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No Man’s Sky: The unbearable lightness of trying to review this trippy game

After a mammoth gaming session streamed live on Facebook, José Barbosa tries to reel in his galactic reckons about No Man’s Sky

24 hours ago we were chin deep in a 8-hour live stream of No Man’s Sky. We blew up asteroids in space, mined plutonium, destroyed weird creatures, gave aliens carbon so they’d like us, built hyperdrives from antimatter, recharged our life support systems, and died below the surface in deep caverns. Possibly hundreds of times.

Throughout we cooed in awe, we laughed, we got confused, we got bored, we screamed in fright and argued about whether or not we should shoot alien life forms.

Grown humans laugh at fat wrinkly plant

Grown humans laugh at fat wrinkly plant

After all that it’s still a daunting task to sit down and write something approaching a review of No Man’s Sky that can be the least bit helpful. The difficulty is placing aside the intense debate, both reasoned and unreasonable, that’s followed the game from the 2013 VGX awards to launch day. It should be a simple matter to focus on the game, but expectations infuse everything like a blue fluid in an ad for Libra pads. The Witcher 3 won great acclaim not only by being a great game, but by exceeding the expectations of people who wanted to play it. The Order: 1886 promised much, but failed to match anything we’d been primed to experience.

The job of managing those expectations, of communicating to consumers, lies with Sony and Hello Games, of course. I can’t help but compare Sean Murray and his company’s adventures in online PR with Dean Hall and the early days of DayZ Standalone. Hall, I think, learnt some lessons about managing expectations as Murray and co have. Then again, there’s always some status seeking diddle countering vague caution from a dev with:

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So, the game. Everyone who had a tutu with the thing during our live-stream loved the way the game looked. The Philip K Dick-ish east coast US vibe of primary colours is immediately evocative of everything Murray and team said they were influenced by. As with the soundtrack by 65daysofstatic the aesthetic choices aim the player for a chilled out vibe. This means that when things go south, the alarm really punctures the mellowness. It’s a great atmospheric effect. It’s a great game to watch someone else play.

As others have reported the first hour or hours are something of a grind. You’re forced to search for elements to mine which can help you repair your ship. This is clearly designed as something of a tutorial or, at least, a way for the developers to direct you where they think you should go. The Destiny-esque UI threw up some curveballs, and we found ourselves confused at several points when trying to access crafting or recharging panels. We also hit something of a roadblock when trying to work out how to use the galaxy map. We were genuinely frustrated, but that was late in the stream and tiredness had taken over. Thinking back now with a night’s sleep, we probably could have worked it out and others haven’t had the same issues. It might depend on your familiarity with a similar UI.

Personally, I was left wanting a tutorial system like Elite: Dangerous. I appreciated those Elite videos, it meant I could take concepts into the game and try and put them into practice, rather than being led by the hand. Presumably the player community will take care of that by posting tutes online. Tell you what, though, the right-from-the-start automated space station docking is a god-send for a an old unco flyer like me.

Others have slammed the game for the repetitiveness of the planets, they tend to be all rocky geology type of places (at least this early in the game). I can see how that would be annoying, but to a slow treading open-world explorer that doesn’t actually bother me. Stumbling across wacky generated animals and striking plants I’ve never seen before is enough to keep me interested. If you’re the kind of player that has to look at every chest in a village, you’ll be in heaven documenting flora and fauna and investigating all the question mark indicators on the horizon. And beyond that there are genuine surprises: outposts taken over by organic tendrils and mysterious signals in the dark.

When the game gets close to that stuff, that dark, ambient, literary sci-fi type of experience, that’s when I really loved playing No Man’s Sky. The more conventional resource grind or space battle stuff: not so much. The game isn’t a triumph, at least not yet this early in, but, like the in-game universe itself, the potential is so tantalizing. It feels like greatness is just a nano-parsec away.

At this point I don’t know if I’ll still be playing No Man’s Sky in three months time, but  I do know that I really want to find out.


Fly into the endless abyss with Bigpipe, the ISP that never lets its life support below 50%

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