Count me among the surprised defenders of No Man’s Sky.
To be sure: At times, No Man’s Sky flat-out sucked, and the game’s legacy of bad faith and overreaching promises will linger on for ages, especially on saltier forums. The repetition of resource mining, a deluge of planets devoid of life, and lifeforms that moved around like opening day Disney World animatronics all coalesced into something beautiful yet incredibly frustrating. At its worst, No Man’s Sky meekly hobbled out of the starter gate. But No Man’s Sky NEXT does a lot to change that, turning it into something far more digestible, and most importantly, shareable.
From the moment I first rebooted the game post-update, it quickly became clear that even if the meat of No Man’s Sky remained very similar to its prior version, I’d at least enjoy my time gawking at it. The graphical overhaul that NEXT brings with it is still spotty in some areas, but overall it makes for much more distant vistas and fewer mountains appearing out of thin air 50 yards ahead of your ship’s bow.
At its heart, No Man’s Sky is still a vista viewer about exploring the vast depths of the universe, barren wastes and all. The joy I feel standing in an open field of red grass perched on the side of a mountain, appreciating the way hills roll and valleys dip, is still there. Flora, fauna, and even rock textures feel more natural, resulting in less craggy formations than in the original release. Look up into the sky, and you’ll soon notice the addition of gorgeous planetary asteroid rings.
But we’re not necessarily here to gawk alone. No Man’s Sky NEXT’s multiplayer makes the universe feel a little less lonely. Up to four players can gather in a team to do all the normal things you’d do alone, just now with far more manpower. You can build some communal bases that take an impressive amount of time to scale, and even craft some race tracks full of ramps.
Joining up with other humans in what had previously been a lonely ride reminds me of the few times in my life I’ve gotten to go on long, heavily rural road trips. If there’s nothing to look at, it’s a decent excuse to catch up on life’s foibles, in the same vein that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ quiet moments of peace did the same. When there is something to gawk at, like the cliffsides of Utah or southern California, or an alien ocean surrounded by floating plateaus, it’s thrilling to bounce that excitement off of someone else, even if I do many times prefer the solitary drive.
And there’s just more to do, even if it doesn’t provide as thrilling a narrative as I’d hoped. Space stations have been overhauled to include a legitimate marketplace, often filled with a dozen or more alien lifeforms milling about, all waving hi at you. “You have learned the Gek word for ‘Norm!’”
An operations manager hands out missions, most of which amount to venturing down to a planet, scanning some life, taking a photo, or earning combat experience. For the people who love the MMO addiction of checking off boxes, it will be enough, but for the less focused like myself, it’s a false start.
My partner and I have been in a drought of good multiplayer games (Stardew Valley for Switch can’t come soon enough), so we’d been eyeing the NEXT update with hopeful scrutiny. As she mentioned her plans to go out and buy it (along with Elder Scrolls Online), I found myself stopping her. In her own words, she had played the initial version long ago for a little while, and got sick of it very quickly. I warned her that if she still held hope for “the last game you’ll ever need,” she’d be pretty disappointed. Perhaps the more MMO-like features will draw her in, and I’d gladly jump into it with her, but it’s still not the game that many were fooled (by poor marketing or their own idiotic hype) to think it would be. Only moments after cautioning her, I found myself questioning my own hesitations, thanks to NEXT’s somewhat dramatic improvements.
It is, in many ways, a vastly better version of what it always was: a random, spotty, occasionally-awe-inspiring journey—a peculiar game for a peculiar audience. I’ve yet to encounter a planet visited first by another player, and there’s something striking in that, even if it is just another dopey hunk of rock. In just the span of a day, I stood on a blood red moon, gazing up at the colossal orb of the planet above; I watched the rings of a dead, gray planet bounce light around in the sky; and I established a new home on a verdant hillside surrounded by 9-foot-tall Cthulhu crabs and leopard horses.
No Man’s Sky will likely never be the game we were promised in 2014, but there’s something admirable about its growth. That Hello Games sees fit to continually update this universe, despite insurmountable hate from the gaming community, is commendable, and at times baffling.
Before rebooting No Man’s Sky this week, my last save was from September 2016, just a month or so after its initial launch. I had put about 30 hours into it by that point, resolute in my quest to see chasms and sunsets no one else ever had. This time around, I’ve got a little bit more fire, and a little bit more willingness to stick with No Man’s Sky for at least a few hours more.