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Critical Consensus: No Man's Sky

Mixed first impressions from reviewers coming to grips with space exploration game

After years of hype and no small amount of mystery, No Man's Sky is finally out on the PlayStation 4, with the PC version due later this week. With no pre-release copies of the game sent to the press, it will still be a few days before review scores start to hit, but that didn't stop most publications from running first impressions of the game based on a few hours of play.

There were a couple recurring themes in the write-ups. The one thing that seems to be universally agreed upon (and perhaps the one thing most people already knew about No Man's Sky) is that the game is gorgeous, with an incredible diversity of planets to explore and a bafflingly epic scale. And it's good that the screenshots and videos are providing incredibly flattering pictures of the game, because some of these early impressions pieces are not.

In writing up his impressions for IGN, Dan Stapleton began by answering one of the biggest questions people had about the game: what does the player actually do in the game? As he put it, the answer is "About 100 different simple things."

"If you've ever played Minecraft, Terraria, or anything similar, you've done this routine before: gather simple resources and turn them into more refined resources."

Dan Stapleton

"This is an enormously complex game, but it gets there by means of networking together many different mundane tasks," Stapleton said. "So far that's been as amusing as it generally is in the genre of survival crafting games, but at this point No Man's Sky has done little to set itself apart other than the impressive spectacle of flying from one impractically huge world to another without obvious loading screens between them."

After beginning the game stranded on a planet with a ship in need of repairs, players harvest materials like plutonium, aluminum, nickel that will help them get to the next planet where they will need to do more of the same.

"If you've ever played Minecraft, Terraria, or anything similar, you've done this routine before: gather simple resources and turn them into more refined resources."

Polygon's Phil Kollar also noted the scavenging and survival underpinnings of the game, which was an unpleasant surprise considering he had expected a more pressure-free approach to space exploration.

"[T]he many ticking timers that make it a survival game - the draining life support, the hazard protection on planets with harsh environments, the wear on your mining tool and so on - add just enough tension to be, well, kind of annoying," Kollar said, adding, "In these early hours, I am enjoying the parts of No Man's Sky that are purely exploration. Studying weird alien lifeforms and scanning them in to a growing database, for example, really helps get across a sense of believable biology on planets, even as I'm aware that they're all procedurally generated.

"The problem, then, is that those parts are so constantly interrupted or put on hold for the sake of a survival loop that just isn't very fun. Shit, I'm almost out of carbon, which means I need to wander over to some local plant life and slowly cut it down with my mining tool. Damn, I'm ready to leave this planet but my thrusters are low on power; time to wander mindlessly until I happen across some plutonium."

"No Man's Sky is an impressive technical feat, but its enormity may come at a cost."

Peter Brown

Both Stapleton and Kollar acknowledged that they might very well come around to Hello Games' vision of what No Man's Sky is and should be, but it appears some other game journalists are already there. Over on Kotaku, Jason Schreier provided a diary of his first couple hours with the game. While he won't be reviewing it for the site, he seemed more positive on the title than Stapleton and Kollar, but noted how important it is that people go into it with proper expectations.

"[S]o far I'm having a blast," Schreier said. "It's a lovely, serene space adventure that was clearly designed for people who love exploring. Don't expect this to be the space game of all space games-it's clear from the beginning that there are a very set number of things you can do-but if you're into chill exploration games, this will probably be up your alley."

While some reviewers might be ramping up their appreciation of the game the more they play, GameSpot's Peter Brown could be seeing the opposite effect of extended playtime.

"Even a few hours in, however, there comes a point where the loop of seeking and acquiring gear begins to sag, and the vastness of the galaxy sinks in," Brown said. "With an unfathomable universe beckoning, and hundreds of thousands of light years separating you from the intended finish line at the center of the galaxy, it becomes far too easy to question the meaning of your pursuits. No Man's Sky is an impressive technical feat, but its enormity may come at a cost. What does it mean to be alive in a world where everything is driven by algorithms, and your existence is solitary?"

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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