With No Man's Sky coming out today, we at VICE Gaming were torn between two needs: First, we wanted to offer you a picture of our experience playing the game in time for today's release; second, we want to spend quality time with NMS before coming down with any sort of "verdict" about our feelings. So to do both of these things, we decided to write a series of letters or dispatches to one another (and you), about what we'd discovered in our first hours of gameplay. Over the course of the next week, we hope to paint a picture for you of what the game feels like—its strengths and flaws and frustrations. And hopefully by the end of the week, we can all come to some kind of agreement (or not) about what kind of game it is.
Dear Mike and Patrick,So here we are. After three years, a delay, and expectations stretched to the very limits of believability, No Man's Sky is really, actually out.I'm sure you've both been following development to some degree, but just in case you missed some things: No Man's Sky is an exploration and survival game that tasks the player with exploring a procedurally generated universe of countless planets in order to piece together a galactic mystery.I'm grateful that I don't need to do a comprehensive breakdown here, partially because I haven't had a lot of time with the game's final build yet, and partially because to try to explain every mechanic No Man's Sky offers might be to miss the overall effect it produces. An encyclopedic explanation of NMS really risks missing the forest for the trees—and as you'll see in a bit, you don't want to miss these forests.There's another reason that I'm glad we get to be conversational about this: Because my No Man's Sky story has two distinct starts. And that complicates things a little.
Some stuff is the same between those starts. As the game begins, you come to on a strange planet at the far edge of the galaxy, standing next to a grounded ship, all sparks and smoke. NMS uses this scenario as a sort of "soft" tutorial to its survival and crafting systems: You need to use your multi-tool—part mining-laser, part self-defense blaster—to gather some basic materials, improve your equipment, and get your ship back into space-worthy shape.
The thing is, the first time I started NMS was last Thursday, after scrounging an early copy from a local retailer. Part of the reason I did the legwork to make that happen was because I was curious to see exactly how much the game would differ between it's on-disc version and the version that most players would get come launch day. But I'm glad I took that effort, because the result has made me hopeful about NMS, not only in its current form but also for the future of the game in general.
See, my first experience was pretty mixed. The planet I started on felt disappointingly sparse. A couple of neat creatures, some glowing mushrooms, a few caves. I plodded along collecting my iron and carbon and zinc, repairing my multi-tool and my ship's launch thrusters, and eventually left that planet to visit another in the system, but I found it hard to get too excited. It didn't help that I was already struggling to manage my inventory space. And even though each new planet had a new climate, they each felt lonely in the same way.The basic promise of the No Man's Sky still spoke to me—each new horizon was followed by another, each planet offering a vista onto another unseen world—but the moment-to-moment experience failed to really capture anything special.
And then, a few hyperjumps later, it all came together. I reached Avkazatelnye Saito, a snowy moon about six or seven star systems past my starting location. As I descended down to the planet, the first thing I noticed were the huge chunks of Earth floating above the ground, as if scooped out of gravity itself by a celestial spoon. Each chunk was covered with pine trees, and the sky took on an orange-blue hue as the sun set—a glowing winter paradise.
It wasn't long until a beacon led me to a crashed ship—an awkward-looking space truck that I decided, right then and there, would be my awkward looking space truck. After all, it had a bigger inventory than my starter ship, and a few upgrades I hadn't been able install yet. The only problem was, yet again: It was all sparks and smoke.This time, though, repairing my new ship was exactly the relaxing, quiet experience I needed. It was a joy to dip, dive, and bound across the natural hills, valleys, and floating cliffs of the planet I'd re-christened Zhivago—I'm a self parody, sometimes, I know. I found strange alien monuments here, and a few more sentient lifeforms than I'd anticipated. A synth track (one of the procedural, ambient tunes designed by 65daysofstatic) repeated itself, regularly letting me drift into a rhythm I needed more than I knew.
It has been a month since I came on as editor in chief of VICE Gaming. It has been all surprise meetings and long-term scheduling, event planning, and paperwork. And long nights. Lots of long nights.I knew in my heart that I loved what I was doing here—what we were doing here—but it was easy to get caught up in the details and well…Here, two hours after landing on Zhivago, the tension emptied from my shoulders, I finally lifted up above the snow and the trees in my brand new space truck, and I saw it: The forest. Ah, I thought. Right. This is what 'No Man's Sky' can be. It was 2 AM, later than I'd imagined it was, but that wasn't so upsetting. It had been a reminder of why I was pulling the long nights to begin with. Yes. This is what video games can be.
This morning, I started a new game of No Man's Sky, featuring the extensive launch patch announced this weekend. It starts off well enough the same: A crashed ship, all sparks and smoke. But it gets to the metaphorical forest much sooner.
This time it wasn't an ice planet; it was a little corner of my starter world. After speeding through a low canyon in my ship, I emerged into the arid plains where a bright-blue swarm danced in the distance. I got close enough to make out their shapes: They were ships, and under them a landing platform.It was a trade hub, something I hadn't seen in nearly ten hours of the previous build. Immediately, NMS teemed with life and possibility. New ships landed at the market, each one with a unique design. There was still a sense of loneliness here—after all, one of the game's cleverest mechanics is its alien-language system, something I'm betting we'll circle back around to in a future letter. Regardless, the loneliness was less severe now, the universe didn't just feel procedural, it felt inhabited.At least, that's how it feels a couple of hours into my second start. Who knows how I'll feel ten or 20 hours from now. Given how things are going so far, though, I can't wait to begin again, once the PC build is available later this week.So that's me. What about you, Mike? Have you found your own "forest" yet?Make sure to come back to VICE Gaming tomorrow for Mike's first letter in the series.Follow Austin Walker on Twitter.