Editor’s Note: This updated (and final) review of No Man’s Sky is for the PlayStation 4 edition of the game.
When I published my initial review of No Man’s Sky a little more than three week ago, I was committed to judging the game for what it is rather than what it was supposed to be.
I’ve since had a change of heart.
I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that you can’t judge this game without taking into account all the missing content and features that developer Hello Games had been bragging about for years before the game’s release. There’s a giant, gaping hole in No Man’s Sky, a void left behind by the false hopes Hello Games generated when co-founder Sean Murray hit the marketing trail to show off everything you could (allegedly) do in the game. And it’s a void that eventually swallows you whole once you finally accept that Sean Murray’s No Man’s Sky is very different from the No Man’s Sky you thought you were getting.
When I wrote my review, I surmised that my pacifist play style was somehow related to the notable absence of large-scale fleet battles. Sadly, I was dead wrong.
And that whole “landing on asteroids” deal? Well, it is what it is. Sometimes you can’t fit everything into a game that you had hoped to include. That’s the unfortunate reality of the development process. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
As for the nonexistent multiplayer, there was some speculation that the inability of players to see each other in-game might just be the result of a bug, though it seems quite clear now that the final version of the game had no multiplayer feature of any kind. To be fair, Murray insisted on Twitter that NMS was meant to be a solo experience. However, he has also claimed in previous interviews that players would, in fact, be able to see each other should they ever cross paths.
There are many, many more features that didn’t make it into the game. If you want to get a good idea of everything that got left on the cutting room floor, you can check out this post from Reddit. But if you bothered to click on this article, odds are you’ve already seen it.
The missing features and content notwithstanding, I maintain that NMS is not a bad game; it’s just not a very good one. Its impressively vast, open-world framework is betrayed by its monotonous gameplay. Upgrading your suit and purchasing new ships should be means to an end, not ends in themselves. When the foundation of your game rests on a stack of plainly repetitive and tedious mechanics, it’s only a matter of time before the game itself begins to feel like an exercise in futility.
On the other hand, NMS does still manage to retain a charming and mystical quality, one that makes it easy to fall in love with — that is, until you realize it’s the game’s potential you’ve fallen in love with rather than the actual game. This is precisely what happened to me when I decided to begin a second playthrough. It didn’t take long for me to uncover the root of my newfound disappointment; the curiosity, anticipation and sense of hope that flooded through me the first time I played NMS had disappeared into the vacuum of space. I was never going to get to choose sides in battles between rival factions. I had no reason to fear the terrifying sand worms roaming the open plains of desert worlds. And the derelict freighters waiting to be discovered and plundered? They didn’t exist, either. Simply put, I had nothing to look forward to, save for Sean Murray’s vague promises of future updates to the game. So what, exactly, was I playing for?
My answer to that question may be different from yours, hence my reluctance to call NMS a genuinely bad game. Personally, I enjoy well-balanced games that provide healthy doses of story, combat and exploration. NMS offers an abundance of one those three elements, though it does so at the expense of the other two. The story is somewhat interesting but feels disappointingly incomplete. And the combat, while not terrible, is just too clunky to be characterized as anything other than an occasionally enjoyable distraction. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, of course. A game dedicated almost entirely to exploration can still be enjoyable — in fact, the exploration in NMS is the principal reason why I initially felt that the “good outweighs the bad” in this game — but that’s a difficult feat to achieve when the primary in-game purpose of exploring is, at its core, purely materialistic.
The one thing that rescues NMS from its own shortcomings is its ability to inspire. No matter how dull the game often feels, there’s still something magical about being able to take a short cruise through asteroid fields and colorful clouds of gas while making your way to a planet that no one else has ever seen before. None of us will live long enough to have that experience, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that that’s the most alluring aspect of NMS. It’s a game made not just for explorers, but also for dreamers, and that’s what justifies the game’s existence. If you’re willing to let your imagination be the author of your story, NMS can be the blank slate onto which you project your wildest fantasies about what it might be like to be an astronaut a few centuries from now. I suspect that’s why, despite all the backlash, NMS has managed to retain a seemingly small but loyal and passionate fan base.
Conclusion: Upon further examination, there’s no denying that No Man’s Sky isn’t the game it should be. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s not a sixty-dollar title. The absence of specific features — features that were once marketed as the bread and butter of the game itself — has a cascading effect that negatively impacts virtually every other facet of the game. Still, it can be and has been an enjoyable experience for many. Its ambitious vision is admirable, its environments are breathtaking, and its focus on player autonomy is a big plus. Unfortunately, all those elements combined are still not enough to compensate for the lack of meaningful gameplay or the nihilistic undertones of its thoughtful yet unfulfilling narrative.
Final Grade for No Man’s Sky: C-