There are few video games that have generated as much controversy in recent years as No Man’s Sky. It released to middling reviews, and a significant backlash from fans – any number of whom felt they had been misled by the game’s marketing. At the end of the day, what had been hyped up as a potentially powerful new IP for the PlayStation 4 became a widely divisive title among gamers, with a reputation that still lingers.
This week we’re seeing the one-year anniversary of the game’s release, so it’s a great time to look back. Not just as where the game came from – and lessons that can be learned from it – but where it stands today.
One of the biggest difficulties is that its premise makes it a rather niche game; something that’s much easier to see in retrospect. Creating a massive universe for space exploration based on procedurally-generated worlds is a golden idea, and it’s not a surprise that Sony latched onto developer Hello Games the way that they did. Unfortunately, what Hello Games had in mind (whether it be a vision that evolved, or was miscommunicated to fans during the months leading up to release) proved to be rather different than what a number of players were hoping for.
In turn, Sony – perhaps hoping this would be the next Minecraft – threw much more weight behind it, treating it almost like a AAA title, and slapping a $60 price tag on it.
It’s unfortunate that all of this occurred because had it instead been released with little fanfare as an indie title for $20, it likely could’ve become something of a cult hit.
And in the months after its release, Hello Games wisely went on the down-low, promising further updates and patches to come, while remaining scarce with the details. Meaning that they worked hard to offer free improvements and additions to the game, and made certain that there couldn’t be another misunderstanding before such content was released.
So coming back to it a year later, just what kind of game is No Man’s Sky?
How Much Has The Game Changed In A Year?
It’s worth stating up front that it still has niche appeal. Much of the core mechanics remain intact. Although Hello Games has offered a variety of interesting changes, this is still very much a game based largely on the exploration aesthetic. One that might not necessarily appeal to a lot of gamers.
There’s a bit of an old-school science fiction vibe in it, with a heavy dose of Metroid Prime. Though there are other aliens encountered along the way (patches even having increased that number) this is still, by and large, a solitary experience. One where you may spend hour upon lonely hour traversing an alien world in search of resources, lifeforms, ruins, or even nothing at all. Where the wandering of that lonely, alien world is done purely for its own sake.
Another contentious part of the game is the lack of cohesion in terms of narrative, structure, or substantive conclusions for larger goals. You can travel with the intent of reaching the center of the universe – but to do so with any rapidity is like skipping a stone above the surface of a lake when there’s a whole world teeming with adventure down below the surface; and even then, learning what lies at the center of the universe is hardly what the game is about. Similarly, there are ruins and messages left behind regarding the histories of alien races and the sentinels, but it doesn’t come together much in any way.
In a sense, this is one area in which the game is rather like Minecraft, in that it’s up the gamer to decide on their purpose, because the game itself isn’t going to create it for you. That sense of discovery and destination are done more for the sake of mystery; because at its core, that kind of exploration is exactly what the game is about.
Put another way, it’s about the journey. The destination is almost entirely irrelevant.
The Gameplay Has Interesting New Additions
The gameplay still holds up as ever, with some minor changes made. For instance, blueprints once existed in abundance, but now have a higher degree of scarcity and exist behind a paywall of Nanite Clusters (Nanite Clusters are now found easily on almost any planet). In the same vein, there are still some superficial bugs that seem as though they should be an easy fix – like the triggering of icons, the way they clutter up the screen, and how the player has almost no control over their appearance (something that’s been somewhat mitigated by the game’s lovely new Photo Mode).
The two biggest changes have come in the form of base-building, and three new modes (on top of the original Normal Mode): a higher degree of difficulty in Survival Mode, a Permadeath Mode, and a Creative Mode that gives unlimited resources in terms of blueprints, funds, and resources with no kind of hazards or threats.
Base-building in particular is a new highlight, as you gradually build upon your initial structure, recruit armorers and architects at space stations, receive additional blueprints, and then go off in search of strange new resources to move the process even further along. It also includes the ability to explore your basehome-planet using an exocraft vehicle that makes on-planet traversal considerably faster.
In a similar vein, there’s also now an option to either hijack or purchase certain freighters when you’re in the right star system, which adds another layer of collection, storage, and so forth.
It's A Great Game That Might Not Be For Everyone
No Man’s Sky can be a difficult game to describe, because one’s level of enjoyment will likely depend on what one is looking for in a game. Though there’s resource-collection and building to be done, it’s largely optional, and much time can be spent merely wandering from world to world. It borrows the basics from Minecraft, but collecting and building isn’t as pivotal to this game.
There’s not a lot out there to compare it to and it demands a certain degree of patience for the slow and quiet moments of a game. The joy comes not from shooting down star ships, chasing down aliens, or reaching a particular destination – but instead from lazily drifting in the lower atmosphere of a world, watching the colors change depending on the position of the sun, the excitement in discovering some unique and strange new alien so radically different from anything you’ve seen before. Or the thrill of stumbling upon multiple hazards (sentinels, storms, elemental effects) and reaching safety at the very last minute.
More than any other, No Man’s Sky is a game that asks the person playing it to live in the moment. To pause and simply enjoy the beauty of the now. And it does so wrapped in a light Minecraft ethos, and rooted in a deep love of classic science fiction. It will probably never be a title for the masses but for those who enjoy the game, it is a singular - oftentimes incredible - experience.
Are you a fan of No Man's Sky? Sound off in the comments below!