The overhype of No Man’s Sky is particularly hard to dissect even now due to how many different pieces of it there were. Hello Games did objectively claim there were features in the game that were not present at launch. Some were extremely small, but others were quite large, such as the inclusion of multi-player. And many media outlets did contribute to the building excitement by expounding on the revolutionary procedural generation tech and making high claims about how the game would provide infinite replayability and was industry-defining. However, fans anticipating the game also filled the gaps of their pre-release knowledge with a lot of their own speculation and hopes for the game. This all led to a disastrous launch with thousands of unhappy fans, even going so far as for Sony and Valve to bend the rules of their refund policies. There were pockets of fans who enjoyed the game for what it was, but they were easily drowned out in the ensuing uproar that dominated the online discourse around the game.
For many games, especially ones from a studio the size of Hello Games, this would be the end of the story. But, this was not the case for No Man’s Sky. Instead, Hello Games began a years-long process of incrementally updating the game until it lived up to the fan base’s original expectations, and has even continued far beyond that point.
Large update after a large update has led to them adding new features such as multi-player, fleet management, base building, and a whole lot more, and it was all in the form of free updates and without any microtransactions anywhere to be seen. It is one of the greatest redemption stories in the industry, and has allowed the game to build a dedicated fan base that has contributed to the online consensus of the game seemingly growing to be that “it’s good now.”
So, naturally, I grew curious to see just where No Man’s Sky is now as someone with no prior experience with the game whatsoever. And now, after visiting countless planets, building sprawling bases, and managing a massive fleet of spaceships, I can report back on what exactly it is like to start playing No Man’s Sky in 2021.
Stage One: A Whole New World(s)
Starting No Man’s Sky is as overwhelming as it is exciting. Players are instantly dropped into the cold, uncaring universe with little guidance. A simple block of text gives you a small nudge towards the main storyline, and then there you are. Alone on a hostile planet with a handful of meters to manage and a clunky UI to navigate.
Having to maintain an oxygen supply, keep the hazard protection charged, charge equipment and rebuild a starship all while navigating the new environment is a lot to keep track of, and there is very little in the way of tutorials to help the player along. However, underlying it all is an excitement for the adventure ahead. The first planets that serve as the tutorial are some of the worst players are likely to come across while playing, but even then they still spark the imagination.
This is doubled when the player is introduced to the base building mechanics. While not as in-depth as some other survival games on the market, there is a lot here to like. There are plenty of pieces to research, an intricate power system to manage, and, perhaps the game’s biggest boon to the base building, the ability to scout out the perfect vista to build in on countless planets. No Man’s Sky only really begins to disappoint upon traveling to your first space station. An ominously large cube, the station is pretty breathtaking as you approach.
But then, your spaceship lands inside the hangar in a parking spot designated by a lit-up circle, and you cannot help but realize that…it’s empty-vacuous even. The station is little more than an unbelievably large space completely void of character, design, or life. The idea that anyone could actually live in these spaces is laughable at best. They are so completely void of just anything at all until it resembles the shell of a spaceport rather than an actual one. There is little more than some empty benches, a handful of stalls that act as stores, and a couple of different alien species loitering about.
It is these different alien species that make up the last piece of discovery on offer here. While exploring planets players find monoliths with strange markings on them, each one granting a word from an alien language when they interact with it. The process of piecing together the languages act as a great parallel to the player’s own growth during this early stage of the game. As players piece them together they begin to feel more at home in the universe, they gain access to the stores on the station and can actually talk to the aliens around them as they become integrated and begin to fully understand all the mechanics on offer. In the grand scope of the experience it is a small addition to the game, but what it does to help integrate and immerse the player into the world is really smart and effective.
Stage Two: Wearing Thin
At this stage, after a couple of dozen hours in the game, No Man’s Sky‘s core gameplay loop has worn paper-thin. The continuous diversion from what you actually want to be doing in the game to gather resources to charge your basic systems repeatedly has become frustrating at best and crippling at worst. The search for oxygen, carbon, and uranium seems never-ending, and is, at the worst of times, almost enough to discourage exploration because such an action carries with it the obligation to refill all of your various systems. This is worsened by the inevitable familiarity that is so hard to avoid in procedurally generated environments.
Common parts of animals and peeks behind the curtain of the algorithms that play God in this universe start to detract from the experience of going to a new planet. There is little as disappointing in this game as traveling to a new planet just to find a bunch of assets that you’ve seen multiple times before mashed together, causing the new environment to blend together with others you’ve seen and feel terribly familiar.
However, at this stage there is still ample fun to be had. In this stage the player has had time to establish themselves. They’ve built a nice base with plenty of utilities and amenities. They have at least a few different ships with their own personal style, even if they don’t have too many different functional differences between them. Maybe they even have started engaging with the freighter system, which is a massive boon to the experience.
Not only does running a freighter add an engaging meta-layer to the gameplay, but it carries with it a great feeling of growing to be a large influence on the universe of the game. It also is just fun and satisfying to run while feeling cool enough to satisfy anyone’s childhood desires to run their own star destroyer.
By this stage, the player has also most likely tried the game’s multiplayer, either by having an experienced friend who was more than willing to jump in or by convincing a friend to give the game a try. Like most games, multiplayer adds a lot here. Not only does having a friend tag along help liven up the inevitable time spent grinding for resources, but being able to instantly share the cool discoveries you come across in the galaxy makes them much more rewarding. There are some drawbacks with the transferring of the visiting player’s progress to their own game being a bit confusing and not always working as intended, but for a game that is nearly entirely composed of downtime and quiet exploration, having someone around to talk with and share the experience is a great addition.
Stage Three: Take It or Leave It
At this stage, players will divide into two factions: those who love the game’s core loop and those who have burnt out on the lack of driving force behind their gameplay. For those who love the game, this will most likely be their favorite stage to be in. They will have ample resources, a fully kitted out freighter to trek around the galaxy in, and a fleet of different ships to cruise around in.
This allows the player to engage with whichever aspect of the game they want to with ease. They can go to countless planets to explore with few distractions diverting them away. They can run trade routes to continue amassing wealth until they are an intergalactic Scrooge McDuck. They can pour their efforts into finding beautiful vistas and designing intricate bases for each one like a real estate mogul. Or, they can restart the game on one of its various difficulties, including a permadeath mode for players that really want to risk it all.
The other players, on the other hand, will have grown tired of No Man’s Sky’s relentless grind and lack of meaningful endgame content. Engaging with No Man’s Sky at this stage requires a lot of self-motivation, and it is completely understandable that many will not be able to find further goals to move towards. This is especially understandable when considering that the endgame here is more or less repeating the content and activities the player has already done dozens of times, just slightly different thanks to a procedural generation system giving it merely a new gloss of the paint. It would help immensely if the procedural generation of planets also changed the mechanics and systems that the player would interact with, ala a roguelike, but how it stands, it does little more than change the appearance of what you interact within the same ways you have before.
This is really where, as of 2021, No Man’s Sky sits. There is a lot of potential and excitement as a consequence when first starting the game. Some of the potential is realized well, but there are quite a few disappointments throughout as well. Whether or not the successful mechanics outweigh the less successful ones is up to the player.
For the type of player that loves exploration and finding beautiful vistas, or for a player that does not mind a bit of a grind, No Man’s Sky has a lot to offer. For other players, it may be enjoyable for a couple of dozen hours and that is it. And for other players, the clunky UI, unending resource grind, and other small annoyances will simply be too much to get beyond the first troublesome planets.
Regardless, the tale of No Man’s Sky is one of a successful redemption that is a fantastic example to all of the other games that have launched in such a disappointing state in recent years. But it also stands as a warning to keep one’s expectations in check when anticipating an upcoming game because No Man’s Sky is a special case that stands out in this industry for a reason.