Reviewed: No Man’s Sky doesn’t live up to the hype, but it does provide a unique thrill

The most hyped game of the year is a bit of a letdown, especially after you realize the planets all share some similarities. It's also a brilliant match for sci-fi lovers.

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There’s something cathartic about space.

I’ve never been there, of course, but I’ve looked up at the stars on many occasions. I’ve wondered what it might be like to wander around in uncharted regions of the galaxy. I’ve read a few Robert Heinlein novels.

I’m guessing the creators behind No Man’s Sky, released for PS4 earlier this week and for PC tomorrow (via Steam), have also read some pulpy sci-fi books. Maybe they've even written a few, who knows?

In the game, you meet some exotic creatures. You can zip from one solar system to another and even venture to the center of the known galaxy. You can purchase a new ship, talk to fellow explorers (none of them other human players), and hunt for rare minerals on a planet that even Captain Kirk would avoid like the plague.

As you may have read, the game was billed as incredibly innovative and entirely unique. It uses a procedural generation system for the worlds you visit. Each one is different from the next, and there are 18 quintillion of them. (Spoiler alert: You “discover” one planet after another, but eventually the game resets and you start over in another galaxy. The good news is that they are all still unique.)

Initially, there’s some exciting gameplay. You “craft” strange objects and build a warp drive. You hunt down massive mounds of rare materials and vast amounts of gold. The buying and selling components have an RPG flavor to them. No Man’s Sky is not a shooter, but you can wield a laser once in awhile to fend off a creature or shoot at some mysterious drones. In your ship, you’ll zap asteroids and -- only if you pursue this route -- you can take on some of the other spaceships in a dogfight. Sadly, the game has no multiplayer features, hardly any story, and one serious (nearly fatal) flaw.

It’s a blast, though. I enjoyed discovering the planets in the game and rocketing over the surface of an otherworldly vista, trying to manage my inventory on the ship. The main selling point here is that you can go anywhere and do anything. You create your own story. Maybe you decide you want to explore the caverns of a winter world or spend most of your time in space. There are clear objectives -- usually involving collecting objects and crafting a warp drive to continue to the next solar system. Yet, there’s no real penalty for wandering around aimlessly, and that’s part of the fun.

In terms of the innovations available, knowing you are alone in the game and what you’re seeing was generated only for you, and that there is a vast galaxy waiting for you in the dark unknown, is also quite an accomplishment. The fact that most games have a limited set of locations to explore and that you eventually come to the end of each mission removes some of the excitement about any unbridled discovery. Even after playing for hours, I still loved the idea of catapulting to another planet with the knowledge that it would be completely different.

Yet, there’s another feeling you get when you realize the procedurally generated content is a bit like painting the same rock a different color. The creatures on each planet tend to slither and gallop about the same. There are precious few outposts or signs of civilization, although (spoiler alert again) I’ve heard that the closer you get to the center of the galaxy, the more you’ll notice some industrialization and that the planets are obviously inhabited.

The killer for me is that there is nothing at stake. It reminds me of one of those empty-headed movies like the recently released Jason Bourne or The Transformers series where you don’t really care if anyone lives or dies. There’s nothing propelling you forward other than a vague sense of discovery. You never wonder “how does this all turn out” because maybe there is no point after all. It’s the same with all scientific discovery. If what we learn has no meaning or purpose, it’s a void. It’s a number on a blank sheet or a chemical in a petri dish and nothing more.

I’m still planning on pushing ahead, though. The game is a good match for me -- I don’t care to be shooting anything anyway. I like the idea of exploring the unknown, and I’m a lifelong science-fiction fan. Robert Heinlein would be proud of No Man’s Sky.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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