We've only had a few days with the game so far, so we're not ready to give it a score yet. Instead, Matt will do a review diary of his experience with the game so far. Check back on Monday for his final verdict.
Captain’s log, Stardate Friday afternoon: This is going to be my final diary before verdict goes up on Monday. It says everything about No Man’s Sky that after 25 hours and 2000 words, it still feels like an impossible game to score. Also, I hope you read all of this in Captain Picard’s voice. Yes, even this bit.
My most recent session is a tricky one. I’m pushing further into space than ever before, but it’s making the game feel less special, somehow. As I venture deeper into the void, the sense of discovery is replaced by one of repetition. I know what’s going to great me after each jump. There has to be more to it than this.
Day four does have some special moments. After my second jump I meet a new alien race, called the Vy’keen, which I presume translates as ‘hatred shaped like a talking elbow’. That’s a guess, because so far the only Vy’keen word I’ve learnt is ‘interloper’. They’re an unfriendly bunch, so I hear that word a lot, but winning them over feels like a worthy goal. Having different aliens in each sector gives the game a sense of place, but it does feel slightly superficial. The aliens don’t do anything. I don’t feel threatened by their aggression. They’re not capable of hurting me. You could replace them with datapads or books or talking lamposts and it wouldn't make any difference. This ties into much of my experience with the game so far: it requires huge imaginative investment to work. The planets and creatures are vast and varied, but the core experience feels increasingly passive.
As I leave the Vy’keen space station and head towards a fresh planet, I’m struck by something else. I don’t feel like I’m in space. At least, not a version of space I recognise from TV, games or film. It’s more like an endless neon warehouse. I’m still in awe of the game’s scope, but I’ve lost that humbling, cosmic sense of scale. It seems like a ridiculous thing to say, because I’m definitely in space, but at some points I feel more like I’m controlling a camera, not a craft. It feels detached. Without wanting to get too deep - I just named a planet after a Warhammer board game, after all - my sense of being is ebbing away. Everything is starting to feel unreal.
But despite all this, I’m itching to keep playing. Even when I step away from No Man’s Sky bored or grumpy, the promise of a fantastic journey calls me back. I might not make it to the centre of the galaxy this weekend, but at least I’ll know if the game’s strange gravitational pull is worth your time. Check back on Monday for a score.
*Star Trek theme plays*
“I won’t rest until I’ve learnt what the Gek word for ‘gek’ is…”
That’s right! It’s ‘Gek’. As this incredible revelation suggests, day 3 of my No Man’s Sky experience is one of enriching discovery. In fact, this is the best session I’ve had with the game so far - a necessary tonic after the disappointment of day 2. It’s entirely possible yesterday’s problems were self-inflicted, but let’s ignore that for now. To space!
It doesn’t start that well. I try to get back on the trail of a central story, which involves a mysterious alien entity called the Atlas. At least, I think it’s a mysterious entity: I spurned its help at the start of the game and it’s still grumpy with me. I discover a monolith that could guide my next steps, but the Atlas refuses. Timeless cosmic beings, much like cartoon elephants and sulking teenagers, apparently never forget. It’s time for plan B.
Plan B is to go back to the beginning. I have the formulas for making warp engine fuel from scratch, so I do that, backtracking to the system I started in. Here’s where it gets cool. I find a strange alien anomaly - probably one I should have noticed earlier - which looks a bit like Unicron from Transformers: The Movie. Inside I meet two aliens willing to guide me on my journey. Better still, they’re offering a short cut to the centre of the universe. If my experience so far has shown anything, it’s that I love short cuts, and that I’m willing to risk being extruded through space like toothpaste squeezed through a tube if the aliens on the side end look like Bajorans. I gladly accept, and they reward me with an Atlas Pass - a craftable key card, which can be used to unlock doors in space stations and outposts.
It’s the first time I’ve really felt like there was a solid story hidden under all the procedural magic, and it’s a welcome development. Having purpose again is exciting. I speed past another system to reach the black hole. I fly through and reappear - intact, thankfully - in the middle of a buzzing space battle. I don’t want to risk being destroyed, so I flee heroically to the nearest space station. I have no idea where I am, but it doesn’t matter. I’m progressing.
Safely inside the space station, I decide to splash out on a new ship. It’s a bargain at 450,000 credits, and I can transfer all my important equipment into the new hold. One of the biggest irritations I’ve had with No Man’s Sky so far is fiddly inventory management, so those four extra slots make loads of difference. It’s also tooled up with much better weapons, so I can take out the space pirates who troubled me before. With my new ship, I’ll be unstoppable.
After the pirates kill me, I reevaluate my priorities. I’m built for exploration, not combat. I did manage to take a few out with my new laser, but defence is a problem. I need more resources to recharge my shields on the fly. Combat is fun - very like the wild, wheeling aerial sections of Battlefront - so I plan on coming back when I’m better equipped. Again.
Day 3 has felt like a different experience. I still feel like I have unfinished business with documenting animal life - and it’s far less likely to get me killed - but my black hole revelation feels like a different, unruly way to play. If I can reach the centre via a different, more exciting route, then No Man’s Sky will feel fascinating again. Who needs the Atlas, anyway? Nobody in this review.
I set myself three goals for day two. Firstly, I’m going to categorize all the animals on my lovely moon. Moons are small, right? It should be easy. By doing this, I’ll earn a tidy 350,000 credits, which brings me to my next goal: buy a better ship. Ideally one that looks like Slave I, and has a fantastically huge baggage compartment for storing my space-loot. Finally, once that’s done, I’ll warp to a new system, and properly begin my journey to the centre of the universe. Simple!
Of course it’s not simple. My first mistake is picking a highly radioactive place to explore. I constantly have to refuel my exosuit to protect against the elements, and it’s even worse if I decide to go for a swim. The water is contaminated, so it’s like bathing in toxic waste. On the plus side: I’ve always wanted to grow another tusk. There are also loads of creatures to find, and it’s not that easy. Animals don’t show up on the scanner, so I have to look around using my Analysis Visor. Creatures I haven’t categorised show up as helpful red dots, but this only works in my immediate vicinity. Suddenly, my moon doesn’t seem so small after all.
It’s still fun, though. If anything, this initial difficulty makes things feel more authentic. After a few hours I’m almost there. I find chubby little Ewok monsters I named Gremlinbears. Giant, bird-like dinosaurs become Feathered Krumps. My favourite discovery is a ridiculous bipedal fox, which shuffles like a toddler with a soiled diaper. I decide to name the entire moon after this wobbling, certainly-doomed anomaly so people remember it when it goes extinct, which will probably be disappointingly soon. Welcome to Wronglegs. Please fly carefully.
With only three creatures left to find, I feel like I’m almost there...but it’s impossible. I’ve tried caves and ponds. I’ve tried leaving the planet and landing on the other side. Nothing. I spend hours hopping in and out of my craft, scanning the same 12 creatures, gradually losing patience with myself and the moon of Wronglegs. I’m so close that leaving feels like a huge waste of time, effort and money. The only positive is that I’ve found a snazzy new multi-tool during my travels, which I swapped with an otherworldly reflection of myself. Yes, really. It was rather existential.
I spend a few more hours getting sidetracked by alien monoliths and Knowledge Stones, which reward me with morsels of alien language. My most useless discovery is the the Korvax word for korvax: ‘korvax’. Each new discovery is pleasing, but my failed search for Wronglegs’s fauna has left me slightly drained. I build all the necessary stuff to warp to the next galaxy, and sadly leave my favoured moon behind.
I head straight to a new space station, where I meet a new alien race called Gek. I inspect their ships and decide to keep saving my money - I almost have enough credits for a new ride, but I’d rather keep hoarding my wealth and get something really special. It doesn’t feel like a wasted evening, then - I’ve found a new species of sentient alien, and I’ve started my journey in earnest. By the end of the night I’d had enough of scanning and searching, and I spectacularly failed to achieve my own goals, but right now all I want to do is dive back in a play more. I won’t rest until I’ve learnt what the Gek word for ‘gek’ is...
It's 'gek', isn't it?
Everyone who plays No Man’s Sky starts on a different planet, but our initial experiences are the same. We’re stranded in an alien place and need to gather resources to get airborne. If you’re being cynical, that means everyone’s first hour will involve walking, crafting and shooting different coloured rocks. A more generous reading is that these early moments help you understand the staggering macrocosm of No Man’s Sky. It’s a metric for understanding just how big this game is. And it’s really, really big.
I’m coming to No Man’s Sky completely cold, apart from the vague snippets of information provided in E3 briefings and trailers. I decide to keep it that way. I’m offered the opportunity to follow a set path at the beginning by following a red tutorial orb, but I don’t want to lose that sense of flexibility. There’s a time and place for being told what to do - it’s at work, today, as I frantically try to write up this review - and No Man’s Sky is a celebration of freedom. Despite the lack of direction, my immediate goal remains still the same: fix up my ship, get into space. Simple resources such as iron and zinc are easy to find, and are quickly mined with my multi-tool: a satisfying mix of cutting laser and vacuum cleaner. It’s a sedate, relaxing experience, but it doesn’t last long.
I’m on my way to find a rarer resource called Heridum when shit gets real. Until now the only creatures I’ve met until now have been lumbering, harmless herbivores. Then I meet my first aggressive alien and I’m suddenly locked in desperate battle on the lost fringes of space. Me, a confused probably-human only equipped to fight rocks, and my foe: a hairy brain on legs. I run away shooting at it, and to be honest, it dies really easily. My reward is free exploration of a shack that’s been taken over by alien mushrooms, and an upgrade for my multi-tool. I thank the god of whatever universe I’m in for giving me opposable thumbs and electromagnetic weapons.
I press on. It takes me about 20 minutes to reach my goal and another 10 to sprint back to my ship. I’ve covered a miniscule distance, but it felt like a little adventure. The planet isn’t dense with distractions, but there are points of interest everywhere, gently tempting me off course. I return to the ship with enough Heridum to repair my Pulse Engine and take off. It’s a monumental moment, but more than anything, it reminds me of that sense of scale. In seconds I can cover the same distance it took me ten minutes to walk. Breaking through the atmosphere and seeing the curve of the planet is something I’ve wanted to do in a game since I played Captain Blood on the ZX Spectrum around 1000 years ago. If the only promise No Man’s Sky had to keep was the one of an uplifting, cosmic sense of grandeur, it’s already done that.
I visit other planets, gathering resources to improve my ship. It provides a sense of purpose without limiting me too harshly. Warping between systems is costly - each time you do so you’ll need to craft expensive, rare materials - but I’m happy to take my time exploring. It can be fiddly in places because my inventory fills up incredibly quickly, so my next goal is to buy a bigger ship. I discover a space station that provides a hub for different sentient life forms - think Deep Space Nine without the sexy - where I can barter with aliens to buy their ships. Unfortunately, even the rubbish ones are outside my miniscule budget. I hope that as I travel further into deep space I’ll come across rare and expensive materials that will help me upgrade my craft, and eventually feel better about myself. I know I’ll never meet another human playing No Man’s Sky, but that doesn’t stop me wanting the best spaceship money can buy. Vanity, much like electromagnetic radiation and light, can apparently travel through a vacuum.
It’s around this point that the grind for resources starts to feel a bit gamey. I realise that’s an odd thing to say in a review of a game, but let me try to explain. Instead of feeling like I’m touching down on distant planets, discovering new worlds, I’m seeing a matrix of numbers and resources. It feels like a less transformative experience when played like this, which is precisely why I don’t want to rush to the centre of the universe. I decide to go off piste and make my game more about exploration than a wild rush for materials.
I visit a new system, and bump into some space pirates on my approach to an undiscovered planet. There’s an incredible moment when they swoop around me, and I bank hard, avoiding asteroids, framed against the vast majestic shadow of the nearby planet. I aim my cannon, squeeze the trigger, and remember that I’m essentially flying in an intergalactic trashcan. My weapons do nothing. I’m swiftly blown to pieces, but thankfully I don’t lose my resources. I respawn on the space station and return to my grave to gather my stuff. I’ll be back when I’ve got bigger guns, pirates.
After the lesson in humility I decide to keep things peaceful, and by the fifth planet I start sharing stuff. I upload plants, places and animals in the hurry for bonus credits, then remember I can rename things. This is the moment the game changes for me. I’m no longer just a man pootling around in a procedural spacescape. I’m the intergalactic David Attenborough. The Georges Cuvier of the cosmos. Fat, tendriled plants become Flurms. Bouncy aliens become Schlumpers. I start naming a whole system after various mythological versions of hell, then have to stop when I discover a paradise planet. It’s great fun, and exactly the kind of imaginative distraction that stops the game feeling procedural. I mean, it’s still completely procedural, but I feel like I’ve left my mark after renaming a fern Juicelumps.
I finish day one on an amazing moon - perhaps the most striking place I’ve discovered yet. It’s honeycombed with enticing tunnels, alive with a rich variety of animals, with the huge spectre of an angry planet hanging in the distance. It’s a place I can’t wait to explore. It’s been a wonderful journey so far, in the most literal sense of the word. I’ve never played anything quite like No Man’s Sky, but it’s impossible to say yet if it’ll keep me engaged for another 30 hours. More than this, I wonder if there’s any purpose to the things I’ve left behind me. I’m unlikely to revisit those places, and naming flora and fauna is meaningless unless someone else is there to appreciate it. The purpose of all this might become clear as I get deeper into the game, but until then: please let me know if you spot any Flurms.
Check back on Monday for our full No Man’s Sky review. In the meantime, check out our other No Man's Sky stories below:
No Man's Sky: How the biggest game ever made almost never happened
9 No Man's Sky things you need to know: death, saves, offline play and more...
Two No Man's Sky players just reached the same place... but can't see each other
Here's why everyone is so confused about No Man's Sky having multiplayer