Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Before we get to the 'interesting' part of my review, let me go over some facts so you can be assured I know what I'm talking about - you know, in case you had it in your head that I was some paid hack who's never seen a game before in his life. Like, say... actually, I won't name names - yet.
No Man's Sky was one of those games. The ones that get people all riled up and excited for years before they're due to launch. I remember, early-to-mid-2010s, watching videos on YouTube of an upcoming game where - incredibly - you could walk on a life sized planet, take off in a spacecraft, zoom through the atmosphere into a solar system (with no loading screens at all), blast from there into the galaxy and explore some quintillion odd star systems.
Sadly the man behind it all - Hello Games' founder Sean Murray - over-promised and under-delivered. When the game launched in 2016 it lacked many of the things he had assured excited gamers would be there: the multiplayer aspect, for instance, was a huge gap. The rest of what was missing is very easily Googleable, so I'd advise you to do that because I'm not going to go into minute detail.
What I will say is that, over the next few years, Hello Games consistently and efficiently brought the game - through free expansions and updates - to the point where it almost (and by almost I mean just shy) delivers the experience Sean Murray had originally promised us. So, with that in mind - I finally bought it.
Now: the interesting part.
Covid-19 has been a shock to the entire world. Not insofar as it's a pandemic - they've happened before and will happen again - but rather in a 'why now, and why us' sort of way. The way that people are shocked when they're in a car accident or get mugged, because those things happen to other people. Except in this case that feeling is being experienced by everyone, everywhere, all at once.
For myself it has been particularly acute - I live alone, so I've spent the better part of six weeks locked up by myself, with only fleeting human contact now and again. Sure, I take part in the podcast video calls, and see other friends and family via similar means, but as we all know - it just isn't the same. I genuinely felt, as the weeks wore on, that my mind might not hold up to the sheer, yawning gulf of emptiness that my life had become. An emptiness, perhaps, that had already been there for a while - with only the noise and business of the world tricking me into forgetting there was nothing to go home to. That - sure - it might be quiet of an evening, but there was always tomorrow. Covid-19 took tomorrow away.
So when I - perhaps desperately - got a hold of No Man's Sky, it was with the hope that the open universe I was entering might take away some of that feeling. And, you know, it has. I could - and will, briefly - comment on how beautiful the game looks. How expansive the crafting system is, how versatile the base building system is, how fluid all of the control schemes are from running around to flying a ship, or a submarine, or a walking mech, or a...
But what I'd rather talk about is how things changed in this lonely little corner of the world when I fired the game up. Suddenly I was dropped onto an ice planet, gear failing, with hardly any time at all to get the things I needed to survive. Thrust along a path where I'd find my first ship, crashed on a nameless world. Nudged along a very long, very subtle tutorial mode where I had to seek out a fellow 'Traveller' - and in so doing, figure out the game mechanics.
Once that was all over-with the sheer scale of the universe in No Man's Sky dawned on me. I could go anywhere - do anything. The game was so vast I might never see anyone else, unless I wanted to. Where I landed could belong to me, and me alone, from one planet to a thousand to a million, conceivably. And with that, the yawning chasm of my real life was reduced to a background ripple. Here was a universe, for me, with no restrictions - and everything for the taking.
I decided I'd set myself a mission - to find the most Earth-like world I could, and call it my own. I traversed the stars - through red and green nebulae, through inky black voids. Landing on worlds with purple grass, or yellow water, or fluorescent green skies. Worlds that looked beautiful until a super-heated rain storm landed on me, or killer robots (sentinels) swarmed me, or... you name it. Something was always wrong with the planets, even the ones that looked very much like Earth. And it was hard to find worlds that looked very much like Earth. It was far easier to come across horrific places covered in half-dead progenitor species, or glitched up remnants of a previous universe (intentional glitches I might add), or Lovecraftian hints of nightmares to come, stored on computer terminals left abandoned by nameless strangers.
And yet this rarity made it all the more compelling.
I jumped, sometimes 900 light years at a time, on my search for the world I knew I would eventually call Carus. And without being fully conscious of it at the time, with every jump, I relaxed more - breathed more easily - felt more like myself again, despite being locked away on my own. Sure I was alone in No Man's Sky too, but being alone didn't matter - it was 'the human' versus 'reality' - in a sense, doing what we always do: pushing forward, relentlessly, against the darkness.
I can't tell you the sense of achievement I felt when I finally found Carus. As my ship dropped into the atmosphere and I saw the lush, green hills, covered in trees and bushes and beaches lapped by light blue water and flowers and animals and -
For a while I just walked around on the surface, marvelling at something as simple as how the wind rippled through the grass, turning it a dozen shades of green.
There's a lot to come after finding Carus. There's the 'building a home' project, which will keep me occupied for some time to come, as well as side-quests, plot threads I haven't followed, and so on. And, of course, there's still another quintillion systems to look into.
But the journey I had been on up to that moment was the thing that broke my sense of isolation, and therefore the most interesting thing I could possibly say about No Man's Sky. I wouldn't ever have felt grateful towards a game before recent times, but I feel grateful towards No Man's Sky, and Hello Games, and Sean Murray for what they've given me.
This has been an experience - a richness of sensation and reward that I won't ever forget, and will continue to enjoy (I'm sure) for a long time yet. And so -
For the positive impact on mental health, and of course the fabulous design, music, gameplay, etc. I will give No Man's Sky a highly deserved five out of five stars - and wholeheartedly recommend that - lockdown or not - you install this game immediately.
Thank me later.