Has No Man’s Sky been improved by its updates?

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Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

I died fifty times before I felt the hand of god.

Trapped on an unbearably hot world in No Man’s Sky’s survival mode, I died to the teeth of a stubby legged Tyrannosaur. I died to a roving band of sentinel robots, upset that I dared to plunder their planet for ore and isotopes. I died during blazing storms, the already extreme temperature ratcheting up to 300 degrees celsius, and cooking me alive in my space suit. Most often, I simply died from exposure as my suit’s life support drained away and left me without any oxygen to breathe.

My ship offered a tantalising escape from the death world, but a series of cascading dependencies put its functions out of reach. I couldn’t take off without Plutonium, but I didn’t have enough residual life support left to go hunting for Plutonium. I could recharge my life support with Thamium9, but repeat deaths had rendered my scanner inoperable, meaning I couldn’t locate the sources of Thamium9 before burning to death. I could repair my scanner with Carbon, but the twisted, alien trees that served as the primo source of Carbon in the area were guarded by nine-foot insect dinosaurs and angry floating robots.

After two hours of failed refuelling runs, and almost resigned to my fate, I climbed into my ship’s cockpit and sat there. The ship had climate control, air scrubbers, and a safe view of the barren world outside. But without the minerals needed to engage its jump jets and get me off the planet, sitting behind the glass was prolonging the inevitable. I thought through my plan: a wild scamper to hoover up the necessary resources before my suit failed and I died again. I steeled myself and reloaded one of my two saves — only to find I was already in the air, floating slowly next to the abandoned base I’d used as a shelter against the elements. It was like I’d been flicked off the ground by some deity that had taken pity on me, and had allowed me to slip the surly bonds of gravity without paying the price in Plutonium or blood.

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These situations are common in the early stages of No Man’s Sky survival mode. An apparently simple plan quickly expands to involve several subtasks, balancing the need for short-term necessities like Thamium9 against the hunt for rarer or more valuable minerals to build for the future. On my first survival playthrough, even the act of reaching my ship took me an hour and ten deaths, as toxic rainstorms and aggressive local fauna chipped away at my suit’s defenses. To put it another way, starting No Man’s Sky in survival mode is like being that water-wheel robot from Futurama, consistently 30 seconds from death and irrecoverably burdened with that knowledge.

Living through this period, I found things got a little easier. Stockpiles of Plutonium and Thamium9 meant I could cope with a bad landing or two on a dangerous planet without making it my grave. It’s certainly not a permanent shift, though, and even after tens of hours of game time, I found it all too easy to scupper myself. Worlds that look like paradises from the air — jewels of green and red and blue — can reveal themselves as radiation-blasted hellscapes or storm-ravaged ice tombs when your space boots hit the ground.

The decision to set down can very easily become your last when the cost of takeoff is extortionate. It takes 200 Plutonium to fill your chosen ship’s launch booster fully, but each outcropping of the fairly rare red rock tends to provide less than half of that. Some worlds are particularly stingy with the Plutonium, too, forcing players to trudge out into the lethal wilds in the hope of finding five or six distinct deposits to earn their passage off-planet.

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Perhaps I’d been launched into the air by a bug — I encountered a few during my return with the game — or perhaps it was Atlas who’d chosen to lift me to the heavens. No Man’s Sky’s mysterious cosmic entity was included in the vanilla version of the game at its release in 2016, serving as the centrepiece in a very lightly sketched story, but has taken a more central role in the game’s patches since. The Atlas Rises update, released for free in August last year, fleshes out that story, giving Atlas a motivation, an endgame, and something close to a physical form.

Should the player choose to follow the new questline introduced in the Atlas Rises update, they’ll also find some answers as to their own background, as well as more information about the galaxy they’ve woken up in. The so-called “Artemis Path” still involves its share of grinding busywork, but the missions included within are definitely more engaging than the vanilla game’s central story — a flimsy set of fetch quests that emphasised just how empty and pointless No Man’s Sky could feel.

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Also included in the latest update is a mission board: a varying collection of one-off requests to complete odd jobs like delivering cargo, hunting pirates, and murdering local wildlife. These sidequests provide an additional structural framework, as well as paying out in some snazzy rewards, but don’t do particularly well at making the galaxy feel alive. Star systems can be lightyears apart, but job postings are largely the same, the game’s wildly varying species always looking for something as mundane as interstellar pest control or space Parcelforce.

In No Man’s Sky’s standard mode, the rewards these grind-them-out jobs can bring will gee you along the revamped story. Playing on survival mode, however, I ended up ignoring most of the jobs I could’ve taken on, judging that the reward wouldn’t be worth the cost in Plutonium, Thamium9, and other resources that I’d need to burn to complete them. Not that they were completely useless to me, though: by picking up courier quests, I discovered I could simply sell the item I was tasked with trafficking, earning quick cash I could spend on buying new resources and unlocking cargo slots in my stolen ship.

Similarly tricky for survival players to justify is building one of No Man’s Sky’s home bases — a feature introduced in 2016’s Foundation update. Or, more accurately, expanding a base, adding new rooms, hallways, and storeys to an existing structure that players can colonise. Finding a habitable structure took me some time, and even then, I only had the resources to add an extra corridor and a single room before I’d blown my entire renovation budget and realised I had to get back to the difficult business of staying alive.

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No Man’s Sky’s creative mode is a better home for grand base designs — as it is for playing with the game’s new terrain deformation feature. Certain multi-tools come with a secondary function that can raise or lower the land around them. Its usefulness to storyline-following players likely won’t be high, but it does turn No Man’s Sky into a gloopy approximation of Minecraft, and allowed me to raise a giant muddy edifice of a kitty cat in radioactive soil — a plus point.

An approximation of Minecraft is still only an approximation of Minecraft, though, and this highlights the problem with No Man’s Sky in 2018. 18 months of updates have unquestionably fleshed the game out, made its galaxy feel less lonely, more designed, and not as flat-out meaningless as it was at launch. But No Man’s Sky is still not sure what it’s for, now that the power, punch, and promise of an infinite universe was revealed to be something of a parlour trick during its infamous launch. Getting lost amongst its infinite stars is far more enjoyable than it was at launch, but after three significant updates, No Man’s Sky still feels too limited as a creative sandbox, too empty as a story-centric RPG, and too punishing as a survival game.

Disclosure: RPS’s own Alec Meer wrote a little for No Man’s Sky.

56 Comments

  1. aircool says:

    The core mechanics are flawed and cannot be fixed. Updates may add more layers, but they’re all built on second rate, inexpert foundations.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      The core mechanic “A walking sim” is great. Everything else less so.
      Advertised as/priced as/designed as a “walking sim” it could have been amazing (see minecraft!).

      But Minecraft would have failed if false advertised features + £60 price tag!

      • Alberto says:

        The game is on sale regularly, I bought my copy for €20. And yeah, it’s a great walking sim, and I’m enjoying every moment of it (regular vanilla mode). The terrain modifying tool saved me a few times during storms and when lost in caves, and it’s great for silly sculpting.

        I’m also half intrigued by the story and absolutely in love with the art direction. Never F12ed as happily as I’m doing with this game.

  2. dexter442 says:

    What is with the hard on game journos have for this game? Just let it die already. It came out in 2016 FFS…

    • UKPartisan says:

      Games journalists don’t have the power to let the game die, if they did have the power to do so the world of video gaming would be a very sorry place to be in. The game is still played by a faithful following and is actively supported by Hello Games, which considering it’s launch foibles is a better place to be, than the the one you’d wish it to be.

    • Nelyeth says:

      Yeah, good idea. Let’s write about recent games in Update Night, which focuses on older games that have seen significant changes through updates after their launch.

    • dexter442 says:

      Soooo many other better games out there that could be covered by Update Night which, as you say “focuses on older games that have seen significant changes through updates after their launch.” Go through the RPS coverage of this game from it’s release until now and you can see for yourselves the weird infatuation the RPS staff have with this POS game. There seems to be a monthly article dedicated to it.

      • oyog says:

        Just wanted to stop in and call you out on your bullshit, since you’re being a bit of a dick;

        If you click the “No Man’s Sky” tag you can easily see that the articles specific to NMS are covering the release of patches for the game.

        It’s almost as if RPS is covering PC news.

        Anyway, what coverage would you prefer to see, out of curiosity?

        • dexter442 says:

          Well, for example I haven’t seen any coverage of the new game “Citystate” that was released on steam today. It’s a game that is, at it’s core, a PC title in a PC-only game genre (unlike console toybox sh!t like NMS).

          • gibbousmoon says:

            “Soooo many other better games out there that could be covered by Update Night which, as you say “focuses on older games that have seen significant changes through updates after their launch.””

            “Citystate”

            I’m confused by your response. Citystate was released TWO DAYS AGO. Perhaps you could answer that question again, and this time give a relevant response?

    • Beefenstein says:

      “What is with the hard on game journos have for this game?”

      Yes, how dare people be interested in things. The only two things in the world are football and chicken.

      • dexter442 says:

        Metacritic: “Generally unfavorable reviews”
        Steam: “Mostly negative”

        …and yet the scrubs at RPS keep shoving this POS down our throats…

        • Romeric says:

          I didn’t realise those pesky RPS writers were forcing people to read their articles now. Well I never.

          As someone who has ignored these updates, but somewhat enjoyed the vanilla game, I’d quite like to know the author’s thoughts on this. Despite your personal opinions on it, this game was and continues to be the subject of discussion between folks. The fact you couldn’t resist posting your opinions all over the place only further highlights this point.

          On the subject of your integrity as a commenter, I think you should go and count how many articles weren’t written about No Man’s Sky in the last month. Hopefully, that number will lead us closer to the release of Half Life 3 or something.

          • oyog says:

            I’m enjoying the idea of him Googling “No Mans Sky news” every day to make sure he’s staying current with his anti-NMS comments.

          • dexter442 says:

            It’s not all that difficult to notice the frequency of articles written about NMS on RPS considering I go on this website at least once a day.

          • hprice says:

            @dexter442. Umm actually, I come on this website once a day too, and I don’t see what you see. I think RPS talks far, far more about Player Unknown Battlegrounds or whatever it’s called than NMS. I’m not a rabid RPS fan either. I just pop in to see what’s happening in the gaming world, and what I might be missing on other sites. So … not too sure where you’re coming at with the NMS thing. But each to his own, I suppose …

  3. His Dudeness says:

    Too bad in basic gameplay – farming and grinding everything, forever and without any sense of progression. So much “get the resources for getting new resources”.

  4. Peksisarvinen says:

    It’s kind of funny: people who are stupid enough to pre-order games got literally nothing out of this and have all abandoned it. Me, I still haven’t even played it yet. In a few years, I can get it from a sale for like 5€ with all the updates, which might actually make it enjoyable.

    So I guess the lesson is, don’t be the kind of a dumb prick who pays for products that don’t exist yet.

    • UKPartisan says:

      I’d be more concerned by the “Dumb Pricks” who buy loot crates.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      This is my plan, although it’s still pretty pricey at the moment which implies that there are still idiots prepared to pay too much for it.

    • fish99 says:

      Or just refund like I did.

    • gibbousmoon says:

      Doing dumb things is human. It does not make you a “prick.” It just makes you dumb.

      Calling dumb people “pricks,” on the other hand…

  5. Ben King says:

    Oh man, I think in looking at the Survival Mode and skipping out on Creative Mode and the Photo Mode you’ve maybe picked out the weakest leg of the game to examine. The survival, crafting, and combat parts of the game continue to be really unsatisfying even after the updates, but the photo mode addition is frankly the biggest reason I play NMS anymore. Also scooting around in that sweet buggy. I still enjoy booting up the warp drive and rolling the dice to generate a new solar system- it’s great to see a new place every time, and the lighting system re-jiggering they did last year was a great improvement on the base game. I expect another NMS update in the coming months as they have started ramping up a new promotional ARG. I’m curious what they’ll be doing in this one.

  6. dontnormally says:

    Instead of pumping all this bullcrap into updating planets – the things you’re supposed to leave behind as you explore – I wish they had opted to give the player a freighter as soon as possible and allow them to make amazing things out of their personal space platform.

  7. harley9699 says:

    I’ll be hated for not joining the hate.
    I really have a fondness for NMS. Of course, I neither bought nor started playing until after the last update, so maybe that has something to do with it. I didn’t carry any disappointment, ‘burn’ or hurt feelings upon purchase and subsequent play.
    After playing “tens of hours” myself, Survival is not quite as difficult as portrayed. As always, to each his own.
    I play Sandbox for the openness and freedom. I quite enjoy the isolation from other players (no MP for me…..I doth decree? [adding to the rhyme, in short time). Granted, at times it’s not relaxing, at all. There’s always something that needs to be done. However, it’s not supposed to be a walking simulator either. Even coming from a ridiculous amount of MC hours, I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Of course, I’m a challenge seeker (in games) as well. If a game’s too easy, I get bored and bounce off, probably never to return. I’ve gone back to NMS, a Lot. For me, it’s pure enjoyment and escapism.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I came to it early and thoroughly enjoyed it. People love to make a big fuss about the features it lacked, but what was there was pleasant enough if you chose the game for itself, not for what people thought it was going to be.

    • Quite So says:

      I got it the day it released, but I have a fondness for it as well. It’s a much better game now, but it was always interesting from the start. As long as you didn’t get caught up in the hype (mostly from being old and jaded from previous game marketing burns), it was always a decent game.

      My primary gaming interest is that I’m always looking for those fleeting moments of perfect immersion, where the real world fades to nothing and I exist solely within the game. While these moments are usually very rare, every time I dash to my ship in NMS to get out the toxic rain and sit there listening to it patter off the windscreen as I stare out at a bleak landscape, for a brief moment I am transported to that world and completely immersed in the experience of it.

      While it’s likely nothing to most, it’s that one small experience that makes this game an absolute joy for me.

  8. haldolium says:

    “No Man’s Sky still feels too limited as a creative sandbox, too empty as a story-centric RPG, and too punishing as a survival game.”

    They cannot fix the broken core of the game. I’d rather have them to move on, learn from all the mistakes and try again instead of desperately trying to make NMS work. Which it never will.

    • majorbrighton says:

      Um, well from your remarks we can tell there was some resentment from this game not delivering for you.
      Yet find comfort in knowing that luckily very many like me have good reason to not want to give up quiet just yet.
      I thought this article was a fun read, as I found myself remembering the many good moments, I soon realised that you need quite a bit of fantasy in order to first live into it. Yet that is where the games start was very clever, putting your own survival on the line is a great way to quickly be invested.
      Yet after many months of enjoying the atmosphere this afforded it soon naturally became bland, plants and creatures started to re appear and jumps revealed the same clusters of and elements as before. So many have let the game rest and yet we hope to return again. I think that if they have listened to the modding community, then we might be in for something special this summer too.

      A great gaming experience it was and with the hours to show it, I cant really blame them for a little repetition in the end!

  9. Rindan says:

    I’m honestly shocked they are still working on this game. How on earth could this possibly be profitable? Are people really still buying No Man’s Sky? I’d think everyone who was going to buy it was done. Who on earth reads that No Man’s Sky has been updated and buys a copy?

    You’d think they would just clean up minor bugs, but otherwise go work on something else, even if that “something else” is just recycling much of what went into No Man’s Sky. It just seems seems weird that they are still focused on this game.

    • pookie101 says:

      I avoided it and picked it up on sale a while back after the base update and had a great time with it :)

    • Amake says:

      They’re not making a lot of money, no. But they did make something like ten million dollars per person in the dev team from the game, and apparently they feel professionally obligated to give the players value for that money, especially as a lot of players were disappointed when the advertising for the game didn’t accurately temper their expectations.

      In short, they have integrity.

      • fish99 says:

        It’s good they’re trying to fix the mess, but they didn’t need to lie about game features in the first place or make misleading trailers (which are still being used to sell the game).

        • Harlander says:

          So they developed integrity somewhere in the process. Not everyone manages that.

          • fish99 says:

            I’m not sure they had much choice if they wanted to continue working in the industry. Also consider that if refunds existed on console, they’d probably have gone bust.

  10. MrBehemoth says:

    What’s this? The archetypal quick-buck Lazy Devs claimed to be slavishly pouring work into a long-term passion project for an established and growing base of appreciative fans? People claiming to like something that I do not?

    My egocentrism does not permit me to believe this. Instead, the only possible explanation is that journalists are lying to us about how much they and other people enjoy this game, and that this is in collusion with the developers who are clearly working on this for neither love nor money, since nobody is playing it at all, all as part of a secret plot to replace real gamers with insipid SJWs who hate themselves because they can’t stop putting money down on real games that they should know that they won’t be into but can’t help themselves because the hype gives them so much fear of missing out that it literally emasculates them. Is that what’s going on here, RPS? No thank you!

    • Beefenstein says:

      Excellent.

    • ZakG says:

      MrBehemoth makes one of the best posts about NMS i’ve seen here. You should write for RPS.

    • dexter442 says:

      Metacritic: “Generally unfavorable reviews”
      Steam: “Mostly negative”

      ’nuff said

    • gibbousmoon says:

      An excellent retort to dexter442 and others here.

  11. Stevostin says:

    I had a good time /w it, maybe 30h or so. I did a bit of everything until it got old. Didn’t finish anything – basic base, average ship, modest progress in the quest line. But I had fun all along.

    IMO the issue is just the actual action gameplay. Gunfight are way too easy while I haven’t been able to down one ship ever.

  12. ColonelFlanders says:

    You could have saved yourself a lot of work by just writing the old JW classic. “No. It’s still bloody awful”

  13. Kefren says:

    I started playing this again last night. I got further than last time (made it to a space station and another planet) but it still made me grind my teeth, and I think an uninstall is approaching. It’s hard to pinpoint a single problem. I find the UI and controls to be sluggish and often incomprehensible. Even clicking on things often doesn’t work, so I have to try again but hold down the mouse button this time. The inventory is more like the shit Skyrim one that puts me off playing that game than the mouse drag-and-drop systems I like. Despite appearances each thing in the game is just flagged as “collectable or not”, with collectables one of a huge number of icons and elements that mean little to me. I got to a space station and there was no wonder – the aliens there just chatted in a language I couldn’t understand yet they obviously knew mine (since they would teach it one word at a time for “units” – the game hadn’t told me what the units were of). Though others did speak my language. It sent me from there to a planet that only seemed to be there to point me somewhere else for another meaningless item; then I got there, made it, and it turned out I needed some other abstract rare fuel for it that would involve more searching for another replaceable resource. In fact, I had been stuck on the first planet for ages because it kept telling me to make a signal booster, but nowhere in the list of things to make or install on my ship or equipment or suit was such a thing listed, nor was it an offered upgrade to either of my scanners. I wasted over an hour and had to go online. It turns out that it wasn’t something I crafted in my inventory (as with previous things the game told me to do), it was something I had to use a new build key for that hadn’t been mentioned by the game. So far it has been a few hours of tedium and annoyances, with no feeling of immersion or wonder. It is so gamey, in the predictable sense. This and Skyrim have been two of my biggest gaming disappointments of the last few years.

    • VeggyZ says:

      Something to note: many of this game’s controls need you to hold the click down for a second or two, not just click. If you hold it in for a second, you’ll get your effect. Unless there’s something wrong with this game on your setup, but so far every time I’ve read about that problem, this was the reason.

  14. zulnam says:

    On normal mode it’s not that bad for the casual gamer that just wants to chill out and explore.

    Just don’t get it at full price.

  15. TotallyUseless says:

    Tempted to get NMS several times, but I ended up skipping it for games higher on my list. It’s still not worth its asking price despite its several sales on Steam. Maybe 75% it’ll be worth it.

  16. edwardoka says:

    I came late to the NMS party (after the Atlas update) and played it in iron man survival – about 12 hours in. It’s a tough, grinding slog at times.

    I’ve come pretty close to dying a few times due to exposure and a couple of bugs. Once I touched the wheel on my wedged-into-a-crevice-exocraft and got pinged into the sky – luckily, without taking fall damage, and once by falling through the floor into the void (No regrets about savescumming that time.)

    The escalated risk means that decisions can’t be taken lightly. I used to play Minecraft in hardcore mode for the same reason. More at stake, expeditions feel more meaningful. Once my character dies legitimately it’s likely that I won’t play the game again.

  17. glueface says:

    Still a rotten game.

  18. Khab says:

    You know, I want to like NMS, even if it took me for 60€ at launch. But I can’t even play it nowadays, it crashes as soon as I do a scan. Uninstalled, reinstalled, driver update. Nope. Apparently I’m not alone, although it’s extremely rare an issue.

  19. gmx0 says:

    I know how to fix NMS. Combine it with Factorio.

    Okay, I’ve never played NMS, but Factorio’s story of getting a rocket off the ground by mining resources and automating that with some alien survival elements seems just what it needs.

  20. GraXXoR says:

    Played NMS since release. Did not buy into the hype so did not find anything to feel self-entitled about or be disappointed with… Have had a very enjoyable experience.

    I’m really impressed by the number and frequency of changes that the less than twenty staff are implementing.

    My only disappointment was the crafting changes in Atlas Rises which made it far harder to build a magnificent base. 200 hours spent and no regrets…

  21. doglikesparky says:

    I had big hopes for this game. I thought it looked beautiful in the screen shots, and *that* trailer blew me away. Everything I dreamed of in a space game, and everything that Elite: Dangerous wasn’t – colourful, exciting, simple to play, a lot of fun, and y’know, a playable game with stuff in it to do. And then it came out and the reality of it hit… the hype and the hate, and I was very disheartened, and I didn’t bother for a while.

    I ended up buying it in a sale for PS4, by chance on the day after the Foundation update came out. And I’m glad I did, as I enjoyed it a lot. I got lost in it for 53 hours – exploring, building, buying and selling, seamlessly shooting off into space, and completing the Atlas story path (which ended up a bit anticlimactic). Though I did find it a bit grindy and repetitive, and the lack of variety became irritating, it scratched a spacey space game itch like no game has since I first played X:Beyond The Frontier in 1999.

    Not long after that I got rid of my PS4, so have missed the following updates. I have the game on Gog for PC now, also got cheap in a sale. I look forward to immersing myself once again in its colourful space shenanigans, though am currently immersed in the aquatic world of Subnautica, and dying under the sea instead of in space. Dying a lot.

  22. VeggyZ says:

    Honestly yes, it has been greatly improved from it’s initial release. Does it contain all the things promised? No, so from that angle I’m sure plenty of people are still disappointed.

    Me? Well, I found the release of NMS revolting and I erased it from my memory completely, for a long time. I used a combination of drugs and electro-shock treatment to make myself forget. Now that I’ve gone back and played it again, the memories came flooding back which caused me no small amount of torment – but I did have to realize a great deal of polish that was not there before.

    It’s passable as a good game now – if the promises of what it would be (combined with the trailer of what it wasn’t) hadn’t been so exorbitant I think I’d be pretty impressed by it in it’s current form. At the very least, it’s like playing a game now, and I no longer regret my purchase.

    I did for a long, long time. Until I tortured myself, nearly to death, in order to forget.