No Man's Sky's space dinosaurs

[Update]: No Man's Sky update has changed quite considerably since this initial review. As such, I'd highly recommend doing a little bit more research before making up your mind, just so you have the complete picture.

At its very core No Man's Sky is a game about exploration. Its just you, a nifty little space ship, and a practically infinite amount of planets to visit. With such a massive and varied universe it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that the world I started my journey on was a rather... special one. 

Instead of the vibrant red and green pastures I've so frequently seen in the trailers, my humble world was a hellish mixture between a desert and a swamp, an environment so hostile there was literally no sentient life to be found. To top it all off, my swampy heaven also suffered from constant acidic rain that slowly but surely eroded my armor and forced me to stay within a hundred meters of my ship, lest I found myself dissolved into a pile of ash and swept away by some of the numerous daily storms.

While it was certainly not the introduction I expected to receive from No Man's Sky, I can't say I was disappointed as my personal hellscape ended up being ripe with secrets. As it turns out, the planet once housed a booming civilization that lived deep below the ground, safely tucked away from the toxic atmosphere above. What exactly made them go extinct, I have no idea and thankfully I didn't find out, but I did discover a wast network of stone monoliths spanning the entirety of the planet's core. Further investigation sadly led me nowhere, but at the very least it was an intriguing way to start off my journey.

Unfortunately, what followed next absolutely shattered any excitement I had as the core gameplay behind No Man's Sky is just not interesting enough to keep anyone enthralled for very long. Even after playing for a mere few hours I started encountering copy-paste "locations of interest", the crafting became a chore rather than something I actually enjoy doing, and worst of all, the bizarre alien relics I practically lost my mind over ended up being just a generic prop sprinkled throughout half of the planets.

To put it simply, No Man's Sky does not live up to the high expectations its numerous trailers and marketing campaigns wanted us to believe in. However, explaining why exactly this is the case is no simple matter at all, so allow me to take you on a journey through all of the elements that make up No Man's Sky as only then will you understand why this was such a disappointment for me.

No Man's Sky screenshot showcasing an alien world

Part swamp, part desert, 100% toxic

First things first, I want to address the performance concerns. I have seen numerous complaints about the frame rate over the past few days, some of which comes from people I fully trust are being honest, but I have to say that No Man's Sky ran like an absolute dream for me. I'm not sure if the issues were simply patched out by the time I got my copy, or if I was just downright lucky to avoid such common problems, but the only time I've ever had a severe FPS drop was during a high-speed landing on a previously undiscovered planet.

The strictly technical aspects aside, I did encounter a whole bunch of problems with the presentation. While the screenshots and trailers show a rich and detailed world filled wondrous new materials and wildlife, the actual game features a disturbing amount of low quality textures and models, some of which are so rough they actually manage to overwhelm the otherwise lovely art style. The worst example of this are the various piles of ore you will encounter throughout your journey as they are all pretty much muddy eyesores that heavily contrast the otherwise cheerful landscapes.

No Man's Sky has some graphical issues

Gold or mud, its so hard to tell the difference these days...

Thankfully, none of this is that big of a deal as No Man's Sky has the most important graphical aspect cowered - style. While I do have many issues with it, even I can't deny the fact that some of the locations you can visit are absolutely gorgeous, or better yet, so strange and mysterious that its impossible to not get excited. Seeing a singular, giant pillar standing in the middle of a crater is one of those things that instantly puts a smile on my face as it promises a story about ancient civilizations and unknown dangers. Much to my disappointment, however, every single one of these unique landmarks ended up being a completely pointless and boring waste of time as there is never any mystery to uncover, never a story to learn. Such is the nature of procedural generation.

Speaking of stories, it might come as a surprise to hear that No Man's Sky actually features one. I would love to tell you more about it, but throughout my 10 or so hours with No Man's Sky all I've ever learned is a bunch of cryptic clues, pseudo-intellectual babble, and nothing of any real consequence. To be perfectly honest I am rather interested to find out what this godlike "Atlas" figure really is, but No Man's Sky doesn't seem to be in a hurry to deliver such revelations as I am currently averaging a single line of dialogue per hour played, and no, I'm not counting the generic one-liners the aliens keep repeating.

No Man's Sky has some lovely scenery

Hard to believe all of this is randomly generated, its so lovely!

So if the exploration and storytelling aren't up to snuff, surely the crafting and trading are what No Man's Sky is really about! To a certain extent that is completely correct, though I wouldn't consider that much of an upside given that both systems are somehow less interesting than Minecraft's, a game where you duck-tape three pieces of stone together in order to create an pick-axe. The Minecraft comparison might sound like a stupid joke, but in reality its actually quite apt as No Man's Sky's crafting is about as dead simple as it gets.

Most of this simplicity doesn't come from the recipes themselves as some of them are actually quite complex and require multiple steps to go through, but rather from the components you need in order to fulfill them. You would think that upgrading your ship with the newest and latest in Laser technology would be a tricky task, but its as simple as combining a bunch of generic resources available on nearly every planet with a single rare item.

While this sounds like a great idea given that it forces you to go out and explore the universe, the problem lies in the fact that you can never actually craft what you want as you're always missing that one key component that appears on every fifth planet. What this means is that you're always upgrading your gear according to the game's wishes and not your own, and as you might imagine, being stuck with sub-par equipment for hours on end gets incredibly annoying, incredibly quickly.

No Man's Sky trading screenshot

The big limiting factor for me was this damnable Suspension Fluid

The developers weren't outright cruel, however, as there is a trading station in every single sector where you can potentially buy that one rare resource and complete your recipe. It might be a bit too simple compared to what I would like to see, but to be perfectly honest the trading post does its job rather well. The ability to purchase items is a small little bonus that might not sound important, mostly because it really isn't, but it occasionally helps you avoid frustration so it gets a thumbs up from me.

On the other hand, if you're not interested in purchasing new items you can also use the trading post in order to sell your excess minerals for space-cash, and this is where No Man's Sky completely and utterly falls apart. As you've probably realized so far, the main gameplay theme behind No Man's Sky revolves around exploration and the gradual improvement of your equipment, with which you can then further explore and upgrade to an even higher tier. The trading system, or rather the ability to purchase alien ships, completely undermines the second part.

Why go through all of the trouble of gathering a whole bunch of exotic and common minerals when you can simply visit a planet rich in useless baubles, sell those for a massive profit, and buy the best ship in the game? Not only will this grant you a whole bunch of new options to toy around with, it will also significantly increase your storage space! In other words, if you want to have as much fun as possible without constantly worrying about your overflowing inventory you're going to want to buy a new and improved ship. Unfortunately, the moment you do this you are going to effectively cut your gameplay options in half as the best ships come with... you guessed it, the best upgrades! So what do you prefer, an annoyingly restricted inventory or a nearly aimless game?

No Man's Sky ship design screenshot

The ships do look cool at the very least

While I would love to say that's it, the problems don't end there as No Man's Sky also makes one of the worst mistakes you can possibly come up with in a space-based game - the ships are boring. It doesn't matter if you're using your barely functioning beginner ship or the "STAR DESTROYER XL 5000 ULTRA DELUXE", they all function exactly the same! I'm not actually joking here, a ship I've spent virtual millions on has the exact same handling as the one I've found jammed in a cliff, and if that isn't the most disappointing thing in a game with awesome looking space ships, I don't know what is...

The one area the ships do differ in is the strength of their weaponry and armor plating, but even that isn't very exciting as the space combat in No Man's Sky is about as generic as it gets. Since you're essentially piloting a box with wings your maneuverability options are incredibly limited, which means the only thing you will be doing in combat is standing still, spinning in circles, and occasionally clicking on the enemy ships until they explode in what I must admit is a very, very satisfying manner.

No Man's Sky has some cool ship destruction

That black blob is all that remains of my would-be attacker

As for the ground based combat, its a bit more interesting since you're capable of sprinting and using your jetpack in order to gain a height advantage over your enemies. Its nothing special, however, and given that the risk is often not even worth it I spent most of my time in No Man's Sky running away, which ironically has been a ton of fun! Circle-strafing around a robot and exchanging blows with it is fairly boring, mostly because the combat lacks any real punch, but running away from an entire robotic legion is guaranteed to get your blood pumping.

I especially love how the robots aren't omniscient as you can easily evade them, though they will attempt to search though the various nooks and crannies in order to find you. This might not sound like much, but when you're hiding behind a cactus with barely any HP to your name and a scanning beam suddenly illuminates the darkness around you, well, let's just say the danger becomes very real, very quickly. Its just a shame these sort of moments don't happen nearly as often as they should, because No Man's Sky truly does need more interesting things to do in between all of the random exploration.

Closing Thoughts

While I'm not comfortable admitting this, I got caught up in all of the pre-launch excitement and I genuinely believed that No Man's Sky would be this massive and complex game filled with countless worlds to explore, aliens to annoy, and mysteries to uncover. To be fair, all of that is still technically present within No Man's Sky, but its so generic and bland that it honestly feels like the entire project was rushed out of the gate, despite being delayed multiple times. Its not a terrible game devoid of any merit, that would be one hell of an exaggeration, but everything it does has been done better before, and even though its universe is technically limitless the amount of content in No Man's Sky is anything but. 

In its current state, and more importantly its current price tag, I cannot in good conscience recommend you No Man's Sky. It simply doesn't have the polish or the amount of interesting content needed to justify its €60 price tag. However, should you find No Man's Sky at a hefty discount it might be worth giving it a try as it a rather charming game despite all of its flaws, and who knows, maybe the developers will take all of these criticisms to heart and fix many of the issues over the coming months. I certainly hope they do because I would love to spend countless hours with No Man's Sky, but there is just not much to it right now.


Video version of this review (13 minutes)