Despite the randomization of planets and animal life, every No Man's Sky playthrough begins the same: You wake up on a planet wholly unlike Earth, with a spaceship that won't fly, inside a suit that only barely keeps you alive. Your goal is to collect the resources needed to power the ship and soar into space. If you can accomplish that, then you can travel to another world. And if you can get to that world, you can reach another solar system. And if you can do that, you might just be able to reach the center of the galaxy and…
Well, that's the $64,000 question. If No Man's Sky exhibits any one thing representing a straightforward goal, it's the search for what's at the center of the galaxy. The game has an answer to that question, and it's so understated and recursive that it's hardly an answer at all. And much effort has to be put into getting there. Resources of various metals, minerals, and precious artifacts must be broken down, fed to one's technology, or sold at space stations in order to make any sort of move. Making just enough fuel to light-speed toward an adjacent solar system is an arduous process; transforming suspension fluid into antimatter and the antimatter into a warp-drive battery allows for a single, one-way trip to a new world. And all the while, you must deal with a limited, and often counterintuitive, inventory system.
Along the way, you're in constant danger of death because of environments that are completely hostile to nonindigenous life, or being beset upon by pirates, or warping into a solar system in the midst of a battle. No Man's Sky is a game of constant, unquenchable needs, and sometimes achieving a goal doesn't necessarily benefit you. In this regard, it isn't terribly dissimilar from Frontier Developments's Elite: Dangerous, or any of the other survival titles that have come into vogue in recent years, and it can be frustrating.
The game comes down to the indisputable truth that, when it comes to space travel, the journey is everything.
Where No Man's Sky diverges and stands the height of mountains above titles of that ilk is in the one currency most games rarely achieve, let alone sustain for dozens of hours: awe. The first time you have enough juice in the tank to take off and manually fly off a planet into the void of space, without a single load time or transitional cutscene to hide the seams, is a feeling unlike anything a video game has been able to rouse to date. The fact that you can then activate an engine in order to zoom thousands of miles an hour to land on an entirely new planet, with its own distinct ecosystem, is equally exhilarating. This is a game that conveys a profound sense of wonder and power by simply having you learn a new word in an alien language.
The limits of what No Man's Sky's much-touted procedural engine can generate eventually show themselves with enough travels to enough planets, with some, but not all, of the elements of the terrain, weather, and animal parts recycling over time, but there are just as many surprises after 40 hours of game play as there are in the first. The journey gains context from the player communicating with aliens, either directly or through the artifacts left scattered on the innumerable worlds of the game. It's a context that has more in common with 2001 or Isaac Asimov's The Last Question than it does with Mass Effect and Halo, and it comes down to the indisputable truth that, when it comes to space travel, the journey is everything. There are no great battles to be won here, except in aid of defending oneself against hostile wildlife or annoying scrapes with pirates. And there's no mind-expanding moment of revelation to be had, only the very act of living, exploring, and simply seeing. As such, it seems impossible for the game to ever feel completely over.
Alexander the Great wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. This isn't a problem anyone will have with No Man's Sky. The act of playing the game isn't without its problems, as far as the tedium of having to pay for and fuel your ship and suit is concerned, and yet it's all in aid of enabling us to have an experience unlike anything a game has ever delivered, or one that we're ever likely to see again. This is the first game to ever make players truly feel as if they can boldly go where no one has ever gone before.