No Man’s Sky Revisited

No Man’s Sky was originally released in 2016. I’d been waiting for it for nearly two years after seeing some early demos. This looked like a game I’d been day-dreaming about for decades.

It was one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever played.

I recently saw No Man’s Sky Beyond on sale in Best Buy (while shopping for microphones for our upcoming podcast) and immediately picked it up. Speaking of disappointing game experiences, the PS4 VR has been a gigantic disappointment ever since I finished playing Skyrim (which was awesome). Why there haven’t been more VR updates of great games from previous generations (e.g. GTA IV) escapes me, because second-rate half-assed new VR games do not impress me.

Anyway, I did not realize that (a) No Man’s Sky Beyond is merely the current patched version of No Man’s Sky, and that the VR mode is absolutely terrible. But, the current full patched version of No Man’s Sky is a huge improvement over the game I was horribly disappointed by back in 2016. It’s still not actually great, but it’s decent, and I can see myself coming back to it now and then when I want a fairly laid back SF fix.

High points:

  • There’s an arc quest that introduces core gameplay elements in a reasonably approachable way (although the start of the game is still kind of brutal)
  • There are dynamically generated missions
  • The space stations now actually kind of make sense
  • Base construction is pretty nice
  • There’s a kind of dumb “learn the alien languages” subgame
  • Planets have more interesting stuff on them

Low points:

  • Space is monotonous (star systems comprise a bunch of planets, usually at least one with rings, in a cloud of asteroids, all next to each other). Space stations seem to look like D&D dice with a hole in one side (minor spoiler: there’s also the “Anomaly” which is a ball with a door).
  • Planets are monotonous — in essence you a color scheme, hazard type (radiation, cold, heat — or no hazard occasionally), one or two vegetation themes, one or two mobility themes for wildlife, and that’s about it. (If there are oceans, you get extra themes underwater.) By the time you’ve visited five planets, you’re seldom seeing anything new.
  • Ecosystems are really monotonous (why does the same puffer plant seem to be able to survive literally anywhere?)
  • The aliens are just not very interesting (great-looking though)
  • On the PS4 the planet atmospheres look like shit
  • The spaceship designs are pretty horrible aesthetically — phone booth bolted to an erector set ugly.
  • Very, very bad science (one of my daughters was pissed off that “Salt” which was labeled as NaCl could not be refined into Sodium which — mysteriously — powers thermal and radiation protection gear). Minerals and elements are just used as random herbal ingredients for a potion crafting system that feels like it was pulled out of someone’s ass.
  • Way, way too much busywork, e.g. it’s convenient that “Silica Powder” can fuel your Terrain modifier tool (which generates Silica Powder as a biproduct of use) but why put in the mechanic at all? Why do I need to assemble three things over and over again to fuel up my hyperdrive? Why do I keep on needing to pause construction to burn down trees to stock up on carbon?

The audacity of building a game with a huge, fractally detailed universe is not what it once was. It’s an approach many developers took out of necessity in an era when memory and storage were simply too limited to store handmade content, and budgets were too small to create it — Elite, Akallabeth, Arena, Pax Imperia, and so on — but it’s disappointing to see a game built this way with far more capable technology, more resources, and greater ambition keep failing to deliver in so many (to my mind) easily addressable ways. When No Man’s Sky was first demoed, my reaction was “wow, that’s gorgeous and impressive, I wonder where the gameplay is”. When it actually came out, two years later, my reaction was “hmm, not as gorgeous as the demo, and there’s basically no gameplay”. As of No Man’s Sky Beyond — well, the gameplay is now significantly better than the original Elite (or, in my opinion, Elite Dangerous) — which is not nothing.

As a final aside, one day I might write a companion article about Elite Dangerous, a game in many ways parallel to No Man’s Sky. The main reason I haven’t done so already is that I found Elite Dangerous so repellant that I quit before forming a complete impression. Ironically, I think Elite Dangerous is in some ways a better No Man’s Sky and No Man’s Sky is a better Elite.