You enter a new system for the first time, activating your ship’s scanner. There’s a trading post on the nearest planet. You hit the booster, breaking the enormous green globe’s atmosphere and gliding shakily to the planet’s surface. It has a name, but you open your “discoveries” menu and give it a new one.
The planet’s craggy surface is strewn with the resources you’ll need to make your next system jump. You stop at the trading post and chat with its lone denizen, aim your mining laser at a jagged plutonium sprout, recharge your ship’s thruster or hyperdrive, then head back into orbit. You jump to the next system and do it all over again.
No Man’s Sky has 18 quintillion planets. I have no idea what that number means, but it’s what the game’s developers, Hello Games, keep saying and users and blogs keep repeating. (Read my Q&A with Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray here.) I understand it to equate roughly to “a shitload.” But does that make No Man’s Sky a good video game?
The reality of “18 quintillion planets” is a whole lot of worlds that look and feel basically interchangeable. Likely due to Hello Games’ limited resources—they’re a tiny indie studio, despite some backing from Sony—almost every planet you encounter is depressingly similar to the last. There are about a half-dozen resources necessary for progression, to refuel your spaceship and life-support systems, and those are abundant on every rock you descend to. The abandoned buildings, monuments and trading posts look the same no matter how many light years you travel, and most planets’ terrain varies only in color scheme.
The first time you unearth a rarer resource underground, or spy a crazy-looking creature shambling by on the horizon, or crest a ridge to be greeted with a gorgeous vista on the other side, you’ll feel like No Man’s Sky is everything they said it would be. The second time, you’ll feel like there should be a little more variety. The tenth, or twentieth, or fiftieth, you’ll go play something else. No Man’s Sky is infinite permutations on a limited number of possible variables; if there are extremes out there—crashing waterfalls, miles-deeps ravines or giant space dinosaurs—no one seems to have found them yet. This is not the infinite cornucopia that many people expected from 18 quintillion planets.
But—but—what if a slightly more limited cornucopia still makes for an enjoyable game? You probably won’t be playing No Man’s Sky for the rest of your life, but there are still surprises even after tens of hours of gameplay. Try getting out of your ship to immediately get headbutted by this strapping fella:
Or finding a planet rich in these things and knowing you’ll never run out of galactic credits ever again:
One of the rare resources that aren’t necessary for progression and thus don’t appear on every planet, they’re called “albumen pearls,” and my exosuit’s scanner still says they’re “unknown” even though I’ve harvested hundreds. Once in a while you’ll land on a planet rich with these suckers, and you’ll feel like you hit the jackpot. Whenever you pick one up you’re immediately swarmed by sentinels—the galaxy’s shitty police, bent on breaking up your modest house party—and you’ll have to fight them off or flee. But they’re worth so much that it becomes a game within the game: Nick as many pearls as you can, run until the sentinels lose interest, go sell them all, then try again. I’ve gleaned hours of tense enjoyment just from that. This is a game that’s supposed to be about exploring an unending universe, but who cares? Find enjoyment where you can, I say.
No Man’s Sky is gorgeous, no buts about it. In a universe of endless permutations—every system and planet and mountain and ditch is randomly generated by the secret math equations Hello Games invented—everything somehow looks beautiful. Even the brain-damaged dinosaurs that evolution forgot, the ones that plod in lopsided circles until you wander by to take their picture and put them on YouTube.
There’s a lot to see in this universe. A lot of it looks the same, but maybe that makes the surprises feel even more special. Despite its flaws, I’d recommend No Man’s Sky to anyone.
Mike Rougeau is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @roguecheddar.