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With Atlas Rises, it's worth returning to No Man's Sky

The universe on its shoulders

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Hello Games are in a deeply unenviable position. In the wake of No Man’s Sky‘s [official site] release with its waterfall of unkept promises, to me it seems the studio is trapped in the Sisyphean task of trying to tweak, patch, update and amend their game until it can meet the impossible imagined version created by the combined efforts of its developers and its players. Rather than compare this hugely embellished version of the game that greets players now with that of just over a year ago, the temptation is to compare it to the dream version we will never get.

But it’s crucial to push that aside, and accept that no, No Man’s Sky was never going to be this game of true universal exploration, of truly unique realistic planets with truly unique creatures existing in an intricate ecosystem, where we might stumble upon another player and interact, where we might see flocking dinosaurs hunted by predatory beasts as trees fall down in their wake… Instead, let’s look at what we do have now, because it’s actually rather a lot.

I played an enormous amount of No Man’s Sky last year. It was such a fascinating mess, such a relaxing experience but ultimately so pointless. I created my own goal of reaching the then-largest ship available – a 48-slot beast – and designed my play around gathering the resources and finances necessary to make that happen, without using deliberate exploits. And gosh, that took dozens and dozens of hours to do, hours I just puzzled over why I was entranced and yet so disappointed. (Never, ever more disappointed than by the non-end of the god-awful Atlas plot.) It was a contradiction that caught me for a long, long time. And as a result, when I came back to the game this week with that save, I just couldn’t play any more. I tried to pick up where I’d left off, the game offering me its new challenges and stories at that point, but there was a sense of ennui far too overpowering to get past. So, I chanced the idea of just starting against from scratch, and I’m really glad I did.

It’s worth stressing at this point that I didn’t spend a lot of time with NMS after the previous major patch that introduced base building, larger ships and combat, and so on, so a lot of what I describe as “new” here may well be a muddle of both patches. That’s going to be the case for a lot of people finally tempted to properly return with the better news surrounding this latest update, so I’m treating all the added content since most people last dug in as new. Also, I continued to play in the “relaxed” mode that was the original intended way to play.

The game begins slightly differently. You’re no longer required to spend a good long while foraging to fix your initial ship. Instead it pretty much works straight away, just limited to a few simple fetch quests before you’re able to get into the sky. However, it plots this far better, albeit with the aching sigh of your character having lost their memory. Siiiiiiigggggggghhhhhh. It quickly introduces the basics of what you need to know in a much more coherent fashion than previously, and there’s the immediate joy of discovering that both your Exosuit and ship have special inventory slots for technology now, meaning you have more space for resources.

I did, however, have a rather unfortunate false start. No Man’s Sky’s obvious primary strength and major attraction is that, despite the overbearing weight of similarities, planets are somewhat unique in their procedural generation. On this occasion though, this meant that it had started my game with my stranded ship atop a high plateau on a deeply toxic planet. It was impossible to return to my ship without a trek too far to survive the elements, and I had to quit out and start again.

The second time, however, things were much improved – navigable landscapes, slightly more breathable, and I found that I was quickly getting back into that process of gathering carbon, iron and plutonium to fix up the ship, and discovering just how much more autonomy the player has with the more smart uses of the building abilities. Building a Signal Booster from iron and plutonium, you can seek out nearby mineral resources like the now-vital heridium, or having it find you relics and the like. This is far, far better than having to stumble upon buildings with similar options inside.

The game checks with you a couple of times that you definitely want to pursue its new story, rather than just wander off on your own un-nagged. You can absolutely still wander off at any point, do whatever you like, but the somewhat erratic quest prompts will pester you a little when you do. (It seems to change which mission is selected entirely at random, which is a touch frustrating.) But once pursued, there’s now the path of trying to make contact with a mysterious signal from someone called Artemis, which sends you along a chain of quests that neatly and effectively introduce pretty much all the major elements of the game.

So you’re quickly off the planet, visiting space stations, and pursuing a path that gains you galactic travel. Then there’s quite a rapid series of planet/solar system hopping (rapid if you doggedly follow the quests – you can take as long as you like) as you discover the new holographic stations found on planet surfaces, and learn your way around the new economy of Nanite Clusters. Rather than dispensing blueprints for tech upgrades, to improve your suit, ship and weapon, from boxes scattered around the universe, now you buy them from merchants in space stations and certain buildings. So those odd little units on the walls of shipping containers that once contained the same bloody blueprint you’d already found sixteen times, now contain Nanites. As does smouldering wreckage, and it’s handed out by approving aliens, and scrounged in a few other ways. Blueprints are surprisingly pricey, and even trickier to get as you also need to improve your standing with the relevant alien race to be able to buy them. It makes upgrading your multitool a much slower process, and possibly not in a great way.

However, cor blimey you can get a better ship more easily. The starting ship has an agonisingly small 10 slots, madly forcing a bunch of the tech into the inventory slots, leaving the new tech slots empty, which means the game is still mired in the frustrations of inventory juggling, barely giving you enough space to gather the basic needs. I did a quick bit of gold mining to make a few hundred thousand units, and fluked on a 17-slot ship on a space station that was ridiculously underpriced, which helped. But the new story quite quickly leads you to a crashed ship with an enormous 27 spaces. The catch being, now wrecked ships have many of their slots locked off as damaged, fixed at an ever-growing cost. I’ve managed to unlock 22 of those slots so far, but the 23rd is going to cost me over 350,000 units, and I can only assume from the steep incline that the 27th will be in the region of a million.

Oh, and the best news of all – those ships can now properly fly near the ground! Finally you can indeed zoom through a canyon. You’ll want to be careful, because this means crashing is now also very possible, with severe damage easily achieved. The controls still don’t feel quite right, but I’m getting much more used to them and enjoying my near misses. And another huge plus is, if your ship has enough fuel to take off, you can remotely call it to your location, rather than trek all the way back to it after a long wander.

The counter to this is in-space fights seem to be much, much tougher. I’ve yet to survive a single one, usually because bad luck means when fighting invading pirates, I’ve accidentally shot an allied ship, whose forces then turn on me too.

When I tried to go back to the game after the last big patch, and indeed again with this latest, I found that base building was the aspect that put me off more than any other. NMS had always been a nomadic game for me, and the idea of putting down roots on planets that were (and still are) incredibly superficial seemed utterly ridiculous. The veneer of NMS’s magic is far too easily broken, and spending too long on any one planet quickly reveals how hollow it really is, as the same creatures and flora endlessly repeat and the exact same landmarks that appear on every planet in the universe repeat themselves ad nauseum. But via this new plot thread, the action begins to make some sense. There’s a scripted reason for its being, and scripted characters staffing it, giving you quests of their own as you go. It makes the base feel more purposeful, rather than a contradiction to the game.

That, so far, is where I am. It’s still a slowly paced game, and it’s still so very easy to get distracted by exploration or mining, which is utterly splendid. And it remains the case that the best stories are the ones that happen by mistake, rather than anything written. The Artemis plot may well go somewhere interesting, but it hasn’t been interesting yet. So far it’s served to provide a strong motivation to play through the game’s elements, introducing both old and new in an effective way – that’s a big win, but it has yet to make me actually care about they why. Meanwhile, the time I crashed my ship into a cliff and had to survive the long walk back to retrieve it, then the meticulous resource gathering to fix it, then the flight back to collect my lost things and get back into the flow, was the best story I experienced. The game is still so capable of creating those moments, and they’re still its greatest strength.

Right, let’s have some moans. It’s beyond belief irritating that at this point it still requires a complete restart to change anything in the graphics, even switching from windowed to borderless to fullscreen. Figuring out how to get it to run at a steady 60FPS is utterly painful, restarting everything for every single tweak, even though it loads significantly more quickly. And while it purports to run in 3440×1440, at this setting it seems to impose its own limit at a very unpleasant 30FPS, ignoring your own settings. Setting it to 2560×1440 immediately saw it jump to 60, so something fishy is going on there.

There are also some consoley elements that have snuck into the PC build that are annoying. A new menu pops up with X, is scrolled through with Q and E, and selected with F. Which is a fucking mess. It’s so very obviously designed to be a menu for a controller that hasn’t at all sensibly translated to keyboard, especially when – infuriatingly – some of these menu options can’t just be mapped to a direct key. Why on earth can’t I just set the button to recall my ship to something useful, rather than have to juggle this garbage menu mess?

Talking of garbage menus, good lord they’ve somehow made uploading discovered planets and flora/fauna even more annoying than it was before, with an even worse new menu (that doesn’t even allow for mouse scrolling), and still no bloody “upload all” button. Come on!

And there are, of course, many bugs. I’ve had the game get to the point where it froze for ten seconds between one second bursts of play, until I rebooted my PC. Right now something mad has happened to the mouse, the game having added bonkers acceleration to its movement mid-play, which will likely require a restart. It still feels flaky.

Trying to carry on from before, I couldn’t get back into No Man’s Sky at all. I felt like I was done, and it wasn’t for me any more. But starting afresh was the trick (my old save safely backed up), even with the minor annoyance of having to get used to a weaker multi-tool, slower movement, and less powerful jetpack. And I’m hooked again. I still don’t really care about the plot, but I do care that I’m on this trail of breadcrumbs. I can’t enormously justify why, other than it’s interesting to find out what happens next, and it’s still enormously pleasurable to just land on a planet and look around it. Just that alone is NMS’s main magic, and with a far larger range of creature types (even some that look a bit like dinosaurs!), that’s more enjoyable than ever.

I still love this enormously mad game, and it’s unquestionably far better than it was last year. So much has been fixed, so much has been added, and it’s creeping its way toward having some sense of purpose in its empty wandering. It will never be the game that was promised, but it’s something of its own right now that I think is well worth playing. My only concern would be the extraordinarily premium price.

I shall carry on to find much more of the new content, most especially terrain manipulation and portals, and report back soon.

No Man’s Sky is out now for PC for £40/$60/60€ via Steam, GOG, and Humble.

Disclosure: Our Alec once spent a bit of time writing some words for this game.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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