Explore the galaxy, they said. It'll be fun, they said.
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As I write this review, I'm currently stuck in a cave. In fact, I've been stuck in here for the past thirty minutes. While the burgundy rock provides at least a vaguely pretty backdrop for the neon red lines that seem to be calmly floating in the air, and the few random glow-in-the-dark blue plants give it a nice touch of feng-shui, it's not exactly what I had in mind when I set off on a galaxy exploring conquest.
Far from spending my time dogfighting with alien spacecraft and negotiating peace across the galaxy, it's rapidly starting to feel like I've spent most of my time with No Man's Sky simply trudging around this cave. And it's not because I'm looking for something cool, nor because it's part of my mission objective. No - it's because I made the rookie mistake of wandering inside, just in case there was anything cool lurking in its depths. And now I can't find my way out.
Because unfortunately, while the team at Hello Games managed to cram 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets into the game (and that's not even an exaggeration - that's the official figure, straight from the developer's mouth), somehow, they forgot to include a map.
This is No Man's Sky, a game that's supposed to be about exploring the galaxy, yet somehow manages to make it all feel incredibly dull. The plot here is fairly simple - there isn't one, so in its absence you simply have to find your way to the centre of the universe. You start out with a spaceship (which you can upgrade), a backpack (which you can upgrade) and a multi tool (which... you get the picture) which can be used as both a weapon, and a mining laser. From humble beginnings, it's up to you to gather resources, craft things together, and eventually upgrade your ship enough that you can start to jump to light speed, and begin your journey to the centre of the galaxy proper.
But it's not just upgrades you'll need to be gathering resources for. You see, in No Man's Sky, almost everything you own will slowly deplete, and most of the "gameplay" here comes from simply trying to keep yourself alive. Your ship will run out of fuel, your shields and hazard protection suit will start to degrade, your weapon will run out of ammo, and you'll find you have to keep seeking out, and harvesting materials to keep everything ticking over.
With some planets sapping your life support in all of a few seconds, and your mining laser rapidly draining with every resource you harvest, it doesn't take long before No Man's Sky turns into a war of attrition against yourself - a constant, dull circle of harvesting and replenishing your various units and systems, before enjoying the thirty seconds or so you get before something starts running out again.
Perhaps nothing sums this up more than your life support. This little pack is apparently essential to your very existence - should it run out, you'll die - and so of course, it only makes sense that it drains faster than an alcoholics wallet on a field trip to the local boozer. Even just wandering around inside this cave - presumably, a fairly safe space - every few seconds, a weirdly irritating voice fizzed electrically across the speakers: "Life Support Power, low!", prompting you to go and add a little bit more carbon to the life support, like a space age electric meter.
It's enough to drive you insane - and it's one of the really big problems with No Man's Sky. Because the game's so light on actual gameplay, it's had to add in all these artificial limits - like the life energy meter, like take off fuel for your ship - in a vague effort at giving you "something" to do - which means you spend more time harvesting things to fill up arbitrary meters than you do actually exploring and having fun. And should you get lost, the harvesting system only manages to take you to a whole new layer of personal hell, as you end up spending so much time having to top things up, getting back on the right path takes four times as long as it should.
And then there's the lack of any map. As you may have guessed from what we've written so far, being stuck in a cave isn't much fun - but being stuck in a cave without anything to help you find your way out is exasperating. With nothing you can use to get your bearings, you're forced to rely on the little spaceship icon that only shows up on screen when you're facing in the right direction. Fat lot of good it does, though, as it only shows you an "as the crow flies" route to your ship - and when there's four thousand tonnes of space dirt in the form of an impenetrable wall in between you and your spaceship, that's not very much help. Giving you "straight line" objective markers on a planet with tunnels, cliffs and mountains galore isn't even remotely helpful - and yet, for No Man's Sky, it's kind of deliberate.
You see, the whole game is focused around this idea of procedural generation - where none of the planets in the game are crafted by hand, but instead, all the life forms, fauna, hills, valleys, and yes - the caves - are created automatically, by following a procedure. That's how the game gets to have its ludicrous number of planets to explore - but it's also what gives the game its main weakness, as No Man's Sky has no soul.
With procedurally generated planets, there may be stuff to find - like alien statues, artifacts that teach you alien words, and trading points - but it doesn't feel like there's actually any real reason to find them. If you find a cool statue, or a cool creature, you can tell your friend where you found it, but with so many planets in the galaxy, it'll take them an age to get there and see it for themselves. And while there are a few basic themes for planets (desert, snow, forest, etc), before too long, they all start to merge into one, and you spend your time going from faceless planet to faceless planet, finding creatures no one else is ever going to see, exploring land no one else is ever going to walk on, and basically setting out on what feels like an increasingly pointless quest. Or, in our case, admiring the finer details of a cave's walls.
Usually, we can have a good guess of the score we should give a game depending on whether we'll come back to it or not. Bored, alone, getting increasingly frustrated, and rapidly growing tired of having to listen to our spaceman unfathomably shivering to himself even though it's a practically balmy 8 degrees C outside (if he thinks that's cold, he should try heading to Blackpool in the summer), in all honesty, we just don't see we'll be coming back to this.
With 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets to explore, but no real reason to do so, No Man's Sky is a great tech demo for the power of procedural generation. It's just a shame they forgot about the rest of the game.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4