We’ve been playing No Man’s Sky since it launched on PS4 yesterday (our final review will be based on the PC version, we just don’t have it yet) and so far it’s mostly about exploring, mining, and crafting. There are also space pirates, but we usually just die when they show up. Space pirates are assholes. Really, it’s the relaxing game Sean Murray said it was earlier this week.
The ultra-brief summary: you visit planets and moons and space stations to collect resources and craft upgrades to travel to the next star system to do the same, and then another and another and another on a path toward the center of a galaxy (or in any direction you please, if you don’t care about the story). The big hook is that the planets and their lifeforms are all procedurally generated, so you never know what you’ll find when you land. Chris Livingston found a planet full of creatures who only hop. I found a horrible land squid. Here’s our conversation about the game so far.
Procedural planets and plutonium management
Tyler: I like No Man’s Sky, but it does present a lot of concerns at the start, doesn’t it? When you start to see planets that look sort of the same, and start to wonder how much mining you’re going to have to do—and you realize it’s probably a lot.
Chris: I didn’t really enjoy day one. We’re both about 10 hours in, but at first I felt like I was visiting all of these exotic planets and walking around with my head down looking for rocks to shoot.
Tyler: Yeah. At least at the start all the planets have roughly the same sort of important resources and they’re becoming balls of plutonium to me. It's like, dead planet, lush planet, whatever, I need some plutonium, bye.
Chris: And fuck that inventory size.
Tyler: The starting inventory is awful.
Chris: And I’m not saying it needs to be Minecraft or Starbound where you can hoover up stacks and stacks of resources, but even after adding a few slots to my suit it still feels way too small.
Tyler: Yeah. Mine is always full. I'll buy a new ship as soon as I can.
Chris: I eventually just saved up enough units to buy a slightly bigger ship from an alien at a trading post. I have a bit of buyer’s remorse, because it’s only a couple of slots bigger, but it felt like my choices were either buy something a little better or wait for ages to buy something a lot better.
Tyler: Ultimately, however much inventory you have, the motivation is always to get to another system, see some more planets, so in my mind the planets have to get a lot more interesting. I’m starting to see some cooler ones now and then. Maybe it ramps up? Like you start to see new elements mixed in the further you go?
Chris: I have found I’m enjoying the planets more the longer I play, at least visually. Though they seem to have most of the same stuff to find in terms of outposts or secrets. I'll stumble on something that seems like it might unfold interestingly, but it'll just be another icon to visit to get some more stuff. The planet activities seem to all be radiant, not much different from one another.
Tyler: Yeah. I've found the same abandoned outpost twice already, with alien tentacles growing on the computer.
Chris: Saw that too, the console covered with alien tomatoes.
Tyler: It feels like they built all this cool procedural generation but what we’re going to end up remembering isn’t the cave generation code, it’s the pre-built stuff we see over and over. The outposts. Because I want to find something unique, right? Another cave might be cool, but I’ve seen caves like it.
Chris: At least the caves almost always look really nice.
Tyler: Oh definitely. This is certainly a leap in scale and quality for procedural generation, but we knew it wasn’t going to accidentally generate sentient life or anything. So, you know, cave #25 is going to be a bit like cave #24. I just wish I'd land and find a huge forest, or vast oceans, or snow capped mountains. But that hasn’t really happened.
Chris: Yeah. Planets being a single biome, it makes them not feel worth really exploring for long because you’re not going to see anything much different than the spot you landed on, but Sean Murray said that was kind of the point, to keep players moving instead of just hanging out one on planet. But actually, on my second day, I’ve been spending much more time on individual planets and having a much better time. I’ve been trying to complete a planet 100 percent, to find all the secrets, which gives a nice payout but is also more enjoyable to me than just landing, shooting some rocks, and blasting off again. I’ve been on a moon for almost two hours today and it’s the best time I’ve had so far. It’s relaxing. I’m taking my time.
Tyler: That sounds nice. And yeah, each planet is a little snow globe scene warped and stretched so you have lots of room to run. It does keep you moving to new planets. And you can see so much so quickly because traveling isn't really hard, so it's like speed tourism. It's not really about the journey, just snacking on little discoveries, new tech, rare resources. Which is OK. It's something I can hop into and mess around with just for an hour if I want, and I'll feel like I saw a lot. I don't feel super accomplished at the end, but if I found one planet I sort of like and explored it for a while I feel like I got something.
Chris: I found an ass-ugly planet which was kind of nice in a way. Like, this is just a shitty ugly planet and that's OK because our universe probably has a bunch of planets that completely suck.
Tyler: I like that. Did you name it ‘Uglyland?’
Chris: I didn’t name it. I’ve only named two things: a planet where all the creatures were hopping, which I named it Hoppy Planet because I am an excellent writer. And I named one creature. Otherwise I can’t be bothered. I hate typing with a controller.
Tyler: I think I’ve only named two as well. I get naming paralysis because I want to be clever but eventually I get tired of that and just go, “OK, there was gold on it so it’s ‘Goldland.’” And to back up a little I know it sounds like I want No Man’s Sky to do the impossible. I don’t really expect it to simulate five billion years of biodiversification. I’m just imagining. It’s a game that lets you imagine that anything could be coming next, but you know it’s not really anything. I do get pretty excited when I find something unexpected, though, even if it’s just fresh water.
Chris: Yeah, when I landed on my moon and it started to rain, I was like, shit. But it wasn’t acid rain like every other planet! It was just regular rain and that was a nice surprise. Also, one time I found a giant gold penis.
Storytelling and alien civilizations
Tyler: How about the story? I think we both went on the Atlas path, and now on the next path after that. I think the writing is very pretty. I collect pulp sci-fi periodicals and it does capture some of that feel, though in a cryptic way that I both like and don’t. I don’t sense that the aliens you meet have a culture and history built out around them. It’s just more self-aware than that, like everyone and everything knows we’re in a contained system that the player is the center of.
Chris: I wish it was more of a conversation than just your reaction to them. Or that the aliens walked around a bit, climbed out of their ships. There are chairs all over the trading posts but no one is ever sitting in them.
Tyler: Yeah, the sentient aliens you talk to are props, really. Well-written props, but just snippets of an interesting sci-fi novel.
Chris: The writing is really good, and often interesting, sometimes even sad or funny. As static as these alien props are, I do enjoy many of the encounters because of the writing.
Tyler: Me too. I like the robot dudes who sometimes download a new personality before talking to you. I just get nitpicky because I love sci-fi that builds out alien cultures, really digs into their history and civilization, but these guys are just scattered around everywhere, right? Like you’re seeing the same guys in whatever galaxy you’re in?
Chris: Yeah, the Geks and all of them, hanging out in space stations and trading posts and things. I’m enjoying the robot dudes. One stuck a needle in my head and then gave me a present. It’s also a bit weird that a planet is considered unexplored when there's buildings and sentinels and aliens and other ships everywhere.
Tyler: It bothers me even though I know it’s a reasonable decision.
Chris: Elite did it too. It's to keep you company. In Elite, you’ll be mining an asteroid in a solar system no one has ever seen before and two minutes later another mining ship will be there.
Tyler: And I guess there needs to be a space station in every system so you can buy stuff. There has to be constants or it doesn’t work, you could end up in a star system you could never escape from.
Chris: I feel like you should never need fuel. It's like you run out of fuel in space, so they put asteroids everywhere, so you can get fuel easily. By then why bother making me stop?
Tyler: It's insane that you have to go into the menu, then submenu, to refuel everything. And there's no button that just says, ‘Use up my damn fuel. Put it all into where it goes.’
Chris: It needs an auto-loader. It’s one of those things you think would have come up during all the testing they must have done. Didn’t anyone notice it was annoying? Along with putting the space station traders on the second floor. Why? What makes you think I want to have to go to the second floor every single time I visit a space station? Just have a drive-through window so I don’t have to get out of my ship. I’m a busy man.
Procedural creatures and space pirates
Tyler: How have you liked the non-sentient alien creatures, the procedural ones? At first I was sort of down on them because they all seemed like mix-and-match dinosaurs. And I was thinking, OK, I guess this is ‘infinitely’ big but after 10, 20 systems have you really seen it all? Like you keep going and then maybe see a tiger-headed thing with a dinosaur body, but it’s not really that different.
Chris: Just like during my first hands-on with the game, very few of the creatures are interesting. Most are just like, oh, there’s a thing.
Tyler: Right, then I found these weird land squids, and I was back on board. And there’s the guy who found little Ewok things. I found something kind of like that, but with feathered wings. It's a little disappointing that it's so similar but I was still excited to chase it around and feed it. It's a cute little terror beast.
Chris: On day two, and I don’t know if it’s the result of following a path deeper, but I’m seeing more creatures that look like they came out of someone’s imagination rather than being spit out of a math problem.
Tyler: Me too. I still think you could design cooler creatures, though. Earth already has some wacky animals, and it’s not just ‘here’s a tiger body with an elk head.’ It’s emus, or octopuses, or giraffes with their insane necks, or those crazy fish that live in the Mariana Trench. But of course, if you design them, how many are you gonna do? 100? 1,000? Obviously that’s not the point. The point is vastness. That you can go to 1,000 planets and keep seeing slightly different things.
Chris: For your idea, you need procedural and then some designed rare and legendary creatures. But then people would be seeing the same things and yeah, the point is that no one sees the same things. Our real universe is probably filled with shitty animals too.
Tyler: Oh yeah?
Chris: We'll finally land on another planet and the astronaut will look out and be like, 'Eh, that's just a tiger body with an elk head, lame.'
Tyler: “Oh look,” we’ll say. “Another vast cavern full of unknown flora. Big deal.”
Chris: I feel like I only complained but I am liking it a bit.
Tyler: I think a lot of what we’re saying is that the procedural generation is cool, but it’s hard not to sit here imagining how much cooler it could be, in some hypothetical future game. Like what if it really could run a 5 billion year hyper-advanced Dwarf Fortress simulation in an instant and give us the remnants of dead civilizations, animals that properly evolved to match their environment, different biomes, and all that. So it makes you go ‘what if’ a lot, even though what’s in front of you is pretty cool as it is. I like it too.
Chris: I just want to get to the point where I have tons of fuel and go look at planets without going into my inventory every few minutes.
Tyler: I do want a kickass ship. The pirates keep killing me. I just don't know how to handle them.
Chris: Same. My guns are shit.
Tyler: I mean what the hell, I have to go into the inventory menu to recharge my shields?
Chris: And by their third pass my shields are gone. There's not even any point in trying.
Tyler: We’re back to complaining. But it’s good, right?
Chris: Well, I’m sort of annoyed I had to stop playing long enough to have this discussion, so maybe that tells you something.
We’ll have more impressions as we keep playing, and we’ll have a review once we’ve thoroughly tested the PC version, which is out Friday. There’s a lot about No Man’s Sky to pick apart and criticize, and it’s a bit damaged by how much room there is to imagine crazier things—our imaginations being so much bigger than procedural generation algorithms. Even so, we do like it so far. Managing your inventory sucks, but it’s still invigorating to blast off from a moon and seamlessly careen into the atmosphere of its planet without fully knowing what you’re going to find.