So I’ve picked up NO MAN’S SKY – and here’s what I think

I’ve heard so many mixed reviews about NO MAN’S SKY that made me wonder what all the fuzz was about. On the surface the game seems to be something I might enjoy, combining exploration on a vast scale, building, crafting and handsome looking graphics. The asking price of $60 promises a AAA title, so when it was on sale the other day, both on Steam and on GOG, I picked it up and had a look at it.

I’m coming into this game cold, not knowing what to expect. I literally had no expectations, other than the hope of having a good time. Sadly that didn’t happen. It can be like that with complex games though, you have to give it an hour or two to get into them, learn the interface, understand what you’re supposed to do. Good games (like any good software) will help you make this a welcoming experience.

NO MAN’S SKY doesn’t do that. It’s not even trying.

The premise of the game is that we’ve lost our memory, crash landed on a planet, our space ship is broken, life support in our suit is failing, and we have to find a way to survive (not necessarily in that order). We need to fix that multi tool, hunt for resources, build some spare parts and get off this rock. Where have I heard that story before?

What usually happens is that you’re given a quick tutorial as to what buttons to press and how to do things. Even if it’s disguised as a mission of sorts. NO MAN’S SKY doesn’t do that. Instead you’re left to figure out an overly complex, unintuitive, badly designed interface all by yourself. No matter what buttons I pressed, it was not obvious to me how to navigate around. I was playing with a game controller, and while it is fully supported and recognised, the mapping and navigation wasn’t really made for it – nor did they try very hard getting to get it right. Bizarre concept for a console release.

Eventually I figured out the basics, after what feels like half an hour, and it certainly wasn’t fun getting to that point. The next thing the game does is send you far away to a distant point in the desolate landscape, to retrieve some vital part necessary for fixing my ship. To get there we have to walk 20 minutes through a wasteland that is the procedurally generated planet. We meet some procedural animals, plants, marvel at the day/night cycle and the ever changing light effects, all the while making sure we don’t die of heat exposure. Nothing else happens. For 20 minutes of my life.

When we finally retrieve that “thing” we need, we walk back to our ship, through the same landscape we’ve already seen, for yet another 20 minutes. We may encounter a structure to explore on the way, but it becomes painfully obvious that perhaps a car or some other form of transportation would come in handy. Maybe at some point we’ll find out how to build one, but it doesn’t help us right now – having just wasted 40 minutes of our lives doing nothing other than push that left thumb stick forward, or hold down the W key.

We finally get back to the ship, put that part in, only to find out that we now have to find some resources to progress. We walk around, we scan things, we use that laser thing to harvest things, and that about wraps it up for my two hour test of the game.

So what just happened? Am I hooked on NO MAN’S SKY? Am I eager to see where this is going? What other worlds and wonders lie ahead? How am I feeling? Is this the beginning of an exciting journey, an intriguing story that I can’t wait to see unfold?

Actually no. I’m frustrated, disappointed, bored to death with this game. The feeling of having been ripped off seeps in, so much so that I take a look at Steam’s refund policy. It’s that bad!

I truly appreciate what Hello Games have tried to implement here: a fully procedural universe with (probably) tons of features, lush underwater worlds, vehicles and buildings I could make, uncover intriguing mysteries along the way – but it seems I’m destined never to see any of that. Had it not been for the various launch and update trailers, I would have no idea those things even exist in the game.

So I give NO MAN’S SKY the benefit of the doubt and start a new game, this time in creative mode. That’s the one where we don’t have to worry about survival or resource hunting. We can just start building things and see if that’s more welcoming. I know it greatly helped me get the hang of Subnautica. But that logic doesn’t hold true here: the interface is so unintuitive that it’s impossible for me to work out how to build stuff.

The final thing I’ve tried was to leave the planet, and see what another procedurally generated world might look like. Be dazzled by that no-loading-screen take-off and landing sequence I’ve heard so much about. So I jump into my (magically no longer damaged) space ship, exploring the cockpit, and… nothing. All I can do is get in and out. There are no controls, no buttons, no explanations, no nothing. Are they serious? Nobody noticed these fatal design flaws during play testing?

Puzzled and confused, I go back into my previous game. There has to be more to NO MAN’S SKY than this. I spend another hour walking around, trying really hard to like this game. Knowing full well that “this” can’t be everything. There has to be something here that hooks the player’s attention before they hit “uninstall”. But no matter what I do, all I feel at this point is that this game isn’t for me. Perhaps it’s totally obvious to others what players have to do, and maybe I’m just too stupid or too old – or maybe I’m just painfully aware that our time on THIS planet (Earth) is way too short to waste it on badly designed prototypes like NO MAN’S SKY.

I really appreciate that the team have been sticking this one out. I love that three years after it’s original (flawed) release in 2016, they’re bringing out major upgrades in this game for free. They’re tirelessly working on their original vision, they’ve been under huge scrutiny for years, and they’re still in business. They haven’t given up, and I give them 10 out of 10 stars for hanging in there.

I feel reminded of Mass Effect Andromeda, whose team knew early on that they’ve built a lemon, and very quickly abandoned the project after release. Fix what you can, then cut your losses and move on. That’s what most humans would do, especially if there’s finance people involved. But Hello Games didn’t do that. They believed in NO MAN’S SKY, and they continue to believe in it.

Besides, the graphics are beautiful. Photo Mode is extremely well implemented and a lot of fun to play with. We can take beautiful shots with this game in real time. The character animations are nice, the sound design is great, and I really get a feeling of abandoned loneliness on that one planet I was able to explore. I can imagine that had I gotten into it, this could have been a great long journey and an enjoyable experience for me, and my viewers alike.

Which is why it pains me to say that, without any discernible story, a terribly designed interface, and the complete non-starter experience I’ve had, I’m now so bored with the game that I can only abandon it and move on. Sorry team, it’s not for me. How many hours do you expect me to give you? Five? Ten? Twenty? Imagine investing that much time into a game and not getting anything in return?

If a game has “mixed” reviews, it means there aren’t just a couple of nut jobs out there who dislike it. It means you’ve not got the basics right. You’ve been focussing on things players are likely never to experience, and you’ve missed out on showing players what awaits them, or how to get there.

Rest in peace, NO MAN’S SKY.

Update

The next day after posting this, and just before asking for a refund, I thought I’ll try to lift off that planet one more time. It took me a while, but I managed to repair my thrusters and “seek answers among the stars”. Eventually I was lead to a new planet that looked surprisingly similar to the one I had just left (yet apparently in a different star system… go figure).

I followed some coordinates, was given some new blueprints. While two alien creatures were attacking me from both sides, the game was showing important information about the blueprints. Reading it made them attack me more, skipping it would have left me alive yet not shown me the info I needed. It’s classic! Hello Games really make sure you can’t have a good time in this game. This is some of the worst AI and game design I’ve ever seen. It beats GTA III from 1999.

Perhaps there’s another award nomination in there somewhere?

Jay is founder of WP Hosting, a boutique style managed WordPress hosting and support service. He has been working with Plesk since version 9 and is a qualified Parallels Automation Professional. In his spare time he likes to develop iOS apps and WordPress plugins, or drawing on tablet devices. He blogs about his coding journey at http://wpguru.co.uk and http://pinkstone.co.uk.

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