It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
No Man’s Sky (NMS) was supposed to be the last space game we ever bought. Sure, Star Citizen and its massive Kickstarter haul is still out there. But they are the Darth Vader of this story. Instead, we had the plucky upstart company, Hello Games, whose breathless vision of adventure without end was much more appealing. The developers promised alien worlds, piracy, giant space battles, dynamic conversations, and dozens of other things straight out of a fan-boy’s wildest dreams. The earlier gameplay videos were promising and gamers went white-hot incandescent in their desire to play this game. I think it is safe to say no game in recent memory has quite grabbed the imagination of gamers than this one. I know because I really wanted to play NMS.
Except the NMS we got isn’t all that good.
Excluding the impression that I’m not sure any game could have lived up to the hype, NMS failed for me for two reasons. The first one is the vaunted procedural generation is pretty poorly done. You can’t really tell on the first couple of planets but after 20 or 30 planets into the 100s you will eventually have to visit on your way to the center of the galaxy, you realize it is the same thing. It is the same buildings, same anomalies, same creatures (just different colors), same – same – same. Occasionally, you run into an especially scenic vista or a creature which the RNG gods created which is unlike anything you seen before but you quickly get the feeling that you will never be surprised by anything this game has to offer.
The second issue is the gameplay systems are dull and uninspired. The resource collecting game which is the heart of anything you’re trying to accomplish in the game is boring – Minecraft does it better. The first person shooter game you play when trying to defeat the Sentinels, gaming’s new most annoying enemy, is aggravating and pointless. The spaceflight model is clunky and minimally responsive and the space combat is a snooze – LucasArts was putting out better space combat simulators in the 90s. I can’t think of a single gameplay system in the game which I truly enjoyed interacting.
I recently went back to try last year’s space game Elite Dangerous (ED) – a game which I bounced off when I initially tried it – and was more appreciative of it after my experiences with NMS. While it is still easy to get bored with ED, ED’s gameplay systems are so much better than NMS. Space combat is surprisingly fun, as is the whole complicated load out game or tricking out your ship. The reputation system creates some interesting dynamics, the economic/trading system is better, and frankly I got more satisfaction out of flying to a distant system and mining a small asteroid on the dark side of a planet with a single bank of ship lights than I ever got from NMS’s procedural generated planets. Bottom line: I think ED has potential to grow with expansions on the horizon in October and beyond because the baseline gameplay is interesting. Despite Hello Games promises to iterate and expand, I am skeptical because the baseline already present simply isn’t fun or interesting.
NMS I think will become a cautionary tale for gamers, worse than Will Wright’s Spore which was at least goofy simplistic fun. Hello Games promised a lot of feature that didn’t materialize and we are left with an impressive enough engine but a profoundly unimpressive game and I’m afraid I won’t be returning.