No Man’s Sky review: what makes the divisive sandbox so hit-and-miss?

By Brenna Hillier, Tuesday, 16 August 2016 08:36 GMT

No Man’s Sky is one of those games you either love or want to put in the microwave immediately. Which side will you be on?

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The things that make No Man’s Sky so impressive are its scope and its scaling. The sheer size of No Man’s Sky is an incredibly clever use of procedural tech. The fact that you can just fly from a planet’s surface right out into the solar system is way too easy to take for granted. Let’s give it a round of applause.

Some people are going to freaking love No Man’s Sky just because treading across the plains, under an alien moon, is so wondrous.

Unfortunately, these aspects aren’t good for much but wow factor (unless you’re really, really excited about the prospect of a game you can never complete). In terms of player experience, they don’t mean much. And the player experience is extremely divisive: you’ll either love it, or you’ll wish you could be doing anything else.

I really like exploration games. I’m not an action junkie and I don’t generally thrive on difficulty (I cheesed my way through Dark Souls). I don’t pooh-pooh walking simulators or dismiss low-key experiences as non-games. I’ve gotten over the inventory limits and crafting cycle (although I’m still extremely upset about having to hold in the button to confirm everything, even when I’m just trying to turn a page). I love sci-fi so much I sometimes start crying because it isn’t real.

So I really expected to like No Man’s Sky. I cleared this past weekend for it months in advance, and yet on Sunday I realised I was scrubbing the grout in the shower with an old toothbrush as if it were an urgent chore. That’s how much I didn’t want to play more No Man’s Sky.

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Most of my problem is simply that I don’t take any joy out of the act of playing itself; the moment to moment gameplay of exploring a planet’s surface isn’t compelling to me. All the rest of it – gathering resources, upgrading your gear, travelling to the centre of the galaxy – provide motivation and gating for that experience, and unfortunately these are not especially good times. There’s a lot of slog and RNG, until you figure out how to game it, and then it’s just repetitive – which is not helped along by fiddly and often sluggish presentation.

That wouldn’t matter if the core exploration gameplay were fun, but, well, it doesn’t feel good. Plodding about the terrain, possibly pausing every few seconds to recharge your hazard protection, is a chore. (That’s why we’re all using the melee jetpack trick, isn’t it?) It does get a bit better with upgrades, but you may have to play a lot before you get there. I’m not a big fan of games that only get good after umpteen many hours. I pay to have a good time, not be hazed.

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We’re supposed to enjoy the act of exploring in No Man’s Sky because we’re filled with wonder at an alien landscape, and this is where the big, flashing YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY kicks in: some people are going to freaking love No Man’s Sky just because treading across the plains, under an alien moon, is so wondrous. Because sailing between the stars is beautiful. Because the next planet over is a silent, haunted rock, and the one past that is teeming with jungles populated by weird animals with butts for faces.

The machinery is too visible, too obvious; it’s all so clearly the same pieces mixed up and recombined that I don’t feel surprised or delighted by anything I see.

Whether you have this experience probably depends on your tolerance of random generation. I can’t remember which, but in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, a character (possibly Ponder Stibbons?) remembers a book he had as a kid which was divided into sections depicting different body parts. By turning the pages, the parts could be recombined in outlandish ways – a human with the tail of a fish and the head of a tiger, maybe. You’ve probably seen real world examples.

In the novel, possibly-Stibbons remembers the book declared itself hours of fun, but concludes that most people would have mentally exhausted the possibilities in about three seconds. That’s how I feel about No Man’s Sky. The machinery is too visible, too obvious; it’s all so clearly the same pieces mixed up and recombined that I don’t feel surprised or delighted by anything I see. I don’t get a sense of place out of it. I can’t suspend my disbelief.

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Maybe I’ve just been really unlucky and have landed on a bunch of very same-y planets. It’s certainly possible. But Proteus has just the one environment, and I loved that. Perhaps the problem is that while Proteus is procedurally generated it is also highly crafted; it evokes a very particular atmosphere. No Man’s Sky is not crafted at all, and has about as much atmosphere as one of those asteroids you blow up for Thaumium9.

A blip of currency for recording a flower that looks almost exactly the same as every other flower and naming it “dicknballsbloom” or whatever is not motivation enough. There’s no reason for me to explore this universe beyond “it is there”.

Every planet may technically be different, but in effect they’re not – apart from different levels of hazard, which affects how often your suit shouts at you. It’s all just random rocks and plants sticking up in random clumps, random animals gadding about randomly, the same dozen kinds of points of interest randomly arranged. The big ticket changes are when, like, there are no plants. Gosh! What an exciting adventure! Now I can take pictures of rocks only!

And there’s nothing especially interesting to find out there. The paper-thin NPC interactions and occasional ancient-being-woo-woo text blasts from monoliths are not enough to embed narrative hooks in my over-exposed hide. A blip of currency for recording a flower that looks almost exactly the same as every other flower and naming it “dicknballsbloom” or whatever is not motivation enough. There’s no reason for me to explore this universe beyond “it is there”, which is only impressive when it’s attached to great feats of skill and endurance.

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So many of my friends and peers are raving about No Man’s Sky that I keep going back to have another go in the hopes that it’ll click. I’m convinced I’m not playing it wrong; either you push for the centre, or you stay on planets ticking off checklists. Neither seems pleasant. No Man’s Sky is painfully repetitive, the basic actions I’m repeating don’t feel fun or meaningful, and the world building hasn’t drawn me in.

This weekend I had dinner with a friend who loves No Man’s Sky. When I said I didn’t like it, that it felt like repetitive chores, she admitted it can get a bit wearing. “But,” she said, “It’s awesome if you’re on Party chat talking to friends at the same time.”

To me that just sounds like saying cleaning the bathroom isn’t such a chore if you have Netflix going on a tablet propped up nearby. And I would literally rather clean my bathroom than continue with No Man’s Sky, Netflix or not.

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