Inventory space – the final frontier.
Many, many years ago now, there was a game called Noctis. Noctis was a game about exploration in a procedurally generated universe. You had a ship and a massive galaxy to explore, all generated on the fly. The latest original release of Noctis came out in the early 2000s, and runs in DOS. I remember stumbling across it around 2002 or something, discovering that I could wander amongst the stars, landing on strange planets. Some of these planets had alien structures and even aliens – but this was rare. I’d go from star to star, applying names and descriptions and reading ones left by other players. It was unlike anything else I’d ever played (except Elite Frontiers: First Encounters) because all I had to do was fly around, skim stars to collect fuel, and explore.
Just me, the universe, and nothing else. I spent hours playing that game.
No Man’s Sky is a game I’ve had on my radar for a while, ever since it was first announced. It looked like the spiritual successor to Noctis with a bit more gameplay under the hood. Between its announcement and its release, people have picked up the game and run away with the hype train. People will blame Hello Games but I can’t actually fault them for the game – for ages the biggest complaint was “What do you actually do in the game?” and they seemed coy about what you would really be up to. Meanwhile, “fans” were creating speculative features based on a few quick glimpses of gameplay footage. You want to blame someone for hype-induced disappointment? Blame the community.
So what do you do in No Man’s Sky? Basically, you explore and survive. That’s at the very core of this game, and if you’re not one of those people who enjoys seeing what’s on the other side of the next hill (or solar system) you won’t enjoy this game. You start off with a crashed, damaged ship on a planet (randomly generated, same as everything else in the game). You might be lucky enough to be on a relatively friendly planet, but from what I’ve seen most of us will end up on a hostile rock that is intent on killing us.
From there, you mine resources, uncover new technology to upgrade your Exosuit (to keep you alive), your Multitool (to mine resources and defend yourself), and your Ship (to fly to distant worlds). You can also spend a lot of time scanning animals and various plants and rocks, applying your own name to them and uploading them to a global database (which other players can see, if by chance they come across them). Most of your tools and systems have an electric charge that you will need to refill through resources you’ve mined.
There are also aliens to encounter. Planets almost always have little bases and outposts on them where you can meet and greet aliens. Initially you’ll have no idea what they’re saying, but as you go along you’ll learn the words to their languages and start to understand them. You can trade with the universe too, selling and buying what you need. There are also other ships out there too – large freighters that you can attack or defend, NPC ships to prey on or to purchase from, and pirates that will attack you. The watchful Sentinels patrol around the galaxy (and planets) too, attacking you if you mine/exploit away with reckless abandon.
The overall goal of the game is loosely defined as getting to the centre of the galaxy, as well as following the enigmatic machinations of the Atlas, which compels you to seek out its space stations for some purpose. Otherwise it’s largely up to you what you do. If you want to pinball your way between star systems for the joy of exploration, you can. If you want to make a beeline straight for the centre, that’s your choice.
NMS’s randomly generated world… er, galaxy… is astounding. While there’s a bit of a degree of repetition in superficial similarities, by and large every new planet is a new experience. You never quite know what you’ll get when you land. You might end up on an ocean world with limited land, a lush jungle planet, or a burning hellscape rich in resources for any who can stand the heat. Toxic environments filled with hardy, hostile creatures… frigid ice worlds devoid of life… planets that appear Earth-like with grasses and animals that are also bombarded by intense radiation… it’s all here. The experience of exploration is pretty much nailed in NMS when it comes to planetary landings. Planets are huge and effective navigation is sometimes best accomplished by launching into low orbit. The sense of scale is immense.
It’s also a fairly accessible game, although it has limited instruction. It provides a little bit of guidance but by and large you’re on your own. The interface is pretty good (taking a leaf out of Destiny’s book) and the controls are fairly easy to come to grips with. It uses a simplified space flight model (which I actually prefer, I’m not a fan of Newtonian mechanics in these kinds of games) and works well with a controller. Planetary exploration on foot is fairly dangerous and straying far from your ship is never a good idea, but you can sprint and have a jetpack to aid you.
The alien races are entertaining and useful, and encounters have enough text/dialogue to make them more interesting than what they actually are (which is usually a reward for selecting the right answer). There are lots of hidden ruins and relics to uncover too.
That said, this is predominately a game about exploration, first and foremost. All of NMS’s strengths lie in that domain. You obtain resources to keep exploring – not for any other purpose. You are compelled to fly towards the galaxy, uncovering stellar phenomena and points of interest as you go, always wondering what lies beyond the horizon. This isn’t a game about space warfare, or factions, or being a trade mogul – this is a game for people who want to explore.
Inventory management in NMS is a colossal pain. Your inventory space is very limited initially – you can carry practically nothing in your suit and your ship is tiny too. Inventory slots are shared between equipment and items you pick up – so if you decide to slot in upgrades on your suit or ship, you’ll lose an inventor spot. Even standard equipment takes up a slot – your mining beam for example takes up a slot on your multitool inventory, as does your ship’s engines and landing thrusters. You can upgrade your suit’s inventory slots by finding Drop Pods or accessing locked areas in space stations (for an increasing price), but you’ll only get a bigger ship hold by buying a bigger ship (or dismantling equipment you won’t need). By far and away this is the biggest problem I have with NMS – there’s a lot of stuff you really need and you’ll forever be compromising, particularly in the early game.
Combat is also pretty sub-standard. Planetary combat against Sentinels isn’t particular satisfying and boils down to attrition. You typically can’t avoid their attacks, so you basically just shoot at them and don’t miss. Generally if you’re attacking one or two at a time they can’t drain your shield fast enough to kill you (so long as you just keep shooting at them) but if more turn up you’re pretty much dead. I’ve found that standing still to shoot them and then moving when they’re shooting is the best way to deal with them.
Space combat is atrocious, and probably broken. Enemy ships will fly at you and fire away with no way for you to dodge. Any more than 2 of them at a time and you will almost certainly die. Your base shield is absolutely worthless, and upgrades take away precious inventory space. You can recharge shields using resources, but this isn’t an easy process and involves going back to the inventory screen (and the game continues while you do this). It’s so bad that many people just dismantle their weapons, hope they don’t get attacked by pirates, and if they do, they just reload the game. There is literally no value in space combat at all.
Outside of exploration, there isn’t much else to do – although I don’t really know what people expected. The other mechanics aren’t particularly deep and are designed to support the core gameplay of exploration. This isn’t X3’s trading with Elite’s combat and Freelancer’s exploration. This is Freelancer’s exploration amped up to 11 with a slightly improved Freelancer-like trading (it has a dynamic economy) and horrible combat.
Is No Man’s Sky a good game? I’d say yes – but only if you weren’t swept up in the fan-induced hype. It’s a game about exploring the universe and not much else. It’s made for people who want to actually visit planets for the sake of visiting planets. Everything else about the game is structured around that goal. It’s like complaining that you can’t explore planets in the X games or that you can’t become an awesome space fighter pilot – it’s not the point, the point of the X games is the dynamic economy and becoming a trade mogul, the rest is just a supporting aspect.
The space combat sucks and inventory management is frustrating as all hell – a major flaw that I hope they look at fixing, and something that actually constrains the game. But from an exploration viewpoint? This is incredible. This is the next generation of Noctis. This is basically what I wanted, and all I ever expected, probably because I didn’t listen to fans making up features that were never there to begin with.
That said, the asking price is pretty damn high. This feels like something that Hello Games could expand upon over time – like Destiny, it’s the scaffold for something better (namely an improvement in space combat). Considering that this is predominately about exploration, asking almost as much as a full AAA title seems a little bit rich. It’s a great game, but probably not that great.
Were you caught up in the hype of NMS? You’ll be disappointed. Do you need a lot of structure instead of playing for the joy of exploration? This isn’t the game for you. But if you were expecting a good exploration game, then give it a shot, or maybe wait for a sale.