This week, Zero Punctuation reviews No Man's Sky.
Games with a theoretically infinite amount of content are all very well, but I don't think the developers ever consider what the fuck we're supposed to do with it all. I mean, my kitchen sink can produce a theoretically infinite amount of water, but once I've stopped being thirsty and I'm as clean as I'm ever going to get and cooked all my spaghetti and filled all the condoms I intend to throw at the bailiffs, then what am I supposed to do with the rest of the stuff? A question worth considering as we take a look at No Man's Sky, a game about exploring a theoretically infinite universe of possibility. Which is a shame, because Elite: Dangerous is also about exploring a theoretically infinite universe of possibility, and I don't really have room for two theoretically infinite universes in my house. I already sold most of the furniture to make room for all the cooked spaghetti.
The setup is, you wake up on a mysterious planet next to a crashed spaceship, and after repairing it with raw materials gathered from the surrounding wilderness, you can begin an epic journey to nowhere in particular for no given reason. You gather the fuel to hyperdrive to star system after star system, following a line that eventually leads to some kind of geometric ancient space wonder someone nicked out of a Bungie game that gives you a prize bag and another line to follow.
The main question for me was what the hell I was supposed to be progressing towards. The ancient space wonders were all shrugging their monolithic shoulders at me. Maybe I'm supposed to be gradually crafting and upgrading my way to the best possible ship and equipment I could have. But the problem with that is, there doesn't seem to be any use for your ship and equipment except to find stuff to upgrade your ship and equipment with. Besides that, there's also a laundry list of developmental milestones to reach, most of which are breathtakingly inane, and I could really do without the fucking award ceremony every single time you get one.
"Congratulations! You have scratched your arse twenty thousand times. Here is a prolonged jingle while this text selfishly hogs the interface for thirty seconds, so you can't interact with anything."
"Congratulations! You have contracted radiation poisoning from a planet's toxic atmosphere. Here's another ji-"
"Congratulations! You have died a total of one hundred times from radiation poisoning, while inches from safety because you can't get inside your ship while I'm telling you about all the milestones you've achieved."
"What are you, Yahtz? An emotionless, scotch egg-powered robot that shuts down when it hasn't had instructions on punch card pushed up its arse that morning? It's not about winning or reaching the end, it's about the exploration and appreciating the unique sides of the cosmos, man!" The thing about exploration, my little pubic louse, is that the appeal lies in the finding. You can explore a sheet of blank printer paper for an afternoon, but it wouldn't exactly stimulate. There's nothing to find in No Man's Sky you can't find in about five hundred million other places. If I ever find myself badly in need of a futuristic shed containing a bench with some Christmas lights on the side, then I can land on literally any planet and start walking in any direction. Every planet is unique, strictly speaking, but every human being is unique and it's still hard to appreciate that when you're queueing up at the post office behind nine old people who all want to pay with luncheon vouchers. Oh look, this planet has a unique species of quadruped with three horns and nine armpits, but all that it's actually going to do is either wander aimlessly about or run up and nibble your bum. And the crafting system says it all: you kill this one-of-a-kind creature with its unique evolutionary history and are rewarded with, "some carbon", which you stack on top of the identical carbon you got from the unique and complex creature you murdered in the star system next door.
The crafting's not exactly intuitive, either. In Minecraft, you put a long stone shape on the end of a bit of wood and one spool of implied duct tape later, you have a sword. With the slightest rearrangement, it can also be a pick or a shovel or a rather uncomfortable rectangular sex toy. Meanwhile, in No Man's Sky, you take your hard-earned carbon and turn it into a green thing that has no use, except it can be turned into a purple thing that also has no use, except that it can be turned into warp fuel. Why not just have us bung a load of carbon in the gas tank and bang our kneecaps with a crowbar for a few minutes? Run out of takeoff fuel on a planet and you might have a moment of drama from having to scavenge more, but then you find some stuck to your shoe after walking ten feet, and there's no point exploring much further 'cause your inventory space is the size of a Virgin Airways carry-on baggage allotment.
And I swear, I probably found upgrades to my laser gun more often than I got into actual fucking combat with the thing. Not every planet has animals, not every planet with animals has hostile animals, and even when it does, there's usually plenty of desolate wasteland to go round. If you need carbon that badly, just land near some trees and inhale a few times.
In brief, I was having trouble finding the gameplay in this game. I understand the principle of making your own entertainment, but this isn't that. Elite: Dangerous is that because it's complex enough that you can choose the path of trader, fighter or explorer from one of hundreds of possible routes. And at every junction, you're extracting in-between challenges from having to land your ship inside a space station without banging into a control tower and knocking your pint of Guinness out of your cockpit drinks holder. No Man's Sky denies you even that. Press one button to take off or land and the game does it all for you, assuming it doesn't make you clip inside of an inexplicably hovering ore deposit that's totally meant to do that and not a bug, no really. When you're in flight, the game will even automatically pull up to stop you smashing into the ground, no matter how perfectly justified your urge to end your tedious existence. It's baby's first Elite: Dangerous is what it is. We're strapped into our fucking ultra-safe high chair of a spaceship to stare at the huge, friendly typeface of a simplistic GUI that looks like a Windows 10 menu by way of the IKEA catalogue.
"I feel like you still haven't learnt to appreciate the unique beauty of the cosmos, Yahtz". Hey, I'd appreciate it a lot more if it wasn't constantly popping in like your least favourite neighbour and making the game as immersive as a gravel pit. When I'm descending through the atmosphere of a planet, you could at least put up a view-obscuring cloud effect so I don't notice the terrain below me switching blatantly to full 3D rendering from blurry 2D Google-Maps-o-vision.
No Man's Sky feels like one of those crafting survival games that keep popping up on Steam like boomtowns in the California gold rush. And they're just as likely to still be populated a few years down the line. But with a load of added pressure to perform that it can't live up to. Maybe if we'd been able to build things, complete the Minecraft comparison, give us a reason to go back to places rather than stampede through space, hoovering up resources and space STDs. Not much creative fulfilment to be had in renaming the things we discover. I discovered way too many interchangeable things and ran out of euphemisms for genitalia.
Does the name Spore ring a bell? Remember what a big thing that was supposed to be before its big idea for galaxy-spanning gameplay turned out to be a bunch of little ideas strung together, none strong enough to sustain interest? You know they say, "He who forgets the past is condemned to resit history A-level."
- Master of the universe: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- What you have to remember is that sometimes smashing at full speed into the ground is a cathartic way to round out a dull afternoon's surveying
- Other washing up liquids are available