Year of Release:2016
A small portion of the Internet has been on fire over the past couple of months, and only now are the flames dying down so we can see what’s lost and what’s been saved. Seldom has a new game received so much pre-release hype as No Man’s Sky, and seldom has a game received so much abuse on its release.
For those who are going No Man’s what here’s a brief recap. Tiny indie games studio Hello debut footage of a space-opera exploration game promising a near-infinite universe to explore with ‘ten quintillion’ planets. The footage – pure Chris Foss 70s cover paintings made digital Magic – and the proposition of being able to explore fully realised alien worlds no-one has seen before, makes the gaming world explode. Sony give the game the full 110% build up and for two years it’s the most anticipated game in development. In the weeks leading up to the delayed release word starts to spread that the game’s initial release may not contain all the features discussed during development.
So on release Reddit becomes the home of a hate-fest populated by videos of angry gamers comparing the pre-release feature list with the actual game features. First world problems to the max. Coupled with more usual early-adopter gripes such as bugs and crashes, this leads to the game being returned in unprecedented numbers for refunds – a development which in turns become a story.
Daughter and I shelled out in the first week for the PS4 version, so full disclosure I have no idea of the extent of the problems encountered by PC users. Hype, fury aside – what’s it actually like to play? I’m now about twenty hours in and have experienced most of the games aspects while still being absolutely nowhere near any kind of ending.
You start in a crashed starship on an alien world. Your first hours are spent savaging resources to repair your ship, survive, and get off world. Once you do, the full beauty and scale of the game become apparent. You can take your ship and go from planet to planet inside a system, then boot up the hyperdrive to go to another system entirely.
Planetside, your time is spent in activities that will be familiar to anyone who’s looked over their kids shoulders at Minecraft. Using a trusty tool you have to mine resources such as iron and plutonium from the planet’s surface. Each planet is full of different rocks, plants and animal life (all procedurally generated too – the Internet is full of ‘weirdest animals from NMS’, featuring chicken-deer-shark monstrosities). Logging these discoveries earns you cash. Alien ruins tells you more about the three races who populate the Galaxy, and trading posts enable you to sell the minerals and artefacts you happen across. Resources are needed for everything – from your suit to your ship to your mining tool. Meanwhile the planet could be full of acid rain, frozen cold or hellishly hot, or bathed in radiation. Predators, particularly at night, roam the wilds. Sound familiar? Minecraft (the mother of all indie game hits) is a key reference point.
Out in space you can travel from planet to planet, and check in at space stations with more aliens, more trading and the opportunity to buy sexier starships from fellow travellers. Pirates spaceships lurk ready to blast you out of existence, though after respawning you can return to collect your preciously harvested goodies at the spot you died at. Don’t like your spaceship? You can repair a crashed one planetside, or buy one from a fellow traveller.
Now, does that sound like enough? There’s a free play option that just allows you to roam the Galaxy at will just discovering new planets, systems and moons. You can rename them – I’m naming all mine after Man City players. Yaya is a desert world full of vast mountains.
If you’re after a higher purpose then there are two sort-of-story options. The ‘path of the Atlas’ is a quasi-mystical journey to unlock the secrets of long-dead alien races, or alternatively you can journey to the centre of the universe and see what’s there. I gather both endings are underwhelming, but NMS wouldn’t be the first good game let down by a lame ending. If you’ve got there, no spoilers please.
The moles verdict? The resource gathering, ship and suit upgrading is immensely enjoyable. It’s grinding – but there are plenty of games, Destiny and Minecraft chief amongst them, where grinding is the key game dynamic. Though the procedurally generated planets often through up duds, you can just boot up the ship and check the next one along. The trading system is pretty simplistic, though those of an intensely mercantile bent can play the market and amass enormous fortunes. Ground combat isn’t really a feature, unless you enjoy shooting animals. Far better to log your animal discoveries – another very satisfying process. It’s a vast and lonely universe out there – you have limited interaction with NPC’s but multi-player is definitely absent.
The space combat has been widely criticised, but I didn’t find it as bad as all that. It’s more Ace Combat than flight sim, and none the worse for that. There is one intensely annoying feature – the need to recharge your shield with resources mid-combat through the crafting menu. That is the only real duffer element of the game we’ve found.
So we love it out here in the sky, if crafting, grinding and upgrading is your thing then come on in. You do trade the immaculately finished environments of a Last of Us or Metal Gear Solid for a sense of infinite freedom and scale. Does standing on the top of a mountain watching the dawn rise on an alien world no-one but you will ever see attract you? Are you prepared to overlook some rough edges for the many unique ideas this game has?
It doesn’t deliver everything in the trailers, and the devs have learned the hard way that it might be better to underpromise and over deliver. If you like your games on rails, if you want a compelling storyline, if you’re all about killing things, it’s not the game for you. But if you ever looked at a Chris Foss cover and thought ‘I want to be there’ this is as close as you can get.
Might suit people who like:
Minecraft and other sandbox games, though it’s hardly GTA in the violence stakes.
Destiny’s sense of scale
Chris Foss’s paperback covers
Techno-optimistic sci-fi: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein etc
Time Thief Rating:Time? Not so much a relative concept as a black hole