I am having a tremendously good time playing No Man's Sky [official site], but I'm really getting annoyed by No Man's Sky. Such is the dichotomy that's central to this most peculiarly hyped of indie projects, that it is at once magnificent and mundane, breathtaking and benign. It is very much what everyone feared: a massive concept with no ideas to go in it. And yet it seems, from my first couple of days with the PS4 build, to be enough. I had to tear myself away to write this, what with a few quintillion stars I've still yet to explore.
If you're still amongst the very many who aren't sure what the game actually is, it's this: an open universe, 1.8×1019 solar systems, each with explorable planets of varying flora and fauna, biome-types and technology, and you. You begin on a planet with a crashed ship, and need to nip about blasting rocks and planets with your multi-tool's mining beam, gathering elements necessary for building components to fix your vehicle. So is it a survival game in that sense? No, not really. Once the ship's working, you can zoom about on the planet, and eventually up into the sky. Fix some more bits and bobs and you'll eventually get the ability to travel between stars, at which point you can opt between three paths: searching for the centre of the galaxy, searching for some weird deity thing, or just arsing about to your heart's content.
Each of the two scripted paths (scripted in the loosest sense - the planets you'll explore on the way are procedurally generated by your arrival, unique to you unless someone else stumbles upon them after you've been there and named everything) are so woolily explained as to offer me little interest in pursuing them. They are, in the loosest, most fragmented sense, an effort to create a notion of direction for the player in a might-as-well-be-infinite playing space. But so far the result is so slapdash and half-arsed as to be genuinely annoying. If you're going to tell me to go somewhere, at least have a reason beyond telling me to go somewhere else.
But the process of going somewhere, the experience of approaching a new planet filled with new bonkers animals, is what grips. As you fly around a planet's surface you'll spot geologically interesting places, perhaps a glowing cave entrance, maybe the ruin of an ancient religious relic, or some hastily constructed metal buildings housing one of three alien races. You land nearby, get distracted by some lootable crates, curse your limited inventory space both in person and on your ship, then juggle elements and items about to try to make some room, once again promising yourself you'll finally spend the hundreds of thousands of units (the in-game currency) you've earned on a decent new ship, rather than madly saving up for an ever better one. Oh yes, the base - you go toward the door, find it's locked, so blast it open with the boltcaster on your multitool, the one you've specced up with new tech found elsewhere, created with the ever-growing variety of elements and equipment that's overflowing your inventories, and attract the attention of the godforsaken sentinels. It's a gun battle now, switching your fire onto them, trying to take them out before they call reinforcements, or perhaps focusing on the door while getting blasted in the back so you can get inside and hide from them.
Get in, get safe, and solve a really dumb puzzle to discover the location of a forgotten ruin on the planet with secrets to divulge, then suck all the carbon out of the plantpots, sell your loot via a device on the wall that connects to an off-world market, and head outside again to... well, you've no idea yet, you've not stumbled on it.
All that is what makes No Man's Sky amazing. And all that is also what makes No Man's Sky so vacuous and annoying. Let's go through all those things I genuinely enjoy (apart from the sentinels), and point out their enormous flaw:
"Bonkers animals": You know those kids games where you can randomly put together a giraffe's head on an ostrich's body on a frog's legs? That's all it is. Randomly cobbled creatures from a pool of Spore-like elements, resulting in mostly very stupid-looking animals that have things like horns for heads. Not horns on their heads. Instead of heads. It is impressive that they "evolved to match the planet's ecosystem" as we were told eighty-million times during the last three years of hype. I'd have thought the not-able-to-eat HORNHEAD (as I named him, in caps) might not have made it as a species.
"Geologically interesting places": Are caves. Each planet has a distinct look, again thanks to randomisation + procedural generation, so maybe the sky's blue, or it's pink, or it's green - trouble is, I've played far too many video games to be overwhelmed by an odd coloured sky. In the end you either find caves, or you land on ground. And the PS4's draw distance is absolutely atrocious, meaning that most of the time anything interesting to land near hasn't finished loading until it's too late and you've flown past. I'm desperately hoping this is better on PC.
"Ancient religious relics": Are very inefficient one-word dictionaries. One of the nice elements of the game is constantly gathering word-for-word translations of three different alien languages, such that when you talk to them (to trade, ask for help, or occasional plot moments) you can understand incrementally more of what they're saying. Lovely. But for some reason, the scrappily thrown together tale of some ancient god thing means that these relics offer some ambiguous nothing line of rubbish, and then a new word. You'll likely have found more words on the walk up to it.
"Metal buildings": Okay, here's my biggest complaint with this game I'm desperate to get back to. Every single planet in the entire universe, all 18 quintillion of them, has been visited before you. Not by another player - your great-grandchildren will still be finding new planets - but by one of these three alien races. They're already there, willing to offer you some units, or some health, or a translated word, sat seemingly waiting for you on the offest of off chances that you might pop by. Further, every single planet in the entire expanse of space is policed by these sodding sentinel things, who appear to have some ethical problem with my mining for iron, because do too much of it when they're hovering around and they'll shoot at you. God knows why they thought this was a good idea, but they're a permanent irritant in a place that's meant to be your own. You're not discovering anything. You're just turning up afterward and deciding what everything's called - from solar system to rock name - like some lunatic 15th century explorer. "This plant? It's called Simon! And the planet, it's called Wobblybottom 7b! Sorry, you weren't using it, were you?"
"Limited inventory": I think they got a little too carried away here, what with just how much stuff you actually need to be carrying to get on, let alone the extra valuables you'll want if you're to make any decent money to get anywhere. I think they could have been more generous, a few more slots, but I can't deny it's fuelling my desperation to find the ideal slightly bigger ship.
"Specced up with new tech": This is perhaps the most egregiously dreadful aspect of NMS. Rather than getting better ship components, or better guns, or better life-preserving equipment, you get the ability to augment what you've already got. The only actual way anything gets better is by its number of slots, either ship or multitool, thus allowing you to add more of these augmentations. But to build a new one you need a spare inventory slot, and then work out what's better than what you've already got via it's tiresomely obfuscated text descriptions, rather than just holding up both and the game putting a number in green or red. God how I wish the game would put numbers in green or red (well, it does, but that's for relative worth of items sold in different markets). It's ludicrously fiddly, although I expect this to drastically improve when I'm not trying to do it all via the boxing-gloved hands of a PS4 controller.
"Godforsaken sentinels": I mean, what happened? They thought, "This game is far too fun. Let's add a ubiquitous interfering flying nuisance that can kill the player for the crime of chopping up a rock."
There are many, many other niggles, not least these incessant appearance of "Milestone achievements", where rather than politely popping up an achievement like "Met 15 aliens" in the bottom right of the screen, it instead screams this banal information at you across the middle of the screen, pulling in widescreen bars above and below, and in doing so takes away your ability to play properly. Er, yes, thanks for letting me know that I've translated 30 words, but I'm kind of busy? It's the sort of thing that rather bellows of not having had enough real human hands on it before release.
And yet, it's got me. It's got me not because of the massive scale of the thing (although anyone who pretends to be anything other than blown away when swooping the game's camera through the 0.0000000001% of stars you'll ever see (I made that number up) is a dangerous monster), but because of the minutiae, wanting to improve my equipment, get that ideal better ship and then immediately begin saving up for the 1.5m unit beauties I've seen docking in spaceports, learn more vocabulary so I can have an idea what these very explory aliens are saying, get better defences so sentinels are more of a waspy nuisance than a sharky threat. I have found myself embracing these tiny incremental steps in a game world so big that all the players in the world will never explore even a significant fraction of what it offers. And I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that there's equipment to be gained that will let me make vast swooping journeys far faster than I currently can, and that feels like something to dream about as I go.
It's a shame that after so long, after so many delays, what I come away feeling is that No Man's Sky needed another year to really work out what it was for. That existential crisis is ever-present in all you do, all the space imaginable, and no really clear idea of what to use it for. If anything, I feel like it should be the universe into which a thousand other game narratives are released. And yet it's a space in which I'm enthralled, simply by the simplicity of it. I've no idea how this will pan out, what I'll find after more than two days in there. And certainly no clue how different the experience will be when I restart it all on PC tomorrow.
That's crucial for us, and I've deliberately not talked about the very problematic crashiness of the PS4 version here since that's someone else's problem. My motivation here has been to get a grip on what's actually here, what it really offers. After the weekend I'll return with a proper review of the PC version, and hopefully some larger conclusions after a lot more play.
No Man's Sky is out on PC on the 12th August, for $60/£40.
Disclosure: Our Alec did some last minute writing for No Man's Sky. He won't write about the game for us anymore, and we won't speak to him about it or at all.