No Man’s Sky is the hardest game I’ve ever had to score. Not in the same sense that stonemasonry, eye surgery or creating a near-infinite universe is hard - all I have to do is put some stars at the end of some words, after all - but more that it’s a sporadically brilliant experience that’s impossible to recommend without reservations.
I’ve already gone into detail about the actual experience in my review diary (opens in new tab), so you should already have an idea of what you do. The purpose of this review, then, is to decide if you actually need No Man’s Sky in your life.
I like it. I’ve played it for over 30 hours, and will go home tonight and keep playing it. I’ve essentially been doing the same thing the entire time - scanning wildlife, unpicking alien language, giving planets stupid names (opens in new tab) - and that’s still the part of the game I love most. I’ve upgraded my warp drive to visit new types of star, but it’s conceptually the same thing, irrespective of what type of system I’m in. It’s the perfect game for a sleepy Sunday spent mining ore on alien planets. Immense, striking, unusual.
But as soon as the game tries to fill that majestic void with action, things go awry. At one point I was yanked out of warp space by a band of pirates. My shields went down almost immediately, and I struggled to save myself by navigating clunky menus and allocating resources to refill them. Struggled so much, in fact, that I was blown to bits. It’s a sticky system to use in the middle of fight, and if there’s an easier way of doing it, it’s never explicit. More than anything, it’s a jarring, unavoidable thing to experience when compared to the sedate business of mining and documenting flora and fauna. Whatever your expectations of No Man’s Sky, fiddly, mid-menu space combat must be low on the list.
Combat on land isn’t much better, but at least it’s easier to avoid. When I find myself on a planet with frenzied or aggressive sentinels, I usually just leave. With quintilions of planets to choose from, and rich resources in every system, there’s usually no reason to put up with harassment from angry floating robots. It’d be different if fighting was fun but No Man’s Sky ignores the established grammar of modern shooters. Simple failings, such as the need to manually reload your weapon, or the sporadic need to recharge everything through the menus, mean that fighting is uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.
It can be a frustrating experience elsewhere, too. This is a space management sim in every sense. It says everything that increased inventory slots are the primary reward for progress in No Man’s Sky - the ability to carry more stuff is an incentive for upgrading your ship, exosuit and multi-tool. It’s a tricky thing to balance. Upgrades that improve your gear each take up one free slot, so your inventory can quickly become a tangle of stamina buffs, jetpack boosters and hazard protection. They can be built and discarded cheaply, but it’s tiresome distraction that stops you doing the fun stuff.
More generally, there’s an intangible sense of everything in No Man’s Sky being illusory. For its many moments of spectacle, it’s never nourishing in the same way as The Witcher 3 or Skyrim. At any moment, it feels like you could pierce the veil of space and see raw code. Instead of being liberating, the near-infinite scale actually makes No Man’s Sky feel strangely claustrophobic. There’s something reassuring about hitting the walls that surround most open world games - you can turn around and appreciate what’s actually there - but No Man’s Sky, by comparison, can feel hopeless, like being stranded in an endless sea.
This sense of the unreal is most jarring when you’re between planets. As I mentioned in the diary, it doesn’t feel like a familiar representation of space - I felt more like I was floating in an endless soup of filled with vast, celestial croutons. It’s often beautiful, and always impressive, but does it feel like you’re traversing the cosmos? Not really. Some much-needed context comes from your interaction with aliens. This is all excellently written, and the history of the Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen is interesting enough to keep you searching out monoliths to learn more, but it’s a passive experience. Occasionally, an angry alien warrior will slap you for answering a question wrongly, but the threat is superficial. I loved the puzzle of deciphering alien sentences, but never enough to search out additional words if I got stuck. And because you encounter these aliens in similar locations every time - identical space stations or samey planetary outposts - the only sense of place or personality comes from the (admittedly brilliant) text. It makes the universe feel thin, and somehow uninhabited.
Yet despite all these things, I’m drawn back to No Man’s Sky. The aliens may lack distinction, but there are many planets I fondly remember exploring. The promise of edging closer to the center of the universe remains compelling. It’s also a game to stop, enjoy and investigate. When you step away from the rush for materials and embrace the staggering scope, it’s possible to lose hours on a single planet. I know all the places I visit are variations on the same theme, but the process of discovery is still enjoyable enough to keep me exploring.
In that respect it’s probably the best three-and-a-half star game I’ll ever review, and certainly the most ambitious. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Players looking for savage space battles will be frustrated by systems that simply aren’t up to muster; those desperate for peaceful study will struggle when it forces combat upon them; anyone wanting to meet other players will get lonely. Look past these limitations, however, and No Man’s Sky offers a timeless universe of quiet, compelling exploration.