No Man’s Sky review

No Man’s Sky is the sort of game to reward you with a better class of handheld mining laser than, say, the ability to soak up minerals from orbit. It’s a design ethos that has stalked me across light years, through black holes, and yes, across the 18 quintillion planets permeating the Euclid Galaxy (or my slice of the sphere, anyway).

No Man’s Sky begins with our avatar — an unnamed, unheard explorer — trapped by circumstance. The situation in question: a crashed ship, dwindling life support, and a desperate need to both mine and craft.

Yes, No Man’s Sky is at its heart part of that ubiquitous family of “survival” games. At the start, your only objective is to find enough carbon, iron, and other essentials to repair your trusty but broken vessel. It’s a good first objective, because it introduces you to exactly what you’ll be doing from start to finish throughout No Man’s Sky — foraging minerals to solve hidden problems.

Said problems usually exist inside of menus. There are a lot of menus in No Man’s Sky, and you’ll spend a lot of time looking at them. Whether it’s to shift rocks from one inventory to another, to rename a newly discovered outpost/planet/star system, or to adjust your gun-shaped mining tool with newer, higher numbers.

It’s actually that last part where I began to take umbrage, and continued to do so across light years of seamless digital space.

Your typically successful survival game includes crafting as gates to new potential. Whether that’s riding a dinosaur, or building a house. No Man’s Sky has no such equivalent. Not really. Your ship is your ship, and you won’t be building a cooler, bigger, or better one.

Oh, you’ll upgrade of course. Just in a way that puts neither your stamp on the vehicle — or the structure of No Man’s Sky — to good use. New vessels are bought and found, either splashed down on new planets or in the hands of the very sparse alien populations colonizing the galaxy. They come in a dozen prefabricated shapes and sizes, but the only thing that really matters is the size of their cargo holds. The reason being that, throughout the game, inventory management is your most tenacious enemy.

The best, most reliable way to earn said improvements is to just buy them. These are typically bigger than crashed ships, and if you don’t like them, you can wait for another fellow traveler to drop by with a better offer. It saves you the trouble of repairing the crashed specimen, too, which often means dropping rare and expensive crafting materials better used to power your journey. Though you’ll often need to feed traders a stipend of carbon fuel to make them talk, it’s a much cheaper price to pay.

Besides fuel, and other consumables, all you really craft in No Man’s Sky are upgrades — be they for your ship, your avatar, or your “Multi-Tool.” The problem, or at least one of them, is that upgrades share inventory space with the many materials you’ll need to make the trek from your starting planet to the galactic core (your final mission, should you choose to accept, in No Man’s Sky).

Say you want better life support, ostensibly to explore further and gather materials for longer. You’ll need to sacrifice one of between a dozen and a few dozen of the same slots that hold those minerals to do it.

These invisible upgrades, which provide better statistics but no new avenues to interact with the admittedly impressive universe, are the only evident reason for this to be a game of hunting and gathering. Yet using them actually impedes your ability to do just that. It’s… Not a great loop.

My own experience improved drastically once I broke atmosphere on my starting planet. Here the truly impressive underpinnings to No Man’s Sky can stretch their legs.

Those 18 quintillion planets, for instance, aren’t gated by obvious load times. From one planet-sized ball of very pretty dirt, to the rainbow void of space, and back on down the action doesn’t stop. I’ve made the journey so many times now that I don’t even stop to wonder at it. Yet it continues to give the game a sense of constancy that grounds me as a solitary constant as the stars whip on past.

Like most human beings, my goofy brain has an incredible capacity to make the extraordinary seem routine. That’s nothing new. That No Man’s Sky can use that fault to keep me feeling like a solitary constant in a universe… Well, it’s something special.

Yet, after making my first interstellar warp, I had to consider what needed to be done next. The answer, as it turned out, was to plant myself world-side again, with all the terrestrial bothers that come with: life support, inventory management, fuel, grinding rare minerals for more currency to… Do it all again?

As my finances improved, so did my inventory space, as well as my level of enjoyment. Although I never felt like I had improved, nor had any of the planets I sucked dry and abandoned. Planets in No Man’s Sky are littered with colonists, and the ancient ruins necessary to decipher their languages. Yet I couldn’t make anything permanent — or even visible — like them. All I have, and all I seemingly ever will, is my mining laser, depleting life support, and the promise of more to come.

This lack of permanence didn’t just make me lonely. It made me feel frozen in time. Even the ability to build, say, a mining probe to drop from orbit would only make me feel like a better class of parasite.

And there are wonders out there, oh yes. The further you get into No Man’s Sky the more you’ll find. Black holes, sentient maps, dinosaurs that poop plutonium when you feed them just the right mineral: they’re out there if you have the time and patience.

I’m not sure a lot of players, for whom No Man’s Sky might be the much-hyped vanguard to an army of open-world survival games, will. I’m not sure I’ll have the patience to go much further myself. My time with the game has gotten me curious about more traditional — and previously intimidating — products like ARK and Rust. Well, maybe not Rust.

Right now I’m more interested to see how Sony and developer Hello Games continue to evolve and update No Man’s Sky — assuming they do at all. Just this year Fallout 4 has shown how a different kind of DLC can improve a not-so-robust crafting system. If ever there was a game begging to let me build robot companions, and  tame alien creatures it’s No Man’s Sky.

Perhaps that’s not the sort of sandbox Hello Games is going for, but with the enormous, beautiful promise their product holds where I’d like to see the game go from here. If not, maybe someone else can make it happen.

Verdict: Yes