens as objects pop into view in front of you, that can really break the sense of immersion when you’re touring a planet from the skies.
In terms of scale No Man’s Sky is exactly what we hoped for, and in terms of its action it’s actually better than we expected. How well the structure and longevity of the game holds together will take us several days to find out, but we honestly can’t wait to get back to it and discover even more.
Formats: PlayStation 4 and PC
Price: £49.99 rrp
Publisher: Hello Games
Developer: Hello Games
Release Date: 10th August 2016 (PC – 12/8)