No Man’s Sky is out and I got the chance to tool around in it for a few hours- here are some quick impressions.
My first few moments in No Man’s Sky were pretty traumatic. After finding myself lost and alone on a totally alien planet, my ship in ruins, my suit in tatters and my multi-tool barely sputtering to life I thought it might be a good idea to get some resources.
Approaching a nearby tree-like thing, I carved away with my laser for a few seconds before suddenly finding myself set upon by a pair of aggressive sentinels. Presumably because trees are people too. With no ship for a speedy escape and little sense of what I was supposed to do, I instead did a different thing and died…
This probably won’t be a typical experience but it does get one thing across- No Man’s Sky is pretty tough on newcomers. Information is both lacking and overwhelming, with few clues and a whole mess of data which makes you feel like a bit of a dummy.
Still stuff is broken and there’s no one but me to fix it, so it’s time to wander out and find materials. Shoot your gun thing at other non gun things to break them down producing potentially usable substances. Collect enough and you can go into your rather cumbersome inventory system to fill bars towards completion.
At this very early stage you’re trying to get your ships basic systems back online, namely the thrusters and pulse engine to get you up in the air and out into space.
This involves a good deal more trekking and mining and inventory shuffling than you might imagine, especially for what amounts to an intro. And the game remains stingy with anything really resembling a tutorial, which might frustrate or even entirely turn off some players.
However, it doesn’t take long to realise that there’s something really quite beautiful about how complete the concept is. You don’t feel like a gamer being led by the hand from one way point to the next, learning the controls in a nice and linear fashion.
Instead you feel just as lost and confused as the character does, though presumably he-she-it has flown this ship before. But you are stranded in an alien place, you don’t know any of the local languages and everything has the potential to be deadly, even the very air around you.
That’s a pretty amazing set up, and an idea of how different No Man’s Sky is. Though the promotional material has been ubiquitous this remains a game by a very small team. In many ways it has the feeling of something which should be on Steam Greenlight, being teased towards completion through an Early Access program. There’s something experimental and oblique about it’s very makeup which can be quite wonderful.
And it’s also a huge gamble. Hello Games and head fella Sean Murray have been very coy about what you actually do in No Man’s Sky and I think many players will be shocked by how opaque the whole experience is. This isn’t a game that has been carefully focuss tested to be accessible to every player, the rough edges filed down by an endless QA process. At times it’s pretty raw in everything from the fragile storytelling to the often awkward system UI.
The worst aspect for me was definitely the inventory. The initial slots in your suit are severely limited and though you can instantly beam items to your ships hold it isn’t so big either. This constant juggling really limits your ability to explore and collect, making for many frustrating moments. These storage options can be upgraded but it’s an oddly limiting factor on early exploration.
Some folks aren’t going to want to put the time in to really get involved in this universe, and that’s fine. For others it will be something like a religious experience, a pilgrimage to dive deep and surrender hundreds of hours to devour every secret.
For me, there was a definite learning curve and a sense of frustration… or a more complex emotion. I’ve become so used to games with a singular lack of challenge that there was actually a feeling of achievement when I persevered- logging the right materials, crafting the components and bringing my ship back to life.
And it’s only really there that the game truly begins, as you leave the rough gravity of your starting planet behind and soar towards the clouds, particles flying by during a seamless transition. Then you’re in space, honest to goodness space, with debris all around and a celestial body or two hanging in the blackness.
It’s in looking at these nearby worlds that the scale of the thing starts to come into focus, the displays ticking down the travelling time in hours- that’s real time hours – at thruster speed. And this is just a small corner to one side of an almost impossibly huge universe. The next step is to figure out how to install a hyperdrive, but that can surely wait as you bask in the awesome spectacle.
No Man’s Sky is a beautiful and brutal thing, a tale of rock collecting and creature sampling and incoherent conversations with alien beings that slowly come into focus as you build an intergalactic vocabulary.
It is strange and clumsy and really, really big. The main word that comes to my mind right now to describe it is ‘rewarding’- the busy work might be a chore but each rock and plant and chemical brings you a little further on, unlocking the potential for more travel and new discoveries. And there’s a mystery too, a subtle story hook which tugs at you via cryptic messages that’s compelling enough to make me want to move forward to that overarching goal at the centre of the universe.
No Man’s Sky is out now everywhere on PS4. It comes to PC on the 12th of August, 2016.