I have a philosophy about the necessity of playing bad games. Without knowing what a bad game is, you lose sight of what defines a good one; if all you ever play are good games, then your perception becomes warped to the point where you’ll probably end up hating some perfectly decent titles. It’s harder to spot what good games do well without some context for how bad games do the same thing badly. I won’t expose myself to things that are deliberately bad — I think there’s very little to be learned from the likes of Bad Rats — but I’ll happily play games that look like they might be interestingly bad, which try with all their might to succeed and fail in spite of it. It’s this philosophy that led me to play SimCity on launch, and it’s also responsible for my sporadic efforts to understand the CoD series’ repeated attempts to remain culturally relevant. And now, too, it has led me to sink 20 hours into No Man’s Sky.
No Man’s Sky is a very bad game indeed. There’s almost no mechanical aspect of it that it successfully manages to deliver on and pretty much the entire thing is riddled with design fuckups and missed opportunities. What I find interesting about No Man’s Sky, though, is how conventional and predictable most of those fuckups ended up being. I was exposed to very little of the pre-release hype for it and all I’d really heard about was the ridiculous 18 quintillion planets figure that somehow managed to indirectly seep through to my brain via some insidious form of informational osmosis. Just knowing that one fact opened up several yawning pitfalls for No Man’s Sky, though; here is a game that is clearly heavily invested in procedural generation, and historically the only PCG1 that I’ve found to be really successful in games is the kind that’s applied with laser-like focus in something like Spelunky. I’ve played so many games in the past where PCG has been misapplied to create worlds that are superficially different thanks to texturing, but whose underlying topography might as well have been cut and pasted from one to the next because the PCG algorithm doesn’t have enough variance built into it. The example I like to come back to here is Minecraft, whose default world generation unfailingly spat out terrain that was 99% the same everywhere you went; much of the fun in exploring Minecraft’s worlds ended up being in searching out the remaining 1%, since it at least had that small amount of variance to make such exploration worthwhile.
Minecraft, of course, had several other core game mechanics to fall back on besides exploration that meant its initially underwhelming world generation wasn’t so much of a problem; if you felt the surrounding environment was missing a certain terrain feature you could just build one2. No Man’s Sky by contrast is a game that is overwhelmingly focused on exploration. There are some vestigial crafting mechanics bolted on, but almost all of the potential fun in No Man’s Sky is to be found in landing on a new planet and seeing what the planet generation algorithm has spat at you this time. This means that there has to be significant variance built into the PCG; if you were being lazy, or if you had zero experience of other games that have attempted PCG, you’d just use the same algorithm to generate every planet and hope that the random noise involved in generating hills, lakes etc. would be enough to qualify as “different”, but the problem with this is that the human brain is very good at spotting patterns. Yes, this planet may not have that specific hill in the same place, but we know how to spot planets with similar geography. Creating the sort of variance required to keep the environments fresh and interesting is a very, very tricky thing to pull off – Minecraft’s generator took years of active development work to merely qualify as passable, for god’s sake — so the big question for me upon hearing that 18 quintillion planets figure was: how on earth are they going to use PCG to power the exploration and discovery aspect of the game without making it breathtakingly shallow?
The answer, of course, is that they don’t. No Man’s Sky commits just about every cardinal sin it is possible to commit with procedural generation, and this represents the first and by far the biggest pitfall that it bodily flings itself into. Each planet’s terrain is generated using precisely the same algorithm for a near-identical mix of hills, crevasses, caves and “points of interest” on every single goddamn one. Superficially they will look different – you’ll have a snowy planet, sure, and a desert planet, and a barren planet – but these are just different textures and plant sets. The plants themselves have barely any random element to them (I actually couldn’t see any) and the limited number of templates means you will see incredibly obvious repeats by the time you land on your tenth planet. Occasionally you find a planet with a single notable attribute – a higher sea level than normal, a set of floating islands (with nothing interesting on them) or tube-like rock formations criss-crossing the planet surface are the three that I’ve found, but these are, again, just bolted on top of the basic terrain. And the crucial thing here is that the basic terrain generation is constrained enough to be just incredibly boring; you don’t get any mountains, streams or lava flows like you would in something like Minecraft and if you take the textures and skyboxes out of the equation there’s almost no spectacle to it whatsoever. It’s just the same set of noise-generated hills for miles in every direction.
What about the points of interest, though? Well, there’s a reason I used the quotation marks above, and that reason is because they very rapidly cease to be interesting. The way these work is that the PCG algorithm will sprinkle in some sort of structure or encampment throughout the terrain in a very regular fashion, to the point where I suspect it is literally something like there is one of these points to be found every n to n + x metres from the last one. There’s about ten different types:
- A supply cache. Occasionally you get a supply cache with a trade node next to it.
- One or two small shelters with a multitool technology inside. Outside there’ll be a beacon you can use to find a specific type of point of interest nearby.
- Five spherical containers that you can destroy to get some platinum.
- A larger alien shelter with a landing pad outside. Inside is a trade node, an alien and potentially a box with a multitool replacement inside. You can talk to the alien to get a piece of flavour text resulting in a choice that’ll either give you something good, or not.
- A larger alien shelter with an alien inside, along with a terminal you can use to locate either a set of alien ruins or a crashed ship.
- A larger alien building that you have to break into. Once inside you’ll find a terminal you can use to get a piece of flavour text similar to talking to aliens.
- A trading post with landing pads, a trade node and a single alien standing in it.
- An alien monolith that will have some language stones you can use to learn a few words of one of the three alien languages in the game. The monolith itself will have a tiny piece of flavour text similar to talking to aliens.
- A beacon that will point the way towards a structure with an alien in it.
- A drop pod with an exosuit upgrade inside.
- A crashed ship that you can use to replace your current ship – if you can repair it.
The reason I can list these points of interest and their contents so precisely is because this is all there is. On every planet. In the entire game. There is almost zero variance, and once you learn to recognise each point of interest by sight (which won’t take long, believe me) you’ll find yourself ignoring most of them; since you know exactly what they are going to contain, you know which ones are going to be a waste of your time. After a couple of hours this category includes pretty much all of them that don’t contain trade nodes or the exosuit upgrade, and you find yourself actively ignoring these points of interest. Hence the quotation marks.
Exploring a new planet in No Man’s Sky therefore consists of flying very slowly across the same terrain you saw on the last twenty planets covered by the same trees you saw five planets ago, broken up by the same small clusters of beacons and alien buildings you’ve been running into all sodding game. There’s next to no point in landing to explore since you can pick a spot at random and guarantee that the surrounding environment will be the same as the one you lifted off from five minutes ago – because that’s the experience this PCG engine seems tailor-made to produce. What the planet exploration puts me in mind of more than anything else are the secondary planets in the first Mass Effect that you explored in the Mako. There, it was clear that this was a feature that had not been a primary focus of Bioware’s development efforts since each planet map consisted of a set of hills that had been generated by some noise function that a developer had then gone into and put some generic buildings on top. Here somebody has taken that system, automated it and tried to build a full game around it, and it has gone absolutely terribly. The fact that an almost decade-old game is the closest touchstone I have for No Man’s Sky really says something about it, I think; it’s the PCG game I’d expect to be made by a development team that had literally never encountered another PCG game before in their lives, as they appear completely unaware of the method’s history and how to avoid fucking it up quite as thoroughly as they have here. It’s made exactly the blunder I thought it would, except they’ve doubled down on it to a degree that I would have thought impossible for anyone who, you know, played videogames. At all.
Once you’ve gotten bored of the planet generation, what else is there to actually do in No Man’s Sky? Well, ostensibly your overarching goal is to get to the galactic core, and I’ll cover how that fiasco went in good time. In order to further that goal you have to upgrade your exosuit, multitool (combination mining laser and gun) and spaceship to be better equipped for the journey, or at least to shorten its length a little bit. Equipment upgrades require raw materials that must — sigh — be mined from the environment, whether this is a mineral seam on the planet surface or a particularly large asteroid in space. Mining in No Man’s Sky is never not a tedious activity, and even if you’re not interested in upgrades you’ll have to at least go spelunking every now and again to find some plutonium to both fuel your landing thrusters and manufacture more warp cells for jumping from system to system. Once an upgrade is installed it’s locked in place, and can’t be moved or — in the event that you exchange your current model of ship or multitool for one with a higher number of upgrade slots — transferred across to the new one. I suspect this is supposed to make you grind even more as you farm up the materials required to reapply all your upgrades, but in practice it just meant that after I’d exchanged my ship and multitool once each I didn’t bother again, as each had more than enough slots for me to be getting on with and I didn’t want to faff around with mining another 800 aluminium for the Mk2 Warp Drive.
(Ah yes, a word of advice when it comes to restoring a crashed ship – you current ship will disappear the moment you click “Accept” in the dialogue, and your new ship will have a busted pulse drive that will require zinc to repair. Without the pulse drive it can’t fly, and so if you do the exchange on a planet that doesn’t have any zinc you’re screwed unless you spend over an hour hiking around on foot in search of a trading outpost that might sell you some. As I did.)
The space segment of No Man’s Sky is just as cookie-cutter as the planet surfaces — there will be between 2 and 6 planets and one space station, and interplanetary space will be full of small asteroids containing thamium (to fuel your pulse drive) and large asteroids made of one of 2-3 types of neutral element per system — but since it seems like an afterthought anyway this is almost acceptable. Aside from asteroid mining there are no important activities that take place in space; occasionally you’ll see a space battle unfolding that you can get involved in if you want, and occasionally you yourself will be ambushed by a squadron of pirates — this is your cue for a couple of minutes of absolutely braindead combat where your greatest challenge is fighting the terrible ship controls (it always handles like you’re flying with a dead elephant strapped to the top of the ship). Visiting a space station is like visiting a point of interest on a plane since the interiors are all identical; it will have a room off to the side with an alien and a trade node in it, and occasionally other aliens will land inside and you can buy their ships off them if you have the cash. In spite of this I found flying around in space almost more enjoyable than walking around on planet surfaces, though, as it meant my interactions with No Man’s Sky’s atrocious UI were kept to an absolute minimum.
So, if No Man’s Sky is so bad, why did I spend 20 hours playing it? It only took me about five to suss how repetitive the planet generation was, after all. Well, probably another five hours of that was my abortive attempt to see if the planet generation algorithm would change at all if travelled further towards the galactic core. I spent a fair chunk of time mass-producing warp cells and upgrading my warp drive as far as I could, and then when I was ready I made 25 warp jumps towards the core. This was not as easy as it sounds; when faced with the question of how they were possibly going to render millions of stars in any sort of coherent manner Hello Games’ answer was apparently “We’re not going to bother” – at least, that’s the impression I get after having tried to use the galactic map, which is the single worst UI system I have used in probably the last ten years. It gives you nothing to indicate direction aside from a set of waypoint trails to fixed destinations (nearest black hole, nearest Atlas interface, that sort of thing) that, after some experimentation, turned out to not actually indicate the shortest route to my destination and would have had me wasting a shitload of fuel if I’d actually used them. So I was forced to plot my route to the core by eyeballing it using the dreaded “Free Exploration” mode, which lets you inspect nearby stars and see how close they are to the core and eventually narrow it down to one that’s within jump range and which shaves a respectable amount off that distance. Even here, though, the numbers made no sense; I’d be doing a 700 light year jump in a direction that was as dead on to the core as I could manage, and yet it would shave less than 300 light years off the total distance3. 25 jumps got me 5,000 light years closer – not much in the grand scheme of things considering I was 175,000 light years distant at the time, but considering it took several solid hours of effort I was hoping it would make some sort of difference to the planet generation.
This was the point at which I quit the game, as I absolutely could not face the idea of spending 100+ hours inching ever closer to the core in this manner and having to stop on these identikit planets along the way to grind up fuel.
Still, prior to this I had – gasp! — spent eight or nine hours in a state of mild enjoyment. Yes, that might be surprising considering I’ve just spent the last 3,000 words laying into the game, but it is possible to enjoy No Man’s Sky even if you’re aware of its flaws. This is because of the game’s single good point, which is that while I’ve spent most of this review disclaiming No Man’s Sky’s textures as superficial, the truth is that NMS’s art design is actually really goddamn good. It’s by far the best thing about the game, presumably because all of the development budget that should have gone on actual game design was redirected to the artists. This means that if you play it as a weird sort of walking simulator where you ignore the mining and the crafting and the trip to the core and instead spend your time trying to find the perfect angle to take pretty screenshots it can actually be quite entertaining; not the sort of thing that would remain so for more than the aforementioned eight or nine hours, mind, but certainly something that, if it had been handled correctly, could easily have been spun off into an outer space version of Pokemon Snap.
Even here, though, the game makes it as difficult as possible for you to do this; the HUD is omnipresent in a particularly screenshot-ruining fashion, and if you would like me to cite the most damning evidence that Hello Games did not understand the game they were making it is that there is no dedicated button to turn the HUD off. If you want to take a good screenshot, you first have to find the right angle; this is particularly difficult sometimes considering there is no crouch button either. Then you have to open the godawful menu and go into the graphics settings, turn the HUD off, click “Apply”, and then exit back into the game — and you have to do this every time. It’s worth it, though, as even somebody like myself who has whatever photography’s equivalent of tin ear is can take screenshots like the ones littering this review.
I mean, that’s basically No Man’s Sky in a nutshell: it is a great-looking game that almost seems tailor-made for producing gorgeous screenshots, but those looks are all it really has in its favour and you can barely go more than skin-deep here anyway since it is the shallowest of experiences diluted out even further across 18 quintillion planets. To paraphrase myself from earlier in the review, every time No Man’s Sky is confronted with one of the many, many technical and design challenges that has prevented anyone from really taking a swipe at this concept since Frontier, its answer is to simply shrug its shoulders and not bother. It’s an ambitious game that’s been tackled using an approach that’s so ancient it’s practically ossified, and it doesn’t appear to have gone through any of the iteration required to make it work; instead it’s just had a grab-bag of poorly-integrated versions of features from other games thrown in on top to try and make it all worthwhile. I’ve played plenty of bad games in the past, plenty of games that were made by developers without the experience or talent to really make their ideas work, but No Man’s Sky is the first in a while that’s struck me as actively and almost intentionally ignorant. It feels like a game that’s been developed inside a bubble where very few ideas and very little feedback makes it through from the outside, and so it ends up repeating all of the mistakes of the past in a particularly high-profile way because it just doesn’t have the broad awareness of the current state of gaming — both good and bad — that would have enabled it to avoid them. While this makes for an excellent cautionary tale if you happen to be involved in games development, the fact remains that unless you want some new desktop wallpaper the experience of actually playing the thing is incredibly dull. And dull is the last thing a game about exploring the galaxy should be.
- The C stands for content. ↩
- It also let you input your own world seeds to explore the bounds of the generator outside what you’d normally encounter in the default game. ↩
- It gets worse if you go through a black hole. These are supposed to be short cuts to the core. The first time I went through one I wasn’t really paying attention but did notice that it hadn’t cut my distance anywhere near as much as it said. The second time I wrote down the numbers: it flashed up a message saying I’d travelled 500,000 light years (wow!) but when I diffed the numbers before and after I’d gone from 174,580 light years to 173,102 light years distant – less than 1,500 light years and 1% of the total distance required. ↩