The paradox at the heart of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky isn’t its transcendent space opera, but rather its ambition is simultaneously too vast yet entirely too narrow in focus. Proposing a vast universe of procedurally-generated planets–each with a neon-saturated ecology to discover–the game attempts all things for all people: exploration, space combat, chill out and observe the wildlife, survival simulation, or mine and trade resources with alien species, all are given room to wiggle in. It’s an ambitiously kitchen sink approach, which, along with the sci-fi aesthetic and electronica soundtrack, suggests Hello Games want No Man’s Sky to be this console cycle’s Deus Ex–a technical and thematic leap forward to inform entire genres of gameplay.
Where Deus Ex, or even the similarly lofty Shenmue, succeeded was giving equal weight to its different modes. Stealth and shooting, or even RPG-style machinations are equally valid approaches in Deus Ex, while Shenmue breezes through what would be abrupt transitions between quiet, slice of life sim/exploration and martial arts brawling, both treated as part of the landscape of its sleepy Japanese village. No Man’s Sky is too pushy with the survival aspects to enjoy the sightseeing it was sold on, with death-preventing meters needing recharge at absurdly quick rates. This insistence is similarly dogged by the clipped, sluggish movement (of the player’s traveler and their ship), which makes the combat a chore–all the more so in space, where attackers signal jam your warp drive, forcing you into dogfights where you can’t evade around them.
Unsurprisingly, the two aspects of the game which deserve praise are the ones marketed heavily. The quiet joy of setting down on a planet and observing a herd going about its business, and the implementation of physics to spaceship travel. Traversing the enormity of a single planet, let alone planet to planet in this universe, is factored in hours, with various methods to reduce that time down to minutes or (rarely) seconds. Even if variability leaves much to be desired, there is something incredibly satisfying in taking off to the upper atmosphere and using a planet’s rotation to get to its opposite side, then landing back down. All Hello had to do was build outward from this mechanic to create something wonderful.