No Man’s Sky — Hello Games / Sony Interactive Entertainment — PS4, PC — August 9, 2016

Since Hello Games announced “No Man’s Sky” at the super akward 2013 VGX awards, the internet and gamers everywhere caught a glimpse of a prodigiously huge — almost infinite — universe of planets to explore. Since then, the game has been shrouded in complete mystery and became one of the most anticipated games in recent memory. In our roundtable review, video game nerds Alex “Necrobot” Springer and Trey Sanders (treytothej@gmail.com) pontificate about the controversial new title.

Alex: In our current age of internet overhyping, I feel like “No Man’s Sky” was going to be impossible for fans and critics to actually enjoy, which is always too bad when it happens. I kind of wish that this game didn’t get sucked into the hype tornado--if it was released as a quiet indie game that offered 18 quintillion planets to explore, the gaming world would have collectively shit itself. Granted, it’s not a perfect game, but I feel like its reception has been quite chilly because of the amount of hype that it generated.

Trey: I couldn’t agree with you more. Hello Games was so small when they started this project and only got as big as 15 people. Sony played a huge part in hyping this game up, specifically by saying little and periodically showing us tiny previews to whet our appetites. Now that we’ve had the chance to play it, the gameplay is essentially rinse and repeat; over and over again. You warp to a new system, stop in at the nearest space station where you can buy and sell materials, talk with the lone occupant who teaches you new words, recharges your shield, replenishes your health and gives you gifts once you’ve built a stronger bond with their respective species. The moment to moment actions of scanning a planet’s surface, mining its resources and micro managing inventories is monotonous, but upon finding new blueprints, I was finally able to start upgrading my suit, my ship, and my Omni Tool. Outside of these tedious actions, the experience I’m having is just as rewarding as any scripted game. I'm alone in this massive, almost infinite universe and my journey is completely up to me. Everything I’ve come across on my journey through the stars has been an extremely personal experience; outside of following the Atlas Path, I'm not being told what to do. I love that I’m not competing with anybody and I'm left to enjoy my adventure the way I see fit. What I discover and how I discover them is completely up to me. Plus, I get to feel like a competent, obsessive compulsive scientist for once in my life. I’m an archeologist, geologist, anthropologist, pilot, trader, pirate, even a game hunter. I think it’s safe to say: I am Matt Damon.

Alex: I thought of myself as Matt Damon too! I’ve always been fascinated with games that cast me in the role of a character that has to rely on his/her wits and resourcefulness in order to survive--Klei’s “Don’t Starve” comes to mind, and I may have been hoping for the recipe/crafting mechanic to be a little closer to what Klei did there. The survival factor is definitely present--I like how some planets are more toxic than others, and some planets have random storms that make finding shelter an imperative. I was initially pretty let down with the lack of recipes that "No Man's Sky" offers, but after laying siege to a few manufacturing centers, I feel like I’m back on board with that process. I really like building suit upgrades that make surviving in specific environments easier, and then dismantling them when I no longer need them. But I did feel that the whole crafting process became smooth sailing once I understood the difference between isotopes, oxides and silicates. After that, the real struggle comes when you have to figure out how to fit it all inside of your tiny ship.

Trey: That's precisely what bothers me the most about “No Man’s Sky." I have no problem scouring planets for high value elements to sell, or crafting the plethora of blueprints I find, but it became an unnecessary metagame (if that’s what it can be called) where I have to make enough space in both my suit and my ship’s inventory to hold anything I plan on selling, upgrading, or crafting. On top of that, I need to have upwards of 4 million “units” to even consider buying a new ship that can barely accommodate my needs. It’s also troubling that when I do purchase a new ship, I get absolutely nothing in return; there’s no value for the one I just replaced, no hangar to store it in, and I have to re-construct the upgrades I lost.

Alex: Totally! The vast majority of my problems with “No Man’s Sky” revolve around ship upgrades and economy. I took a gamble and spent a few sessions looking for crashed ships to repair, but that’s a hell of a process with the payoff of one or two extra inventory slots. For me, it was way more fun to scan and name every animal on a given planet, which pays off quite nicely for the same amount of time. On a super geeky side note--and this might be one of my favorite things about the game--spending time as an alien biologist has become a major part of the story that I’m inventing for my character. Since “No Man’s Sky” gives you no backstory, it’s pretty fun to create one as you play the game. I have a buddy who has dedicated all of his resources to tricking out his ship so he can assault freighters, essentially becoming a space pirate. I like that the game’s openness and lack of linearity lets you fill in the blanks with whatever you want. But I guess that calls into question whether or not the developers need to incorporate a little bit more content somehow.

Trey: It can't go without mentioning the amount of content that seems to be missing. After reading their Wikipedia page, it became apparent that somewhere in the development cycle, ambition got the best of “Hello Games”. There were a lot of features that were cut so that the game could release on the delayed date and avoid feature creep, which can cause software bloat and over complicate original designs. Fortunately, we live in era of gaming where things get better with time by releasing patches and DLC content.

Alex: Side note: "Feature Creep" and "Software Bloat" are excellent band names--but I digress. I read an interesting article by Ben Kuchera from Polygon in which he compares the release of “No Man’s Sky” to the release of “Destiny.” His main point is that, like “Destiny,” the “No Man’s Sky” that we’re playing next year will be vastly different than the one that we’re playing now. This really resonated with me, because I totally fell in love with the hype surrounding “Destiny,” and, as a result, wasn’t overly impressed with the game at release. But, two years later, I’m really glad I stuck with it--I just preordered “Rise of Iron,” actually. Unless Sean Murray and Hello Games completely drop the ball, I expect some cool things will be in store for the future of “No Man’s Sky.” Now, since Trey was the one who initially introduced me to the musical geniuses behind the soundtrack to “No Man’s Sky,” let’s get his spin.

Trey: The game's soundtrack, composed and performed by the incredible 65daysofstatic, is by far the highlight of the entire experience. Throughout their post-math-rock career they’ve created epic journeys of sound and instrumentation that few bands can achieve. Because of the way they craft their unique sound and structures, not to mention their perfectionist mentality, they were the perfect band for the job. The stand alone composition is the most focused and versatile album they’ve ever created, as well as what they’ve crafted for the game; it’s a completely different animal. Typically, the standard practice for creating video game soundtracks is centered around the moment to moment set pieces and the mundane actions in between, but 65daysofstatic created a space opera that broke down the wall of traditional scoring by creating something that essentially “remixes itself.”

Alex: I didn’t know that the soundtrack remixed itself! Not only is that an unprecedented achievement in the world of video games, but it’s a good segue into what I absolutely love about “No Man’s Sky.” It’s a procedurally-generated universe! No one has ever done that in a video game before, and I feel like the vast majority of critics and players who are bitching about the fact that the game is “too boring” are focused on the wrong things. Yes, it’s extremely easy to take on an army of sentinel drones (but it’s really annoying when they’re in frenzy mode), and yes there are some buggy moments, but we’re playing our generation’s equivalent of “Pong” or “Super Mario Bros.” Say what you will about its problems, “No Man’s Sky” has done something revolutionary--we’re just too conditioned to associate first-person perspective with lightning fast reflexes and conflicts that only last for five minutes to notice. Think of the ground work that “No Man’s Sky” has established for the future of video games! You couple that with VR/AR technology, and anyone can be a virtual astronaut.

Trey: Sean Murray has always maintained that this game is about exploration and discovery. It was never meant or designed to be the “end all be all” video game that everyone (including Sony — who did a masterful job of selling this game) was hyping it up to be. Hello Games had a vision — and an incredible math equation — of a massive universe where people can share their discoveries with each other. You’re right when you say, “we’re just too conditioned to associate first-person perspective with lightning fast reflexes”, but I think that can be taken one step further by saying that we’re all conditioned to expect immediate gratification in the games we play. It doesn’t matter the genre, we all love seeing our efforts pay off in small albeit big ways, but now that a highly anticipated game hasn’t met people’s (fantastical) expectations, people are pissed off about it. I’ll take in solace in the fact that every so often, companies like Hello Games come along and change the entire landscape for video games, and they may not have created the game everyone imagined it to be, but I’ll be damned if they don’t get credit for shaping the future of the medium.   

Alex: I put a lot of value on concept, and "No Man's Sky" is conceptually awesome. But there are a few execution problems that bug me, so I'd give it an 8 out of 10.

Trey: I'm giving it a solid 7 out of 10.

Anyone else been zipping around the galaxy with “No Man’s Sky?” Let us know what you think--and what you’ve been naming all of the weird animals that you find.

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