Nearly two years after its rocky initial launch, No Man’s Sky still has a long way to go. But after three major updates and the recent pseudo-relaunch in the form of No Man’s Sky NEXT, it finally feels like a game that deserves to go that extra distance. That’s assuming you can put up a with a lot of turbulent interstellar travel in the meantime, anyway.
Like a lot of folks, I whipped up a fresh save to coincide with the new NEXT update after barely touching the game’s reportedly great additions (base building, freighters, and a whole new story campaign) over the past two years. The restart immediately felt both familiar and bizarrely off, somehow. My silent avatar still started on one of 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets with nothing but a mining laser and a damaged ship.
But there was a new, subdued urgency to those opening seconds. The game casually drew my attention to a half-full energy meter on my user interface. I only had seconds to find sodium and refuel it, or I’d start taking damage from the superheated planet’s surface. Finding sodium, however, meant I needed to repair my multi-tool’s malfunctioning scanner. That required a material that was new to me, Ferrite Dust, and much futzing with reams of menus and inventories.
That’s pretty much what it’s like to play No Man’s Sky now. You’re bombarded with objectives, endlessly vying for your attention, but with no varying sense of apparent urgency to pull you toward one or another. Do you want to focus on base building or manage your freighter? Should you hunt down that starship bounty or explore the “Miasmatic World” a few hundred miles beneath you?
The process of actually meeting these goals can be tedious, too. The game’s slot-based inventory system hasn’t changed much since launch. Though it’s easier to actually acquire more slots than previously (if you know where to look), sooner or later you’ll still have to choose between dumping 250 units of cobalt for 30 units of gold. Then you’ll inevitably stumble upon a crashed escape pod that can only be repaired with the materials you dumped five minutes ago. At least that’s what happened to me—so, so many times.
Scripted pots of gold
Compared to No Man’s Sky’s immediate post-launch period, though, there’s now so much more possibility surrounding every choice of where to go and what to do. Obviously, in a procedurally generated survival game like this, everyone’s experience will be slightly different. Yet newly scripted mysteries, mostly added in the pre-NEXT round of updates, add meaningful anchors between the nominally unique exploration.
At launch, No Man’s Sky provided a feeling of alien eeriness; it just very rarely led anywhere tangible. It was like the book covers that originally helped inspire the game, but without the story, characters, and twists that came from within those covers.
Now, though, strange voices call for help from the void. A repeating pattern of “16” worms its way into places it shouldn’t. I’m currently taking missions from a time-distorted lizard-man who runs my home base—part of No Man’s Sky’s added base-building quest chain. The overseer started as a bland tutorial agent but quickly became a sinister figure as I learned how and why he’s “helping” me claim my own planet.
Each of these moments is an occasional pot of gold at the end of a few of the game’s infinite rainbows. They’re intermittent proof that the feeling of subtle, spooky suspense isn’t just a feeling.
Most of these feature aren’t new to NEXT. I wouldn’t even say the update’s biggest addition, true online multiplayer, is that interesting. There’s just not much to do with your fellow players besides shoot at NPC ships together. That could change, though; developer Hello Games promises it’s far from done making new content even after NEXT.
What the update really does is simply tie many of these disparate systems and stories together. The mining and gathering at the core of No Man’s Sky have been mercifully streamlined with simpler naming conventions. The Analysis Visor, which you receive quite early, offers scads more information about your environment. And once you get what you need, there’s a quick-use menu (tied to the D-pad on controllers) that lets you refuel equipment in seconds. A new third-person perspective gives you a better, if slightly unwieldy, sense of place in the galaxy. It’s altogether just a generally smoother experience.
Things only get choppy once you try to transition out of those early steps—toward making money, buying better spaceships, or upgrading your gear. Early on, for instance, one of the best things you can do is scan everything. Mineral deposits will yield more materials that way. Data on flora and fauna will also net you some basic currency.
More importantly, though, manually uploading those discoveries to No Man’s Sky’s servers is the best way to earn a second kind of currency for upgrades. There’s even an incredibly useful upgrade that multiplies the normal cash you get from scanning.
Bugs and oversights
The problem is that none of this is directly explained—not the uploading, the second kind of currency, nor the multiplier. There is an in-game index that mentions uploading discoveries, but it’s just outdated, now referring to the wrong kind of currency.
That’s just one example. The game is full of oversights just like it. Few are game-breaking; they just make getting from A to B and back again—with the right materials to build your base or upgrade your freighter—more of a hassle than a satisfying loop.
The game’s frequent bugs, however, verge on game-breaking. No Man’s Sky NEXT is riddled with glitches that range from audio hitches while warping between star systems to complete breakdowns in certain quest lines. Periodically, the game starts to think my planetary base is inside a hallway on my freighter and puts an unusable objective marker there. Sometimes my automated frigates get damaged, but their broken components fail to spawn, so I can’t fix them.
So far, simple fixes like saving and reloading or warping the freighter to a new system has set things right. But I’m on pins and needles waiting for the bug that isn’t so easily rectified. Developer Hello Games has been pushing out hotfixes at a breakneck pace, though, and playing on PC means you’ll get them even faster, since those updates don’t have to go through console certification. I’ve personally noticed major performance improvements after switching from a PS4 Pro to a PC as well, including a vastly improved frame rate. Some of that disparity will certainly even out over time, but NEXT seems to have actually made the game run slower on PlayStation.
For all its fundamental flaws, though, I can’t stop playing No Man’s Sky again. Nearly every upgrade to my ship, mining laser, or spacesuit is opaque and incremental, but there are just so many of them that I can’t stop gobbling up one after the other. Occasional booster shots of well-written science-fiction make for great peaks between the silent, alien valleys, too. The game finally feels like it has the scripted answers to back up its computer-generated questions.
What’s the deal with “16?” Is this mysterious stranger I’ve only spoken to via hologram a friend or foe? If I mix this shield upgrade with that new laser, can I win a dogfight with the next level of space pirates? I know it’s going to be a bumpy, unclear road toward answering every one of those questions. But for the first time in years, I actually care enough about those mysteries to deal with the game’s rough edges.
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