It doesn't get much bigger than No Man's Sky – quite literally. Hello Games, the humble British developer behind the likes of Joe Danger, caught the imagination with its retro sci-fi romp from the minute that it was announced – but many pondered whether the slender indie studio could possibly deliver. Three years later and the ten or so person team has answered its sceptics emphatically: the firm's first PlayStation 4 game really is as enormous as promised.
But is it as entertaining as it is ambitious? After spending a handful of hours stomping the colourful terrain of the newly crowned Push Square Planet, it's a question that we can't yet answer; this is a game that's dense and purposely obtuse, and we're not afraid to admit that in these early exchanges we're not quite sure what to make of the Guildford-based studio's limitless sandbox. It's impressive, undoubtedly – but is it fun? We're honestly not sure.
The opening moments of the game certainly capture the imagination. A brief title card courses through the universe, showing the names of nearby galaxies as it passes them by. It's a brief peek at the unparalleled scale of the experience; a tease at the boundless bounties that lay before you, waiting patiently to be discovered. But as an elegant piano motif kicks in, it becomes clear that you are but a man, and you have a ship to repair.
Having only played through the opening once, we're unsure if the beginning is identical for every player, but we assume it is – obvious planetary differences aside. We started out on a vast expanse of orange land, dotted with blue and green trees. The game gives you very little information, but it quickly becomes clear that you need to gather resources to repair your ship, and after a brief sojourn in search of iron, it sends you in pursuit of rarer materials.
This guidance is useful at first, but the game is still far more obtuse than we've come to expect from more modern titles. There's no tutorial, so you're left to suss out how the crafting works, alongside all of the title's other systems and controls; we only learned that we could run after about an hour, and we lost over 30 minutes of progress due to a lack of communication regarding the release's save system. These are the kind of rough edges that you'd expect from a smaller team.
And yet the lack of handholding is sure to split opinion. From our perspective, the game could benefit from a better feedback loop, but many will enjoy organically unravelling all of the mechanics – and we daresay that communities on message boards and Wikis will revel in figuring out the foray's many nuances. We're still fumbling our way through the first few hours so we're not going to draw any firm conclusions either way, but we have felt pangs of frustration at the lack of direction so far.
That said, these same gripes can't be levelled at the presentation, which feels much more alive than we were expecting. There are none of the pre-designed spectacles that you'd expect to find in more linear games, but this title is all about the game's mathematics conjuring up something incredible: freighters flying overheard, animals lurking on the horizon, and seas so lush that you want to strip down to your underpants and dive in headfirst.
It's not the best looking game on the PS4 by any stretch, but it's got a sense of style that's unmatched. Heavy visual filters and great use of colour offer the appearance of a sci-fi novel brought to life, and the audio work is similarly staggering. Of course, you can name practically everything that you're first to discover, and it's a real novelty knowing that you're leaving your own personal mark on a universe that exists inside your PS4. Whether that will last remains to be seen.
Upon repairing our ship – and naming a sprightly deer-like creature after associate editor Robert Ramsey – we were able to blast into outer-space, and settle at a nearby space station. Here we encountered our first NPC; a suited space alien speaking a different language. It's another example of the game being intentionally obtuse – we'd need to comb the universe for language plinths in order to translate his comments. With nothing else to do on the space station, we followed up a distress beacon.
Our second planet – a moon circuiting the aforementioned Push Square Planet – looked entirely different to the first that we landed on; waters cover its surface, while its atmosphere is toxic and causes serious damage. Interacting with the stress beacon reveals a safe house that we must seemingly investigate – it's an estimated 32 minute hike. With our key resources depleted but inventory full of miscellaneous trinkets, it becomes clear that this isn't a game designed for hoarders.
But we're not sure who this game is designed for yet. No doubt some will be entertained by the variety of the treks that lay ahead, but surely there needs to be some purpose? An ambiguous opening paragraph hints at an overarching narrative, but it takes a backseat in the opening hours. Perhaps our expectations are misaligned; we're approaching a game obsessed with the concept of infinite freedom anticipating direction. But this is very much the experience that we expected – it's just too early to say whether it's one that we actually want.
No Man's Sky is a strange and beautiful beast, then – the kind of game that can be played for multiple hours without really showing its hand. In an age where more structured campaigns are frowned upon, perhaps it will capture the imagination of those who don't want to be told what to do. As we write these words, though, we can't help but wonder whether we're the only ones utterly bemused by Hello Games' opus right now.
At least, you could say, our introduction to the epic expanses of the universe has made us think.
Have you started playing No Man's Sky yet? What are your thoughts on the intergalactic adventure so far? Travel to the deep recesses of space in the comments section below.