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Wot I Think: No Man's Sky

Carrying the weight of the universe on its shoulders

No Man’s Sky [official site] is better on the PS4. Those aren’t words I wanted to write. The PC port feels more like a drag-n-drop than a conversion, the released build dragged down by a dozen console millstones that shouldn’t be here, and the tech on release not near ready to cope in the wild. And yet it's a game I'm enjoying an enormous amount. It is a quandary. Here's wot I think:

I feel like we, as a gaming nation, have in the last week gone from not understanding what No Man’s Sky was going to actually be, to talking almost exclusively about what it actually is. But just in case you've not been paying attention I shall nutshell: it's a universe of 18 quintillion stars (a million trillion - a number so fantastically large that it’s best not to try to grapple with it), into which you're randomly spawned, on one of the planets in one of those solar systems and with a broken spaceship. You quickly learn how to zap rocks to collect elements, craft equipment to mend your ship, and when you’re ready, take to the skies to find somewhere else to do the same.

As you go you can scan the worlds for their geology, flora and fauna, and upload details to a database where you receive credit should anyone else ever stumble upon the same place (as vanishingly unlikely as it should be, I’ve already found a solar system someone else had been to, as have many others - which raises some questions), and receive Units for you to spend. You can buy bigger and better ships, a new multi-tool (your scanner cum weapon cum mining beam), and incrementally improve what you’ve got with upgrades within their inventory slots. Then it’s up to you, really - race for the centre of the universe, chase after some ambiguous deity, or enjoy yourself flitting around at random, learning the languages of three alien races, improving your gear, and naming every planet you find after episodes of Quincy.

I’ve written previously about a lot of the core systems in the game, so rather than repeat myself, head over here for that. Meanwhile, I’m going to go a bit deeper into exploring the problems and successes.

Perhaps, at the dizzying distance of four days from release, thoughts have now more turned toward the longevity of the game, whether this freeform exploration of procedurally generated locations can maintain players’ interest. Certainly there has already been much gnashing of teeth and tearing of cloth about its repetitiveness. I think, if anything, NMS goes out of its way to present this impression, while not really meriting it.

There are unquestionably issues of repetitiveness. While each planet is randomly created, there’s an awful lot of similarity. You’re going to see giant toadstools, stalactites and stalagmites, and the exact same blue, gold and red flowers offering treats. They’ll all have different names, but they’re the same thing. Also, each planet will have alien bases to the same design, identical ancient ruins, monoliths, research posts, and on and on. It can start to feel a little monotonous. Until something magic happens.

So much is luck. You can have a bad run of it and land on bland, identikit terrains again and again, and wonder what the fuss is about. And then the next planet can feature flying fish over vast cuboid geological structures with intricate cave networks with fluorescent foliage, replete with peculiar wildlife on both land and sea. Beautiful colours, underwater goat-fish, plentiful supplies and perhaps a crashed ship to repair far, far better than your own. And then there’s purpose, both in finding what you need to get that ship fixed, and in just wanting to explore the lush lands.

Runs of good luck are transformative: I found a planet covered in Vortex Cubes, and made millions of units, bought an incredible ship. Next planet was terrifyingly hostile, sentinels shooting on sight, but resources rich and exciting, making it a madcap cat-and-mouse game to gather what I could. Planet after that was mostly ocean, gorgeous and calming to explore.

Motivation is key, and here the game stumbles so incredibly badly. If it managed to communicate usefully with the player at any point this would be so much easier to find, but the game is seemingly obsessed with obfuscating both its systems and its purposes. “It means you work things out for yourself!” goes the argument, and yes, it’s undeniably satisfying to make discoveries without having your hand held. Right up until you realise you’ve missed massively important discoveries because you didn’t know they were there to be had. I’ve spent the entire time playing wondering what an Atlas Pass is, and only by giving in and searching online did I learn I could have already had one. Had it only said, “Hey, this thing is over here, and you need to want to go there,” I’d have been incentivised and driven.

Most of my drive comes from wanting more inventory slots, and that means making money to get bigger ships. And the key problem here is getting one. Suddenly, with my 29 slot ship, I feel a little bit like I’ve achieved all the goals I could tangibly find. Fortunately I later saw a 38 slot ship on a space station, going for 25m units, so there’s my new goal.

And here is really where whether NMS is for you is revealed. If you want real goals, a strong sense of purpose beyond bumbling around and incremental improvements, then this really isn’t going to satisfy. It’s deeply frustrating to think about that game, the game that offered both the freeform, undirected, but undesigned randomness, and a real, purposeful narrative thread of missions and goals. If you’re the sort who loves just milling about in a Far Cry game and ignores the main plot, then you’re far more likely to find affinity with NMS, albeit without even the litany of sidequests to direct you.

Although none of this addresses that rather larger issue I started with: the PC version just doesn’t take any advantages of the platform.

Where the PS4 version of the game has shortcomings, I saw the PC as the obvious solution for all of them. Draw distances, confusingly clunky menus, poor saving, and horribly imprecise combat, all naturally would be better on a desktop with a mouse and keyboard. Each is either just as bad, or incredibly, worse.

The game has frequently been praised for being beautiful, and while of course one person’s aesthetic delight is another’s splenetic shite, I’ve found it often oddly ugly. Not just the awkwardness of tacky decorative 2D elements in an overly chunky 3D world, but the technical clumsiness of elements of the world fuzzing into existence immediately in front of you. And it’s just as bad on PC, except now you’re sitting with your face far closer to it. Even with the generative details cranked up as high as the restrictive options will let you, you’ll see the world fizzing and pixelating as you explore, rocks crappily redrawing themselves just a few feet away.

The menus are absolutely dreadful, and there’s no pretending otherwise. The weirdest hangover of the PlayStation being the need to hold down the mouse button for a second or so to fill a meter before clicks are recognised… on most things, but to keep you guessing, not all! It makes no sense with a mouse, where clicks are far more deliberate than the wavering cursor of an analogue stick, and that it’s even necessary in the options menus (for individual options, not changing between options pages, naturally) is proof of some really bizarre decisions. Right mouse button to return out of some menus is really weird, Esc not letting you do the same is weirder. It’s A and D to switch between inventories, but it’s Q and E to switch between galactic map paths. It’s like they put the controls in a washing machine.

But where the PS4 has you having to clumsily juggle inventory items in the slots of your three pages of menus - exosuit, ship, and multitool - the PC can obviously let you just drag and drop items about with your mouse. Except no, it can’t. You’re stuck with the same weirdness, but now having to hold down randomly assigned keyboard keys to swap items, or select what type of tech you want to build. How the hell it isn’t just, “Click on empty slot, choose from pop-up menu” I cannot fathom.

Similar problems remain with the uploading of information to the galactic database. Everything you encounter, from rock to plant to creature to planet to solar system, can be named and claimed, and uploaded in return for Units, the game’s currency. But they must be uploaded one at a time. Even if you’ve found thirty different things on that planet, and just want to dump them into the database for the coins (the novelty of naming things no one is ever likely to see wears off pretty quickly), you can’t. One at a time, “Units received”, “Units received”, “Units received”...

I’ve no idea how PlayStations work - it’s probably something to do with cogs and goblins - but I’m aware they’re not as speedy as PCs. There might be RAM issues for why the game isn’t capable of saving on the fly, instead relying on you to get in and out of your spaceship, or manually save at outposts. But the same being true on PC seems bewildering in a world where almost all other games seem to have a grip on what you’ve been up to at any point. It’s possible to go enormous stretches, even change solar system, without the game thinking an autosave might be appropriate, and with no manual save possible while in space, a crash (or even just assuming the game will do the obvious) can mean losing a lot of progress.

And the combat. On console it desperately aches for some sort of lock-on, with skittish animals darting all over while you laboriously try to play catch up with the camera. On PC it just becomes more apparent how weakly it’s all delivered, hits not visibly registering on enemies, no health meter shown for them while any old rock gets one. It’s easier, being able to aim, but it feels even more hollow.

Space combat, meanwhile, is wretched on mouse/keyboard. Taking leave of every sense imaginable, the controls for flight are on the mouse, with WASD assigned all over the place. W to speed up, S to slow down (fair enough) but A and D rotating the ship. All axes for steering are on your mouse which makes for a baffling soupy mess. Early attempts just to fly in a straight line led to barking mad barrel rolling, so unintuitive are the non-gamepad controls. And the last thing I want in a first-person PC game is to need to resort to a gamepad! Space combat is sluggish and dreary, and with no lock-on ability for weapons on the ground or in the stars, you’re left thrashing around wanting it to just be over.

There are other core elements of the game that just feel derisory. Landing your ship is something that should, of course, be just perfect. Instead it’s bloody terrible. Ship controls on planet are never fully handed over to you, the game trying to do half the work for you, so of course fighting against you. Trying to see below you to know where you’re going to land is nigh impossible, and it’s infuriating. You can’t even hover on the spot. Inventories make little sense, with the ability to send items to your ship when it’s far away, but for no given reason no ability to teleport them back. Shop interfaces seemingly at random decide whether to let you sell from your ship’s inventory, or force you to teleport all items you want to sell into your personal inventory bit by bit. Upgrades require an inventory slot to install, but invariably also require inventory slots for crafting too, meaning you’re forced to keep empty spaces where you naturally want to carry things. Scanning world items is nothing like you saw in the early footage where you needed only to zap it with your multitool - now you have to use a far more ambiguous scan visor, Metroid Prime-style, but with a full couple of seconds delay before it starts and no clear information about what items are scannable and what are just decoration... And so it goes on, as so many core features fall short of what should be basic expectation.

And yet I keep playing. Sometimes I’m very bored while I’m playing, but see a goal worth reaching (more inventory slots), and sometimes I’m just delighted, running about on a vibrant world, exploring, discovering, progressing. Because, I am the person I described above, the one who spends more time in Far Cry climbing hills and hunting badgers than worrying about the story. I love walking simulators, games focused on exploration and discovery, even when none was intended, just randomly created. I can’t pretend I don’t wish there was far more going on in No Man’s Sky (and I don’t mean building bases or better gun fights, I mean more opportunities for emergent narratives, more surprises, more loose goals), because the game absolutely feels lacking. But there’s enough there, in those infinite stretches, to keep me gripped. And that’s a bigger boast for the game, because it comes despite the screed of flaws and issues listed here.

This likely reads as an overwhelmingly negative review, and it’s deserved - No Man’s Sky is massively flawed, and systematically poorly designed. But it’s also a massive playground of potential and opportunity, and its sheer ambition, for all its massive stumbles, is rewarded in play. It’s bloody awful that the whole time I’ve been playing, the dozens of hours on PC this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the PS4 hastily hooked up to the TV at the other side of my office and wishing I were still playing over there. But I can see the PC version improving come the patches it desperately needs, and I can fantasise about the possible reworkings of the abysmal ship controls and stupid inventories and long mouse presses, and then this version will step forward and take the lead. It’s not there yet, but it could be.

No Man's Sky is out now on Windows via GOG, Humble and Steam for £40/$60/€60.

Disclosure: Our Alec did some last minute writing for No Man’s Sky. He won’t write about the game for us anymore, and is probably responsible for all the bad things about the game.

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