Enjoying No Man’s Sky is ultimately not a matter of overcoming punctual issues; it is actually dependent on whether or not one will embrace a kind of gameplay that depends on emergent goals and wandering through a cosmos of strange procedurally generated beauty
There is no other way to put it: the release of No Man’s Sky was one of modern gaming’s most prominent disasters. Before the title arrived, developer Hello Games, aided by Sony Interactive Entertainment in matters such as marketing and general communication with the public, promised to deliver quite a lot. To put it simply, the project, designed by a team of no more than twenty professionals, intended to reach for one of the industry’s most coveted holy grails: the idea of a nigh infinite world to explore, which would be achieved by procedurally generating a universe that would contain as many possibilities as the hardware’s mathematical capabilities would allow. In essence, then, No Man’s Sky aimed to be so large that no player would ever be able to see all it had to offer. It was, in a way, a virtual representation of our cosmos, featuring scales the human brain cannot comprehend and an amount of planets that would demand about twenty digits in order to be counted; all of that, of course, would come to the home of gamers around the world neatly packaged in a software.
Naturally, the discourse produced a nearly unparalleled level of anticipation; a wave of expectations that those working on the project failed to control for a myriad of reasons, ranging from naivete to lack of interest. As such, when the time came for No Man’s Sky to be actually experienced in its full extent, the bubble burst. Yes, it was undeniable that the title had delivered an almost endless universe; after all, it had over 18 quintillion planets divided into a smaller but still obscene amount of systems, and the transition between outer space and the ground was stunningly seamless. Yet, that was pretty much all the game had going for it, because under that hood, the wrinkles were many. Players as well as critics were quick to point out that the product was buggy; that the procedural generation was lackluster, yielding worlds that were either too messy or too similar; and, ultimately, that the journey as a whole was aimless. Because, sure, the universe was vast; however, there was not much to do in it.
The aftermath of release heavily contrasted with the noise that came before it, because – initially – there was a whole lot of silence from Hello Games. And given many people had paid good money to experience No Man’s Sky, the result was backlash, with the event pulling the curtain on particularly ugly aspects of humanity as a whole, be them gamers or not, with the team behind the project even being on the receiving end of death threats. That could have been the closing chapter on a disappointing arch: the studio could have taken the cash they had earned and run far away from the mess. But proving No Man’s Sky was, as he had originally stated, a passion project for him and his colleagues, creator Sean Murray chose to rescue his brainchild and restore the goodwill people originally felt towards Hello Games instead. To do that, he stood by his belief that No Man’s Sky could be great and started working on moving it in that direction.
There is a long discussion that can be had about how applauding the redemption arch of No Man’s Sky is the same as giving developers props for delivering a lackluster product and then fixing it via various updates. But the fact of the matter is that in the whopping six years that separated the game’s original launch from its 2022 launch on the Switch, the title slowly transitioned from disappointing to thoroughly satisfactory via more than thirty updates, which have implemented widely varying features, such as new modes, fresh mechanics, missions, enhancements to the procedural generation, timed events, and more. And while it is true that, due to hardware constraints, the version released for Nintendo’s console arrives without a couple of these additions (namely, large settlements and the multiplayer component), No Man’s Sky for the Switch still qualifies as a must.
It all begins with the player character, usually referred to as The Traveller, waking up with a heavy case of amnesia on a random planet of an arbitrary system that is located somewhere in a corner of the universe. Two variables of the initial equation of No Man’s Sky will be unchanged, though: firstly, the starting world will possess an atmosphere that is harmful; and secondly, the protagonist’s ship will be damaged to the point it will be unable to fly without big repairs. Therefore, with that table set, the game will engage in a brief tutorial to tell players how to get out of that pickle. They will have to activate a scanning visor to pinpoint the locations of multiple resources; they will have to employ a mining beam to gather elements such as oxygen and sodium from the environment, which will keep their suit’s life-support and shield systems working; finally, to fix their ship, they will employ a device called terrain manipulator to extract minerals from deposits as well as construct and fuel a portable refiner to transform the raw goods into more useful stuff.
From that point on, once the ship is off the ground, players are essentially free to make their own path within the universe of No Man’s Sky, but those who appreciate a larger degree of purpose will be happy to find out that the game is not completely aimless: the amnesia event actually serves as the starting point for a full-fledged main quest; one that puts the protagonist in the middle of a series of strange events that eventually force him to make his way towards the center of the universe. It is true that, to a certain point, it is fair to say the adventure can be a bit repetitive regarding the nature of its steps. Since there is only so much that can be done with planets whose surfaces are procedurally generated, the journey has a lot of landing on worlds and either talking to a character or gathering resources to build specific items. Nevertheless, besides being interesting from a narrative standpoint, this core path is also ideal for bumping into events and learning about what one can do in No Man’s Sky.
And this guidance is more than welcome because this is a game with many moving parts. According to the developers themselves, No Man’s Sky is an experience constructed around five pillars: exploration, survival, combat, trading, and base building. These elements, be it on their own or in the multiple ways in which they interact, form a rich tapestry of emergent gameplay; meaning that goals and the motivation to pursue them should naturally appear as players spend time in the universe, without them having to be told what to do. Truthfully, it is a setup that will not work for everyone, because some people out there simply need a stronger kind of push to fully embrace a game. To these, the main story might fulfill that requirement; however, its twenty-hour length – though satisfactory – does not hold a candle to the full potential of value No Man’s Sky has to offer. After all, there is a lot to do out there.
In terms of exploration, one can go back to the shocking and very real number of 18 quintillion planets. Grouped in systems that usually house up to six worlds, maybe a few moons, and a space station, they are alluring for multiple reasons. Their environmental differences are wild: planets can have landscapes that are lush, fiery, frozen, desolate, oceanic, radioactive, weirdly haunting, and more. Their fauna and flora, which are equally procedurally generated, can also hold strange surprises. At last, the resources they contain vary greatly, with some specific materials only being encountered in certain kinds of planets or in systems that have a particular type of star. Therefore, to anyone who has an itch to just see what is out there, No Man’s Sky is an infinitely full plate, and it allows players to wear the hat of an explorer as it rewards them with money if they scan, catalog, and upload the minerals, plants, and animals they find on a planet. To boot, given the game generates – via a fixed random seed – the same universe to all players, this uploading feature even offers some interaction, as one can end up in a system or planet that had already been discovered by someone else.
The survival aspect, meanwhile, comes into play because almost nothing in the universe of No Man’s Sky is free; with the only exceptions probably being the ship’s standard thruster and its photon canon. Everything else requires the usage of resources, including, ironically, the vital oxygen provided to the protagonist through the suit’s life-support system. Survival, then, is not just a matter of not being killed by the wide range of violent weather phenomena that plague the surface of many planets, though that is certainly a huge part of the component; it is also about maintaining a supply of elements and materials that will be enough for one to fly their ship, fuel their portable refiner, use their mining beam, and perform other tasks. Needless to say, this often goes hand-in-hand with exploring new or familiar planets.
As for combat, given No Man’s Sky has a pretty large universe, it goes without saying that there are plenty of bad dudes out there, and players can choose to fight them, join them, ignore them, or do a little bit of all these options depending on their mood or current situation. Up in the sky and out in the emptiness of space, combat generally entails dogfights against pirates that either are being targeted by authorities or that appear out of nowhere looking to steal something the protagonist has in their ship. Sometimes, however, if they choose to engage in outlaw activities, players might be the ones doing a bit of privateering, since they can raid freighters that are carrying valuable goods. On the ground, meanwhile, the main menace will be the robotic sentinels, which are present in different degrees of aggression in most planets. These mysterious entities will chase players and call reinforcements if they either catch sight of The Traveller or if a valuable resource is extracted. Using some ammunition to shoot them up is, of course, an alternative that will yield interestingly unique materials, but given sentinels tend to just escalate the conflict to more powerful units if they are attacked, the best option to escape their grip is getting away from them.
All of these gameplay components are, naturally, underlined by trading, because while resources can be extracted from planets and more advanced items can be crafted with them, players can also buy these assets as well as sell the ones they have acquired and have no need for. Interestingly, though, and once again using its procedural generation, No Man’s Sky makes the whole universe feel alive and unique by making each system be in a specific economic state, which in turn will affect not only what is available to be purchased but also the value of goods. Trading, however, involves more than acquiring items, because, especially when visiting space stations, The Traveller can engage in many other sorts of commerce, as players can also buy ships, which are rather expensive; charts, which will pinpoint locations on the surface of planets that ought to have interesting goods; recipes, which will allow them to craft advanced items; and countless types of upgrades for their suit, ship, and multi-tool, which is the name given to the weapon that serves as a mining beam, terrain manipulator, and gun.
Among the items that can be acquired, one type in particular is linked to the last pillar mentioned by developers: the base building. As part of the main quest, every player should at least construct a tiny base made up of wooden parts, a teleporter, and a generator to keep it powered. However, No Man’s Sky features a gigantic tree of base parts that can be unlocked little by little, paving the way for anyone to use their imagination to put together a home – or many homes – among the stars to call their own. To those who are creative, this is a gameplay component that ought to bring great satisfaction and require time, since any piece that is constructed naturally demands materials; and the whole process feels rewarding because it is possible to create some pretty dazzling and unique bases. To those who are more practical, however, there is also value in the system, as bases can be staffed with aides and employed as automated mining and farming units, therefore generating very good income.
Although those five pieces make up the meaty core of No Man’s Sky, they are not all that there is to it. Players can also build and administer their own fleet, which can then be sent in expeditions. They can visit the mission clerk located in every space station to engage in a literally endless amount of sidequests. They can work towards improving their reputation with the races and guilds that dominate the universe. They can map trading routes, which will help maximize the profit of the goods they are trying to sell. They can use their ship’s hyper drive to jump between systems in order to look for new planets, be it because they want to see something different or because they want a specific landscape in which to setup a base. They can discover what lies on the other side of a black hole. They can work towards learning the lore and languages of the three main alien species, since what they say is initially completely incomprehensible. They can invest on exocrafts that facilitate ground exploration. Or they can simply go into the game to roam around and chill, because there is something calming and beautiful about the fabric of No Man’s Sky.
In the midst of the game’s extreme vastness and boldness, it is not surprising that a few problems come to the surface. The Switch’s version indeed looks glorious and ranks as a major achievement, and the whole package boasts absolutely top-notch presentation, from the art style that is inspired by science fiction art of the 70s and 80s to the mostly procedurally generated soundtrack, which comes up with some very atmospheric tunes. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that there is some heavy pop-in on the surface of planets, with some elements sometimes not loading until they are right in front of players; other small issues that can be chalked up to hardware are the relatively long loading time that occurs when jumping between systems and the stutters that happen from time to time when speeding up the ship.
On the gameplay front, meanwhile, other complaints can be made. Given how much there is to do, the game would heavily benefit from a more extensive list of achievements. Sidequests could use a little more variety. Dogfights are fun, but they are way too simplistic for their own good. A few major objectives of the main story could have replaced procedurally generated small bases for more interesting handcrafted buildings. Space stations only come in two formats; and although it can be argued such standardization has practical reasons, because players will know where to find merchants and recruitable characters, a little more flexibility would have benefited the experience, since visiting them gets repetitive pretty fast. At last, there is a serious problem when it comes to finding the target location of sidequests; given the galaxy is borderline infinite, if players happen to move very far away from the point where they picked up the mission, it can be impossibly hard to find the destination in the galactic chart, making abandoning the quest the only option.
Some may say that compared to the incomprehensible scale of the game, its problems are as insignificant as humans are when standing in front of the universe’s nigh infinity. It is a fair statement, but enjoying No Man’s Sky is ultimately not a matter of overcoming punctual issues; it is actually dependent on whether or not one will embrace a kind of gameplay that depends on emergent goals. Because, sure, there is a relatively meaty main quest in the package, but mostly it will be up to players to choose their path in the cosmos and engage with the dozens of mechanics at their own pace. Therefore, if the concept of virtually inhabiting and wandering through an immensity filled with procedurally generated beauty sounds appealing, then No Man’s Sky, in its updated state, is an excellent realization of that concept. If, however, one sees excessive freedom as a synonym for aimlessness, then the game will be a technical achievement that will not hold much interest.