“There’s nothing to DO in this game!”
People have been saying this a lot about No Man’s Sky. Aside from discussions about the numerical significance of the game’s 18 OMGillion planets, it’s probably the most common comment about the game. I don’t actually want to argue with these people. If you’ve played the game and don’t feel at all compelled to engage with any of the game’s systems, then the game has failed you. That sucks and I’m sorry you’re out sixty American dollars, but that’s not something I can help you with in the space of this column.
Having said that, it does seem like this idea of “There’s nothing to do!” is spreading to people who haven’t played the game. It’s being said often enough that I’m worried people will start to think it’s literally true, that this is nothing more than a game where you walk around and stare at scenery until you get bored. The sad thing is, I think if that were true the game might actually be more fun. The problem isn’t that there’s “nothing” to do, it’s that there are several sets of mechanics to engage with, and none of them really work on their own and their shortcomings often compound one other.
So in the interest of painting a more accurate picture of things for the uninitiated, here are 10 things you can do in No Man’s Sky:
1. Hunt for treasure.
We’re not talking about treasure chests with the Kokiri Sword in it or whatever. We’re just talking about the joy of traversing gamespace and hoovering up all the stuff that isn’t nailed down. The surface of the world is scattered with resources. Once in a while you’ll stumble onto something rare and valuable. If you’re not finding what you need on the surface, you can always dive into the local cave system and see if it has something you’re interested in.
This whole process is a little dangerous at first. Resources are guarded by the local population of omnipresent robots. It’s actually a pretty fun and amusing system. In most games, when you “steal” something the guards go instantly hostile and you have to fight them. In No Man’s Sky, the guards – the silent robotic Sentinels of unknown origin – usually ignore you. When you harvest a resource or kill an animal, they don’t make a beeline for you. Instead they briefly fixate on the spot you just plundered, and then hover over and stare at you accusingly. If you’re quick you can clear out before things turn hostile. They might even follow for a short distance, aiming their accusing red light at you like a cop demanding you stop and consent to a search. Protip: Don’t. Just keep moving.
Later in the game, you’ll find planets with “protected” resources. These items are usually just laying around on the surface of the world and are irresistibly valuable. However, if you dare pick one of them up the robots will show up with some elite units and do their best to make you very sorry. They don’t scan you first. They just start shooting. If it’s early in the game you might swipe a couple and then make a mad dash to escape, like a heist gone horribly wrong. Later in the game you’ll probably have the equipment to destroy the guards and plunder the planet in peaceFor a couple of minutes. The guards respawn after a short time.. This is probably the closest No Man’s Sky ever comes to feeling like a videogame.
The downside: The gorram inventory system all but ruins this. Where’s the joy in finding treasure you can’t pick up? You have painfully limited inventory space, most of which is consumed by the common resources you need to drag around to power your equipment. You’ll only have a few slots left over for “extras” like treasure, and those fill up fast and stay full until you find a shop.
Worse, you can’t see the value of an item before you pick it up, so you don’t know if it’s worth dropping the Old Treasure to make room for the New Treasure. Worse still is that you can’t drop an item on the ground to make room so you can compare New and Old. Your only option is to destroy an item in your inventory to make room. Even worser is that if you try to pick up some item and you don’t have space for it, the item will simply vanish. Worsest of all: This is made more likely by the fact that your suit automatically sucks up everything whether you want it or not.
So while you’re exploring you’ll be fending off wildlife, dealing with pesky sentinels, and carving away troublesome flora that bars your way, all of which will gradually fill your pockets with dumb crap you don’t need.
So you’ll hike through a mile of savage beasts, cruel weather, and unyielding topography to find a single crystal node of some precious mineral. You break it with your mining tool and your suit informs you NO FREE INVENTORY SLOTS. Those resources you just harvested have poofed out of existence forever because your pockets are already full of the worthless iron your suit decided to pick up. You can destroy some crap to free up space, but the damage is done.
2. Engage in space combat.
You can fly around in space and dogfight with space pirates. Visually, it looks like a classic space fighter game in the tradition of Freespace or X-Wing. You zip around shooting colorful laser bolts at enemy fighters against a spectacular backdrop of planets and colorful nebulae.
The Downside: It looks like a classic space fighter game, but it doesn’t play like one. At all. I started to enumerate all of the problems with space combat in this paragraph, but then it became two paragraphs. Then five. Then basically an entire article. I’m not sure if it’s worth posting, but I didn’t want my critique of space combat to overshadow the rest of this column. The short version is that this entire gameplay mechanic is broken in multiple ways on multiple levels and everything about it is awful, frustrating, and pointless.
3. Catalog the wildlife.
I’ll bet there’s an indie game out there where your only goal is to explore some wilderness and try to get a picture of every animalIf there isn’t, there should be. Sounds like it could make for a good edutainment style game.. That’s built right into the systems of No Man’s Sky. You run around on planets and scan lifeforms. You can see information on their physiology and behavior. You can name them. Upload the scans for a nice little payout. Scan all the lifeforms on a single planet (don’t forget to look in the ocean and in the sky!) and you’ll get a bonus in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million unitsMore for planets with a lot of animals to catalog, less for planets with just a few.. That’s massive in the early game.
It’s a fun little side-activity to do while you’re foraging for materials to turn into spaceship fuel. You might find you’ve got all the resources you need, only to notice you’ve just got one or two animals left to earn the bonus for this planet. These National Geographic style hunts can be fun and the whole thing makes me feel a little more like an explorer and less like a space-miner.
The downside: Actually, this is one of the few systems in the game that actually works. I suppose if you’re fishing for complaints I can mention that getting scans of flying creatures is really annoying. You have to hold your view on them for a couple of seconds for it to register, which is really fiddly when you’re trying to scan something flying in circles far above youThis is supposedly fixed in a recent patch. I haven’t tested it yet..
4. Upgrade your tool.
You carry around a multi-tool kinda thing, which serves as both your mining tool, zap gun, and (if you install the upgrade) grenade launcher. Your tool has a limited number of slots, and those slots can be used for upgrades. So you have to choose: Do you want to cut through mineral deposits faster? Deal more damage? Be able to dig for longer without overheating? Faster reload times? Greater mining beam range? Customize your device to suit your playstyle.
The downside: The game flat-out refuses to put numbers on any of its systems. The interface tells me that Mining Beam Tau is “improved”. I can see it’s significantly more expensive to build than Mining Beam Sigma, but I have no idea how much better it is. It’s like an RPG where you can’t see your own stats or the stats of any equipment and the game just says Sword B is better than Sword A and you have no idea if it’s significantly better or trivially better. The game is asking you to make decisions and spend resources on things without communicating what the outcome will be or even giving you a frame of reference for your decision making. There might be an interesting upgrade system at work under the hood. Or maybe it’s just busywork. You can’t tell, which means that either way it feels unsatisfying.
5. Upgrade your suit.
Like your multi-tool, you can add upgrades to your environment suit and spaceship. The suit is your main inventory. As you play you’ll gain upgrades that will allow you to survive in more extreme conditions, and to do so for longer periods of time. You’ll also expand your inventory space as time goes on. So it’s kind of like an RPG where you can grow in power.
The downside: You build your upgrades into your inventory grid and they can’t be moved. Which means that every single upgrade reduces your inventory space by 1. Aside from the fact that This Makes No Damn Sense, it’s basically punishing you for upgrading.
Sure, it’s nice to have the radiation shield so you can survive on irradiated planets, but your limited inventory space is a far more pressing concern than radiation. If you want, you can just forego the shield and not bother with irradiated planetsThis is made somewhat more troublesome by the fact that you can’t know what a planet is like until you land on it and physically step out of your ship. I guess you don’t have space scanners on your ship? Or even a Geiger counter?. It’s not like they have unique resources. If you go to the next planet or system you can find the same crap on a less troublesome world. Your inventory is usually full and you’re constantly fussing with it to try to get the most out of your limited space. So adding a radiation shield temporarily protects you from a mild inconvenience that you only encounter on rare occasions, at the expense of exacerbating the one problem that’s always hounding you.
Same goes for the toxin shield. And the heat shield. And the cold shield.
6. Optimize your build.
There’s a system of adjacency bonuses. On the grid of upgrades, if you build your mining beam speed boost next to the mining beam itself, then the bonus will be stronger. This means optimizing your suit, ship, and multi-tool involves doing a little bit of puzzle solving. You want to use the available space as efficiently as possible while keeping bonuses of similar types next to each other.
The downside: The game never explains it. And once you know about it, you still don’t have any way of seeing those bonuses or knowing how much of an impact (if any) your optimizations are having. Is there a flat bonus applied if the upgrade is touching ANY similar upgrade, or does the bonus get bigger with more adjacent items? Is building four items in a row functionally any different from building them in a square? Is there a cap on how how strong the bonus can get?
And even if the game explained the mechanics, the system is too shallow to be interesting. It’s not like you can gear yourself for a “combat build” or a “stealth build”. There aren’t any trade-offs to balance, aside from worrying about inventory space. Everyone has the same layout of immutable systems, so if the game ever explained the mechanics the whole upgrade system would be reduced to “right” and “wrong”. There would be one objectively optimal way to do things, and and the freedom to build sub-optimally for no reason.
And just to twist the knife a little, your environment suit has your jetpack trapped in the upper-left corner, blocked in by two unrelated pieces of hardware. None of these bits can be moved, which means it’s impossible to build optimized bonuses for your jetpack, which incidentally is pretty fun and the one thing I always wanted to boost.
So what we have is a system that increases an unknown value by an unknown amount according to rules that are never explained, and which is negated in a situation where it might actually boost one of the rare fun parts of the game.
7. Learn alien languages.
Sprinkled around the world you’ll find these wonderful mysterious monuments. Click on them, and you’ll learn a single word of one of the three major alien languages in the game. Sometimes you’ll meet these aliens in outposts or on space stations. You’ll walk up to them and be presented with a little dialog box of interaction where they ask something of you, and you’re given a multiple choice answer in how to respond. At first their dialog is incomprehensible and you’ll just be blindly guessing at what they want. But as you master their language, the dialog becomes more clear. You begin to get a sense of their personality and get a feel for what they’re asking of you. It really makes you feel like you’re growing as an explorer.
The downside: It’s pointless. The most important story bits and flavor text are all in plain English, so the only time you need their language is to be able to get these multiple-choice interactions right. But even if you “win” the interaction – even if you know the language well enough to answer properly, or you happen to guess right – the rewards are usually very small. Usually the game gives you a new blueprint for a new upgrade that you won’t want to build. (See above.)
Worse, there just aren’t that many blueprints in the game. You’ll likely have them all long before you come close to mastering even one of these languages. Which means that by the time you can understand what these goofs are saying, you are long past the point in the game where you might have any reason to talk to them.
8. Engage in Trade.
Trade is fun, right? Lots of space games have some sort of space-trade component.
The downside: It’s dumb and shallow and not worth it. Every system has a resource or two that they’ll pay double for. It’s always double. Never half. Never two and a half times. If we say n is the galactic average price for a good, then all goods sell for n or n×2, plus or minus about three random percentage points. So if you find another system selling the resource you can make runs between the two systems, buying and selling the exact same thing again and again, until you get bored. This is made less interesting by the fact that the game doesn’t let you keep records. You can’t look at the price histories of places you’ve been, or make notes, or create named bookmarks for multiple locations. And good luck if you find a useful trading post on a planet. Once you return to orbit, you’re never likely to find it again.
But it doesn’t matter, because trade is a lousy way to make money anyway. Changing systems takes fuel and fuel takes time to gather. It’s much more efficient to simply gather local resources to sell rather than trading for them.
And if you REALLY want to make money in a hurry and don’t mind grinding, then fill the hold with plutonium and iron (which are plentiful, present on all planets, and trivial to gather in bulk) and craft them into bypass chips, because for some reason bypass chips are worth a lot of money. Just stand at the trade terminal, crafting chips and then selling them. Over and over. While boring, this is more efficient than resource collection and FAR more efficient than roaming around burning warp fuel and looking for worthwhile trade deals.
9. Follow the story.
Well, not so much “story” as “thing to do”. You can visit Atlas stations and get a bunch of random pseudo-mysterious bullshit to read. If you visit ten of these stations, you complete the Atlas quest.
The downside: To follow this quest, you have to collect ten Atlas stones, which take up ten precious slots of inventory space. While the text seems to hint at some big mystery, it never really goes anywhere or leads to a satisfying payoff.
Spoiler: Once you complete the quest – which I couldn’t do because it’s easy to break the quest chain and impossible to fix – the game tells you you’ve created a new star. It’s unclear if this is just flavor text or if it’s literally true that there’s now a new star in the universe. Moreover, it’s impossible to tell. There are billions of stars in this game and the interface doesn’t have a space to display who “made” the star.
So the best case scenario is that the quest ends with you creating a star that you will never see, can’t name, don’t have any means to find, and probably will never be seen by a single human being. And even if by some miracle someone DOES stumble over “your” star, it won’t be labeled and they will have no idea it’s a player-created thing. What’s more likely is that – like a lot of the rest of the game – the business about creating a star is just empty pretension and the entire quest amounts to nothing.
10. Work your way to the center.
It’s always there, visible in the star map. That glowing ball in the distance. Devoid of any other detail except a vast expanse of indistinguishable dots in every direction, it’s natural to fly towards the one Interesting Thing in this sea of noise. When you get there, you’ll be transported to the edge of a new galaxy.
The downside: Your reward for doing this is that you can do it again. In fact, you can do it as many times as you like! Of course, the next galaxy has only been visited by people who also completed the journey, so if you like finding worlds named by other players then the odds of that happening go from “rare” to “extremely rare”. That would be fine if there was some other sense of progression: Maybe the new galaxy is different somehow? Maybe there are new resources, or the sentinels behave differently, or there are new aliens? Something. Anything. But no. It’s more of the same.
I swear there’s a good game in here somewhere.
This feels so much like Spore it hurts. We have an amazing new technology that isn’t just a new generation of graphical sparkles. This new technology suggests new gameplay possibilities. And yet like Spore, what we got was a collection of half-baked mechanics that either don’t work at all, or actively undermine each other.
My fear is that No Man’s Sky will suffer the same fate as Spore: That the technology will die here, without anyone iterating on it or hooking it up to proper gameplay mechanics. Underneath the hype, broken promises, pre-order shenanigans, glitches, and performance issues is something special. It’s a system that can pump out wondrous new worlds for us to explore. There’s an amazing artistry to these places. There are moments between those tedious moments of inventory management when you can look to the horizon and realize the scene in front of you could pass as the cover of a Heinlein-era sci-fi novel.
It’s beautiful. It’s remarkable. But it’s no damn fun to play.
 For a couple of minutes. The guards respawn after a short time.
 If there isn’t, there should be. Sounds like it could make for a good edutainment style game.
 More for planets with a lot of animals to catalog, less for planets with just a few.
 This is supposedly fixed in a recent patch. I haven’t tested it yet.
 This is made somewhat more troublesome by the fact that you can’t know what a planet is like until you land on it and physically step out of your ship. I guess you don’t have space scanners on your ship? Or even a Geiger counter?
A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
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