The original No Man’s Sky trailer wowed me the same way it wowed everyone else. It made this huge promise that felt like the future of games. The closer we got to release, the more worried I got. The notion of an endless universe led to worry about how whether procedural generation can provide unique experiences. We would eventually go on to talk about how the game’s implosion probably saved The Last Guardian, and admire how the game demonstrates just how different the experiences within one game can be for different people playing it. But in the end, the game we got two years ago was disappointing. It was monotonous, janky, buggy, and sometimes funny for the wrong reasons. We gave it a “Wait and Buy” at the time. Well, the wait is over. No Man’s Sky‘s big “NEXT” update is here, and boy does it add a lot to the game. The core of No Man’s Sky is still there, but it’s clear that Hello Games has been working very hard for the last couple years.
I played a ton of the game back when it came out on PlayStation 4, but this time around I spent the majority of my time playing on Xbox One X. Since no one owns an Xbox and even fewer people own No Man’s Sky on Xbox, I spent most of my time with the newly refreshed game without checking out multiplayer – arguably the biggest feature of the update! But even without that, there are a ton of reasons to jump back into this game. Maybe not on Xbox, where they’re asking a whopping $60 for it, but definitely on PC and PlayStation 4, where you can get literally exactly the same game for half the price or less.
Let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t in No Man’s Sky NEXT. A quick disclaimer: Some of this stuff has been introduced in patches before NEXT, but if you haven’t played since the game’s release window, it’ll be new to you like it was to me.
The players in the most danger of being bored by this game, I think, are those of us who have played it before. If you have an old save sitting around, think hard about ignoring it. When you boot up a new game, you’ll go through a tutorial sequence that will walk you through the basics of base building and interacting with the world. From there, it becomes quickly apparent how much other stuff there is to do in this game. Even so, it’s easy to find yourself grinding for very little reward if you don’t keep moving.
No Man’s Sky gives you a few paths to move along. You can still seek out the center of the universe as the original game suggested, but NEXT barely pays any lip service to that. Instead, there’s a storyline for you to follow, complete with recurring characters and (text-only) dialogue. As you explore, you’ll find a much more lively universe. Space stations are packed with the game’s main three races – Gek, Vy’keen, and Korvax – as well as a new, fourth “anomaly” race that has floating electron-looking things and pyramids in place of heads (No, they’re not Pyramid Head).
While some of them are just standing around, probably talking about science and space stuff, others are running shops and guild kiosks where you can buy blueprints and pick up missions that can net you some seriously valuable swag.
It becomes truly apparent how far gone that ‘race to the center’ line is when you start to get into base building, which I recommend doing as soon as possible. You can build some truly epic bases, but even just getting started gives you a ton to do. You’ll set up a teleporter that will allow you to zip right back to your base from any space station or any other bases you might create, so you can start to treat a planet you find as home. My current planet of choice is a planet covered in red plantlife that is mostly pleasant until the boiling rain falls. Maybe I should be finding a different planet to call home. But for now, it works. I’m running errands for my employees and picking up information about how to build crucial items that seemed nearly impossible to find previously.
Meanwhile, up in space, I’m now running something of an exploration company from the deck of a freighter. I spotted – in what I expect was a semi-scripted event – a freighter besieged by Space Pirates and went to take them down. Once the pirates were out of commission, the captain of the ship reverse-Captain-Phillipsed me and suddenly I was in charge of my own frigate, with its own storage (more on that in a minute) and its own exploration frigate.
The same way that you can buy new ships, you can buy frigates and build up a fleet of ships for exploration, assault, and mining. If you played Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, think of this a bit like the guild missions in that game (See also the soldier missions in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. You’ll pick a mission from your deck and send your ships off on it. You don’t go with for these. But when the ships come back damaged, you can hop onto them and repair them yourself, making them feel less like names on a list and more like actual ships that you own. And that freighter isn’t just a menu either. If you buy other ships, they’ll be stored in the ship’s bay and you can hop into them at anytime. You can do some limited base building in the freighter, too.
It’s not all roses though.
Like I said, the core game loop and mechanisms of No Man’s Sky are still in place. Acquiring materials early on is tedious, and is a great reason to pursue the frigate and base-building stuff early on. Those end up being great ways to make money and gather resources that help take away from the grind. You’ll spend way too long shooting red and green lasers at rocks, trees, and dirt.
And your inventory will fill up quickly with stuff that you’re not sure if you should sell or not. While it’s not as bad as was at launch, inventory is still No Man’s Sky‘s biggest weakness. It’s tedious, time-consuming, and not even slightly fun. I get the need for a limited inventory in a survival game, but it’s just this side of intolerable.
Space combat still sucks, and Sentinel bots are still all over on planets to make sure that mining is even more tedious than it has to be. Weather patterns on planets are less “here and there” and more “on and off.” If it’s storming on a planet, it’s storming all over from what I’ve been able to tell so far. And those storms are always dangerous to be out in, which can be discouraging when you’re trying to get stuff done on your newly-chosen home planet.
If you’re here hoping for a completely new game that matches the image you had in your head of what No Man’s Sky would be, pause for a second. It’s not Dune, it’s not Star Wars, it’s not Star Trek. No Man’s Sky is a game about exploration, base-building, survival, and sight-seeing. It’s about looking for the weird exceptional stuff and building a space for yourself.
And man, it’s actually pretty fun. I played it until my thumb hurt this week. Not a bad sign.
There are other elements I didn’t touch, and some that are nice quality-of-life changes; there’s a hardcore survival mode and a no-limits creative mode you can jump into if you want a challenge or want to just focus on sight-seeing and base-building fun. You can take both the ship and on-foot views into third-person and customize your character in pretty deep ways that actually look really good. There’s a photo mode that lets you get pretty detailed with things like depth of field and Insta-style filters.
The multiplayer is four-player peer-to-peer. That means you and up to three other people can be in the same instance of the greater shared universe together. It’s not exactly the “meet anyone anytime” feature we’d hoped for, but it’s still a new way to play the game. Everyone I know who has dug into the multiplayer has enjoyed it and found it a mostly stable, entertaining experience. Hey, Hello Games, make this an Xbox Play Anywhere game so I can dive in with my PC-gaming pals.
No Man’s Sky NEXT isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step up. It’s a move in the right direction. Hello Games could still stand to improve combat both on the ground and in space. I’d love a bit more variety in wildlife and plantlife, though that’s admittedly improved. But now, there’s actually a game here, and it’s worth checking out.