Sure, the core gameplay loop isn’t quite as tedious as it once was and, with the introduction of procedurally generated side-quests, freighters, and a handful of other new mechanics, the future looks relatively bright for the beleaguered title.
Even so, at present, No Man’s Sky remains frustratingly flawed. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s visuals, which are by turns beautiful and actually rather ugly.
Lacking the (arguably superior) photorealistic graphical style of comparable titles such as Elite Dangerous, the best views No Man’s Sky has to offer rely on distance and sheer scale.
Not just because the game’s somewhat rudimentary textures aren’t quite as conspicuous when observed from millions of in-game miles away, but also and more simply, the sheer vastness of the galactic playground itself and the imposing size of the planets that reside therein perfectly convey that feeling of humility you can’t help but feel when stargazing in real life: the rather humbling sense that, when considered from a cosmic perspective, humanity is nothing more than a single, tiny, insignificant part of an unimaginably larger whole.
The views that best embody this experience for me appear during inter-planetary travel as a distant planet that, although only a few pixels in extent just a second or two ago, begins slowly to engulf the screen as you hurtle through the stellar medium toward it.
That’s not to say the beauty of these vistas is entirely dependent on the deeper, existential meaning behind them. On the contrary, shots of unfiltered starlight peeking out from behind a nearby Earth-like planet, the gentle meanderings of asteroids within the midst of a vibrant nebula perfectly demonstrate the innate beauty of certain aspects of the game.
It’s just a shame Hello Games chose not to include gas giants, dwarf planets, proper asteroid belts, and similar natural phenomenon. The sense that you’re an intrepid pioneer penetrating the uncharted reaches of an almost infinite galaxy, while undoubtedly present, would be far more profound if the architecture of each new star system was a bit less homogeneous.
However, whenever you leave the safety of your cockpit for a spot of on-foot terrestrial exploration, this sense of visual déjà vu is far more conspicuous.
Rivers, forests, deserts, canyons, oceans, artificial structures, and proper mountain ranges are essentially non-existent, and, while the sky might be green instead of red on a particular planet, the grass blue instead of yellow, it’s not long before the topography of these nominally disparate worlds starts to look disappointingly familiar and with that, the excitement of galactic exploration quickly loses its allure.
So pronounced is this feeling of uniformity in fact, that there comes a point when, rather than landing on another irradiated yet somehow thriving world, you’re hoping to stumble upon a lightless, barren ball of rock instead, just so you have something slightly different to look at.
And, for a game that’s all about discovery and exploration, such visual fatigue is a serious problem.
As such, you’ll almost inevitably find yourself looking toward the heavens rather than the surrounding landscape for planetside photo opportunities after the first couple of hours. Fortunately, there are quite a few.
I’m not much of a photographer myself (if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m atrocious) but, be that as it may, some of the best shots I’ve captured during my 30+ hours with No Man’s Sky are of barely visible, distant planets framed by the inky-black background of the night sky and an ocean of stars, or of colossal, horizon-filling planets seen in all their glory from the surface of a much smaller orbiting moon.
But while the planets themselves might still be lacking in the diversity department, the modifications made to the game’s animal creation algorithm have certainly increased the variety of alien life forms you’re likely to come across whilst exploring the galaxy.
Now, before anyone complains or accuses me of hyperbole, yes, I’m fully aware there’s still a fair amount of species cross-over between planets and yes, some of the creatures still look as utterly ridiculous as those featured in the original, vanilla version of the game. However, it can’t be denied there’re considerably more unique species of flora and fauna to catalog following the updates.
Whereas previously, weird squid-like creatures ruled the roost, these days, a typical planet might throw up a colossal green dinosaur with the teeth of a tyrannosaur and the horns of a triceratops, or a wonderfully strange marine organism that provides you with the perfect opportunity to adopt your gentlest semi-posh English accent and channel your inner Attenborough.
The designs are stylized, of course, so the plants and animals inhabiting Hello Games’ universe aren’t the most realistic. Nevertheless, for the most part, they possess that abstract ‘sci-fi’ quality that distinguishes the alien life in Dr Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars. More importantly, No Man’s Sky’s prodigious and varied bestiary acts as a counter balance to the homogeneous worlds these creatures call home, keeping you interested in the search for new planets far longer than you would be if the galaxy was utterly devoid of life.
That being said, although the stylized visuals of No Man’s Sky aren’t bad per se – as I said before, they kind of work in the context of the game – both the lurid color palette and the decision to eschew at least a semi-photo-realistic art style, diminish its aesthetic appeal.
Rather than emphasizing the mysterious darkness of space and using lighter colors in a more natural, nuanced manner a la Elite Dangerous, No Man’s Sky’s color scheme is unpleasantly bright, and almost saturated. Possessing all the subtlety of a Harley-Davidson, the swirling mass of garish reds, greens, and yellows that characterize the hotter worlds and the interstellar medium are nothing less than an assault on the eyes, responsible for ruining many an otherwise gorgeous panorama.
Consequently, it can be difficult to fully immerse yourself in Hello Games’ procedurally generated galaxy: a problem you don’t have with visually realistic games such as Uncharted or artistically comparable titles like Firewatch.
Compare that to the aforementioned Elite Dangerous, a game that, despite its lack of living planets and imaginatively designed creatures, almost flawlessly captures the awe-inspiring nature of space and, as a result, forges a stronger bond between the player and the game world. Likewise, although the No Man’s Sky’s wildlife is somewhat cartoony, if still charming in appearance, I would invest heavier in galactic zoology and be far more inclined to share my discoveries on social media if they actually resembled organisms that could exist in the real world, rather than something more akin to Lovecraft or Rick and Morty.
Ultimately, in an effort to create its own, distinctive art style, Hello Games has ended up adopting something that’s dangerously close to crossing the line between stylish and kitschy.
No Man’s Sky thus simply can’t compete consistently, artistically speaking, with comparable science fiction titles such as Elite Dangerous or Destiny 2, or indeed the ever-increasing number of stylistic indie games releasing year upon year.
Which is deeply frustrating for a game that, despite its many, many drawbacks, is more than capable of capturing our imagination and treating us to some truly wonderful spectacles.