Crashing Into The Void
HIGH Deciphering the last little bit of the AI language.
LOW More than two dozen crash-to-menus.
WTF I’ll just go take a dip in that hundred-degrees-below-zero water now…
I would have never guessed that I’d play a console game less stable than Halo: The Master Chief Collection. That title was notoriously rough on launch and crashed every few hours, providing no end of hassle as I attempted to review it. However, Halo can now rest easy as No Man’s Sky has raised the bar for crashing and for being a fundamentally-broken console experience.
As a fairly traditional sandbox crafting/survival game, No Man’s Sky attempts to breathe life into the genre by moving its setting into the stars and assigning players a concrete goal: get to the center of the universe. For a while it does a fantastic job of streamlining some of the annoying mechanics associated with that type of game. For example, there are only a few different types of resources available, all of them can be easily harvested right from the start, and crafting recipes are learned rather than guessed at through experimentation. It’s designed to be an easier, almost casual crafting/survival experience, and as long as the game sticks to that, it works well.
The game’s universe is intriguing and its mysteries just accessible enough to keep players eagerly searching for the next bit of lore that will expand their dictionary. This is key, because the game’s developers made the decision to almost exclusively use language-based puzzles as the main way of interacting with NPCs and gaining new technology blueprints.
Sprinkled across the procedurally-generated surface of the universe’s planets are numerous outposts and workstations belonging to alien races. Interacting with them will bring up three possible responses—the twist is that the text is in the language of the alien being interacted with. At the start of the game the player will be forced to guess randomly, but as they pick up bits and pieces of language here and there, the interactions become clearer until the player is able to breeze through conversations and operate even the oldest and most obscure technology.
Unlocking these secrets was my favorite part of No Man’s Sky, but it’s a dubious honor since so much of the game is fundamentally broken, ill-conceived, or unfinished.
A big hook of the experience is the ability to walk around an impossibly huge planet, get into a starship, and then fly to another in just seconds, but the game’s engine just isn’t up to displaying the process with acceptable visual fidelity. Players flying down from space can expect to see a surface transform from a single blocky texture into a series of multicolored splotches, until they finally touch down and see the beautiful rolling hills that make up every landscape. Things look fine when walking around, but pity anyone trying to navigate a planet by air—the land quickly transforms back into a mess of pixelation and pop-in.
While there are ridiculously huge numbers of planets in No Man’s Sky, they all suffer from one of the game’s biggest selling points—procedural generation. Every world’s geography tends to be rounded off and lumpy, as if the lines of code determining its creation can never let anything go more than twenty feet or so without making a small hill. There are no mountains, plains, or valleys… just a lot of rolling terrain stretching off in every direction. Every now and then a few distinct geographical formations will appear, but by and large, the only thing differentiating one planet from the next is the color of its soil and the type of plants that have been seeded across it. With those plants being drawn from a pool of maybe a hundred different types, even they start looking familiar quickly.
The animals that populate about half the planets are also troubling. While tracking them down and scanning them can be an entertaining diversion, actually trying to find every type on a given planet (a good way to quickly make a decent amount of money) is needlessly frustrating. There’s no rhyme or reason to where animals are on a planet’s surface, and players are offered no clue as to what they’re looking for apart from a series of question marks on a checklist. Adding insult to injury, flying animals can’t be scanned at all unless players shoot them out of the sky and examine their corpses.
The spaceships in No Man’s Sky are yet another example of questionable design since they reveal the game’s economy to be completely broken.
Every time the player meets a spacefaring alien, they can offer to trade ships. Ships can cost anything from 500K credits for a basic model all the way up to dozens of millions of credits for a better one. In traditional games, players would gradually work their way up to bigger ships by buying and trading in intermediary models, but this is impossible in No Man’s Sky since the player’s ship will always have a trade-in value of zero. Purchased a ten million credit ship and want to trade it for a fifteen million credit model? Better mine enough gold to cover the whole pricetag. Even worse, players aren’t allowed to transfer the tech upgrades they’ve crafted to their new ship!
Even the story in No Man’s Sky is a disappointment. Players are tasked with following a jump-path to a series of space stations run by something called “Atlas” where they get direction to the next space station if they’ve unlocked enough ‘milestones’ earned through exploration and combat. I was able to get through this plotline despite the fact that a bug caused the game to stop tracking some of my progress, so by the time I got to the end, I was short on answers and a reason to care about the rest of the game. Sure, I could always abandon the now-unfinishable Atlas path and keep heading for the center of the universe (the game’s original goal, remember) but when I crunched the numbers and figured that doing so would require a hundred trips through ship-crippling black holes or five times as many conventional hyperjumps, I decided that whatever lay at the end of my journey wasn’t worth the trip.
On top of all this dissatisfaction, it is adding insult to injury to say that I averaged roughly one crash-to-menu every hour and a half until I surrendered. I wish that the experience made putting up with the crashes worthwhile, but it doesn’t.
No Man’s Sky offers an intriguing universe that players can explore in the only the most plodding and frustrating ways imaginable. I was genuinely curious about the lore and backstory that Hello Games constructed, but the mechanics of getting at those secrets are so poorly-conceived and badly-implemented that I can’t justify the time it would take to solve its mysteries. Perhaps when all of the bugs have been ironed out and some of the intended features put back in, the infinite space of No Man’s Sky’s will be worth exploring. As it stands now, it’s not a universe worth inhabiting.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Hello Games. It is currently available on PC and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains fantasy violence. Honestly, the T rating might be a little harsh. There’s a complete lack of blood and gore as the player battles robots and hunts randomly-generated beasts. The closest the game ever gets to more mature content is in a few of the alien conversations about cowardice and theft, as well as some encounters with deadly space fungus. Really, this is more like E10 territory, and even younger teens will be fine playing it.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are subtitles to all of the game’s conversations and story sections. The only relevant audio cues are warning when shields or life support systems have been completely depleted, and there are always onscreen indicators ready to offer the same information.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.