We can't believe our luck. For all the planets and moons in this system, most of them scorched and practically lifeless, the last one we visit is a bonafide world of paradise. Lush bright blue grass stretches out to the horizon where it meets a scarlet sky, the space station hanging just close enough to make out its shape. Alien life is abundant; snaking, twisted trees and huge blue-green shrubs adorn the valley we've landed in, and bizarre bipedal creatures roam peacefully across the view. Best of all, though, there are resources everywhere. Plutonium and aluminium crystals lay waiting to be harvested, and just over the hill stand huge pylons of emeril. We don't know what we use it for yet, but you can bet we'll be selling it all for a tidy profit.
It was a nigh-on perfect No Man's Sky moment. Here in this otherwise barren and red hot star system stood a beautiful planet with almost everything we could've hoped for. We discovered that No Man's Sky is a game of moments. Sometimes you'll wander around for a while and come across a view that is so sumptuously sci-fi, you'll totally forget about that point of interest you were vaguely heading for. Sometimes pirates will detect your stash of gold and chase you down, triggering a short slice of action among the stars. Hello Games wanted to capture the look and feel of classic science fiction, and it's absolutely done that.
From an audiovisual perspective especially, No Man's Sky is a tour-de-force. While technically the graphics aren't all that great, the art style is outstanding – colour pouring out of the screen, creatures behaving in erratic, sometimes unsettling ways, and vistas that have to be seen to be believed. Your share button will be in tatters by the time you stop playing. The audio, however, is even better. The adaptive soundtrack in particular is fantastic, nearly always perfectly pitched to the current scene.
None of this would really matter, though, unless the gameplay was there to back it up, and thankfully, it mostly is. Boiling it down, No Man's Sky is a game of survival, resource management, crafting, and exploration. You start out with very basic tools and must work your way up to bigger and better tech if you want to reach the centre of the universe. Unfortunately, this means the beginning of the game can leave a bad first impression. Your inventories are small and little is explained, meaning a lot of players will be left scratching their heads for the first hour or two. Each starting planet is unique, too, so some (like us) may also have to deal with a hazardous environment right off the bat, adding perhaps unfair pressure to those players.
Once you've been playing for a while, and managed to fix your ship and head out into space, the game gradually improves the more that you explore. The bottom right corner hosts contextual tips that offer you a sliver of guidance if you're lost, and once you make enough money to buy a new ship and multi-tool, many of the early gripes regarding the small inventories slip away. Extended play also proves how diverse the planets can be, and although they possibly aren't as unique as a lot of people were expecting, there's still enough differences to make it feel like you're somewhere else, which is impressive given the size of the game.
The main loop of harvesting resources, selling, exploring, learning words, and scanning wildlife is, on the face of it, actually pretty dull. Sometimes the game can be boring, especially if you're having hard luck finding a particular element you need, for example. If you're mining goods for trade, it can be a big grind to get a decent payment, and if you're trying to 100 per cent a planet (find all of the world's fauna and upload it), you can be in for a long search. However, if the game gets under your skin, you can lose yourself in it, and the gameplay can be utterly captivating. Those emeril pylons we told you about? They're gone. We spent longer than we'd care to admit completely breaking them down and hauling it all to a space station to sell it. We didn't really have a reason to, but by the time we were done, we were millionaires, and could afford a much nicer starship.
Upgrading our ship was a great milestone, and from there we jumped to the next star system in search of new worlds to conquer. Unfortunately, the game crashed just as we were approaching a new system, and this was the second time we experienced it. Thankfully, we had been wary of these crashes and saved at every given opportunity, but it's still a bummer to be kicked out of the game right when you're having a good time. It's something the developer has already promised to look at for its next patch, but in the meantime, it's a problem. Elsewhere, the frame rate is a solid 30 frames-per-second, with some very occasional dips when the screen gets too busy. Beyond that, No Man's Sky is technically very strong, although some may find the 'fade-in' effect of the terrain generation jarring. It didn't bother us, but it's extremely blatant.
What's also extremely blatant is that combat isn't a huge focus, as it's the weakest aspect of No Man's Sky. We weren't expecting it to be spectacular, but it's rather lacklustre. You can upgrade your multi-tool to become more proficient in dispatching the sentinels, but even so, combat is rarely exciting. Space battles are better, but again aren't anything too special, and more often than not you'll wish that the bad guys would just leave you alone.
In fact, it's when you're alone that the game really sings. In your own bubble, you're able to craft your own narrative, your own reasoning for playing the way that you play. There are narrative strands that you can follow, but there's always the option of choosing your own path and simply getting lost in space, which for some players, is just as exciting as following the Atlas, or speeding towards the centre.
No Man's Sky is a game of moments. That the game is obtuse and its gameplay relatively simple won't matter, so long as you're willing to forget the destination and enjoy the journey.
No Man's Sky is full of potential, and Hello Games has laid strong foundations on which to build. Its main gameplay is simplistic but becomes totally engrossing, and the technical achievement is impressive. The atmosphere created by the graphics and sound is second to none, and there's an amazing sense of place. Some may struggle to find the fun with the lack of direction, and there are some technical issues that need addressing, but if you're able to create your own fun with the tools that you're given, you'll be playing this for a long time.