Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC
Note: No Man's Sky is a giant game, and patches and updates will likely change aspects of it in the coming weeks. We'll update this review as needed as we keep playing.
No Man's Sky is a tough game to pin down, even setting aside all the misconceptions and crossed wires in the game's pre-launch hype period. It's not a multiplayer game by any stretch, it's not a colonization game, it's not a space dogfighting game, and it's not a game where you should expect to go visit your friend's world to help him mine resources. Some of these elements are in the game in small degrees, but none of these things are really fleshed out.
So what is No Man's Sky about? Exploration. Period. The end. Exploration is the game.
The best way I've found to explain the No Man's Sky experience to people who haven't played it yet is by comparing and contrasting it to Minecraft. If you're the kind of person who enjoys Minecraft because of the creativity it allows and the experience of building a giant, complex base, you should know that No Man's Sky doesn't offer anything like that.
But if you have ever enjoyed a game of Minecraft where you didn't worry about building bases, and instead just explored as far as possible, constantly pushing into new territory, wondering at the procedurally generated terrain, searching mountains and caves for amazing sites and rare resources, improving the gear you carry and leaving temporary shelters behind you, never to be seen again...then No Man's Sky might be the game of your dreams.
No Man's Sky is an "exploration simulator" in the same way other games are "walking simulators," because it took something that is often a side feature in games (exploring procedurally generated maps) and made it the star of the show. The entire experience of No Man's Sky is designed to push you towards the horizon, figuratively and often literally. From the game's very beginnings, where you're dropped on one of the game's untold billion planets with a crashed ship and a world full of resources to harvest, the player is constantly lured onward, via a scanner pointing towards unexplored locations, deposits of minerals, or alien relics.
Once you learn a bit more about how the game works you may decide that you want to focus on specific tasks and types of resources to gather, and you'll make notes to keep yourself focused (the game could really use some kind of resource tagging system in the style of Fallout 4), but there will still likely be times you lose yourself to the sense of adventure, following strange beasts in an effort to document all of them, or seeking out new words of alien languages to learn, or diving deep into oceans or caves in pursuit of treasure.
Before you know it you're a five-minute walk from your ship, which doesn't sound that long until you realize how rare it is a game ever makes you just walk for five full real-life minutes in order to get someplace. It's crazy and frustrating at times, but then you look up at the richly colored sky and see spacecraft streak across it, and you just shrug your shoulders and start mining a tower of gold eight stories high, because it's all just so damn fun to look at.
Everything about No Man's Sky that isn't directly tied into the drive to explore and see new amazing things is shallow and not particularly interesting, and your enjoyment for the game will depend on how much the pure exploration aspect appeals to you. The game's best features are all, when boiled down to their essence, serving that exploration drive. You mine resources to improve your ship, suit, and multitool. Your ship gets you to new planets. Your suit lets you explore those planets more easily and effectively on foot. Your multitool helps you mine resources faster and fight off the game's robotic sentinels (more a nuisance than anything else on most worlds) so you can keep the cycle going. Everything comes back to exploration.
Mine, Warp, Repeat
Whether or not you choose to plot a course for the center of the galaxy in No Man's Sky, you'll likely establish some kind of travel pattern that works for you. Some players will be completionists in terms of identifying all the life forms on each planet (which rewards you with a substantial amount of "units," the game's currency), while others will shuttle resources back and forth from a suitable world to a nearby space station, raking in money that can be used to buy a better ship with more inventory slots so you can carry more resources and get more money...and you should get the idea by now.
For me, I set upon a vague goal of following "Atlas" interfaces, space relics which, like everything in No Man's Sky, are defined in vague, grandiose sci-fi language that doesn't really amount to much of a story, exactly, but which often feels cool and important. In order to keep reaching these interfaces I focused for the most part on crafting fuel for my warp engine, which was a multi-step process involving a variety of resources. Once my engine was full I'd warp jump as many times as I could, barely spending a few seconds in a new star system before jumping to the next one. When my engine was dry I'd spend more time in a system, visiting a couple of nearby planets and a space station to get what I needed to make more fuel. Then I was warping on to the next world, having named planets and animals that I will likely never go back to see again (but maybe you will, if the game's promised shared-world online services start working the way they're supposed to soon).
If these gameplay descriptions sound repetitive that's because No Man's Sky is a repetitive game. Once you've played for 20 hours or so you'll be harvesting the same resources, building the same items, having the same kinds of conversations, and seeing vaguely similar plants and animals with rearranged colors and bits. As astounding as the game's procedural generation is (and it is astounding, don't let anyone tell you different), you also get to see the "edges" and limitations of the game more often than feels right. The game would greatly benefit from more of almost everything -- more terrain features, more types of buildings to explore, and more technologies to develop that actually change up the gameplay in meaningful ways.
No Man's Sky will be a polarizing game because of its mixture of the wonder of exploration and the tedium of the gameplay. If you're the kind of person that gets frustrated in games when you don't have a larger purpose or goal to work towards, then No Man's Sky will likely confound you. The game never provides very good answers for "why" you do anything, but it knocks the "what" you are doing out of the park. You're exploring, and it's awesome.
Only skin deep?
No Man's Sky is a flat-out beautiful game. It doesn't have the most advanced or realistic graphics on the market, and the graphical transition "fuzz" effect you get on the PS4 as terrain shimmers into focus doesn't make for a great impression, but when you're walking around an alien world or flying around a star system, activities which make up 90% of your time in the game, everything is colorful and bizarre and shocking and alien and just mind-blowing. I've never played a game where I felt such an urgent need to take screenshots. You can basically stop the game at any point, remove the HUD, and you'll likely have an image that could work as an album cover for an experimental electronic music DJ. Combined with a totally fantastic score that adapts to what you are doing, it's jaw-dropping on a regular basis.
But there are limits. There are problems. There are rough edges a plenty. Even the best of explorers aren't immune to frustration, and No Man's Sky will deliver it at times. I experienced four crashes over my first few days with the game, and while I never lost any substantial progress, that's always a pain. The game is also missing aspects that would dramatically improve the exploration at its core, like some way to make a map, or set waypoints, or more easily return to places you've been before.
The game's combat is rudimentary, both on foot and in your ship, and while it can be excused as not the real focus of the game, better damage indicators and more strategic fights would add a lot to the experience. The constant need to shuffle items in your inventory becomes tedious as well, and the endless quest for additional inventory slots (through suit upgrades or saving up money to buy new ships) doesn't really end up coming across as fun, rather than a bit of a chore.
I'm also torn on the lack of base-building of any kind in the game. Part of me wants to say that base-building is totally against the spirit of the thing, since No Man's Sky is about what's new and what's next, not about settling down. The trouble is that some of the planets I found were just so stunning that I wanted a reason to stay on them for longer, and some kind of game mechanic to support settling down, if only for a while.
The lack of real multiplayer looms large for some, but doesn't bother me at all. No Man's Sky is a lonely exploration experience, and that's what I liked best about it. The game would be downright ruined for me if I saw other players harvesting resources on my planets or blasting away at my asteroids. The vague idea that somebody somewhere someday might land on a planet I discovered is cool, and it's something I think of every time I spend way too long coming up with a "clever" name for something, but that's more of a nice idea than anything tangible. I haven't seen anybody or anything previously explored during my time with No Man's Sky, and that hasn't affected my enjoyment of the game one bit.
Fall in love with the horizon
The moment I really feel like I "got" No Man's Sky was after a couple days of playing. I was on a planet, doing what I'd done for hours on end before: wandering around and mining. I was extracting carbon from a really cool-looking giant fungus thing, and I stopped my mining laser before I took the last bit of the resource. Completely mining a terrain feature destroys it, removing it from the map entirely. But I didn't want to do that, this time. The giant fungus thing looked awesome where it was, all crazy and colorful and weird, sprouting from blood red soil and surrounded by grey pillars of iron that I also left intact.
I decided at that point that I would do my best to leave the coolest-looking stuff undestroyed, because in No Man's Sky "looking cool" is just as valuable as a resource as plutonium. Whether or not I value a particular planet in No Man's Sky has as much to do with its procedurally generated look and feel and color palette as what minerals it has to offer. Few, if any, games have ever offered a similar experience.
People have talked about how it "only takes 30 hours" to get to the center of the galaxy and the "end" of No Man's Sky, and if you go into the game with this kind of "charge to the end" mentality you're not likely to enjoy the experience very much. It's perhaps useful to remind people at this point that Minecraft became one of the biggest games in the world despite not having any sort of ending at all for years and years, until finally getting one that most players just ignore. Because a game like Minecraft or No Man's Sky is not about the destination. It's about seeing what's over that hill, on another planet, or in the next star system.
There's a famous quote from mountaineer George Mallory, when he was asked why he would want to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there." If that answer strikes you as profound and beautiful, go buy No Man's Sky. If it seems dumb and unsatisfying, go play something else.