I've been playing No Man's Sky on PS4 for something which I estimate to be in the region of 25 hours, and several thoughts keep returning to me as I play. So I thought I'd get them down.
Good: This is a beautiful game
I don't just mean beauty in how the planets look, though that's a good start. While not every planet is a winner (and in fact most of them aren't) so far I've found sufficient variety that I can bring to mind several planets and recall their characteristics clearly. And many of them are stunning.
I've started to enjoy planets on a purely aesthetic level, landing simply for the photo-opportunity - the above shot, as an example.
The game seems to provide endless lovely views out of the chaos that drives its terrain generation. When I got lost in a cave, coming across this opening wasn't just a relief, but a perfect picture, with those trees looming up against the green sky seeming to point the way to freedom.
It's not just pleasant beauty, though. No Man's Sky flirts with more sinister things beneath its postcard-perfect views, and several locations which I don't want to spoil have been among the eeriest I have encountered in a game.
Not-So-Good: A lot of samey buildings
When it comes to constructions, rather than natural wonders, the variety is nowhere near so satisfying. Once you've seen four or five different sorts of buildings, you've basically seen them all, or it feels that way. I'm no longer surprised by any building I visit, and that's a shame when you consider what they achieved with everything else.
Each space station has an identical layout, and there are few configurations of buildings on the ground, too. They try to keep a feeling of discovery going by putting certain parts of these buildings behind locked doors which are difficult to find the pass to get through. But this feels like an acknowledgement of the problem, rather than a solution to it.
Good: The Animals Are PRETTY GREAT
Once again, when it comes to the natural world, No Man's Sky shines. While you start to get to know the basic forms of the animals, this is the area where I have been most often surprised and it still frequently delights. Rather than talk about it, here are some of the favourites I've encountered.
Not-So-Good: The survival elements feel perfunctory
I'm grateful that this isn't an all-out survival game as I don't think it would work well. But the elements that are there make me wonder why this part of the game exists at all. It's quite minimal, with an easy-to-recharge environment suit protecting you from environmental extremes, and a life support system that is also easy to top up requiring occasional attention.
It's not hard to manage, but it's a constant nag. It occasionally tries to be more interesting by presenting a planet with particularly extreme conditions, but at least so far it has been easy simply to ignore those planets and move on. When presented with a practically infinite number of planets to discover, I feel no great loss for skipping one that is off-limits.
The same criticism extends to the sentinels, a presence of drones (and then increasingly intimidating robots) which get annoyed if you cause too much destruction to the environment. But their behaviour is easy to predict, and it's rare that I'll alert their attention without knowing what I'm getting into.
Again, they attempt to make this more interesting by putting attack-on-sight sentinels on planets with valuable items, but it's never enough motivation to deal with them. Especially because there are many planets with just as valuable objects hidden in caves, which will alert the sentinels when you take them, but you're underground where they can't find you.
All the survival and sentinel elements seem to add up to so far are minor annoyances that are very simple to sidestep.
Good: The alien races are a welcome addition
I didn't think that No Man's Sky lore would excite me very much. I tend to dislike games that deliver their lore through long stretches of text and dialogue, but thankfully this is a lot more clever about it. Monuments will provide you with insight into the alien languages, helping you to communicate with the aliens while providing you with a bitesize insight into their history.
Often knowing more about the aliens will help you not only to understand what they are saying, but how you ought to react if you want their approval. Sometimes this is put directly to the test by special monuments that speak in an alien language and expect you to respond according to the customs of their kind.
This is a part of the game that seems particularly well thought-out, especially in comparison to the survival stuff. The more language I learn, the more lore I pick up at the same time, and both in combination reap rewards. There are so many words to learn that after hundreds of these being discovered I still feel like a novice, and I'm still encountering new kinds of dialogues and fresh lore text after hours. It's one of the parts of the game that keeps driving me forward, and seems like it'll do so for many hours to come.
Not-So-Good: There are some surprising interface blunders
Some of the interface trouble seems like it could have benefitted from additional tester feedback. For example, the way you build upgrades into slots on your suit, multitool and ship is to go into an empty slot and select 'build technology.' This is fine, but it's also the only way of finding out the recipe for building an upgrade.
That's a particular problem with the multitool, because while the suit and ship store materials which can be shifted around, the multitool only contains upgrades. If you fill it with upgrades, therefore, it's impossible to see your recipes for future upgrades without first dismantling one of your current ones to free up a slot. So now I always leave an upgrade slot empty so that I can use it to check in on my recipes, which effectively reduces the number of slots I can use by one.
Also half-baked is the recipe 'pinning' system, designed to help you work towards a particular upgrade by providing advice in the corner of the screen regarding the materials you need. But it only shows you one material at a time, and you can only focus on one recipe at a time, so it rarely actually provides you with useful information. Just let me build a shopping list of resources I'm currently interested in!
In other areas, the interface is just sluggish. When you achieve a milestone (they're like in-game achievements), you lose access to all controls aside from moving around, and it seems to take forever, especially if you were in the middle of something.or under attack. And when activating a dialogue or a waypoint everything just seems to take a second or two too long. I know this is supposed to be a chilled out game, but please - I've got rocks to mine.
Other issues spring from an overcommitment to the 'always keep moving' philosophy of the game. I get it, you don't want me to hang around in the same place or be backtracking all the time. But would it really kill you to let me set a marker so I can return to a location after leaving the planet? Or to provide an easy means of plotting a path back to star systems I've already been to?
Good: The feeling of being pleasantly lost
In a way, the lack of navigational tools does help. It definitely goes a bit too far, but sometimes I like to walk for miles and wonder where on earth I got to or realise my ship is far further away than I expected. This is never more effective as when I find a huge cave system and end up forgetting the way I came in, but it's a feeling that permeates the entire game. I want to mention the sense of scale I feel from the game later, but here I just want to talk about the feeling it all gives me.
Everything, from the way I only have scraps of language to the way I only have the vaguest hints towards a goal make me feel pleasantly lost in this world. I don't know what I'm doing, or even really where I'm going, but the view is stunning and I seem to have all the time in the world to figure it out.
The first thing No Man's Sky did to me on PS4 was crash, which didn't bode well. After that it has been reasonably stable, but I still have had far more crashes than are comfortable on a console, including one concerning episode where I couldn't start the game until I restarted my PS4.
Nothing to take you out of a feeling of being pleasantly lost quite like suddenly being wrenched into an error screen. I do hope they get the various technical issues that seem to be present both on PC and PS4 figured out soon. I hate that they could overshadow the best the game has to offer.
Good: That sense of scale
I hinted at it before, but aside from feeling lost in the size of No Man's Sky, it does a good job of conveying the awe of such a scale. From the initial loading screen which flies you past constant, countless stars to the way even the tiniest moons open out beneath you with their much larger planets looming on the horizon, you are constantly reminded that this place is big.
I wish I could go into it even more because there are certain aspects of the way that the game conveys scale which border on spoilers, but for now I'll just say it really works.
Not-So-Good: Planets draw in...weirdly.
I'm not sure how this is on PC on the highest levels of detail, but at least on medium settings and on PS4 the sense of scale is at least somewhat hindered by the way the game adds in detail. Quite often the planet can completely change appearance from one moment to the next.
What I thought was a greenish planet turned out to actually be mainly red when I got closer, and then an area that looked like an island turned out to be water. An area of dark rocks, suddenly on closer approach is covered with bright sand, and so on.
It's all to do, I realise, with the way the formulae that generate the terrain is interpreted at various levels of detail, but it's too often a jarring and inelegant effect. I never feel like I could, for example, spot an island from space and decide 'I want to go there' and have any confidence it'll actually be there once I'm closer to the surface. But perhaps it works better on higher settings.
So that's it. Those are my thoughts so far. I don't really have a profound conclusion to come to, sorry about that. But it's no doubt a fascinating game, one not without significant flaws but also one that is bound to keep me occupied for a good long while.