Hype can be a funny thing, and No Man's Sky is a product of hype. When No Man's Sky was first announced (at E3 2014), it was this incredibly ambitious game from a relatively unknown studio, HelloGames. The Head of that studio, Sean Murray, told us about this sprawling space exploration game, making it sound like this would be the last game we'd ever need. Each planet was procedurally generated, meaning the possibilities for running into wildlife were endless, the environments would be ever changing, and every planet would feel just as new and original as the last. The gameplay trailers that came later made this hype grow at an incredible rate. Flying your spaceship from the ground of a planet, directly into space was seamless and beautiful. Harvesting the materials needed to keep your ship and suit powered seemed like a fun distraction from all the exploring we'd be doing. And with 18 Quintillion planets to discover (and rename if we were the first to discover said planet), I personally couldn't wait to begin.
Unfortunately, that's not exactly what No Man's Sky is. No Man's Sky is an empty universe filled with familiar creatures and plants (after you've visited a few planets). Let me be clear, No Man's Sky is not a bad game, but it's not a great game either. For most, this is exactly what they expected. For others, it's so vastly different than what they expected that they feel lied to. That's a bit extreme to me, as I can't recall Sean Murray ever promising some of the things people seem to be upset about. For many, this was going to be a game that they played online with their friends, exploring planets together. You can't really do that in No Man's Sky, the game is simply too vast (again... 18 Quintillion planets...). If you really believed you'd be bumping into your buddies on an even semi-regular basis, you took the marketing of the game wrong.
No Man's Sky drops every player on a different planet. Your ship is damaged somehow and needs to be repaired, so you set off on this alien planet looking for resources. Your ship and suit tell you exactly what resources are needed to repair specific parts (most of which are Plutonium). The game doesn't hold your hand, giving you just the simplest instructions possible in order to get you going. This is where the community comes into play. For instance, the planet I was dropped in had a seemingly endless supply of Gold. Gold is obviously an incredible trade commodity (again, the game never really explains this). Being the collector I am in games, I quickly found enough Plutonium to get my ship functional, then loaded up on Gold in the hopes I'd find somewhere to trade it in. But, having traveled so far from my ship, I had to discard some of the Gold I was carrying in order to keep my suit powered (every planet has some level of hostility that will break your suit down. Whether it's extreme cold, extreme heat, or simply being on an alien planet the player simply isn't equipped for).
It's moments like these that make No Man's Sky so special. Running around this planet, exploring every nook and cranny I could find was some of the most fun I've had all year. When your suit is running low, and I was searching frantically for those Red Crystals jutting out of the ground indicating there was Plutonium was both exciting and stressful. Finding some old Outpost from (what I assumed was) a different time, or these Alien Monoliths where I could learn a bit of the language of the old indigenous people. I was so excited to get to that next planet and find some new stuff. But then I got to the next planet, and it was strikingly similar to the last planet (Red Crystals indicating Plutonium, the exact same Outpost, the same Alien Monolith, etc.). I figured the entire System I had started in was colonized by the same species of Alien. So I made my way to the Space Station, traded in my excess resources, built my Hyperdrive (which the game does a poor job of explaining) and made my way to the next system. That excitement welling back up.
But it was the same thing again. Same Red Crystals, same Outpost, a slightly different Alien Monolith, but still pretty much the same. Even the Space Station was exactly the same as the last, just with a different Alien Race manning the counter. And that is the biggest issue with No Man's Sky, the assets are reused at such a frequent and alarming rate, that the feeling of discovery is greatly diminished. I was exploring and discovering loads of stuff nobody else had discovered yet, but they all looked so similar that it felt as if I hadn't made any progress whatsoever. Even the planets, some of which are massive and can take hours to get all the way around, are exactly the same. The topography doesn't really change, the plant life are the exact same on one side of the planet as they are on the other.
This can all be narrowed down to a simple explanation. Hype and expectations. This game was at every major gaming conference for basically 2 entire years, consistently building hype. HelloGames is a small team consisting of only 14 people. So maybe it was a bit unfair to expect something that it clearly couldn't be yet. And the nature of games today are so that HelloGames can consistently pump out updates and Downloadable Content to make the game more varied. But it's not there yet. The game is gorgeous, with vibrant colors and excellent use of shadows, but once you've seen the same plant 8 or 9 times on different planets, or the creatures that are procedurally generated in horrifying (sometimes inappropriate) manners, it rips you out of the experience very quickly.
I still have hope in No Man's Sky and I plan to revisit the game often. Space Exploration is something I fully believe in, and I was hoping this game would get people excited about that again. Instead, most of the dialogue about the game has been one of deep disappointment.
All images courtesy of Sony and HelloGames