My inner child loves No Man’s Sky – but do I?

God knows I’ve put the hours in, but am I actually enjoying playing No Man’s Sky, or is it all a grip of nostalgia?

Over the course of my time with No Man’s Sky on the PS4, I’ve broken a fair few barriers. Not only am I referring to breaking the speed of light in order to warp between its seemingly infinite number of star systems, but also because I broke my Golden Rule of Outlandish Purchase Decisions: no games above £40.

So when I saw a brand new copy of No Man’s Sky on the shelves for just £25 today, I had pause to consider whether I was still getting any value out of my near-twice-the-price purchase – or even if I ever had.

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In the run-up to its release last August, the No Man’s Sky hype was overwhelming. I’ve never been one to let myself get sucked into that sort of thing – it’s why I’m always so behind on the latest and greatest hits of pop culture – but the game had to really be something special to meet those expectations. And when it turned out in the eyes of so many to be so much less than stellar, the hype turned swiftly into massive backlash aimed squarely at the poor sods at Hello Games.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first fired the game up myself, but suffice it to say I wasn’t underwhelmed…or overwhelmed even…merely…whelmed? With my hitherto unrealised need to have an update of Frontier: Elite II in my life, I was happy enough to play Pioneer here and there.

Sure, No Man’s Sky remains stunning to look at – I’m a sucker for an alien landscape – but outside of the artefact discovery and the annoying grinning creatures greeting me at every space station, there just wasn’t a whole lot to do besides the same old, same old.

So just as Hello Games realised they needed to put a hell of a lot more game into their game, I abandoned No Man’s Sky in favour of a second playthrough of Fallout 4.

November saw the release of NMS’ Foundation Update, with new modes of gameplay and just a little bit more to do during your visits to the stars beyond. I’ve only just made my way onto this update, and I think I’ve made a bit of an unsettling discovery.

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After loading an old save file and debating whether or not to carry on in search of the Atlas Stones which I’d been gifted by some weird dome thing, I decided to start afresh – I needed to get to grips with the controls again, and wondered if there was anything I’d missed the first time.

I decided to start from scratch and try a different path – that of the two rebel explorers, Nada and Polo. This seems to be going well enough – and could have even started to lead somewhere but for the fact that it’s already feeling a bit repetitive.

So as I landed on yet another, albeit beautiful, life-filled planet and set off mining some Iron to boost my Pulse Drive and Deflector Shields, I realised that I don’t think I’m actually enjoying this much. But a small part of me would not admit it – my curious, sci-fi obsessed inner child.

It’s clear to me (and hopefully to even the most frothy-mouthed of its critics) that Hello Games has put together something very special from a design perspective. As the wide-eyed kid who couldn’t control his ship properly in Frontier, and the misty-eyed twentysomething reliving those same memories in Pioneer so many years later, I can honestly say that what I feel for No Man’s Sky now is something approaching a realisation of those childhood space-age fantasies.

Just as I used to ‘book’ my wrestling figures by filling notepads with fight cards, attendance figures and unimaginative, all-too-regular tournament brackets, I wanted my Action Force figures to visit strange new plants, record data on the atmosphere and encounter the planet’s thriving flora and fauna. My lack of knowledge when it came to the ‘science’ part of ‘science fiction’ didn’t stop me from imagining these epic missions into the depths of outer space – from cautious landing to desperate escape.

In a way, this beautiful but flawed game is everything my ten-year-old self would have killed to play. I can recreate that same feeling of discovery and adventure, and get official statistics to boot, thanks to the game’s recording of player progress. But just as you tend to lose 99% of your childhood passion for ice cream when you’re old enough to have it whenever, I’m no longer enthralled by the idea of giving up so much of my valuable free time to something that just doesn’t grab me the way it once did.

While for the moment I’m happy enough to continue my journey across the stars, in search of long-forgotten extra-terrestrial wisdom and the chance to fetch something or other back to my home base (a good, if not entirely absorbing addition from the Foundation Update, only because it’s a lame version of the tried-and-trite ‘fetch quests’ that RPGers have quite rightly had their fill of), I feel the time will soon come to end my latest run with No Man’s Sky. I’m rather fearful that my nostalgia for all things space travel will turn ugly when it dawns on me that there’s not a whole lot to actually keep me here, as my more grown-up sensibility for storytelling starts to take me away from the muddling, aimless wander among the stars.

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