One hundred and fifty hours. It might not sound a lot, but consider this: it’s around the time it takes to drive from Edinburgh to London and back 10 times. Or approximately 20 sleeps. Or perhaps most fittingly, how long it would take Savage Garden to realise their dream of travelling to the moon and back. It is also, of course, how long it took me to reach the centre of the Euclid Galaxy in No Man’s Sky. And what a time it was.
If I may, I’d like to start by addressing all those people who complained to Valve, Hello Games, Sony, and the ASA about how No Man’s Sky is not the game presented to them before release. I don’t know exactly what you were expecting, but the game I downloaded is pretty much the same as what I was shown. Sure, I didn’t get the exact same animals or planets – why would I unless I visited the exact same locations – and I agree that the HUD was rearranged somewhat in the interim, but all the main points were there. All sorts of animals? Tick. Varied planets? Tick. Space battles? Tick. Billions of solar systems and planets? Tick. Certainly I would have welcomed more to do, but I can’t honestly say I was hoodwinked into purchasing the game and nor did I feel anything was missing.
No Man’s Sky is a mostly passive, relaxing experience. Collecting resources, using them to patch up and improve your equipment, and discovering wacky creatures and following titbits of narratives as you zip around the galaxy. Honestly, I’d be happy if that’s all there was to it, but occasional boosts of excitement, like running into space pirates or finding a planet of high value, but heavily defended rare resources punctuate the gameplay with something a little different. Some may tire of wandering a mostly barren landscape looking for more zinc, but many times I happily ditched my ship and picked a random direction to wander off in until I reached a location from where I could summon my ship again, and offload or sell my scavenged treasures.
Ferrying high value contraband to shops might not sound like a lot of fun, but it is strangely entrancing. Landing on a planet and immediately seeing hundreds of verboten gravatino balls or sac venom gives a strange sort of thrill, and what might be seen as tedious inventory management by some is relished as a challenge by me, and a merry couple of hours is spent running from sentinels clutching mountains of forbidden goodies. Of course you can shoot the sentinels to get them off your tail, but then your pockets fill up with titanium extracted from their robot corpses – and nobody wants titanium when you’re saving the space for albumen pearls.
No Man’s Sky is very much a game of make-your-own entertainment. Picking a fight with a space freighter, for example. Those hung up on, the admittedly somewhat tedious, mining of rocks for essential materials like gold and heridium aren’t helping themselves. Grab some, and when bored, move on. Most things are abundant enough to not need a search either, so when you need a load of a certain isotope and the planet you’re on doesn’t immediately have massive stores of it, take off and try somewhere else. There’s hardly a shortage of places to look. Even the frustrating task of rebuilding parts of your warp engine after a Black Hole traversal damages them need not be if you stop playing the game as a race to the end and slow down, take your time, and drink it all in.
I know it’s trite to say that if you’re not enjoying something then you’re doing it wrong, but I genuinely believe it for this game. The onus is on you to make it fun, and it’s understandable that some folk are adverse to that because they want constant excitement and wonder on a plate. If what you’re doing isn’t fun, stop doing it and do something else. Try to track down all the animals on the planet. Blow stuff up. Hunt down every last Gek ship and destroy it. Locate crashed ships and repair them to replace yours. Get lost, find stuff, make fun.
With everything said, the game is not all happy and roses. There are flaws, although for me most are minor. Interaction with aliens is laughably limited, with everything done by text description rather than animation or action. Every outpost is virtually identical, or at least one of a small set of similar designs. The variety in flora and fauna isn’t quite as radical between planets as one would perhaps have hoped (although there have been a few truly bizarre and unique creations), with most places playing host to similar instances of Fan Tree Thing, Mushroom Thing, Horseshoe Crab Spider Thing, Bat Thing and Mound of Earth With Tufts Thing.
I suffered a few bugs of mostly the funny or benign variety (such as floating objects or animals stuck on or in stuff), although less funny was reaching the centre of the galaxy and having the game crash before I got to see what turned out to not be much of an ending. This happened twice, but thankfully my saved game remained intact and a third attempt allowed me to finish the game properly. At least, to one definition of finished anyway.
Another would be following the Atlas Path, which is Hello Games’ attempt at providing some sort of story mode for those who don’t have the imagination to just play – think of it as the instructions in a box of Lego – is ultimately unrewarding. You travel from system to system finding anomalies, each of which provides you with an Atlas Stone, and discovering some of the backstory to the universe you’ve found yourself in. Once you reach the end of the path, providing you have all ten Atlas Stones on hand (and you’ve not sold any, like I stupidly did – luckily some traders stock them for over 2 million units each) perhaps the most unsatisfying end to anything ever occurs. For me, it was just part of the whole experience and I was only mildly disappointed, but I expect many players exclaimed “Is that it?!” and smashed their PS4.
Ultimately, No Man’s Sky is not a game that will suit everyone no matter how hard they try to play it to the title’s greatest strengths, but for those of us who want something low impact, expansive, beautiful and relaxing – with the bonus of offering OCD-levels of resource interaction if that appeals – there’s nothing better out there. The closest other game I can match it to isn’t Elite, which is probably the reason so many people think the game is underwhelming. They’re superficially similar in same way, say, Bioshock and Serious Sam are, but to expect Elite style gameplay in No Man’s Sky just backs up my argument that you are indeed “doing it wrong”. No, this fits more into the same category as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, just in first person and in space. If that sounds appealing, No Man’s Sky is for you.