Two years ago I reviewed No Man’s Sky and shortly afterwards I uninstalled the game, never to be touched again: or so I thought. Unless you have been living on the Moon for two years you will have heard of this controversial title and the hype-tsunami that came crashing down upon a little development studio in southern England. From the very first trailer, gamers saw a space title they could finally cast themselves into and fulfil all their spacefaring fantasies, without the need to learn the basics of thermodynamics. This hype became self-sustaining very quickly but it didn’t help that the chosen face of Hello Games (Sean Murray), wasn’t doing anything to curb these expectations back toward reality. In fact, Sean is on record telling a number of monumental falsehoods that would ultimately lead to a nasty and toxic backlash. No matter how much blame you can pile at the feet of Sean Murray (and by association his team), there is never any justification for some of the things these developers had to endure. When you threaten to end someone’s life over a computer game, that is the point you need to start looking at some of your life choices and maybe seek some psychological help. With that said, people had legitimate reasons to be annoyed over being sold a game that was missing a huge number of features and in many respects was broken.
Given that many of the features missing from the original release are now ebbing their way into the game, I do believe these were either being planned or more likely they were already in development. I do not think that upon leaving each interview, Murray and his team set about making his live brainstorming session become a reality. However, lies are lies no matter how you slice it. For many weeks before this review, I have been battling with the question, as a games journalist am I obligated to return to this game and give No Man’s Sky another chance?
Drawing a line
Obviously, if you are reading this my answer to that question was yes. I acquired another copy of No Man’s Sky and have spent the last week looking at how the game has changed since 2016. Under mounting criticism, the developers over at Hello Games initially went dark and nobody knew what was going on. Like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, there was much speculation as to where the team were and what was going on inside. We now know that (as well as fearing for their lives) they had made the decision to carry on working on No Man’s Sky and over the last two years updates started rolling out with Foundation, Atlas Rises and now Next. When I heard base building had been added in a previous update, my initial response was ‘interesting but why?’. Surely the whole point of this game was to keep moving and seek out new planets. However, now I have seen all of these updates working as a whole package, I am starting to see some method to the madness.
Paint me Pretty
How good a game looks can depend on far more than just texture resolution and post-processing. If any game has shown this to be true it is Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while on paper it isn’t a graphical monster the visual style used by the developers is unquestionably gorgeous. How the launch version of No Man’s Sky looked is, of course, open to interpretation. I personally thought it looked like what it was: a mass-produced sea of procedural soup with little to captivate the imagination. Mountain ranges, trees and plains all blended into each other, just with a varied muddy colour palette over the top.
Jump to today and we now have a vastly improved visual look to the game. The World generation algorithm has also been ramped up with huge mountains, deeper oceans, oceanic cave systems and just far more interesting planet topography. After starting a new game (which I would highly recommend you do) I’m still not sure how the older planets, (which have already been generated) look, but I will assume at least the superficial improvements will have made them look substantially better. One new element to the game that will be instantly obvious is the fact you can now play from a 3rd person viewpoint. This not only allows you to see the changes you can make to your character but it also gives you a far greater feeling of scale. The various avatars you can use are both well animated and look great when jetting around on planets and space stations. Speaking of which, space stations themselves have also been vastly improved, at least in the looks department. You now have a large number of NPCs to talk to, each offering you various services and opportunities. I still think the idea of learning the alien's languages one word at a time is an interesting one and I’m glad they kept that in the game. Ultimately, space stations still lack any real depth but they are certainly heading in the right direction.
Eye of the Beholder
A few years ago I became a little bit obsessed with Elite Dangerous, I even picked up brand new X52 Pro Joystick and throttle. For months I was smitten, learning to trade, exploring the vastness of our galaxy and getting lost in the wonderful minutiae of this epic space simulation. However, there was always one thing that I wished I could do more than anything else, but unfortunately, it wasn’t even being talked about by the developers. That was the ability to breach the atmosphere of a planet and seamlessly cruise down through its atmosphere. I longed to do what so many science-fiction films had depicted, like in Aliens where the marines drop down onto LV426 or seeing the cloud city from Starwars in all its splendour.
No Man’s Sky now lets me experience this gaming dream, albeit a more arcade-like and simplified version. As you escape the atmosphere and gaze down on the planet you have just been bimbling across, the sense of scale is incredible and this is something I’ve never experienced in a game before (Save for maybe Frontier Elite). At my starting area there was another nearby planet, so close it took up half of the skyline with its Mars-like surface and beautiful rings. With a repaired ship I was now hurtling toward this red giant and the feeling as I breached its atmosphere was spine tingling. Volumetric clouds were moving below me and as I cruised lower the deep canyons and aliens trees looked astonishingly good. I had descended on the light side of the planet (which I named Hubble) and it was now sunset. Gorgeous shafts of light were being cast across the red rocky surface where long shadows moved in real time. I touched down, jumped out of my ship and saw that this systems sun was behind the planet I had just left. There was an almost perfect eclipse with the white corona encircling this pure black orb. I stood for a few minutes and just took it all in; the vista in front of me was sublime and this moment alone was worth coming back for.
Each and every one of us is a complex jigsaw puzzle of experiences and sometimes we can’t explain why we like the things we do. For some gamers, sitting in long-distance haulage truck for six hours is their thing. For others, guiding the lives of virtual people in the Sims is about as good as it gets. I don’t see these differences as something to be challenged: instead, embrace these differences. Even in the 2016 version of No Man’s Sky there were a healthy number of gamers who were utterly content with the game and were just happy to be in the universe Hello Games had created. From what I can see many of these folks are now happier than pigs in shit, seeing this universe they already love becoming all the more complex and visually striking. However, for me personally, there is still an underwhelming realisation waiting under the surface of the staggering scale of No Man’s Sky Next.
For those who are not familiar, No Man’s Sky houses over 18 Quintillion planets. These astral bodies are only generated when a player enters that system. This is then jotted down by the database so other players can visit that place. In theory, there is an endless amount of content out there for a plucky explorer to sink their teeth into, but unfortunately more is not always better. After fifty hours in No Man’s Sky, I am now becoming familiar with what to expect from a planet, even before I get to it. If there are creatures they will probably look different to the previous planet, but they will all act the same. There will probably be a few birdlike specimens and a few species of fish if the planet has water.
There will also be some kind of environmental hazard, usually cold, heat or corrosive. This will deplete the same hazard shield which is replenished with Sodium. My life support which also falls when I do any action is replenished with O2, which also appears on every planet. Carbon comes from plant life, Ferrite comes from rocks and so on. Even crashed freighters and deserted building: they are all virtually the same and offer nothing new after those first few exciting finds. This is the key problem with how No Man’s Sky is built and why I think ultimately it still does not live up to the hype. It’s like, this game has one amazing trick up its sleeve and if that is what you are looking for you will be very happy here. However, once the novelty of seeing new blends of planet starts to wear thin, what else does No Man’s Sky have to offer?
A new hope
While the now infamous feature list is being slowly made a reality there are still plenty missing from the game, like rivers, landing on asteroids and complex creature behaviour. If you have read a review that states this is basically the No Man’s Sky that was promised it isn’t, but we are getting there. What gives me a great deal of optimism for the future of No Man’s Sky is how many of these features have now made it but also how well they work. You can now own your own fleets, fly inside them and build new structures, send them on missions and so much more.
One of the biggest missing features was, of course, multiplayer and that is now also a reality. You can now meet your friends, (or random strangers) take missions together, build bases and it works surprisingly well. I launched into my first multiplayer session not expecting much when in fact I had one of the best multiplayer sessions I’ve had in yonks. As I was taken to the system where my new friends were already playing, I could see new icons above the planet that they were on. I cruised over and came down to land nearby, with VOIP instantly turned on we were already chatting away about the game. As it turned out these were probably the only three other No Man’s Sky players who were less experienced than me and were still, in fact, in the throes of fixing their ships. What followed was a very enjoyable few hours of shooting the breeze and working together to get everyone space-bound. I’d like to send a shout out to Fergs and his two friends!
There is no doubt now that there are far more ways to spend your time in No Man’s Sky, growing crops, building elaborate bases, even just chilling out and finding beautiful vistas. The crafting systems have now been greatly improved with plenty of useful items for those who are willing to commit the time grinding for the resources. Even with all these new ways to spend your hard earned credits I still feel the game does become monotonous after not too long because there are no real surprises anymore. However, as Hello Games keep working on this game there are increasingly more reasons to invest the time.
Is it PC?
As I have already covered, this version of the game is far better looking that its vanilla effort. There is also far more going on under the hood, now that players can literally dig into the surface of any planets and pretty much make whatever they want. The idea that this could happen on eighteen quintillion planets is mind-blowing. With more game systems ticking over simultaneously, this has also placed some extra demands on performance but I’ve still been pleasantly surprised how well it runs on my ageing system. With only a few minor setting turned down a notch, I was very happy with how it ran and only one system crash to date.
One of the most unsatisfactory parts of No Man’s Sky is the combat and AI. Animals wander around, occasionally having a crap and then off they go again, like lost Sunday shoppers with no real purpose or obvious intelligence. I have seen some hint of other behaviours, like when meat-eating creatures kill one of the lesser herbivores. Combat, both on the surface and in space, is also a bore-fest that does very little to engage the player: shoot, kill, repeat. Given how many changes the developers have made I do hope they can look at these areas of the game next and offer players a more substantial experience, however, there could be quicker fix in the works. This being a PC game there are already a good supply of decent mods out there if you are so inclined. Some will remove the insanely annoying timed button press, while others claim to improve the animal AI (something I have not tested yet). This is why I love PC gaming so much because there are not many games that cannot be improved or fixed with a good modding community getting involved.
As for controls, you all know I’m a diehard mouse and keyboard advocate. With that said there are some games I’ve found just work better with a controller. For No Man’s Sky, I play with a mouse and keyboard for all my on foot gadding around, then pick up my controller for flying the ship. This transition is seamless and while in theory, you can fly a ship with a mouse, I would strongly recommend you don’t; unless you fancy a bit of in-ship spelunking.
No matter what I think of No Man’s Sky, I cannot take credit away from Hello Games for sticking with their creation and endeavouring to make it better. Even in, what must have been, some very dark times they dusted themselves off and got back up. Many larger companies like EA, who have almost unlimited resources would have cut and run like they did with Mass Effect Andromeda. For some, forgiving Hello Games means no lesson has been gleaned by the games industry and yet for others when someone tries to make things right, you should at least give them that chance. After taking a long look at the whole No Man’s Sky saga, I am going to favour the latter.
If you liked No Man’s Sky before but just felt it was lacking some worthwhile activities then you will probably have far more fun in Next. However, if you thought the game was fundamentally boring before, chances are you will come to that same conclusion this time around, it just might take you a while longer to get there. I am actually going to leave No Man’s Sky installed on my rig this time. Not for the boring treadmill which the game, unfortunately, forces players to run and not for the infuriating inventory hell that is unavoidable. It is because sometimes, I might just want to sit and watch the sun sink over the horizon on a distant alien world and for that experience, there is nothing that comes even close to No Man’s Sky.
Thank you for reading my review of No Man's Sky Next. I was not provided with a copy of the game for the purpose of this review. If you would like to follow my content you can follow me @riggedforepic where I post all my work.