Astral Nights, Galactic Days — No Man’s Sky

Hype is kind of an awful thing, when you think about it. It basically ensures that every game, or at least every major one, is going to be a disappointment to some degree, especially in the age of Twitter and the like spawning armies of keyboard warriors ready to crap all over everything you love. I think No Man’s Sky is a game that’s suffered greatly from being overhyped. There’s really no way it could’ve ever lived up to the sky-high expectations laid out for it by E3 and other press conferences and videos that came out pre-release. And, naturally, it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t by a long shot. It’s not a great game. Honestly, it might not even be a good game. But you know what? That’s okay.

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Yes, I’m here to tell you that No Man’s Sky is not the Citizen Kane of video games that we were all led to believe it would be. But it’s not the Catcher in the Rye of games, either, which is to say it’s not terrible. It’s … it’s the Paul Rudd of games. It’s not awful, it’s not spectacular, but I don’t mind it a whole lot. Touting it as the game of a generation is an overstatement, but hating on it is perhaps a bit unnecessary. I don’t really know if that analogy makes any sense, but I’m going with it. Let’s get past it.

The real problem with No Man’s Sky is that there’s simply nothing to do in it. It strikes me as more of a tech demo than a full-fledged game. It’s like the developers said, “hey, look at this awesome universe we made!” but forgot to put an actual game in there. So we’re given Hyrule without a quest to embark on, or a Mushroom Kingdom with no princess to save. I’ve really got to stop with the analogies.

The promises that No Man’s Sky does deliver on are done very well. There is, in fact, a gigantic, vast, nearly infinite universe full of planets to explore, and it really is a joy to find new planets and name them after Rush lyrics (or presumably, some other, inferior naming convention you decide to employ). It’s great fun to be walking around the surface of a colorful world, hop into my spaceship, and fly up and into outer space to find another planet to land on, all without any (obvious) loading in between. It’s a technical marvel, and it says a lot about the love put into this game that it functions as well as it does.

Unfortunately, you really have no reason to go to any of these planets that’s explicitly given to you. I’m not advocating hand-holding here, but some direction or purpose beyond vague, cryptic messages you find at the start of your journey would go a long way toward me feeling as though I have a reason to be bopping around these star systems.

That said, it really is a lot of fun to explore these immense, visually diverse landscapes and see what wonders they all have to offer … until you realize that they’re all basically the same thing, barring some cosmetic differences. The animals look different, but they do the same thing. The landscapes are shaped differently, but they all house the exact same resources for your mind-numbing collection. The structures are in different places for each planet, but they all look the same and contain the same few things to help your quest for survival.

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The survival aspect, by the way, is an absolute joke. My first days in Minecraft, for comparison, were peppered with mistakes that ultimately led to many an untimely death, and they were mistakes that I was able to learn from and prepare for in the future. Minecraft did a good job of instilling a sense of ever-present danger if you didn’t get enough food, light your home well enough, or plug up that hole you thought you had. No Man’s Sky doesn’t do any of these things. Is your life support system running low? No problem, just shoot your laser at literally anything nearby and you’ll have more than enough to replenish it. Did you anger that robot drone by … cutting down a tree? That’s okay, just shoot it a whole bunch with your boring-ass gun. Oh, you died? Don’t worry about it, all your stuff’s right where you left it. You run out of fuel? Just hit the C key and walk ten feet to the nearest red lightning bolt.

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Despite all this, it’s somehow still very easy to get confused. No Man’s Sky is incredibly obtuse when it comes to telling you how to craft stuff or navigate effectively, and it will take you far too long to completely understand exactly how to do what you want to do. Which, I suppose, adds a bit to the survival aspect, but in all the wrong ways.

The thinness of the diversity is also echoed by the four alien races, who are fairly interesting in concept, but have almost nothing to do beyond standing still and spouting gibberish at you a la Spore’s “oh the gryle was gone” alien merchants. One thing I do love about them, though, is the player’s ability to slowly learn alien languages, one word at a time, by uncovering runes hidden on planets. This is a neat little feature, but I worry about it becoming meaningless once I’ve found them all (which, granted, will not be happening for quite some time).

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Performance-wise, No Man’s Sky is once again pretty disappointing, though this is something that most likely will get fixed (I devoutly hope). For a 2016 game, No Man’s Sky can get pretty ugly looking. Some textures don’t fade in remotely soon enough to not be incredibly jarring, and many of them do that thing I see a lot in Dreamcast-era games where they’re literally a stale, two dimensional image that rotates with your camera. So, you could be looking at a tree, for instance, and it would look the same from every angle, regardless of where you’re situated. That said, some of the higher-rez textures are quite nice to look at, and some planetary landscapes are truly beautiful to behold.

The combat and trade are just as boring as the rest of the game, and honestly, you really have almost nothing to do beyond, I suppose, getting toward the center of the universe by way of light-speed jumping between star systems on the unnecessarily frustrating and obtuse star map. Seriously, good luck figuring out how to get where you want to go on that damn thing.

This all sounds very negative, I know, but despite its flaws, No Man’s Sky has a lot of heart. You can tell the developers poured everything they had into it, and it’s really our fault we expected so much of it. Of course we were going to be disappointed. But it’s okay. It’s not the worst game ever, and I know I’m far from done with it. It really is amazing that such a vast universe is a tangible thing in a game today, I just wish we were given more reason to explore it as much as it deserves. Like Spore and Minecraft, the two closest things I can draw comparisons to, there’s enough of a sense of joy in discovering and naming new things here that I’ll still be drawn back to it for a while yet. I can’t say I expect the same from too many others, though.

Which is a real shame.

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