It’s tough to explain just how vast No Man’s Sky actually is.
Hello Games’ space exploration epic has an entire universe of planets to explore. How many, roughly? Eighteen quintillion.
Just writing those words can’t paint the whole picture. Try the number instead: 18,446,744,073,709,551,616. That’s not just big - it’s quite literally astronomical.
There was never any chance of one person seeing it all - which made this review a little tricky.
We’ve spent an entire week traversing the interstellar abyss, but have still only seen a miniscule amount of what No Man's Sky is hiding on its insane number of procedurally-generated planets.
Even with a meagre few thousand parsecs on the spaceship milometer, though, it's clear what type of gamer is going to love getting lost in the near-infinite depths of space.
TO BOLDLY GO
No Man’s Sky is all about the journey.
You start on the very edge of the universe, and have to get to the centre. Why? It's all a bit mysterious, but the alien races you meet all have their reasons for seeing you get there in one piece.
It’s a seriously big galaxy out there, but you aren’t let loose on it right away.
First you’ve got to repair your broken ship, scavenging materials from the surface of the planet you’re stranded on. I’ve spent a lot more time exploring on foot than flying through space, so it makes sense the opening hour keeps you on terra firma.
Each algorithm-generated world is filled with alien flora and fauna, and just about every plant and rock can be broken down into raw materials with your mining tool.
Some are easy to come by, but you’ll have to hike across mountain ranges, dive under water, and trudge through swamps to find rarer elements. At least you’ve got a jet pack to boost your way around a little faster than running on foot.
No Man’s Sky owes Minecraft a big debt - right down to the limited inventory space and item combinations that let you build better tools.
You can’t carry much at all, so it’s a balancing act between finding the kit you need for ship repairs and topping up your life support systems, which gradually eke away as you wander the surface of hostile planets. Prioritising inventory upgrades makes your life a little easier, but how to do that isn't really explained - you've got to discover how on your own.
Every new world I’ve explored exists as its own ecosystem - either hot, cold, mountainous or covered in jungle. I’m still waiting to see some more Earth-like planets, with varied landscapes and weather fronts that change as you move about. If they exist at all.
It all feels a little empty at first, too.
Sure, each planet has its own native wildlife, but I’ve only bumped into packs of timid animals so far. No predators, no food chains - just herds of different animals co-existing, then scattering as I jetpack into view.
The only sentient aliens I’ve bumped into so far have been sat behind desks. The warrior-like Vy’keen look like Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars, but mostly just grunt at you before handing over the gear you need to move on to the next star system.
They blarp, warble and toot at you, but you’ll do more reading than listening - there’s no real voice acting here. Just in case you’d forgotten how small the No Man’s Sky dev team actually is.
It doesn’t help you don’t speak the language. There are several alien tongues to master, with new words added to your dictionary as you find Knowledge Stones scattered throughout the universe. It'll take a long time before you're completely fluent.
GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM
It’s a good job you don’t have to stick to one planet, then. Bored of the one you’re on? Once your ship is repaired, you can lift off and leave the atmosphere whenever you like.
The transition is completely seamless, with a fiery glow surrounding your cockpit before you break through the clouds and out into the stars.
In fact, the whole game looks drop-dead gorgeous.
Forget ultra-detailed textures and photo-realistic lighting; No Man’s Sky feels more like a brightly coloured, softly-lit dreamscape that’s a literal universe away from darker, more moody space adventures like Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen.
I’ve even got a soft spot for the JJ Abrams-esque lens flares that crop up whenever you dock with a space station or enter an off-world colony.
The beautiful visuals make even the barren, downright dangerous planets worth a visit, just to see what difference a purple atmosphere and two suns will have on your surroundings when you’re on the surface.
A SCANNER DARKLY
I think the combination of simple visuals, go-at-your-own pace planetary exploration and blissfully minimal electronic soundtrack make No Man’s Sky the most calming, zen-like experience I’ve ever had playing a game.
When you’re not getting shot at by space pirates.
The Metroid Prime-style scanner built into your mining tool plays a big part of that. It records undiscovered plants, trees, minerals and animals - scan something new and it’ll get added to the global database, listing you as the Darwinian space explorer that found it.
Because every player is a part of the one massive galaxy, your discoveries are out there for other people to find, and curse the fact you beat them to it.
Just knowing there are other players out there somewhere, even if the odds of actually bumping into one of them are infinitesimally small, made me want to get there first and stick my name on everything I could.
Sorry x360_nOscOpE_89x, I was here before you. Enjoy your stay on Planet Stuff.
It’s not like you’re on a peaceful scientific expedition across the cosmos, though. That mining multi-tool doubles as a plasma-spewing rifle for a reason.
Every planet is protected by Sentinels, robotic guards that try to stop you hoovering up every natural resource in sight. Mine in the wrong place and they’lI turn their laser canons on you.
One or two at a time aren’t really a problem - the small floating ones are more like flies, buzzing around you and chipping away at your shields. Don’t get complacent, though.
I got cocky trying to raid an alien Monolith for artefacts. A Sentinel attack force turned up to spoil my day, with giant stompy mechs cutting chunks out of the scenery with giant beams of laser death. The resulting empty inventory and grave marker on my my star map served to remind me that I wasn’t the toughest SOB in the universe. Yet.
It’s the same in space. You could try your hand at piracy, preying on giant freighters and hoovering up their parts once you’ve blown them to bits, but pretty soon you’ll have squadrons of enemy attack ships on your tail. The 360-degree dogfights are brilliant fun, and perfectly fluid on a PS4 controller, even if they’re few and far between until you get further into the journey.
I’ve not seen any epic battles with frigates, battlecruisers and space stations joining the mix, but there’s a lot more life out there than you’d think given the size of the universe.
Land on a planet filled with metal deposits and you’ll be able to stock up, shuffling your ship and suit inventories as you go to hold as much as you can. The fewer trips back to an interstellar marketplace terminal you make, the more cash you’ll get per trip.
Still, even with a full cargo hold, you won’t be able to turn rubble into rubies just by finding the right space station. Prices at trading hubs tend to stay roughly the same, even between solar systems, so there’s no real way to get rich quick.
I stumbled onto a few high price items, but they’re very rare. It took hours to finally scrape together the coins I needed to swap my starting space cruiser for a larger model. The rarer freighters will set you back millions of credits - you won’t be flying anything but a junker for the first few hours.
Your bank balance won’t take a hit if you concentrate on weapon, ship and suit upgrades, but each one takes up resources - and fills up a slot you could be using for raw materials. It’s a tough call, but another example of how you really can play any way you want.
Whatever your approach, you'll have plenty of time to try other ideas - the galaxy is bigger than you think. Yep, even bigger than that.
No Man's Sky: initial verdict
This is exactly the kind of variety I think will get gamers coming back to No Man’s Sky again and again. There’s no one set way to play, and while everyone has the same overall goal - to get to the centre of the galaxy - how to do that is really up to you.
Other space games have trodden a similar path, but the algorithmically-generated planets you can explore every inch of are something completely unique.
I was worried that it wouldn't be able to keep delivering with every new world I travelled to, but it's not long before you have to start hiding from more dangerous wildlife, top up your environment suit as toxic weather fronts and radioactive stormclouds roll over the planets you're exploring, and flee from some pretty epic space battles you really shouldn't have wandered into in the first place.
The lack of structure won’t appeal to everyone, though. You’re getting an entire universe to play in, but you’ve got to find your own fun within it and create your own goals. Sure, you can aim for the middle, but it’s going to take a long time to get there.
The mine, fly, trade, repeat formula might get boring after a few weeks of solid play, but the pacing and limitless exploration make it the perfect way to wind down. Fed up of 13-year-olds thrashing you in Call of Duty? Stick this on and chill out - those indigenous aliens aren't going to teabag your corpse any time soon.
Oh, and you’d better believe I’m going to claim any planets you don't explore in the name of Stuff.