British indie developer Hello Games has created an algorithm-based universe containing a mind-boggling number of planets to explore, far more than will ever be seen by human eyes. My experience began on a real-life Arcadia, a yellow planet with a pleasant climate and breathable air, its ground covered with gently swaying grass, giant mantis-like creatures grazing its plains. It was spectacular, akin to the moment in Jurassic Park when they first spot the dinosaurs, every bit as impressive as the tantalising screenshots that have dropped from time to time over the last three years. But I know other players whose baptism of fire involved cowering from the 90 degree midday sun on a barren, unforgiving lump of rock.
This realism is both No Man's Sky's greatest achievement and its biggest stumbling block. Seeing new creatures on an alien landscape for the first time fills you with a sense of childlike wonder, but hiding in a mushroom-infested cave while you wait for the arctic night to pass, or scooping up endless ore to feed your life support system, is probably just as tedious as it would be in real life.
I should point out that reviewing No Man's Sky is tricky – the whole point is each player's experience is different; I have only an inkling of how distinct my experience has been from that of other players. The only certainty is that your character wakes up beside the smouldering remains of a wrecked space-ship on a planet unseen by anyone else. Shit. Better use your handy multi-tool to mine some stuff to fix things up.
It quickly becomes clear that beyond the spectacular vistas lies a resource management game: mine, build, upgrade, repeat. Which is fine: endless exploring with no focus would soon lose its lustre. But, to begin with at least, your ability to carry stuff is so overwhelmingly insufficient that it suffocates the sense of limitless possibility. There are mysterious items scattered about that you're forced to abandon because you need zinc to build a new thingamabob for your space-ship. I spent the first two hours marvelling at the environment and the second two cursing my shallow pockets.
When you finally take off, the sense of wonder kicks back in: you roar into the sky, not a loading screen in sight, choosing which of the distant planets you feel like exploring next. My “home” star system also included an ice world, a toxic rock, and an aquatic realm teeming with bipedal chameleons.
But the resource management soon creeps up again: there's always more to mine to craft your next upgrade: a pulse-drive so you can get places quicker, a warp-drive to visit new parts of the galaxy. After about 10 hours I'd all but given up exploring planets on foot, instead cruising along in my ship looking for promising loot. Eventually I found a trading station fortuitously located in the middle of a solid-gold asteroid belt, and spent an hour mining enough to trade for a bigger ship, which recalled the nightmarish grind of games like Destiny.
One of the fears about No Man's Sky was that it would be a beautiful environment without much to do, and there's some truth in this – while there's no shortage of things to interact with, after over 15 hours I'm yet to find anything that's been particularly challenging. Even the small bouts of gunfire, blasting the occasionally hostile "sentinal" drones that buzz around every planet, are straightforward. That's not necessarily a criticism – it was clearly the developers' intention – but it does mean there's no real incentive to re-visit locations you've already discovered.
Another fear was that its algorithm-based universe would soon start to repeat the same tired old landscapes, populated by variations on the same few creatures, but each of the dozen or so planets I've visited have felt utterly distinct, each with a plausible ecosystem and an impressive diversity of plant and animal life.
The design is so seamless, in fact, that it tricks you into assuming a degree of authorship that the algorithm can't possibly provide. After finding an underwater monolith, for instance, I spotted a tunnel encrusted with glowing coral. There must be some treat hidden in there, right? But my exploration just took me to a watery grave: as in real life, you explore submerged caves at your peril.
There are relics of other civilisations littered across the universe, with a vague lore you can start to piece together adding to the feeling that this universe existed long before you crash-landed. You're also silently guided by a mysterious force intent on taking you to the centre of the universe, a quasi-religious presence that hints at something profound lying at the end of your journey. You can ignore it, of course, but the quest to find new challenges will spur most players to take the bait.
If No Man's Sky had landed without the years of anticipation, it would be mind blowing. But hype can be a cruel mistress: she's elusive when you need her most, and demands a heavy payment after she's gone. This game is an incredible technical achievement, but it oscillates between moments of profound beauty and deep frustration. If you want to know what it would be like to be stranded in an alien galaxy, this is probably the closest you're going to get.