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No Man's Sky (PC) artwork

No Man's Sky (PC) review

"A Universe Worth Forgiving Over Time"

No Manís Sky, a game as infamous as it is as impressive for all the right and the wrong reasons. As someone who has followed the game since the E3 teasers, concern and cynicism was all I could take away as a bystander to the insurmountable hype. When NMS first launched, I was not among those who jettisoned into that unknown to be disappointed by manís unlimited capability to dream. It was only years later after listening to reviews by the late Total Biscuit and extensive critiques such as Joseph Anderson, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, and Shammyís reviews did I find myself curious enough to take that plunge. Twenty hours later from the Atlus and the NEXT updates, I finally understand why people love and detest this game, and itís not simply those who have forgiven Hello Games and those who feel deceived (or GOG owners who do not have multiplayer.)

What best describes these two types of people comes from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, The Sands of Mars. In that story, a sci-fi writer, Gibson, is the first of his profession to visit Mars by interplanetary travel and he is the first to write a story from the new experience. On his way, Gibson travels by a cheap cargo vessel full of real astronauts who ride rockets as a living for mundane reasons, and they have become disinterested with space-travel. As you might expect, these people didnít get along and the crewmembers despise his ignorance; the expectations set by author not only from his writing experiences, but also classical works made him initially feel ďthat anticlimax was being piled on anticlimax.Ē However, Gibson becomes rejuvenated whenever he experiences something new such as Zero-G environments; the first look at Earth, space and the stars; and landing on Mars for the first time. Originally, he only planned to stay for a short time, yet after learning more about Martian biomes, native inhabitants and the colonistsí drive for self-sufficiency, Gibson makes Mars his new home. By the end, he has become an advocate for Mars; the astronauts who were long forgotten in this story continue to despise their job as they move onwards to other contracts,

If that parallel is too confusing, the people who love NMS are those wanting to explore a galaxy and to enjoy learning from that experience while coming to understand its quirks, especially the UI that becomes more manageable. Everyone else who is accustomed to space-sims and other open-world titles will find the familiarity to space-travel as lackluster as the features not built around exploration (combat, flying, etc.). To help you decide, ask yourself this question: Do you want to feel that indescribable emotion of staring into the night sky to ponder what it would be like to visit that planet, and then the next evening, after touching down where your eyes led you, looking upwards from the new horizon to find what your home looks like from another world? No Manís Sky is that idea fully realized, and the perspective it brings is something worth the adventure despite any reservations from others.

Space, the Final Frontier; Exploring Where No Man Has (Probably) Gone Before

The first of many questions about No Man Sky is to ask the most obvious, ďWhat do you do?Ē In short, you explore, and everything else contributes to exploration. There are hundreds of mechanics one could talk about such as the upgradable systems, the elemental combinations of craftable items, or the various means of travel from Exocrafts on planets, Freighters for Interstellar fleets, or the Warp and Hyperspace drives from your spacecraft. However, all these systems are mechanical extensions to get you to travel from one corner of the galaxy to the next. Even the narrative missions, tasks from traders or from upgradable stations, and the personal milestones are all smaller goal-posts to get you to wander the stars. Learning all the wonders you come across in your brief exposure to the quintillions of star-systems available is what drives the No Man Sky experience.

Understanding this basis for the game is important as many critics focus on everything but the exploration drive behind the game. Some critics even go so far as to claim that youíre not really discovering things but finding things people have already discovered, which is full of misunderstandings. First, personal exploration is still exploration; it would be tedious to have you map and name everything, so the game takes some of the burden off from you. Second, as proven with the Lewis & Clark expeditions, new settlers coming to new lands isnít any less about discovery because there were Native Americans tribes, so how are aliens contacts different? Lastly, although NMS can be played alone and it was launched only with single-player, exploration is a joint effort. The NEXT update highlights this fact with how much livelier is this universe from spacefarers traveling in and out of space stations; from renegade pirates and freighters traveling in and out of systems, visible from planets; and from the overall density of NPCs models on land or in space. Whether you make this golden age of space-travel its own Gold Rush, its own Manifest Destiny or some Star Trek voyage is all for you to decide.

In addition to exploration, the obstacles to get there are part of the experience. Many people decry the infamous grind as some horrendous black mark, yet it has never felt a problem within my time charting several planets across four star systems. Survival games, or a lite survival experience for No Manís Sky, often get a bad rap from other games when they tax players with their mechanical systems. What separates a game that feels like a grind and what feels immersive comes down to how well does the theme engage you and how manageable is it to keep up with those systems. Like the Long Dark, No Manís Sky makes you live out the fantasy as an explorer just getting by in this universe by learning from it and by showing the universe with respect if you tread into danger. Thankfully, the Normal mode never feels like a grind because there are always several solutions to any given problem, and your solution was you making your own personal anecdote of the journey. (If that is not enough challenge or comfort, then there are the Survival and Creative mode settings to cater to those types of players.) Credits, elemental compounds, missions, and even scanning and uploading new findings are all very diverse, simple tasks and rewards to always keep you in progression towarsd something. That aspect is why this game never feels like a slog; youíre always going somewhere, not retracing your steps.

As Wide as the Galaxy, but Deep asóInsert Your Imagination Here

Now simply making a game with the scale of the universe is not a compelling reason on its own as Daggerfall encompassed all regions of Tamerial, yet it also became a slog to people who werenít allured by its scale. What separates these gamesí scales other than thirty years of progress and different focuses as games is that No Man Sky manages to have a lot more depth displayed through more subtler aspects of the game than most people give it the proper credit.

For starters, letís start with what is perhaps the most pretentious yet most awe-inspiring aspect, the narrative; specifically, how the story of No Man Sky has become the story about No Man Sky. Are you confused yet? Ever since the Atlas update, the entire narrative has been rewritten from the ground up with the originalís subtext as an allegory for the Tower of Babel, which now encompasses the entire narrative. To those unfamiliar with the allegory, the Tower of Babel is a fable to explain why mankind speaks in different languages, which is said to be the result after mankind unified to build a tower to climb up to the Heavens where God cast them down, fracturing their language and all knowledge of their achievements in the process. This subtext has always been part of the game as the in-game language system is learned by the accumulation of lost words and the ancient ruins share stories of ancient wonders and knowledge lost from long ago. However, the Atlus update has interwoven that reading into the base-game storyline of a simulation within a simulation and the final decision you make, and it all comes back to a reoccurring pattern, or more specifically, a reoccurring number, 16.

In most games, sixteen is simply just a number just like any other; however, its constant repetition throughout the relics, Altus messages, and even the gameís coding begins to tell another story. If you want to venture into that rabbit hole you can start by following this owl who can explain it in far greater detail than I, but if you want a condensed version: Sixteen deals with the Tower of Babel allegory from the sixteenth tarot card, the Tower. The Tower (16), usually meant to signal sudden destructive change and represents ambitions built on false premises, comes after the The Devil (15), a Satyr-like figure of materialism excesses which represents the ideal scapegoat, and the Star (17), representing calmness after achieving inner balance and the renewal of faith. What does any of these meanings have to do with No Man Sky? To be brief, anything. You can interpret the literal simulation 15 as the original launch of No Man Sky and Sean Murray being the scapegoat whereas simulation 16, the Atlus build, is where the game has become a metacommentary about its near destruction from its lofty ambitions or the dangers that result from overhyping something and losing the original meaning. The Next update, yet the game still relies on the number sixteen, is that state where most people who wanted to give the game a fair chance now feel a sense of revitalized faith in the product.

How much youíre willing to believe that is the truth depends on how clever do you think are the developers at Hello Games. What I am more interested from No Man Sky doesnít concern its narrative qualities but more so its attempts to portray a realistic look at our universe. Whether this came from extensive tweaks after two years to get the AI or the coding fleshed out, but this universe now carries a sense of cohesion I never knew could exist in an algorithmic universe. For example, one of my first adventures was on a toxic planet that had acidic rainstorms; the fauna and flora were all fungus like creatures that appeared to resist the toxicity of the planet, yet during the storms I noticed the more vulnerable creatures running into open caverns. There was another planet where I noticed herbivores created herds on their own as well as grouping up whenever a predator showed up, grazing on any sources of nearby food. On another planet, I noted how the elements showed up in specific regions where the Ferrite and Carbon was found from trees and rocks on the snow whereas Oxygen and Cobalt were found only underneath in the labyrinthine caverns where eggs were stored next to the toxic fungus to ward off trespassers. There are hundreds more examples I could share, but itís hard to believe all these elements were not created with some hand of God involved.

What astounds me even more about this subtler quality to these planets is there is an attempt to portray real science beyond one expertise. There is an astrophysicistsí logic behind the elements where non-metals (dihydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc.) are found in abundance on the surface of planets whereas heavier elements are rarer and farther down below or from asteroids like gold/silver. In addition, chemistry is also applied here with the ionization of particles through refining them, which creates more condensed but fewer numbers of each atom as well as a distinction between metallic and nonmetallic substances (as well as isotopes that can be unstable like antimatter not contained). Terrains behave in a realistic manner to geology creating all types of formations from geodes, fjords, hills, mountains and canyons or weird oddities of their own. Elements like carbon are usually found on fauna/flora whereas dihydrogen is found in a crystalline form on planets, never just one atom hydrogen as hydrogen tends to bond with itself. These are the few qualities I can parse through my limited knowledge, and none are by no means perfect as asteroids ďmagicallyĒ appear whenever you run out of space fuel as well as the number of living planets is perhaps too high, but there is enough to portray a universe that closely mirrors our own while governed by the same laws.

If You Treat a Game like a 9-5 Job, Then Donít Expect Your Attitude to Change

You may be wondering after exhaustively covering No Manís Sky why I did not wait until I had reached the end of the journey rather than a point where I understood its appeal. The most obvious reason is how repetitive the game is to play, so covering it now versus forty hours later wouldnít make a difference other than me losing my lusteróif a game can keep me excited twenty hours, then that is a consequence Iím willing to risk if it happens.

However, coming back to the comparison between Gibson and the astronauts, reviewers who first covered this game are perhaps a victim to their own duties. Given limited time to give this game a fair shake, the obstructions and the overall mystique that many other games utilize for hype were naively intended to be the No Manís Sky experience. This behavior shouldnít excuse the deception behind this game, yet the progress and the integrity behind Hello Games to commit their time and resources while not charging their customers anything extra should say a lot more about them than anything else. This quality isnít the only reason why people didnít connect with it as there were features missing until years later, but I think this attitude towards completing games as soon as possible for a review should be as responsible as much as the press is responsible for overblowing hype. As with the gameís development and its intended experience, No Manís Sky is a game that asks for you to enjoy the journey at your own pace, not the final destination, as you have all the time to consider what value you leave behind in this universe before it all vanishes away.

Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (June 17, 2019)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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