I’m not greeted with a loading screen, at least not in the traditional sense. Just a title and a first-person view as I coast through a sea of star systems. Then a screen of white, with a prompt to “Engage.” My vision clears, and I look around to find myself crash-landed on a random planet with my ship behind me and the voice of my suit’s computer to keep me company. This is the beginning of my first eight hours of No Man’s Sky.
The desolation is the first thing that hits me when I’m granted the freedom to look around. Several of my ship’s vital systems are offline and though I’m on a planet full of deposits and lifeforms, it’s still very much a wasteland; an irradiated one, in my case.
This acts as the tutorial level, introducing you to the concepts of mining, gathering, repairing and management of inventory. There’s prompts on the screen to help you out, but for the most part you learn by doing in No Man’s Sky. You have to learn what elements fuel your systems or which combination can create crafted items. All under a gentle pressure of failing hazard protection.
My first instinct is to run around, though I never really stray from my ship. I’m still on a leash here, but it’s a long one and I intend to tug on it as far as I can. My wandering yields a variety of new creatures that dash away, squealing in fright. I find several types of rock formations that yield different minerals. After a few minutes, a storm rolls in that rains irradiated precipitation on me, speeding my hazard protection’s decay. I find a cave and take shelter, and sure enough I’m shielded from the storm and my hazard system recharges. Survival and inventory management are the first and hardest lessons I’m taught.
After about 10 or 15 minutes, I have my ship repaired and I’m off-world. I simply aim my ship to the sky, hit the boost and soar out of atmosphere and into space. It’s as seamless and as beautiful as I had hoped, though the music composed by 65daysofstatic drones in a series of electronica grinds instead of soaring along with the moment.
Pressing the down directional button brings up the Galactic Map and slams home the absolute scale of things. An area with three planets nearby is condensed into a single ball of light. Zooming out pulls those myriad balls of light together and on and on and on. It’s both harrowing and exciting at the same time, being the drop of water in an immense ocean of stars. No Man’s Sky really did make me feel like I was in the middle of a blank frontier.
Walk Your Path
As desolate as things seemed, I wasn’t utterly left to scrounge. The opening steps of the game guide you along, but they also don’t chastise you for deciding to go your own way. I follow the guiding directions, but once in a while I veer off-course to head to a planet that’s near my primary objective. I have the tools I need to play at the basic level, but completely ignoring them would mean I would miss out on getting a Hyperdrive to jump from star system to star system. It’s a path, but it’s not a hallway.
My excursion leads me to a monolith where touching stones grants me the knowledge to learn an alien language word by word. The monolith refers to Atlas, and the whole game’s universe seems to be littered with the remnants of whatever this entity is, like books scattered around the galaxy from some cosmic Library of Alexandria.
It’s at this point that I notice my steps are continually ghosted by Sentinels. They hover nearby, buzzing around on some random mission. They run sensors over random plants. They occasionally turn to me and run their sensors over me. They’re benign enough, but curiously unnerving. It’s not clear initially what they mean to No Man’s Sky, but they do see fit to enforce some unwritten laws of conduct. Firing on a plant to harvest carbon engages a nearby probe to open fire on me. The whole thing strikes me as something to note and also to not really trust.
This pathing ultimately leads me to the tools I need to enter hyperspace. From here, the leash begins to loosen further, and I’m able to learn hard lessons as I gleefully jump to new stars.
A Tough Teacher
More than a few times, I run in to different sorts of trouble. I overfill my packs and have to sort out what to lose in order to get the plutonium I need to refuel my engines. I locate a new stranded spaceship and excitedly move my cargo in, but don’t realize until too late that its systems need to be repaired, forcing me to decide what valuables to keep and what to lose. I coast along to a space station and I’m attacked by hostile ships who blow me out of the sky.
Punishment in No Man’s Sky is firm but fair, choosing to annoy instead of beat you down. Being killed means you have to return to the spot you died in order to claim your dropped items as well as needing to take a moment to repair a damaged system. It derails you from whatever your chosen goal is just long enough without feeling like it’s harassment. Die again however, and whatever inventory wasn’t recovered is lost forever.
This series of lessons furthers my progress. I have learned a variety of Gek words. I’ve found what resources to look for and determined the ones that are valuable to survival or profit and which ones are wastes of inventory. I purchase a new ship from a Vy’keen who landed on an outpost I’ve docked at. I never have problems with ship-to-ship combat again.
Each new milestone I earn, each victory I achieve, I push the envelope further and further. I stray from the original path for a couple of hours, enjoying the ability to now apply my learned lessons and feel truly free in this sandbox. There’s requirements one has to follow in order to survive and keep various systems running, but the sense of progress from shipwrecked loner to a planet-hopping explorer is engaging. Gameplay is not exactly mind-shattering, but the whole package of No Man’s Sky weaves together incredibly well.
After a while, I finally decide to continue on the path to discover what this Atlas thing is. I’m awestruck.
Choose Your Destiny
A couple new steps on the path and the leash is cut free. I’m given a choice of three directions. It took me at least five or six minutes to make my decision.
No Man’s Sky is a game of choice. It’s a title that eventually lets you live in a universe where the choices of a pioneer are possible, along with all of the consequences those choices have. Each experience does seem to be different, leading to moments where you land on a world that ends up being full of angry creatures or arriving on a dead planet and forgetting to have enough fuel to get off-world, leaving you in a desperate search for resources.
It’s stupendously easy to tear No Man’s Sky down to brass tacks. Planets aren’t experiences that have been crafted, just the same gameplay with shifted variables. Ship-to-ship combat is as random as everything else. Taking minutes to get to a location is boring. Admittedly it does take a certain person to appreciate this game, which makes the desolation of the whole experience that much more potent. Imagine how much fun this would be if like-minded people were able to come together and pool resources or share experiences!
Despite those criticisms, the impression that No Man’s Sky has made is a potent one. It’s not as earth-shattering as many may have thought it would be, but it is a game-changer in every sense of the word. It’s a technical marvel, a compelling sandbox, as fun or as boring or as involved as I want to make it.
I can’t wait to see where my journey leads next.
Related: Article, Early Impressions, Hello Games, No Man's Sky, Sandbox, Sci-Fi