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Review: Innovative ‘No Man’s Sky’ soars and bores

No Man’s Sky (Sony/Hello Games)

“It’s complicated.”

For the past week, that’s been my boilerplate response to friends asking if No Man’s Sky, the highly anticipated space exploration game from Sony and indie developer Hello Games, is worth playing.

Because trying to sum up the biggest video game ever created in a simple “yes” or “no” just doesn’t feel right. Or doable, really.

Part of the trouble is separating expectation from reality. Since its stunning debut at the VGX Awards in 2013, No Man’s Sky has been at or near the top of every PS4 gamer’s wish list. On-stage showings at Sony’s lavish E3 press conferences and breathless articles about the game’s insane scope only fueled the fires. This is, undoubtedly, the most hyped game of 2016.

But despite numerous interviews, previews, and features written about No Man’s Sky, no one outside of Hello Games really had any idea what, exactly, you did in this video game. In a world where movie trailers routinely reveal showstopping scenes and the internet spoils every Game of Thrones episode literally as it’s happening, the enigma of No Man’s Sky has served it well.

So what, then, is No Man’s Sky? In a nutshell, it’s an impossibly huge, procedurally-generated universe crammed with planets to explore, life forms to discover, resources to mine, ships to fly and mysteries to uncover. It’s a spectacular technical achievement; a game design milestone that occasionally serves up sci-fi moments worthy of an Isaac Asimov novel.

But it’s also a bit of a snooze, a painstakingly slow-paced affair whose ambitious vision is often grounded by mundane, repetitive gameplay. No Man’s Sky is that weird, artsy friend in high school who could recite lyrics to David Bowie deep cuts, but couldn’t pass basic English. It’s ahead of its time, but behind the curve.

In other words, it’s complicated. I’ll explain.

(Sony/Hello Games)

Space oddity

You begin No Man’s Sky on a planet — one of 18 quintillion in the game’s unthinkably vast sprawl.  This audacious number (that’s an 18 with 18 zeroes) was achieved through a very fancy version of procedural generation: None of those planets or lifeforms found therein were built by hand so much as algorithmically slapped together.

They all exist in the same shared universe, but No Man’s Sky is not a multiplayer game. The chances of finding another player are infinitesimal, and even if you somehow do, it’s unclear if you’ll actually be able to play together. So consider your starting planet, and every star system you explore during your playthrough, a unique snowflake.

Your first task is to repair your small spaceship by mining resources using a little gun-like multi-tool. Plutonium, carbon, iron, maybe a little zinc – you scavenge these goodies until you’ve fixed your ship, then off you go to explore the vastness of space.

(Sony/Hello Games)

Life on Mars

Initially, it’s enthralling. Your only real goal – if you want to call it that – is to get to the center of the universe. A path highlights your route on a galactic map, but you can also just roam about at will or eventually follow a slightly different narrative path (and perhaps more.) The game does a marvelous job concealing its secrets; you’ll never really guess where this is all going, which is a refreshing change in a medium often guilty of telegraphing itself.

No Man’s Sky’s technical wizardry isn’t just found in its backend math, it’s thrust in your face the first time you take off and enter your starting planet’s orbit. You don’t see a load screen. Zoom to another planet (this can take a while), descend through its clouds, skim its surface, land on a crater, get out and walk around, and still, no loading. It really, truly feels like one giant, connected chunk of space.

It’s also a Technicolor paradise. No Man’s Sky trades the grays and browns of most space games for rich pinks and purples, bright oranges and neon blue. Each planet is its own work of art, boasting flora and fauna of all shapes and sizes that somehow make geometric sense. A killer soundtrack by math rockers 65daysofstatic, also algorithmically generated, makes sure the musical mood matches the visuals. Blasting through space, the sun peeking out behind a massive planet literally hours away as a fleet of starships warp in from who-knows-where: it’s all incredibly cool and stylish.

And boy, the first few hours are really a rush. At each stop, you truly feel like an intergalactic Magellan. The first time you see a bipedal lizard with a worm’s head and winged arms is a thrill. You’re rewarded cash for discoveries by uploading photos of lifeforms, waypoints, planets and star systems to a shared server. You can rename these as well; I imagine there are plenty of wormy lizards named Atticus and a wealth of planets named after Kanye West tracks in the galactic database.

(Ben SIlverman)

The man who sold the world

Cataloguing stuff, however, is harder than it sounds thanks to No Man’s Sky’s overreliance on resource management.

Hanging out on a planet sucks up resources. That mining tool? Needs resources. Your life-support system? Resources. Taking off in your ship? Resources. Grenades? Faster shots? Better stuff? Resources, resources, resources.  Be you an aspiring zoologist, trader or space pirate, you’re mostly gonna be mining.

Just about everything on a planet can be sucked up into your mining tool vacuum, and while that often just means gathering up the necessary plutonium and iron needed to regularly launch and repair your ship, you can find more exotic materials if you root around a little. The first time I discovered a mountain of gold felt like what I assume it really feels like discovering a mountain of gold. I actually yelped.

You can store resources on both your exosuit and your ship, but a ridiculously stingy inventory system requires near constant trips to the local shop to offload goodies. You can upgrade your inventory (it’s extremely important to do this), but for a game about collecting stuff, it never makes it easy. And make no mistake: this ground-based loop of mining, trading, upgrading, and mining again is the real beating heart of No Man’s Sky.

But like much of the experience, it shows its age far too quickly.

(Ben Silverman)

Sense of doubt

That’s because the very thing that makes the game so special – its procedural generation — turns out to be its Achilles heel. No Man’s Sky is algorithmically challenged.

By about the fifth or sixth hour, the repetition becomes unavoidable. That first little shelter you found on your home planet? You’ve seen its twin about a half-dozen times. That thrilling mountain of gold? Not so thrilling when you find four more. Those wild creatures? Other than the few credits you get for discovering them, they don’t do much, and over time they begin to look like Frankensteinian monsters stitched together from bits of code. A leg here, a head there – you’ve seen these parts before.

The planets themselves begin to blend together. Purple or orange, pink or neon blue: it doesn’t matter, really, because you’ll barely remember any of them. Plus you’ll never return to them since there are roughly 17.999 quintillion more waiting for you.

The re-use of assets isn’t uncommon in a video game, but because nothing is hammered in by hand, you’re left to deal with a system that shows its limitations rather quickly. Planet number 13 looks a lot like 9; the damaged machinery that gave you that cool blueprint on planet 4 is here again on planet 7 with a slightly different blueprint. The Gek trader at the planet’s observatory looks just like the one on the space station, which itself looks exactly like every other space station in the game. And that creepy narrative bit lending context to that derelict outpost? It’s identical to the narrative bit from a derelict outpost three star systems ago.

Equally troubling is the repetitive nature of the gameplay itself. You find a planet, you mine for a while, you take off to sell stuff, you find another planet, and back at it you go. There are no formal missions, no special sidetracks. To officially answer the question: What do you do in No Man’s Sky? A lot of the same thing, over and over again.

Periodically you will take part in randomized outer-space dogfights, but these are pretty dull thanks to a paucity of weapons and the irritating, fiddly nature of managing your shields. You have to enter your inventory, hover over your shield icon, select it, select an “oxide” to replenish it, and then back out of the menu, all in real-time while you are being shot at. It’s just stupid.  On-planet firefights with ubiquitous Sentinel robots or occasionally aggressive beasts also lack nuance and, since you can simply run to where you died and gather up all the stuff your corpse left behind, are ultimately inconsequential.

Most games relieve monotony with scripted set pieces, boss fights or climactic gameplay sections that yield big rewards. No Man’s Sky offers none of this, instead taking the hands-off approach of a sandbox game like Minecraft but without the creative part of the formula. You don’t build a thing here; instead, you just grind forward, hoping that somehow a big moment will find you. Except it rarely does, and over time, the thrill of discovery is quickly washed away by the mendacity of manual labor.

(Sony/Hello Games)

An occasional dream

And yet, you will find yourself playing a lot of No Man’s Sky. Despite its flaws, it’s seriously addictive. Collectors with a whiff of OCD will be in heaven, and the urge to buy bigger and cooler starships works as an enticing carrot. The mystery propels it, too: the overarching journey to the center of the universe (or, in my case, a quasi-religious quest to find the source of a powerful race) makes for a genuinely fascinating game. It doesn’t explain itself. As dull as it gets, you’ll feel compelled to fire up No Man’s Sky and inch closer to whatever secrets it’s hiding.

It seems fitting that the best part of a game ostensibly about size and scope is found in its small, less significant moments; serenely gliding over a bright green field of lumbering, omnivorous Whatsits, a mound of valuable emril shining in the distance, twin moons looming over the scene invitingly. No doubt about it: No Man’s Sky will, occasionally, take your breath away.

And if you can compartmentalize it, if you can be okay that it isn’t everything you hoped it was and perhaps view it as the quirky indie game it initially set out to be, No Man’s Sky snaps into focus as a ridiculous, daring experiment in technological design. It really does some cool stuff, and I applaud Hello Games for having the wherewithal to see it through.

But we buy video games to play them, not simply marvel at what they can do. Its technological advancements and sheer scope may indeed be incredible, but No Man’s Sky’s repetitive world and gameplay are decidedly less than stellar.

Pros: So, so big; outstanding visuals and music; addictive loop; secretive and mysterious

Cons: Abundant procedural generation problems; repeats assets quickly and constantly; inventory management a pain; repetitive gameplay

Platform reviewed: PS4

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Ben Silverman went through this before with another overhyped space game called Spore. He’s usually griping about games on Twitter @ben_silverman