Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated games to be released within the past few years, it would have been reasonable to expect that the game would not be able to live up to the crazy Spore-esque hype. However, this case was a bit different than fans simply being let down by excessive expectations.
There is little in the way of niceness when phrasing this: the PR and advertising related to NMS, leading up to its release, was one big lie after another. The game called No Man’s Sky that was released to the public looks more like a proof of concept compared to the game shown in numerous demos, big-time TV interviews, and other press junctures. Not only did the vast majority of the seemingly endless “you-can-do-anything” gameplay features promised by Hello Games founder Sean Murray in videos released as late as the day before the game’s release simply not exist, the context for the world in which they would have existed was not present in any shape or form.
Aside from gameplay, the visuals of the game were a far cry from what was promised. Sure, visuals often suffer minor changes or are downgraded prior to a game’s release for the sake of performance quality, but we’re talking enormous changes here (going beyond even the extreme visual downgrades that Dark Souls 2 received). It’s as if the gameplay shown previously was a pre-rendered cutscene façade.
Even weeks after the game had been released, storefronts like Valve’s Steam showcased trailers and screenshots of visuals and gameplay elements that did not come even close to existing in the actual final game, which seemed legally wrong and as deceptive as it can get. Valve agreed. These ranged from environmental effects, like the way foliage interacted with the player character and the elements surrounding them, or how different creatures behaved intelligently in accordance with their role in the ecosystem. Elements like portals, intricate on-the-fly choreographed space battles, and a whole lot more than I simply cannot summarize within the scope of this particular article, were all misleading.
At the time, however, I found it hard to give the game a marketplace review based on these factors. Such factors mattered if you bought the game based on what was promised on the tin, but what if you simply saw the title and gave it a spin without zero prior knowledge outside of some vague description like “chill space exploration”? Looking at No Man’s Sky from that perspective, I could see the game’s appeal as a little personal adventure, set in a shallow exploration-based gameplay environment. It’s something to just put on when you don’t want to expel much mental effort after a hard day’s work. In this way, some merit can be found.
Arguably, there are games that follow the same gameplay concepts as No Man’s Sky, games like Elite Dangerous, Starbound, Terraria, and Stardew Valley. All of these games follow the same sandbox elements as NMS, but were correctly advertised for what they were. However, I gave NMS a “not recommended” on Steam, because I found that it would not please gamers who wanted what was originally advertised. If it was advertised properly and honestly, players who were naturally drawn to NMS may have actually enjoyed it for a few hours, though in the end, they would probably be better off with something else.
Since No Man’s Sky‘s enormous let down, Hello Games has tried to make some amends in the form of tremendous changes to the game post-release, like fixing and removing bugs (a genocide at this point), adding new features and game modes, revamping the UI, and generally trying to bring in a lot of the features that had been promised prior to release.
You can now pick between different types of game modes for which you can have individual save files. First, you have the normal original experience which has been refined all around since release, then a much harder survival-style mode with limited resources, a “perma-death” mode (which is like the hard version of survival mode, with a game over reset upon death), and then, lastly, a sandbox mode where you can build whatever to your heart’s content without having to worry about gathering resources and units. Gameplay and story elements like better storage management, base-building and sort of managing, clearer story paths and more have been haphazardly sprinkled about as well.
While these newer game modes are a welcome distraction, the issue here is that just like most elements already within the game, these newer additions only serve to bolster the experience from a very superficial level. The illusion of depth found in the vanilla version of NMS persists still. In fact, I would argue that adding more half-baked features to the game has made it clearer just how shallow of an experience NMS brings to the table in general, and how much of what was sold to consumers was based on deception (though the intent of the deception is unclear i.e. I see it more of a massive chain of blunders and lie than a planned conspiracy). These additions do not feel like accomplishments or goals set to be part of the game’s original development that have been appended, but rather feel like tacked on afterthoughts added just because similar ideas were presented in pre-release trailers. “Hey, look we added portals and uh, some space battle things kinda, we did it!”.
The more changes that are made in NMS, the more the experience remains the same. If you were expecting any of what was shown before the game’s release, it won’t be found here. Not now, and I believe, not ever.
If you enjoyed the game that we ended up getting, well, you can still enjoy it, but with a handful of additions. One year later, NMS has not magically changed into a game that never existed, and it would be silly to think that it would have or will ever. There’s nothing to fix because it was never broken to begin with. The game everyone was waiting for a year ago simply did not exist. This fact should not be taken lightly, and should not be forgotten as a keystone example of untruthful and false advertising in gaming, even if you did end up liking the version of No Man’s Sky available today.