The fundamental purpose of No Man's Sky is to explore the exceptionally large available universe. A universe so large that your interaction with other players, or more accurately the paths that other players have taken, should be minimal, rare, and noteworthy (even if you did come to occupy the same space as another character you would be unable to see or interact with them). I didn't pay much attention to the hype preceding the launch of this game. I only bought it because I was enthused by the excitement of friends on the day of its release. I'm aware of a lot of the indications that were given about the game, and the interviews and videos released on the run up to launch, but I'm not approaching this from the perspective of having built the game up into a monolith it could never really stand up to.
No Man's Sky has a number of fundamental, uncorrectable, flaws stemming from poor design choices. It also does not really live up to its most basic technical promises. That's not to say it isn't technically impressive — I'm sure it was a lot of work — but there are problems that fall short of the achievement it could have been.
But even as it is disappointing, it is still really good fun.
At least… most of the time.
The first gripe I'm going to get out of the way is the procedural generation. Eighteen quintillion solar systems sounds impressive but it's not that impressive technically; the number of systems you can achieve is limited only by the time you dedicate to their generation and the space you have to store the data. Some of that generation is undoubtedly done on demand but the scale is not a big deal.
The procedural generation in NMS is overly simplistic. Systems are by and large too similar for any of them to be memorable, but my real issue is that planets are uninteresting. There's no variation to any given planet, a planet has a singular environment based on the type of terrain and one of a small list of environmental hazards (each of which is functionally identical, but requires a different exosuit mod to mitigate, meaning that this system is really a tax on inventory space — or would be if there were any real benefit to constructing those mods). Every square inch of any given planet is more or less identical to every other square inch. Planets have no variance in this respect — you won't find a rainforest and a desert between two polar ice caps. You'll just get all rainforest or all ice, with a smattering of features chosen from the bank of terrain types. Planets don't feel like planets, they feel like moving between the desert world and the ice world in a Super Mario game.
This simply could have been a whole lot more interesting.
There's also an issue with excessive duplication. On more than one occasion two planets or a planet and a moon in the same system appear identical to each other from space. Right down to having the same weather pattern. I have also had instances of three utterly identical NPCs being docked simultaneously at the station I was in. This is, well, it's just not good enough in a game where procedurally generated variety is a cornerstone of its whole philosophy.
I guess this leads into the next thing: system design. It bugs me to no end that in a system with five habitable planets, each planet is closer to its most distant neighbour than the Earth is to the Moon. They're all in a big lump — with a decent telescope on a clear night you should be able to scan the lifeforms on one planet from its nearest neighbour without difficulty.
This is a stylistic choice for sure, but it's a poor one in a game where isolation and exploration are central. Travelling should feel like an event. There should be void between planets to brave. It would have been no more technically challenging. While it's undeniably pretty it undermines a core concept of the game for me, and a great deal of the sense of scale and wonder that could have been nurtured is lost. As it stands, spaceflight really feels like a barrier between the parts of the game that are enjoyable. It's largely spent zooming between planets, there's very little in space to interact with and even less that is worthwhile. Space travel is an interruption more than a feature. It needed more investment.
The concept of exploration itself is also challenged in a game where you are actually never more than ten minutes walk from someone's house. You're not really a pioneer when even at the most remote peak or the deepest valley you can pop around to your neighbour's place to borrow a cup of sugar without even losing sight of your spaceship. Meeting other aliens on these worlds should have been much less common. I could make an argument that even space stations should be less common. The fact is that you're never really alone in No Man's Sky; you're not an explorer, you just renamed someone's home "Poopyface 2" without even asking.
The interface is also an issue for me. It's just clunky. The controls are inconsistent. Uploading your discoveries should be a single button job but as I haven't found any such method for batch upload I instead get to listen to the endless chorus of "UNITS RECEIVED" while holding down a button for dear life. Sometimes parts of the interface just don't even work (sometimes I get the leading target reticle for space combat and sometimes I don't).
Combat brings me on to the Sentinels. This game would be a thousand times better without Sentinels. They suck. They aren't a challenge, they don't add excitement. All they do is interrupt the parts of the game that I actually enjoy while I line up a shot and launch a grenade into their exhaust chutes at point blank range. There's some scant lore about them that tries to explain their presence (the lore is this awful, self-referential, meta-narrative that quickly ceases to be cute) but they are essentially the single worst part of the whole No Man's Sky experience. I'm hoping someone will notice and set them all to only be aggressive when shot at. Or just delete them and pretend they never happened. When I find a high Sentinel activity world from this point in, I'm just going to jump to the next system.
Space combat is also not really fun, and is equally pointless. Without a meaningful faction system there's also little point to engage in space combat except for the fact that the presence of hostile ships stops you from travelling between planets. It's often best just to dive into atmosphere which cancels the encounter and then go about your business without having to waste your resources on shield recharge.
There are occasionally other giant ships that warp into space around you. They don't seem to have any purpose other than to look science-fictiony and remind you that someone else got to this star system before you.
The construction system is also a bit of a problem. Not only did I seem to acquire every single available multitool and exosuit upgrade within the exploration of my first couple of systems, but I also have no compelling reason to construct any of them at all. Honestly, the extra inventory slot is far more beneficial than anything they have to offer, especially as long term survival and combat are both trivial matters. The best you will gain is convenience, and there's little incentive to actually explore truly hostile environments when it's not really very rewarding and there's Eighteen-quintillion-minus-one alternatives and the majority of them will be much more fun.
Factions in the game are a little superfluous. Standing is easy to improve, and hard to decrease. I have had a single instance of a standing decrease while it increases with almost every other alien interaction, which are frequent. The factions available are essentially whatever species own any given star system and they don't interact so there's no choice to be made. Just playing the game ensures that your standing with every faction you encounter will steadily increase. A high standing occasionally enables interactions with greater rewards but they're never all that great. You can't, for example, side with one faction against another; there's no joining the pirates in plundering the local freighters. This just feels like a system that barely even started development. It's a little like the foundation of something that could have been good but was cut far too early. It adds nothing to the game. Learning the languages of your local species can help a little in places, but is mostly irrelevant too.
I've also found that the game crashes (on PS4 at least) while warping between star systems. This brings a halt to your exploration, resets your progress to the last time the game auto-saved itself, and is honestly pretty annoying. It has prevented me from progressing and essentially makes the game unplayable at times. This particular issue is unforgivable for a release game. Several of my friends have experienced the same problem (some venting their frustrations on Twitter) and it seems to have been a known issue during the game's beta period. This should never have been allowed to make it into production.
So where is the really good fun I mentioned if all of the game's key facets fall disappointingly short of the mark?
The answer is that it's actually just really enjoyable to go poke around on these planets. For all the ways in which they could have been so much better, running around playing lonely space scientist has a lovely, relaxed zen to it (when the stupid Sentinels aren't constantly ruining it). You can play for hours before you get tired of it, then just stop and pick it up again later. It's exceptionally pretty, and combined with the truly outstanding soundtrack it provides one of the most chilled and low-key experiences in modern gaming. If this appeals to you then you should probably give it a shot (maybe wait until it's on sale), but if you wanted a sense of adventure and exploration in a vast and lonely universe this is not the game that will provide it.