Since being revealed at E3 in 2014, No Man’s Sky has been one of, if not the, most anticipated games in existence. The ambitious space exploration game prides itself on its procedurally generated universe, offering completely random and unique experiences to every individual that dives in head first. However, is the game that was released enough to live up to the hype, expectations and promises of both Sony and the development team? The answer surely depends on who you speak to, but in regards to accessibility, No Man’s Sky leaves many gamers with disabilities stranded on a remote planet alone with no life support.
Developer Hello Games has managed some sort of mathematical wizardry to give players seemingly limitless procedurally generated worlds to discover, mine and explore. The gameplay loop in No Man’s Sky is surprisingly simple for the depth of the universe; as different as each world may seem on the surface, the things to do on each planet are quite similar. The “goal” of No Man’s Sky is to reach the center of the universe, though no reason is given outside of the vague attempt at an overarching story. Every planet houses alien monuments, shelters, drop pods and other locations that allow the player to learn new crafting recipes, gain inventory slots or further their understanding of one of a handful of alien languages. Scanning plants, animals and locations gives the player a chance to rename these discoveries as they see fit, but the reward for scanning is a marginal number of Units, the universe’s main form of currency, making the task more tedious (albeit optional) than rewarding.
The act of mining, scanning and exploring planets is a chore that is made exceedingly difficult by the lack of control options. On PS4, controls are not customizable and every button has a purpose that is needed for various tasks. No Man’s Sky offers no tutorial, instead giving players the “mystery” of dropping them into a world and having them figure it out, which can be overwhelming and unwelcoming for some players. It’s important to note that the controller layout is available to view in the options menu, and the player can remap the controls on the PS4 through the Accessibility options, but the game does a terrible job of explaining various systems in the game. For example, changing the multi-tool from mining mode to shooting mode and melee attacking is never explained to the player. The console version of Minecraft, for example, has a tutorial section when starting a new game. Even if it were just optional, a better explanation of the various gameplay and control systems in No Man’s Sky would go a long way for gamers with mental disabilities and players new to the genre alike.
Control options aside, the player’s HUD is often cluttered with information, icons and distance markers that is either hard to read or hard to see. No Man’s Sky is also one of the least colorblind friendly games I have ever played. Some worlds are almost entirely red and green colored, not to mention red and green icons on the menu to indicate whether an item was scanned or not. Throw in cluttered HUDs and small font size in both the menu and the world and you have information overload and no visual clarity. There is also an extreme lack of visual options. FOV sliders for the PC version has become a meme for the game’s developers on Twitter, but it is completely missing and sorely needed on PS4. Text size and color options would also be greatly appreciated, if not for a full on colorblind mode. Sadly, for PS4 players it is “what you see is what you get” and what they get is frankly a cluttered mess.
The worst accessibility experience is during combat, especially space combat with a dozen other ships. If you’re not looking at your enemy straight on, a little red icon indicating the thing attacking you will pop up somewhere on the screen that circles around as you and your enemy move about. In space combat, this is a tiny little arrow that changes to a deeper red the closer you are to the enemy ship. It is nearly impossible to distinguish which little icon is pointing to which enemy when there are multiple in the skirmish, leaving you to just attack whatever pops up first. Phase Beam and cannon shots track ships when attacking, but usually only in the few second window you’re given before the ship flies either past or around you, leaving you to have to spin your ship around just to get into view again. It doesn’t help that target markers on the enemy ships themselves are difficult to see, and you never know whether you’re actually locked on until you fire a shot.
There is an added challenge to space combat in that upgrading your ship is seemingly much more difficult than upgrading anything else in the game. The only way to add slots to your ship’s inventory space is to purchase another ship. As your inventory needs increase, the monetary strain players will be in becomes somewhat overwhelming. When a marginal upgrade of three inventory slots requires you to spend a fortune on a completely new ship, making money requires an in-depth understanding of the global space economy in the game and some luck that you have unlocked the required recipes that are selling for the most money at that time. At a certain point your options are to either sacrifice limited and extremely valuable inventory space to upgrade your ship or to risk being shredded apart randomly by a hoard of space pirates. Occasionally you can find a crashed ship that can be repaired and commandeered, but the chances that it represents an upgrade, especially later in the game, are low.
There are some good things here in regards to accessibility, but they’re more like gameplay elements rather than accessibility tools. Weapons in the game can lock on to enemies making precision less necessary, but making the multi-tool’s homing bullets tracking stronger requires finding a blueprint, gathering the components and crafting it to a free slot on your weapon, all things that are out of reach until many hours of exploration. The way the game’s save system works means frustrating restarts that lose significant progress are few and far between, however in order to get your inventory back after a death you have to make your way back to your body to pick it up, which can be both a pain and a huge time waster. Couple that with the fickle map and unclear on-screen icons and you’ve sometimes got one difficult trek back to your body.
I’m enjoying my time exploring the universe, but it is not hard to feel disappointed by the lack of polish in the final game. I have suffered from frequent crashes, screen stuttering and frame rate drops, among various other minor bugs. There is also a laundry list of promised features that remain missing from the build at launch, but there is hope that Hello Games continues adding features and accessibility options throughout the life of the game. As lovely as that thought is, that doesn’t help players that are struggling to play the game right now. It always stings a lot more when a game that has been anticipated and hyped for nearly three years comes out in a state that leaves many players unable to enjoy even its most basic gameplay.
No Man’s Sky will almost certainly be the most divisive game of the year for critics and fans alike, but one aspect of the ambitious space exploration game that unequivocally fails is its accessibility, or lack thereof.