No Man’s Sky for Nintendo Switch: a valiant effort – but the compromises cut too deep

No Man's Sky for Nintendo Switch: a valiant effort - but the compromises cut too deep

No Man’s Sky had a very strong redemption story. Originally released six years ago following widespread criticism of missing features, over-promised and sterile content, the game has since grown significantly – delivering a transformed experience. It’s an acclaimed sandbox title these days, with a wealth of customization and base-building potential…which brings us to the new Switch release.

Unlike the original PS4 release, expectations should be properly calibrated here, as developer Hello Games has admitted to cutting two key features – multiplayer and settlements – at least for this initial release. The first images didn’t look particularly impressive either, but the prospect of a virtually infinite universe in the palm of your hand might be enough to make up for that. So is it a worthy port? Or is No Man’s Sky just “too big” for Nintendo’s hybrid console?

No Man’s Sky is a fascinating and unique title. Basically, most of what you see is based on procedural generation – world geometry, weather, flora and fauna, and texturing are largely generated in real time according to a predefined seed code. Some elements repeat, like patches of textures, or certain objects or body parts, but there’s a surprising amount of variety here. This technology is used to create a very open sandbox. The curated content is fairly limited, but players can roam the stars, build massive bases, catalog new species and planets, or tear apart the deformable voxel-based planetary terrain. No Man’s Sky isn’t a hardcore space sim by any means, but it’s far more tactile, accessible, and immediately engaging than games like Elite and Eve Online.

No Man’s Sky on Nintendo Switch – the technical review from Digital Foundry.

But all this technology – originally designed to fit the capabilities of PS4 and gaming PCs – doesn’t seem particularly suited to a mobile chipset. And visually speaking, this version does not impress much. Switch uses aggressive drawdown for virtually every element of the screen. Large chunks of level geometry fall into place at close range, and huge areas of shadowmap coverage roughly approach as the player approaches. All of this is made much more evident when flying over a planet’s surface, where geometry issues seem particularly glaring. Larger foliage items spawn quite far away, although bushes and small plants only spawn very close to the player.

Assets are often of poor quality, especially textures. Expect to see chunky geometry and soft texture for most objects. The stylized art style takes that sting out a bit, but it’s still pretty obvious when you look at the details up close. There are a variety of weird reductions elsewhere: volumetric clouds look painfully plain and low-res, character animation runs at reduced rates not far from the player, and some of the low-res shadows at medium distances flicker from very entertaining way. . Overall, the visual settings make the game quite messy and choppy at times – which isn’t helped by the game’s rough image quality.

No Man’s Sky uses TAA, but the coverage isn’t great. Many screen elements, especially those that intersect with certain effects, have sharp jagged edges. Worse still, the image seems to flicker all the time, with distracting pixel movement at the geometric edges. The TAA also doesn’t seem to do much for the game’s textures, which are flooded with aliases when viewed at an angle. At higher resolutions on other platforms, No Man’s Sky’s TAA works well, but as you’d expect, the render targets here are quite limited. In docked playback, we’re looking at 1152×648 resolution, while handheld mode drops to 896×504.

Hello Games selects No Man’s Sky in many dimensions – drawing distance, texture quality, resolution and – as seen here – geometric details. The quality of the anti-aliasing is also regrettable.

Predictably, docked mode fares less well here, with an unstable underlying image exacerbated by low-resolution processing with unexceptional APR. On a large TV, the results don’t hold up at all, with the game seeming to match some of the worst offenders on Switch. A tablet-sized 720p screen minimizes these issues to some extent, but I didn’t find the handheld mode particularly visually compelling either. In some scenes, the reduced resolution really drives the flicker into overdrive in mobile gaming, producing a rough result. Outside of image quality, the two modes look identical.

Performance-wise, we’re looking at a 30fps target with a v-sync cap, as you’d expect. Generally, walking around, you can expect 30 fps update most of the time. However, there are relatively frequent frame rate drops. Often these occur without a clear cause – short spikes around 100ms or prolonged dips to the upper 20s. Slightly more complex landscapes can pull frame rates into the mid-20s, even when just walking around. More complex actions, like shooting mobs or blowing up terrain, can cause similar issues. You’ll also occasionally see some pretty harsh stutters when transitioning between planets and space. When No Man’s Sky drops frames here, the frame rate cap tends to break, making the stutter feeling more pronounced.

For the most part though, it’s as bad as it gets. It’s not so much that the frame rate is generally poor, just that the game feels choppy, with an FPS drop that appears about once per minute or so, even in quiet areas. I’m sure it’s a tough game to optimize for, especially around a low-powered platform like the Switch, and it could be that world-gen is particularly heavy at times, so this isn’t is not a huge surprise.

Performances can flow relatively smoothly, but with some unwanted stutter.

However, there is a worst-case scenario worth covering. No Man’s Sky includes an extensive base building interface, through which you can create anything with virtually no size limit. I’ve found that the smaller bases will probably mostly work fine – I did experience some minor frame rate issues with a few dozen pieces laid down, but nothing that would stand out from normal gameplay.

Crank up the complexity though and you’ll absolutely crash the game. I had completely blocked. Moments later, the screen was covered in graphical glitches, forcing a reboot. I’ve reproduced this problem several times, including with the “base complexity limit” enabled in the settings, which seems to limit the player to a few thousand building pieces. We end up with game-breaking graphics issues well before that point though, so the option is superfluous.

Handheld mode seemed to fare much the same overall, with similar drops over typical playtime and in complex scenarios. All the quirks I measured in docked mode seem to apply here as well, including base building issues. In contrast, the PS4 version of the game is more or less locked at 30 frames per second. I noticed a few very minor frame rate issues when entering a planet’s atmosphere, but other than that the game runs perfectly fine in general, maintaining 30fps no matter what. that I tried. The base build can also cause issues here, but I couldn’t get the game to crash, and framerates always stayed in the 20-25fps range, even with a base build. just as complex.

More difficult scenes can look pretty bad on Switch, while base building can be pretty disastrous.

Ultimately, No Man’s Sky on Switch isn’t a bad port. This is a demanding game targeting 30fps on PS4 and Xbox One, and as such I expected to see a wide range of cuts. However, the wide open nature of the game with long uninterrupted views really highlights the visual concessions here. Pop-ins and low resolutions leave many scenes barren and messy. No Man’s Sky just doesn’t look very nice when you drastically reduce detail and run the game at less than 720p resolution. There are other issues too – the content cuts hurt, especially the lack of multiplayer. Playing No Man’s Sky with friends can be great and I would really like to see this added in the future if possible. The loss of settlements is also irritating, and perhaps hints that the Switch could miss out on future content expansions if they prove technically taxing.

No Man’s Sky is also a full price title. I wouldn’t usually have much of a problem with this, but the game is constantly on sale on other platforms and has been on Game Pass for two years. It’s obviously going to be a matter of taste, but I think the asking price here is probably too high for players who only have a casual interest in this game. But what about players who are truly dedicated to No Man’s Sky? For those folks, this is a reasonable buy for a portable No Man’s Sky fix, though one of the other features left on the cutting room floor is cross-progression. This means you’ll be starting your game over from scratch, even if you’ve invested countless hours in a save on PC or another console.

Ultimately, it’s a useful but second-rate way to enjoy No Man’s Sky. The trade-offs are many: reduced visuals, poor performance, reduced functionality, and occasional graphical glitches. Maybe this release, like the initial PS4 release, will be transformed into something better over time. But for now, this is best recommended for gamers who are already serious fans – and can accept the trade-offs.

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