No Man's Sky was on my "most anticipated" list for 2016, as I'm sure it was for a lot of people judging not only by the colossal sales (here in the UK anyway it's done exceptionally well for a nerdy space game) but also by the wave of disappointment that flooded Reddit and other websites upon its release. It would be a fair comment to say that this was a game that promised the universe, and delivered a much more standard videogame experience, and I'll acknowledge straight up here that a lot of the content included in trailers and interviews never made the cut; some people feel that they were lied to and they've got every right to be disgruntled. Personally, I said at the start of the year that I thought this would either be the most epic videogame of 2016 or a massive letdown, and for me personally... I was completely wrong on both fronts. The final game that released early August was neither of those things and when I picked up a very expensive collectors edition box, which is still ultra-cool by the way, I did not expect No Man's Sky to feel so much like an indie game, but it is just that - an indie game, produced by a handful of people, that was unfortunately picked up by a large publisher (Sony) and hyped out of all proportion. So, now that the dust has settled somewhat and I've poured at an estimate about 40 hours into "completing" the game, what do I think of it?
I ignored the advice of Hello Games, the designers, and decided to read some of the leaked information about the game on Reddit and I'm actually very glad that I did because it tempered by expectations immensely. When I tore open the cellophane and slipped the disc into my PS4 I was expecting a survival-sim exploration game and I got exactly that. No Man's Sky begins with your ship crashed and burning on an unknown world, which is the first planet that you'll get to name and catalogue, for me this was an absolute s**t-dump of a planet that was flooded with toxicity to the extent that I could barely survive outside of my ship for 5 minutes! I named it 'Gorogoth'. This was a very rude awakening but it set my expectations well; I would need to really work hard to survive in this videogame. It turns out that actually the majority of worlds aren't as harsh as my starter, but nevertheless, No Man's Sky mostly concerns itself with the same feedback loop of gameplay for the majority of time spent. You'll pin a blueprint of some technology that you want to build, collect and mine the necessary resources or trade for them in a galactic network, and then build the tech before moving onto the next thing. Occasionally you'll get bored of the system that you're in or you won't be able to find the necessary resources, and you'll move on using your hyperdrive. Many complaints levelled at the game revolve around the inventory management, and it's true that it's a clunky mess, but the small amount of space shouldn't be an issue once you realise that you can easily make money and spend it in various places to expand your exo-suit inventory slots. Hell, every single space station has an exo-suit slot machine!! By the time I "finished" my first playthrough I had an absolute beast of an exo-suit that I never ever filled up, and my spaceship wasn't too shabby either.
I keep using quotation marks around "finished" because really No Man's Sky is an infinite game with no clear end, and feasibly you could keep going and play it forever. However, at the start of the game you're given a simple choice; to either go it alone in a large and unfamiliar universe or to accept the guidance of a seemingly benevolent force called the Atlas. Agreeing to walk the "Path of the Atlas" gives the game more of an objective and narrative, as you are guided along a set path encountering gigantic monoliths in space, 'anomalies' containing recurring characters you can talk with, and even an end goal (although this is never properly explained) of collecting 10 'Atlas Stones', which are extremely valuable trinkets that take up a ton of inventory space. But, don't expect No Man's Sky to be anything resembling a normal narrative-driven game, because it totally isn't, and there's a fascinating article explaining the "end" of the game for those who are interested and confused by their actions when they reach the centre of the galaxy or the conclusion of the Atlas path. My own personal experience with No Man's Sky changed the longer I played, and while at first I was mostly concerned with travelling the path of the Atlas and upgrading my tech, as I unlocked more 'milestones' (the cumulative experiences that you have in the game - such as learning words of an alien language, or walking across the surfaces of worlds) and subsequently trophies on my PSN account I was more inclined to branch out and try different things. I was probably a good 25-30 hours in before I bothered to catalogue all the life on a planet for the first time, something that was both challenging and enjoyable. Even though I've temporarily stopped playing the game, more on that later, there are still some milestones I'm eager to achieve, such as surviving for days on end in an extremely hostile environment or blowing sever-shades of s**t out of space pirates.
To avoid further fanning the flames of misrepresentation all of the screenshots in this review are taken from random shares I uploaded to Facebook (sorry about the compression quality) but hopefully it gives you a good idea of how the game actually looks, and for my money it looks great. The procedural generation that powers the game is extremely impressive and the variety of worlds that it produces is excellent. I've been on icy worlds covered in thick tundra, arid hot rocky deserts, swampy worlds, planets that were mostly ocean with giant gribbly creatures, etc. You have to keep an eye on the type of star system you're travelling to via your hyperdrive if you want to see lush worlds like the once pictured above, but they are out there. The animals suffer from less variation if I'm being honest, and after tens of hours you'll notice plenty of recycled assets that make up the body parts they're generated from; almost without exception there will be a small crab-like creature in a cave somewhere and it will be an *asshole*. Take my advice and just kill any crustacean or insect-looking thing on sight! The voxel-engine that renders the terrain does have some peculiar quirks, such as the odd way elements dither into view, and how mineral deposits will still show as fully intact at a certain distance even though you might have mined them into oblivion, but it's a price worth paying for the scope and scale that the technology affords. While writing about the presentation of the game it would be an absolute crime to not mention the stellar soundtrack by '65daysofstatic', a band I was already a fan of before No Man's Sky but which outdo themselves here and deliver what is, in my opinion, the very best soundtrack of 2016! I picked up the disc and digital release before the videogame even came out and I can very highly recommend that you give the album rearrangements a listen, as in-game the soundtrack too is procedural and very ambient.
I really didn't know whether I would enjoy No Man's Sky based on the early reports coming from Reddit, and the general backlash against the many promises made by Hello Games, and by proxy Sony. I certainly had no idea that it would keep me up playing until 2.30am and hopelessly addicted to the feedback loops it uses and steals from games like Minecraft. But at the end of the day, in my opinion, No Man's Sky is already one of the stand-out videogames of the year, for some good reasons and some bad ones. As it currently stands, I enjoyed the game immensely, and as a small-budget indie game about exploring and surviving on alien worlds, I think it's absolutely phenomenal and scratches an itch that I never even knew that I had! As the space-game-to-end-all-space-games it's currently lacking somewhat, and acts more like a solid framework on which further features can be added and certain aspects refined through updates, which I have faith are coming. Hell, I would even be up for some substantial DLC further down the line, which is when I'll probably jump back in and continue my journey. There have been many, many excellent videogames released in 2016, and No Man's Sky absolutely does not rank among the best of them, however it's definitely one of the most memorable and while not an amazing videogame, it's certainly a great one.