Every sci-fi-adventure-loving kid worth his or her salt has probably dreamed at some point of accidentally stumbling upon a spaceship that some careless alien left unlocked and parked in a nearby woods. What might it be like to clamber up into that craft, push a few alien-finger-shaped buttons and fly off into the great beyond?
Of course, another rumination might be this one: After excitedly zooming up, up, up into that black vacuum stippled with stars—and bouncing back and forth between a few planets—what could you realistically hope to find? If your first adult response to that question is, “Well, probably a whole lot of … nothing,” then you’ve just hit upon a key component of a new game called No Man’s Sky.
This exploring and crafting game starts out by plopping you, the Traveler, down on a random planet with a broken ship. That planetary body is going to be different for every player (I’ll tell you why in a moment), but generally it’s a vast, open landscape scattered with rocks, plants and an occasional space critter with a half-dozen legs or maybe five or six eyes.
So it’s up to you, with a mining laser in hand, to break down and round up the right amounts of carbon and various other minerals and elements you’ll need. These essentials will not only keep your tools and life-support ticking along, they’re also necessary to repair the broken bits on your little one-passenger ship.
The rebuilding process serves as a training session. There are no maps or pop-up directions. Just a hunt and peck experimentation that eventually clues you into how to mix and match the stuff you pick up. And you quickly learn that you’ve got four objectives in this vast open game: gather resources, craft, survive, and explore.
Then … repeat.
Eventually, by tapping into little mechanisms on alien bases you stumble upon, and by seeking out any nearby intelligent inhabitants, you receive the necessary technical blueprints to build better and more powerful stuff—from scanners to antimatter to hyper drives. And that lets you warp farther and farther into the deep void of space around you.
To do it all over again.
Now, if you’re ears just perked up and you thought, Wait: Did you say intelligent inhabitants? Is this where we get into a tale of adventure and space battles?, the answer is sort of but not really. You will find a few alien races on space stations and little science bases here and there. But the encountered robotic, orcish or bug-like extraterrestrials are the inscrutable types. They’re good for a brief interaction: a trade maybe, a tiny tech lesson, or perhaps a short language primer. Then it’s back to whatever work was already at hand.
Space battles? Well, you do take up arms against attacking drones and shoot back at mystery attackers in deep space from time to time. But those are generally short-lived experiences, too, designed to teach you where not to tread and what not to do. (Bright flashes light up your viewscreen when you’re attacked, and your life force is lowered, but there’s no blood or mess).
As far as a story is concerned, well, there really isn’t one. Early on, at that first crash site, you activate something called the Atlas. It’s a floating red orb that encourages you to explore everything around you and pops up from time to time to spur you toward the center of the universe. And that’s pretty much all you get.
There is something pretty special about this game’s planet-dappled universe, though. The vast, fully explorable expanse of space is what the gamemakers call “procedurally generated.” That means that every planet, every environment, every space station and living creature you encounter is sort of “built” on the fly. It’s all controlled by an algorithm rather than being designed in advance. In fact, the game designers themselves have never actually seen all the planets—which are said to number in the range of 18 quintillion (that’s an 18 followed by 18 zeros). So if you plan on exploring them all, well, it might take you a while.
And that is this game’s biggest drawback from the perspective of family-room play: It can definitely be a galaxy-sized time-sucker. You wander, build, explore and admire the impressive worlds. There is no goal, really, other than to … keep going. And going and going. Ten, 20, 30 hours can pass by, and you begin feel like there’s something that should be happening that hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet. But that never really happens.
Then again, maybe that’s the point of No Man’s Sky. It’s about exploring space. Like space itself, there is always the hope of something beautiful and something different just beyond the next black hole or flashing comet.
But you can rest assured that you’ll find hours and hours and hours of a whole lot of nothing there, too.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.