It took me just five minutes to die in No Man’s Sky. That’s quite an achievement for a game that actually doesn’t involve a lot of dying. There I was, minding my own business, using my mining laser to extract iron from a giant rock, when a sentinel rather rudely interrupted me. Scanning me with its intense blue light, I stared back vacantly, wondering where it had come from and if it was the product of an intelligent species. I shot it. The next thing I knew, I was being chased by six of them. I jumped up and down in a pathetic attempt to stay alive, but there was no escaping them. With the help the planet’s hazardously cold atmosphere, it wasn’t long before I was looking at a loading screen.
What I was meant to be doing was gathering resources to repair my broken ship. The game had started me on this hostile planet with only the vague guidance of a hovering ball of red liquid. Without any sense of direction or purpose in the universe, I’m forced to follow this superior entity (known as Atlas) in order to discover the meaning of my existence – a bit like a Bible person. The only other objective is to reach the centre of the galaxy, where Bill Bailey’s giant floating head awaits. To get there, I must explore new planets, gathering materials and cataloguing new plant and animal life along the way. It shouldn’t take up too much of my time; there are only 18.5 quintillion worlds to visit.
The fact that you can spend hours walking around a completely unique planet and then travel through space to find a new one is simply mind-blowing. And with absolutely everything being procedurally generated, the game can produce an infinite variety of weird-looking creatures and vegetation. This sometimes results in the creation of abominations. The other day for example, I discovered a new species that looked like the deformed offspring of a moose and conjoined yak twins. It was horrendous. Each of its four legs were made up of four smaller legs, all of which were too scrawny to support its ginormous torso and head shaped like a fat woman clinging onto an anchor. It screamed in agony as it ambled across my screen – I gave it a mercy killing.
But for a game that flaunts the idea of infinity as its main selling point, No Man’s Sky is crushingly repetitive. Jumping through hyperspace and travelling to the galactic core provides the main source of excitement, but the majority of it consists of mindlessly mining for fuel and building materials with your multi-tool. And despite each planet having its very own look, atmosphere and wildlife, every single one has identical outposts where you repeatedly carry out the same tasks. When you meet a new life form, you’re given a multiple choice riddle that will either result in you being rewarded or the alien telling you to fuck off. If you learn enough of their language, it becomes a whole lot easier to guess which of your valuable items it wants you to hand over. You can also trade with the floating ATMs that seem to be on every planet, even the ones where it constantly pisses down with acid rain.
As monotonous as these tasks may be, I don’t see them as an essential part of the No Man’s Sky experience. A lot like Journey, it’s about taking in your surroundings and enjoying a form of gameplay that won’t result in RSI or a burst blood vessel. It’s an opportunity to drift through a lonely galaxy (bumping into other players is unlikely), get sucked into black holes, burn through atmospheres, be soothed by synthy space music and gawp fecklessly at the sheer size of explorable space. Hello Games has achieved something special here, even if shooting space pirates handles like a 90-year-old steering a shopping trolley.