Well, that time has finally come… our review of No Man’s Sky. Let me just say right off the bat, I’m an idiot, but hear me out first before you agree with me. And yes, I know I’m very late to this party, but there’s a reason I’ve left this so long. Here at SNR we like to sit on reviews a little longer than the big guys who rush to get their reviews out within the first couple of days of release (often even days before), because we like to let things sit out in the wild a little while to let them breathe; let the dust settle so that the full scope of the game can make itself apparent, instead of rushing directly to the end game without taking time to smell the roses along the way. But that’s not the case here.
No Man’s Sky is without a doubt the most controversial release of 2016 – possibly even in all of gaming history! It has been met across the board with disdain, spawning endless streams of memes and jokes lamenting on the hype vs delivery gap that would eventually make it to market. And therein lies the reason why I’ve sat on this review for so long. Ultimately, it’s for purely selfish reasons, because there was nobody at SNR that was more vocal about how awesome this game was going to be and how much of a technological leap it would offer, based off what we were told the whole way along by developer Hello Games, and more specifically their chief charlatan, Sean Murray. I even wrote a piece on procedural generation inspired by what No Man’s Sky was promising us. I truly wanted this game to be awesome and gave it every single chance in the world to redeem itself, but on all measures, it fell way short of expectations; more than any game I can remember… Ever.
So from the comfort of your couch, it would be safe to assume then that I was a victim of the hype, and that I’d been easily hoodwinked by a marketing machine that spoke more about what it might do rather than what it could actually deliver. I’ve thought long and hard about this. Am I really THAT gullible? Can I really be fooled THAT easily into parting ways with ninety of my hard earned dollars? So this review takes on a different slant from that jump off point. What is over-excited hype and what is just straight up deception? Where is the line between the two, and is there even a line? Or is this just a case of an Indy developer wanting to do all they say but not having the time or resources to completely fulfill their vision?
Okay, let’s shift for a moment and start with what’s awesome in the game. Being flung out onto a random rock somewhere in the universe with little more than a space suit, a multi-tool and a broken starship is a very isolating and jarring experience. With nothing in the way of a tutorial or any hand holding, you are set to explore and discover your surrounding environment to get your ship back up and running with no knowledge of what to do, and this is excellent. The exploration aspect is amazing for the first few hours of play. Finding new resources, spotting weird and wonderful wildlife and stumbling into undiscovered caves with huge sparkly crystal structures, is both exciting and new. It was awesome finding something nobody had ever seen before or will probably ever see, and naming it as your own. But visit more than 3 planets and the sheen wears off real quickly, revealing the toiling grind that lay ahead.
Now, like any survival game, resource management is essential. But herein lies one of the main issues with the game. From the get go you have a very limited amount of space in your suit for holding items. You can pass objects over to your ship’s inventory from your suit, which is handy, but again, space is very limited on your ship too at the beginning. It becomes apparent very quickly though that in order to move forward, you will need to upgrade your suit and ship for more inventory slots so that earning money by grabbing as much of a resource as you can in one hit and then selling it off for the payoff is as least grindy as it needs to be. So what’s the big problem here? Visit any planet, any of them, and you discover that resources are actually pretty easy to find. There was never a time when I felt stretched or strained in order to get what I needed to make more money and upgrade my inventory slots. So if that’s the case, why do I need 18 quintillion planets to explore when I can essentially just find everything I will ever need from one planet?
“Discovery of new fauna and flora!”, I hear you answer. Nope. As I said earlier, visit more than 3 planets, and you’ve pretty much seen it all. And this reveals another huge problem with the game. We were told that all life on each planet is derived by it’s position in it’s localised solar system – that each creature, plant and mineral is based on the unique evolutionary biology of that planet in relation to it’s proximity to it’s Sun. There was supposed to be unique planetary physics, localised weather systems, a day/night cycle that related to that Sun and that there would be no ‘skybox’ used to pad out the visual depth of the solar system you are in. All bullshit! In actual fact, there is no Sun what so ever to rotate around in any solar system! WHAT!! The animals on all planets, though unique in their own way, all end up being the exact same thing. A dog-like creature here, a bird-like creature there… Of all the planets I’ve been to in all of the solar systems I’ve visited, all of the animals even sound the exact same! Nothing ever strays from the formula. Same goes for the minerals and plant life. All. The. Same. Colours might change and shapes may be different, but essentially, everything is the same. Always. Regardless of planet or solar system.
And that sameness isn’t just restricted to the plants, animals and minerals unfortunately. On every single planet, in every single solar system, all the buildings, structures and aliens are also the same. From one end of the universe to the other, all of it is mind numbingly the same. Somehow, on 18 quintillion planets across a vast universe, every shelter, outpost and structure looks exactly the same, feels exactly the same and is exactly the same. I don’t know what company was able to swing a universe wide contract for constructing all those buildings, but I guess their directors are sitting high atop very fat wallets right now. What’s the point of 18 quintillion planets when every damn thing on each of them is pretty much exactly the same as the last 20 million planets you visited? This does not make you want to explore more and more, in fact the inverse is the case, you end up exploring less and less, as there is never really anything new to discover.
While we’re on the ‘same’ tip, let’s talk about Starships. We were told that each ship would not only look different (which they do) but also feel different and have different attributes that would help us fit to our specific play style. Bullshit! Apart from cosmetic and inventory slot numbers, all ships feel and run the exact same way. I worked my way up to a 36 slot beast that could carry a Sarlacc to the ends of the universe and back – It didn’t feel or handle any differently to the 9 slot banger I started out with. This is a huge shame. Oh and naming your own ship that Sean also promised? Nope. You can name any number of the wild abominations you find along the way and never be able to come back and see them, but you cant name the one thing you stay connected with for most of the game.
Time to get the tech glitches out of the way. Let’s start with the big one: Procedural animation. In theory, this is a fantastic leap. Everything you see on screen is animated as needed to be seen by you in real time, a brilliant short cut for processor power – at least on the surface. Take to the skies however, and things start to fall apart at the seams. Digital Foundry ran a frame rate test for No Man’s Sky on PS4 and logged a solid 30fps while on the ground roaming around. And I can confirm that result – on the ground everything is smooth and creamy. But what I noticed, and was backed up by Digital Foundry’s findings, is that in the sky flying over a planet, the engine cannot keep up with all that’s going on and frame rates drop dramatically, breaking the illusion. Assets pop in and out, textures and wireframes shift and shimmy as you pass by and the whole thing looks like a mess. Digital Foundry recorded a low of 13fps at it’s worst whilst in the sky; so for every 2 frames that should be there, less than one is showing up, leaving noticeable gaps in the animation. Now, you could blame the vastness of what is going on against the amount that the processor needs to do to blah blah blah… You know what? It’s frikkin broken and shouldn’t have been brought to market like this. Like the game as a whole, it just feels undercooked. The video below (probably the most boring video you’ll ever watch) illustrates the jumping and jostling of the textures and assets as you fly over them. You’ll also notice it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going, you still see things popping and moving.
There are other glitches worth mentioning. The one that frustrated me the most (though it seems to be fixed now) was when I’d go to take off in my ship to go to another area on the planet, but instead of just taking off and flying over the surface, every single time I would get ejected out into orbit! So annoying, especially if I’d spotted a huge deposit of Gold or Emeril to mine. I’d then have to find my way back to the surface nowhere near where I was, and with no real way of knowing either unless I’d managed to remember a specific landmark near by. Another thing that still pisses me off is once you’ve mined a valuable resource (Gold or Emeril) the engine would play tricks on you if you walked away from that mined resource and looked back at it, it would suddenly reappear in your field of view! Walk back towards it and it disappears again. This is very annoying because you could end up in an area where there were 3 or 4 deposits, mine one of them, get in your ship to go to the next and lose track of which one you’ve just mined because it literally appears as though it’s still there when you’re in the air. (Check the gameplay vid at the end for an example of this)
Another massively annoying aspect is that you can’t truly control your ship. Sure, you get in it, you take off, steer around and land again, but that’s as rudimentary as it gets. You take off and land with the push of one button, no trick to it, no risk. Push the button – up. Push the button – down. And when you’re in the air you literally can’t crash the ship no matter how hard you try! It’s like having a driving instructor with dual controls that takes over as soon as you get close to anything that smells like danger. I’ve tried aiming at cliffs, buildings and anything that looks like I could crash into it, and every single time, mum takes over and flies you out of harm’s way. Boooooring. As the old saying goes, without risk, there is no reward. The entire time you just feel you’re being treated like a teenager who can’t be trusted with the keys to the Camry.
And now, the lies, deceptions and half-truths… I’ve already mentioned some things that were left out or lied about, but there’s so much more. I’m not going to go into all of them here for the sake of boredom (believe me, there’s that much missing), so I made the below meme to cover most of the big stuff.
I’d like more to talk about the deception itself, especially relating back to hype and it’s role in making games sell well. For me, hype is blowing wind into something that isn’t that great in order to sell more units, and usually that hype is ballooned by marketing departments and PR spinners towards the end of the dev cycle. No Man’s Sky is different though. Remember, this is an Indy developer that went on the road with no real marketing at that point, it was just Sean Murray visiting the likes of Colbert and Game Informer saying things that he either thought were going to be true but didn’t eventuate or he just plain knew weren’t going to be there in the first place and lied about. I’ve re-watched all the interviews, and I now seem to notice a kind of smugness to Murray’s answers – like he’s trying to hide something from his mum. Maybe that’s just me projecting. Murray is not hyping the game in any of these interviews – not jumping up on couches with excited glee – he’s calmly saying things that he believed at the time were true, or so I bloody hope.
Whether he knew or not at that point is now largely irrelevant, because it’s what has happened after the release that to me is the most telling. Even right up until now, as I’m writing this article, Hello Games and Sony are advertising the game using the pre-alpha footage we all saw back in 2013, and every subsequent media demo Sean Murray has taken part in has used the same build. Why is this a problem? Because what you see in the pre-alpha footage is absolutely nothing like what is actually in the game that you buy. The vast landscapes with lush and abundant life – BULLSHIT! And that’s an issue. They are still trying to fool the public into buying No Man’s Sky by using deceptive footage to portray the game in the best light possible, even if that ideal is never actually attainable in the game. But that’s not the biggest insult, not by a long way.
Again, right up until writing this article, Hello Games or Sean Murray have not said a blinking word about it! Nothing! No social media, no interviews – they are ghosts! Run off with our money without even a whimper. At least have the courage to stand up in front of people and take the hit. You may not have any direct answers for us, but at least let us know you’re there and you hear us. If you stand to make any sort of career in the future of gaming, this is not the best course of action, users are your gold. The user base drop for No Man’s Sky has been the most dramatic in recent history, a whopping 90% in the first 2 weeks. OUCH! Further isolating your users by choosing not to say anything is only doing more harm than good. I keep half expecting to see Sean Murray show up on the news one day, found to be naked and chanting gibberish whilst running through the streets after what could only be described as a stress induced psychotic break. Where are you Sean? Are you ok?
So would I recommend this game to anybody? As mentioned, the exploration aspect is amazing at first, but after that wears off, you’re left with a very expensive rock mining simulator. I haven’t mentioned combat anywhere in this review nor showed any in my gameplay video, and that’s for one very good reason. It’s completely tacked on and insignificant. You end up spending 99% of your time shooting at large rocks and 1% shooting at anything else other than a rock. And the promise of “being able to do anything” is reduced to you having to upgrade your inventory slots by mining rocks. Over and over and over. Bloody shooting rocks! Coupled with last-gen graphics, poor menu structure, the myriad missing gameplay elements and it’s no-risk attitude towards gamers – no I would not recommend this game to anybody.
Ultimately, No Man’s Sky is suffering from what I’ll call John Holmes Syndrome (Google him kids). It’s absolutely massive in one single aspect, but completely deficient in all the others. There’s no use making a game that is so huge where you have to stretch resources so thin that it actually breaks all other supporting features around it. They could have easily dialed back the scale a little and spent more resources on making the game the best it could be and giving it more polish, but at the moment as it is, it’s lacking any real depth or soul. Who knows, maybe one day it will be the game it was meant to be, but by then it will be way too late. And please Hello Games, if you want to keep any of your current users, don’t insult us further by charging for DLContent that was meant to be there in the first place, you will be laughed off the stage.
If you haven’t bought No Man’s Sky and you’ve made it this far through my review and still think you might pick it up anyway to see what all the fuss is about, then I won’t spoil the end of the game for you. But remember these words when you get there: “I’m an idiot”. They’ve helped me. 🙂