I stand in the shadow of a yawning cave mouth bristling with brightly coloured crystals and glowing mushrooms. The sky is emerald, the hills are teal. A scarlet starship squats, smoking, on the ground. A polite voice tells me that my life support is low. The planet is Peonidas. The game is No Man’s Sky.
Super-hyped, super-big, super-stylish. It’s one hell of a set of adjectives to live up to, but the small team of Hello Games appear to have pulled it off. For the uninitiated, No Man’s Sky features the largest in-game world ever created, one spawned entirely by procedural generation (or, to the rest of us: maths). Because of the game being created by maths rather than every detail being painstakingly sculpted by artists, it can be mind-bogglingly big. 18 quintillion planets is the figure that has been quoted almost to death since Hello Games first announced the game in 2013.
But 18 quintillion is one of those numbers that doesn’t really process in your head until you get off-planet for the first time. You see that world you were just on as it is, a small ball of rock in the vastness of space, and then you open the galactic map and your sense of scale is blown away for a second time. The galactic map is a field of endless stars stretching on in every direction and every single point of light on it is an actual place you can visit, a solar system with planets and moons and space stations. It’s only there, with all those stars right in front of you, that 18 quintillion starts to sink in.
No Man’s Sky has no conventional plot. If you wanted, you could just travel endlessly through the stars. There are enough of them that even if you visited one every minute of your life until you died you would barely have made a dent into the total number. It’s easy to think that you might get bored out there in all that space. But that’s where Hello Games have been clever: instead of that driving linear plot that many gamers are so used to, you are presented with this universe and it is entirely your choice as to what you do in it. You could explore forever. You could be a trader. You could be a pirate! You could pick a planet and settle there permanently. These are planet-sized planets, after all. It’s this complete freedom – and the fact that you never get locked into any of these choices – that keeps this game interesting in terms of gameplay. Swap your ship, craft some different technology for your exosuit, and you could effectively change your entire experience of the game. I currently play as a mix of scientist and trader, but I look forwards to swapping to play as a pirate in the future.
you are presented with this universe and it is entirely your choice as to what you do in it.
This near-infinite world is also one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a game. This is a sci-fi that rejects the colour black. Every planet is painted in rich colour, from the rainbow world of Bismuth to the scorching scarlet wasteland of Pyrraluna. The space between them glows with pink and green and gold. The starships, the bases, the space stations – every aspect of this game is gorgeously coloured and instantly recognisable as belonging to its world. You can point your camera in pretty much any direction and the game will look good, which is a real triumph when all of its astonishing landscapes were generated by maths rather than by artists.
Let’s not forget the animals. For me and for many others, one of the most memorable pre-release clips featured the giant space dinosaurs Daplokarus. While many of the animals you will discover will be small or scuttling or downright weird (I found an antelope-like creature with no visible head or neck, and another nightmarish one that I named Mr Scissorhands for exactly the reason you might imagine), it’s the giants like Daplokarus that will keep you going from planet to planet in search of them. They, along with the beauty of the planets and the potential riches they might hold, keep you travelling endlessly on through the game’s immense universe.
It isn’t perfect, but I didn’t expect it to be. This is a new game by a tiny team, and the sheer scale of its universe always meant that there would be some problems. I agree with other reviewers on the size of the inventory being painfully small, and I’d like to see more life in the oceans. I’d also like to see better texturing on the ocean surface, improved starship controls when the boost engine is engaged, and a fix so that I can actually sprint forwards in a straight line rather than having to go everywhere on a slight diagonal. All these teething problems considered, though, this game is still an absolute delight. I’d describe the feeling of playing it as a cross between Minecraft and Spore – but this is like the Greatest Hits album of both of them. You get the endless exploration and huge world of Minecraft, only bigger and better looking and in space. You get the science and the trading and the fighting of Spore, but again it’s a case of bigger and better. This is definitely the case with the dogfights, which could get easily repetitive on Spore but always seem to be fun in No Man’s Sky – especially with your early starship and its puny weapons.
The question I see crop up most often with this game is ‘what do you actually do’? I think the answer to that exposes just how linear most games are. We’ve been trained to expect one option and one option only, channelled along just as we are at the workplace and with our hobbies and our choice in friends. This game throws those expectations out of the window by presenting you with this universe and asking you to make your own adventure out of it. This game is, in effect, presenting you with a playground, and I for one was all too happy to put my adult training in a box and revel in it.
Featured image © Hello Games