I finally reached the end of the Atlas path last night, and it was pretty much exactly what I was expecting, which is to say kind of heavy-handed. Nevertheless, its philosophical undertones were enough to give me pause and make me think about what No Man's Sky was trying to accomplish.
Ultimately, No Man's Sky comes off as something of a tone poem. It's a meditative experience - mellow, occasionally boring, but also hypnotic. It has superificial videogame elements like resource farming and pirate attacks, but neither amount to much. Mostly, it's content to let you wander around its procedurally-generated universe and think deep thoughts about the nature of existence. It's a game that desperately wants to be more than the sum of its mechanics.
It's enough to make one question what exactly they want out of a videogame: Fun? Competition? A challenge? No Man's Sky arguably lacks all three of those things. Mostly, it's a series of repetitive actions that slowly but surely lure you into a kind of trance. Its combat is trivial, and I rarely felt compelled to go through the trouble of upgrading my ship outside of adding to the inventory. The alien encounters boil down to guessing at the context of a conversation with the help of some random words and earning an unexciting reward. The loop becomes obvious after a few planets, and it isn't long before the entire experience starts to feel pointless.
Nevertheless, I'm reluctant to call it a failure. If its purpose is to put you on a kind of spiritual journey that makes you feel the utter vastness and indifference of the universe, then I think its successful. Cruising through space is a real revelation, as is the moment when you point you nose up and roar out of the atmosphere, then look down and almost feel yourself floating. Sometimes you'll crest a mountain and find yourself just admiring the silhouette of your ship against a setting sun. Its feeling of seamlessness managed to keep me playing long after I had grown tired of its actual game mechanics.
I think what hurts No Man's Sky is the feeling that there really isn't anything to find at the end of the rainbow. With the planets all falling into pretty recognizable templates, it starts getting pretty hard to get the motivation to actually go through the trouble of landing and exploring. No Man's Sky is at its best when you're zipping through space and thinking of the possibilities of the planets below rather than actually experiencing them. If I'm supposed to feel a sense of wonder when I arrive at a particularly interesting planet, then that feeling is hurt by No Man's Sky repetitive landscapes and relative lack of interesting destinations. The same can be said of the Atlas Interfaces, which are imposing and fascinating the first time you encounter them, but soon begin to blend together as you visit one after another. Much of the game's deeper meaning is conveyed through simple text - a rather bland and unimaginative format that can't help but put you at a remove from the story's deeper themes.
It's telling that Hello Games was left frantically working on a Day One patch even after years of development and multiple delays. They're a small studio; and even with Sony's resources behind them, No Man's Sky was a massive undertaking, so it's not surprising that their universe feels lacking in some ways. Powerful as the hook of flying through space and visiting 18 quintillion planets might be, its sheer repetition and lack of depth ultimately hurts it. It has moments of real beauty and excitement, but only moments. They aren't quite enough to add up to the kind of transcendent experience to which No Man's Sky aspires.
For that reason, it's tough for me to see No Man's Sky as much more than an interesting curiosity. I absolutely love the foundation, and its certainly one of the more interesting experiences I've ever had playing a game, but it's tough for me to say that it lives up to its original promise. For me, its lasting impact will be in the way that it has encouraged me to consider how a game can be more than the sum of its parts. And if Hello Games intends to continue supporting No Man's Sky and building on the foundation that they've created, they may yet reach its incredible potential.
Nothing does more to pull you out of No Man's Sky's world than the inventory management. It's finicky and tedious, and building up your storage space requires a lot of grinding. In my opinion, a major misstep by Hello Games.
There will certainly be people who will enjoy jetting from planet to planet, cataloging animals, and repeating ad nauseam, but alas, I'm won't be one of them. I enjoyed No Man's Sky's zen atmosphere, but I ultimately found its appeal to be short-lived.
No Man's Sky's mellow soundtrack does a lot to put you in the mood of simply soaking in the universe around you. It's very much the kind of game you want to play with headphones.
No Man's Sky's stylized art is attractive, but it has the unintended affect of blunting the impact of the various planetary landscapes and making them look too similar. Overall, though, the effect is very nice.
No Man's Sky's journey across a massive procedural universe is compelling in how seamless it feels, the way that it allows you to explore at your own pace, and its questioning of the drive toward completionism found in most games. Unfortunately, it's saddled with a terrible interface and a crushing sense of repetition, both of which come to overshadow its more interesting qualities. As such, while it feels incomprehensibly vast at times, No Man's Sky can also feel crushingly limiting. And it's the latter feeling, unfortunately, that keeps its from reaching its full potential.