Review: No Man’s Sky (PS4)

Posted on August 14, 2016

No Man’s Sky is definitely the flavour of the week; its release just last Thursday following a loud hype train that ran for over two years. Published by the giant, Sony, it was developed by an (until-now) indie developer, Hello Games, known only for their Joe Danger games.

No Man’s Sky is best described as a science-fiction space exploration game, but that hardly does justice to the experience it offers. In many ways it is very minimalist; its often ambient synthesised soundtrack might have been composed by Ludovico Einaudi, and there are literally no images of the protagonist. Many of the planets you visit are pretty barren: not much to see or do, other than move on to the next planet.

But this simplicity is belied by mind-boggling depth in the world generation. Most of the content of the game is procedurally generated, meaning that the programmers have used algorithms so that each time a player visits a planet, that planet is uniquely generated for just that player. The developers estimate that there are 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 different possibilities for unique planets, and that even if a planet was discovered every second it would still take 585 billion years to discover them all.

This might seem revolutionary, but actually it’s just an evolution of how games have been developing recently. Many games have used procedural generation for components: for example, Borderlands used it for generating weapon types, meaning a vast diversity of possibilities unique to each player. But this procedural world-generation is definitely a new step, and perhaps most of the reason for the hype: the multi-trillion numbers make for good copy, and the promise of almost complete freedom is one of the holy grails of game design.

The worlds to visit and explore in No Man’s Sky can be truly amazing.

No Man’s Sky is absolutely focussed on the experience of non-linear exploration, in a way that perhaps very few games have before. It has collection components (you identify different species on each planet), crafting components (you collect resources and build items to help you survive the environments or travel), and combat elements (wildlife or robotic sentinels sometimes attack you), but all of these play second fiddle to the simple experience of experiencing new worlds that literally no-one ever has before. It is a profoundly relaxing and even meditative experience, as you sometimes just have to wait 2-3 minutes to arrive at your destination; taking in the sights and sounds engenders a very welcome sense of mindfulness that is often elusive in gaming. (I’m also playing Bloodborne at the moment and that is a definite contrast.)

I’m not sure whether I love this game, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. I usually prefer action games focussed on strong gameplay design, and in a way there is not much to ‘do’ in No Man’s Sky. Indeed, many of the actions swiftly become repetitive and grindy: jump out of ship, identify creatures, collect a few items, mine a bit, jump in ship, move to next planet: rinse, repeat. There is enough progression to keep me engaged in the opening of the game, but it remains to be seen whether that will have real long term playability, or if the repetitive mechanics will overbear the novelty of finding new worlds. Just recently I have started discovering worlds that are much more hostile than I am used to, which presents a significant challenge, so I’m still in the game.

It is perhaps best considered an experience that has the potential to make you rethink games altogether; in a worst-case scenario, I might leave it on the shelf for a rainy day or after a bad day at work; when I feel like playing something pretty passive and not too intense.

No Man's Sky classification details

No Man’s Sky classification details

Unfortunately, this game is absolutely not right for the Game Truck: despite our love providing epic gaming experience,s it just doesn’t fit. Apart from the lack of a multiplayer option, it is just too long, exploratory and meditative for your average Game Truck party. A better game for this is an action game that you can get your friends into. Having said that, with a PG rating it is not in principle unsuitable for kids: there is some combat against robots and creatures that may be a bit confronting for younger players, and there are some slightly adult themes that may call for some moderation, but overall it’s totally appropriate for players of all ages.

Even so, it’s quite possible that many kids will simply not enjoy the slower pace, lack of instant gratification, and complex crafting systems that the game presents. In this case it might be better to be played as a family: this is an experience whose wonders can be introduce by a more seasoned player, to make it a shared experience on the couch. But a game like No Man’s Sky is never going to appeal to everyone anyway, so it really depends on individual preferences.

What’s certain is that this game had turned some heads, and although it might not go down in the record books, it will certainly be considered as a game-changer for some players who see it as a completely different way to play video games.

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