No Man’s Sky is not a very good video game. It is, however, a brilliant and enjoyable experience.
I say it’s not a good game because once you dig down into it, there really isn’t much to it. You have a little bit of resource collection, a little bit of mostly-useless stuff to craft, and a vague goal to reach the center of the universe. As a game, it’s shallow and rather dull.
Take for crafting, for instance. I learn tons of different blueprints to augment my Multi-tool… I can turn my bullets into ricochet rounds, or make it more like a shotfun, or my plasma grenades into bouncy grenades… but why? The only real conflict in the game comes from facing Sentinels, and they are easily dispatched by regular weaponry. What I’m saying is, the game is giving me all of these options to customize how I want to play, but not giving me any situations that would drive that customizations.
Resources are so plentiful that survival becomes a joke. Recharging your suit/life support is such a non-concern that it becomes more of a nuisance then a real “gotta make sure I can survive this trek” consideration.
No Man’s Sky also suffers from a common RPG problem: You cannot fool yourself into believing that this universe is a living place. The creatures wander in circles, and only change up their behavior when you get close. The alien NPCs are always static, and you find them in the same location, in the same repeating room layouts, over and over again. It never appears that they are going about some daily routine of theirs; they may as well just be signposts for all of the life they add to the atmosphere.
A lot of RPGs these days are trying to move away from this issue as best they can, but NMS, perhaps due to limitations of being procedurally generated, flaunts them whole-hog. The seams of this stitched together universe are fully on display at all times.
So that’s where No Man’s Sky flounders. If you go looking for a game in there, you’ll find maybe a few days worth at best before it dries up and the repetition kicks in.
However the game does deliver magnificently on the experience of exploring. The process of landing on a new planet and discovering the types of minerals to be found, the types of creatures that reside there, what the landscape looks like and, above all, knowing you could spend a week exploring just that one world and still not find everything simply cannot be understated enough.
I have found No Man’s Sky to be one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve had with a game in a long time. There is something so calming about the act of exploring whilst knowing that you have no pressing matters to attend to. There’s no King who has asked you to save his Kingdom, the fate of the world does not rest in your hands, and there are no squads of rifle-wielding mutants waiting over every hill to deal with.
You are just… there. To do as you will in the moment. Take as much time as you want on a single planet (I spent the first two days exploring my starting planet, seeking out the local language), or touch down, take a look around and say “Nah, I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” It’s all up to you.
I know for a fact that this is going to grow stale long before I reach the center of the universe; I’m fine with that. After a while you start to see the machinery at work beneath all of the wonder. You start to recognize the different parts the game uses to construct the creatures, you’ve memorized the dozen or so outpost layouts, and done the same number puzzle fifty times. It is, after all, just math under the hood.
Right now, though, No Man’s Sky is a welcome stress relief. I can pop in and spend a few hours looking for new creatures, and naming them, and knowing that I’m putting my little mark on this vast universe, tickled at the idea that someone might come along some day and find something I discovered. I know it’s not a great game, but that doesn’t stop be from enjoying the experience of it all.
And perhaps they’ll continue to develop the game, and add features, and the gameplay will become more robust. At the very least, it’s a fascinating first look at the sort of thing that can be done now, and potentially incorporated into games in the future.