No Man's Sky is an exploration game set in a vast galaxy of over 18 quintillion planets. Each one is massive--too big for any one person to explore fully in the span of a day--and if you’re the first to discover one, you not only get to name it, you also get first dibs on any discoveries contained within. This is a game about travel, survival, and commerce, backed by impressive tech that allows for near seamless transitions from ground to space. There are multiple layers to consider, and while some details will make your journey feel more genuine, there are flaws that occasionally derail your investment in the odyssey. However, there's an intriguing narrative that contextualizes your in-game actions, making for a fascinating experience that ultimately trumps issues that appear early on.
Like the location and composition of each planet, most of the things you see and interact with in No Man's Sky have been arranged by an algorithm. You may find joy in identifying and cataloging new plant and animal species, of which there are plenty. The sheer number of possible variations of worlds and wild species is too large to fully comprehend, but because the variety is defined by a computer pulling from a restricted pool of options, animals appear more like slapdash creations than thoughtful constructions. No matter how immediately strange and amusing your first dozen encounters with nature are, these sightings start to feel rote after only a few hours because every living thing is weird in one way or another. They can't all be special.
If biology isn't your bag, you can spend your days mining planets for resources that you can sell to other traders in space stations, mix to craft simple goods and accessories, or store as fuel reserves for your gear and starship. With your gun-like mining tool, you’ll spend hours tearing through rocks, plants, and asteroids in search of commodities. As is the case with wildlife, planets aren't guaranteed to have what you're looking for--some are barren, others offer untold bounties, and the rest fall somewhere in the middle.
As you explore, you have to monitor your exosuit equipment to maintain protection from hazardous conditions--and, occasionally, to recover from a violent encounter. Combat is a secondary activity, but it occurs often enough to make the game's unrefined controls a bigger issue. As you mine planets, security drones belonging to an unknown entity will attack if you’re too brazen or greedy. Aiming the weapon component of your multitool is finicky enough to make these encounters more of an annoyance than an enjoyable challenge. In space, you may cross paths with space pirates--usually one or a group of three. These battles, again, lack excitement and depth.
Unlike planets, which often feel plausible and unpredictable, NPCs you meet in space stations and outposts lack distinct personalities. They are siloed in repetitive and predictable structures, existing solely to serve as the other party during an exchange of words and goods. At best, you can learn bits of each species' lexicon by discovering translation monoliths on planets, but even this process lacks substance. While it can be somewhat gratifying to see previously garbled speech slowly turn into recognizable words over dozens of hours, trader dialogue remains stiff and impersonal, only pertaining to the events at hand. Even when you fail to understand what another being is saying, your character's inner dialogue paints a clear picture of the situation, allowing you to easily make logical, lucrative decisions.
Your starship and exosuit have a limited number of slots that can hold stacks of resources or be used to apply equipment upgrades. You gain new slots for your exosuit and have the option to purchase new starships with greater storage capacity, but no matter how many slots you have, you'll always crave more. So you try to be efficient and work with what you have, but No Man's Sky doesn't make it easy. You have to navigate a plain grid of items using a slow-moving cursor, holding down a button for seconds at a time to confirm every action. Managing your inventory is a large part of No Man's Sky, and it's made more difficult than it needs to be.
Starships come in a range of models, with varying color palettes and accessories, and while you may get lucky and find a wrecked ship to repair and call your own, working models are readily available in space-station hangars, where traders come and go in real time. The wait-and-see approach to ship shopping can be a tad boring, but when one you love coasts into view and you can afford it, you feel rejuvenated. When you have a fresh new ride, it doesn't feel like your efforts planetside were in vain--they’re the reason you can afford an upgrade.
As time goes on, however, you may lose the high that came from your new purchase and seek another. No Man's Sky pitches material pursuits as its reason for being in that all of its systems are in support of making big money to afford big purchases, but the loop eventually wears thin, and you grow increasingly immune to the thrill of purchasing new toys. Even envy creeps in when a fancy ship passes you by, which often leads to begrudgingly mining on any planet with the goods, regardless of how depressing or empty it may be.
In a galaxy with no real friends or social ties, it's easy to look at possessions as a way to curb loneliness and provide meaning to your journey. You're given little direction other than to try to get to the center of the galaxy. When you begin nearly 180,000 light-years away from the center and each black hole carries you, on average, about 1,000 light-years forward, it's tough to feel like you're making progress. No matter how many solar systems you jump to or planets you explore on the "direct" path to the center of the galaxy, you'll grow tired of repetitive NPC interactions and the planets' implied-but-shallow variety, and you’ll lose interest in new ships--and perhaps the journey altogether.
However, there is another way to play No Man's Sky that skirts open-ended meandering. Tucked neatly into the galaxy is a narrative path, delivered so subtly that you may miss the fact that the first decision you make in the game--activating a distress beacon--connects you to a mysterious force known as Atlas. As you continue to travel the stars, you encounter peculiar space stations housing two scientists. These individuals help you acquire equipment upgrades and can point you toward black holes or illuminate the path to Atlas stations. Atlas stations are vast, temple-like spaces with an altar that allows you to convene with the spirit of Atlas. At first, it's difficult to define what Atlas is, but if you continue to heed its call, it will open your eyes to greater truths about itself, your journey, and the galaxy at large.
In a game with such a seemingly loose structure, Atlas is a godsend, providing direction and perspective that’s otherwise lost if you simply head to the center of the galaxy on the default path outlined on your star map. The realizations that Atlas stirs in your character's mind address big-picture questions pertaining to not only the game, but also to life itself. You’re forced to confront the point of your wandering, the value of material wealth, and the reason for existence. Atlas, in many ways, illustrates the value religion plays in some people's lives, but it also--quite cleverly--examines the role a game like No Man's Sky plays. It's no small coincidence that the scientist who aids you in your quest to find Atlas bemoans your direction, yet is hungry to consume what you discover.
If you only concern yourself with exploring, mining, and buying goods, you may burn out on No Man's Sky early. Atlas' observations regarding these pursuits are apt, but even if you recognize these activities as shallow, they could be better with added depth and improved mechanics. No amount of clever, thoughtful writing can excuse these issues. That said, the way Atlas frames these activities and how it makes you consider them in life as well as in-game--that's redeeming.
No Man's Sky is immediately a massive game with impressive seamless transitions from ground to space, and it will entertain your inner collector for a while. The more you get to know it, the more you recognize its faults, and it's easy to fall so deep into the act of exploring and trading that your focus narrows to those aspects alone. If, however, you consider everything it has to offer and listen to what Atlas has to say, No Man's Sky becomes more than a collection of slightly different worlds in a seemingly never-ending galaxy--it becomes an examination of the meaning of life in a way that's more valuable than all the gold or starships in its virtual galaxy.