The windshield of my spaceship turns ember as I plummet through the atmosphere of another strange planet. As I drop through charcoal clouds, I see the blood red expanse of an iron rich planet below me. On the horizon are storm clouds of acid rain, and below me, I can see herds of vaguely stegosaurus-like creatures, lowing and munching on exotic flora. I have just dropped onto this planet—which I, childishly, christen Pooptopia—from a pyramid-like space station, above. I scan the planet for signs of intelligent life, and my ship's onboard computer tells me there's an alien artifact, a monolith, two minutes away. I set my course.
I am playing No Man's Sky, a new space exploration game (already available on PS4, and out today on Windows) by U.K.-based indie gaming studio Hello Games. It's perhaps the most hyped game in recent memory—Ars Technica describes it as a sort of "wish-fulfillment engine for everything potential players might want to project onto its massive galaxy." But for a wish-fulfillment engine—especially one with 18 quintillion planets to explore—there's actually not much to do in No Man's Sky. Like the universe it aims to simulate, it's pretty, but surprisingly vacuous: sporadic moments of wonder randomly distributed through an infinite expanse of nothing at all.
Back on Pooptopia, I arrive at the Monolith: a massive, glowing temple of basalt covered in strange runes. The architecture alone shows that an alien mind created this. In fact, in my explorations of No Man's Sky, I know that these monoliths were distributed throughout this random part of the galaxy by the mysterious Gek, and that by activating it, I will learn a few more words in the Gek language—and, if I'm lucky, how to rediscover an ancient artifact.
So far, I have learned a number of distressing words in the tongue of the ancient Gek, including "spawn," "destroy," "annihilation," "war," and "blood." It is a rather alarming vocabulary. As I touch the glowing monolith, I apparently have some sort of vision of a planetary massacre, and learn a new Gek word: "slaughter." Fucking great. None of this bodes well, because right now, literally the only sentient species I've found in the galaxy are Gek. True, they've all been roly-poly lizards in space helmets wearing quite-frankly amazing jumpsuits. Still, clearly there is a darker side to this species, making me wonder when one of my transactions with them will go awry, leading a previously cuddly Gek to split my entrails open with its sharp beak like a turtle eating a strawberry.
I'm getting bored of planet Pooptopia, a barren hellscape with radioactive weather, so I jump back into my spaceship and point its nose at the sky. Soon, I'm back in the asteroid field around the planet, looking for another planet to explore. I aim my ship at the nearby planet, Erinogobuz-Siy VW993, which I resist renaming Pooptopia-2. As I begin entering the atmosphere, though, my ship starts beeping. I have apparently been scanned by some incoming ships. I don't quite realize they're space pirates until they come swooping in under my ship, blasting away. There are four of them, and between them, they quickly pin me down and blast me to smithereens. I've only figured out how to lead my shots before I evaporate in a molten shrapnel storm over Erinogobuz-Siy VW993, while my screen fades to black.
It's in these moments of unexpectedness that No Man's Sky is at its best. But far from creating a teeming universe full of wonder, I can't get over the fact that there's a semblance of sameness to almost everything I'm experiencing. The central allure of No Man's Sky is that the game contains a vast, procedurally generated galaxy. The developers claim there are so many planets in No Man's Sky, that if you visited one planet every second, our own sun would burn out before you saw them all. They also claim that there are over 10 million unique species in No Man's Sky, "more than there are on Earth." (Although this is a gross exaggeration).
Yet, the truth is that in the 10 hours or so I played No Man's Sky, most of this so-called scope remained hidden from me. Instead, what I felt was an overwhelming sense of homogeneousness. Perhaps this is realistic: An infinite universe might still only ever have a finite supply of wonder within it. Armed with a ticket to ride a faster-than-light starship, perhaps the natural result of touring the galaxy is a sort of existential ennui, as you realize that, actually, most gas giants, asteroid belts, and red dwarfs actually start looking the same, when they are trivially within reach. Maybe the same is true with 10 million alien species, and even galaxy-spanning civilizations too?
I think, though, I could deal with that more than the feeling that there's not much to No Man's Sky besides 18 quintillion planets. It would be one thing if the game just presented me with a simulation of a breathtaking universe to explore, but it doesn't. This is still, ostensibly, a game, so it's filled with all sorts of artificial barriers to overcome, none of which are very fun. I can't just jump in my starship to go see anything I want. First, I have to build a warp drive, which requires me to zap a bunch of space rocks for an hour or until I have the proper materials. Even when I build my warp drive, though, it can only jump one star system away; to go any farther, I need to blast more space rocks for a few hours, to upgrade the drive. Then I need to blast space rocks for the warp cells to fuel that drive. It turns out that in No Man's Sky, exploring the cosmos is just a momentary interlude to busting up rocks in an extraterrestrial chain gang.
Ten hours is, of course, only enough time to scratch the surface of a game like No Man's Sky. But perhaps what makes the game seem disappointing is that it feels like there isn't actually much beneath that surface. No Man's Sky feels wide, but not deep. As a universe sim, it's perhaps a little too accurate, because in No Man's Sky, just like in reality, most of the universe is actually pretty similar, and traveling far enough to see something truly unique is a huge pain in the butt.
[All Images: via Hello Games]