Where on earth do you start with a review for No Mans Sky? The development history itself has been like a Shakespearean play full of twists and tragedy. The small team at Hello Games have been through everything from floods, delays, death threats, to Sky actually complaining about the use of the name Sky. So regardless of what I think of their game, I just want to say I truly admire the team for even making it to the finish line.
Now before I get into the review I need to highlight a few points you need to know right away, namely that at the time of writing the PC version of No Man's Sky is suffering from a whole range of technical problems. Ironically I reviewed it on a friends Steam Account not being used, due to his system refusing to run it at all. This title is certainly one of the most divisive games we've seen in a while: some can run it fine, for some it's a mess, some say they love it and others have denounced it as the most over-hyped game ever made. What is clear to me is that No Man's Sky is not ready for release on PC and for that reason alone, I would say hold off until we can see some of these issues fixed. That said patches are happening so the wait won't be too long I hope. If you really must get it now, dropping all settings to low and then back up to maximum seems to improve performance.
The first time the world saw No Man's Sky it showcased an idea, that a universe could be created not with craft but math. A digital world that is fashioned from the procedural soup created by Hello Games. With eighteen quintillion planets you can't blame them for letting a procedural algorithm do the heavy lifting, but even with this in mind, the sheer scale of No Man's Sky is jaw dropping. Every atom, leaf, tree, bird and so on are procedurally created, but what does that actually mean?
Up until recently game worlds have always been created manually, where a developer creates tools, art assets and then uses these to hand craft a game world and the things within it. Sure there are tricks to speed this process up but an actual universe created by maths, that is something entirely different. So far this type of game while certainly impressive in scale lacks the flair and finesse of a handcrafted game: the most obvious example is the now infamous Spore. So does No Man's Sky buck this trend?
Lost in Space
No Mans Sky puts you into a digital universe so big you could never hope to explore more than a few percent. That one fact is in itself, is a factor some gamers find enjoyable and no matter how the game actually plays they will be content just to move, look and observe. However, I suspect most players need more than that to justify the countless hours a game this big demands. There is no denying the technology that runs the game is impressive as hell, jumping into your ship and ascending into the stars is something I've dreamed of doing in Elite Dangerous since day one. Likewise dropping down from orbit into a lush planet full of life really is a first on this scale. However, due to this size and scope of the universe, Hello Games have made some big sacrifices along the way.
So far everything I have done seems casual, light and unintuitive: from the way the ship handles, how you mine resources and interact with life forms. Sure, I could travel across a trillion planets (assuming I nail immortality first) that all offer a slightly varied theme but essentially I will be doing the same thing across them all and it's here I think we really hit the nub of the game. It's like going to the pick and mix, yes you will get difference sweets every day of the week but it's still just a bag of sweets.
One of the games big hooks is that the worlds you visit will be different every time you land on a new one and this is true. However, while the morphology of creatures will vary, what is going on under the hood in terms of AI is woefully underbaked. In short, they will either attack you or not: that is it. There is no food chain, no ecosystem, no difference in the behaviour based on their appearance: just a rudimentary script that makes them walk around and look busy. When you think about it how could it have been anything different, there is no way creature AI could change based on an infinite set of physical appearances. This is one of the glaringly obvious problems when using procedurally created content for everything. This, in turn, makes travelling the universe searching for new creatures feel a little pointless unless you just enjoy seeing what strange beings the game can spit out.
Prior to the PC release I had watched hours of PS4 gamers streaming the game and most at some point mentioned the UI and interface. It's surprisingly bad and even with the increased speed of a mouse pointer has numerous controls that just don't make any sense, like how you need to press and hold interact for a click to register: why? Even the simple act of crafting or moving items to your ship seems convoluted. In fact having to constantly manage the insanely small inventory quickly became a huge negative for me, this area of the game needs a lot of work. I am pleased that playing with Keyboard and Mouse seems to have been implemented from the off but I would strongly urge you to use a controller for flying your ship. I also find it surprising that a game on PC of which a huge chunk is flying a ship has not HOTAS support: another sign this game was made for console.
As you start to wander around your first planet you will soon start mining various minerals, very quickly this will bring the wrath of the sentinels: local droids that seemingly don't like you pinching from the planet. These robots are bothersome anyway because mining should not initiate combat in my opinion, but they also very quickly showcase the games poor combat system. I'm not going to dress it up, shooting things in NMS is crap and I've seen mobile phone games do a better job. What seems to make it worse is that no matter what you fire at there is no visual feedback and once in Space, ship to ship combat also feels poorly made with really naff ship explosions. The sound in NMS is actually pretty good in places and I absolutely love the music, it's a pity some of the sound effects fall flat: such as the ship blasters in space.
Smoke and mirrors
It's often so difficult to see a situation for what it really is, especially when Sean Murray has been consistently vague and cryptic about many of the gameplay features in NMS. In his rambling interviews when pressed on points like multiplayer he starts to waffle: is this a guy who is just ridiculously excited about his game or someone terrified of nailing down the truth? I don't know. Even when confronted with two players meeting (but then not being able to see each other) in a game that he clearly stated it was possible to meet in, he responses on Twitter with an overly upbeat response of how his mind is blown by this happening at all. I think what really annoyed people is the complete lack of acknowledgement for what was happening: kinda like the band on the Titanic cheerfully playing until the water was lapping at their feet. Now that the game is out I think Hello Games really need to sit down and spell out what players can and cannot do in terms of this shared universe, otherwise this issue will haunt them forever.
After looking at numerous worlds that contain life I have to say I feel like the trailers have been misleading, the life forms on view in the gameplay trailers at the top are nowhere near the same level of concentration in the game I've been playing: this is especially true of the underwater areas. I think that much of the hype has been because these trailers show you a hint of something but leave your imagination to then do the rest. When in one trailer you see the ships flying with you from orbit it does look so cool, but we now know that in reality, all the ships we see flying around are just props: never going anywhere and just there to give the illusion of activity.
Some people have made references to Elite Dangerous, saying that NMS offers a similar experience but for me, this simply isn't the case: not even close. Elite Dangerous is a simulation that is bathed in complex game mechanics and everything they implement into the game is built to the same standards: that is why it is taking so long to develop planetary landings on worlds with atmospheres. Every comparable instance between these two games in like comparing a child banging on drums to listening to Beethoven's ninth in the Sydney Opera house. Flying the ship is a good example of this, taking off is a button press, flying into space is easy as pointing up and flying to distant planets is a case of firing up the engines and waiting. Even when flying over the planet surface I am pushed away by an invisible layer above the ground which makes flying far less fun and feel like the rest of the game: casual in the extream. To some this will be the exact level of ship interaction they are looking for and so they will be content, but considering this game is about exploration having such restrictions feels insanely frustrating.
The saying goes 'it's all relative' and it's one I use a lot. On the one hand, Hello games are an indi developer with a team of eleven, so even with all the problems and shortcomings I have listed, this game is an impressive piece of work. However, on the other hand, No Man's Sky has been marketed as a AAA game but more to the point it's been sold at a AAA price. I think this game is still in a beta state and Hello Games would have done well to use early access to test the game on PC, an idea I'm sure Sony would have laughed at.
The truth hurts
When a games hype reaches the levels it did with No Man's Sky there are some people that will simply never see anything other than what they want to see. So far it has received mediocre reviews along with some fairly crushing critiques. Some gamers have responded to this with flat out denial, even going to the lengths of DDOSing one reviewer's website because they didn't like what he said: really people?
The simple truth is that No Man's Sky does not live up to the hype or the promises made by its development team: it was never going to. Yes, it is true that much of this hype has not come directly from Sean and his team but by being so obtuse about what the title has to offer many gamers have been left to run away with their imaginations. Hello Games are currently working on new content, such as the ability to build structures. I hope these new gameplay features give NMS that thing which is currently painfully lacking, the ability to put your mark on the universe and have some fun in the process.
Despite my obvious problems with No Man's Sky I have had some fun with the game, if I separate out the technical problems then what is left is an experience that can be intriguing and in places interesting. Indeed, it is the scale of the game that caught the attention of the gaming world a few years back, a world this big is especially enticing to console owners who rarely get their hands on such lofty (and seamless) play areas: now they have one of the biggest ever made.
However, size is not everything and what is the point of eighteen quintillion planets when after a few dozen we've seen all the game has to offer. I am sure Hello Games will fix the technical problems that currently plague the PC version and I truly hope they keep adding new features and content. Right now I cannot recommend you buy No Man's Sky on PC, even when it has been optimised for the current price of £39.99 it offers very little other than hours/days/weeks of mind-numbing resource gathering and meaningless interactions in vast (if impressive looking) universe. Every time I tried to do something fun (like fly my ship into the ocean or jump out of a space station) the game would push me back: it's like they didn't want to give players too much freedom in case the bonds holding this gargantuan gamespace would start to buckle.
I hope in the years to come this game and its development acts as a cautionary tale to both gamers and developers regarding hype. I've said it before and I will say it again guys: don't preorder games. Let reviewers like myself buy the game and give you an informed choice, especially when even the big sites are kept in the dark until launch day.
Thank you for reading my review of No Man's Sky on PC, if you like my site you can follow me @riggedforepic If you are new to PC gaming and looking for a site that gives you a cracking deal and the know-how to build your own system: you could do a lot worse than Build a Gaming PC. You can check them out here.