No Man’s Sky promised the universe, and delivered a video game. At the time, on the game’s initial release in 2016, it looked like it might be a reputation from which Hello Games could never recover. Yet in the four years since they’ve worked and worked and worked, releasing update after update, building an expanding and iterating, even reinventing, without ever charging early adopters an extra penny. Goodness me they’re getting closer to actually delivering a universe.
With the most recent update, Origins, No Man’s Sky is so damned close to being the game I’ve always wished it could be. And perhaps far more importantly, it feels so damned close to being a bunch of other games all manner of other people wish it could be.
As I play my way, casually sauntering between galaxies, mining for valuables, occasionally fulfilling mission goals in my own time, meticulously scanning every tiny rock on every planet I explore, I’m aware how differently I could be approaching this. I could be working on a squadron of freighters, managing my army of ships as they fly off on endeavours. I could be jumping in and out of the multiplayer hub anomalies have now become, teaming up with strangers to take on tougher group challenges. I could be building a vast and elaborate base, complete with discotheque. I could spend my days battling pirates, attacking enemy freighter fleets, or waging war on the Sentinels. I could carve giant knob shapes into the surfaces of planets. I very probably will do that last one at some point, but I’ve little interest in the rest. They’re just there, for someone else to enjoy.
Gosh, what a long and storied relationship I’ve had with No Man’s Sky. I went in determined not to have my expectations determined by a very silly decision to tell some enormous whoppers on US television, or ludicrous promises from year after year of Sony hype. In the end, I found myself compulsively playing a game I found rather frustrating. And playing. And playing. And carving.
A year later I came back for Atlas Rises, which rewrote its abysmal original plot with a slightly less rubbish one about a chap called Artemis. Another year after that it got a whole lot more crap with Next, ludicrously over-fiddly to start playing, with a ludicrous emphasis on staying on one planet and building a base - the very antithesis of what No Man’s Sky had ever been about. And then, honestly, my attention wavered. I’d spent dozens upon dozens of hours with the game, and with so much focus on building bases and introducing the belated multiplayer, it seemed to be drifting farther away from what I wanted to play. Meaning I missed the Abyss, Visions, Beyond, Synthesis, Bytebeat, Living Ship, Exo Mech, Crossplay and Desolation updates that came out in the two years since. Good grief.
However, with the announcement of Origins (really, Origins?), and the description of its being NMS 3.0 (where Next had been 1.5, and Beyond 2.0), I was intrigued to return. And I’m so glad I have.
OK, spacecards on the interplanetary table: I do get in a muddle about what’s brand new in Oranges. Two years and forty-seven thousand updates turn out to be a long gap in NMS-time, so forgive me as I conflate changes from the last bunch of iterations. But I rather strongly think I won’t be alone in having wandered away until the noise of this latest version.
Although what’s unambiguously brand new, and completely bloody brilliant, is the giant sand worms! They are magnificent. Firstly the ground shakes, there’s a rumbling sound from all around, and then KABLOOEY! they burst up from the ground, colossal behemoths that arc over you in the sky, before smashing through the ground a mile ahead. It’s spectacular, and I’ve yet to grow tired of it on the two planets in which I’ve encountered the wonders. The only disappointment is you can’t scan the things.
Other key changes include binary and tertiary star systems, and while purely an aesthetic difference, they make for lovely views while pootling about in space. And talking of purely aesthetic differences, goodness me the new planetary landscapes are often fantastic.
No Man’s Sky has always been a game plagued by its own procedural generation. It’s just as likely to create a lavish and fascinating planet of intricate complexity and peculiar fauna as it is to make a flat grey ball with some rocks on it. Encountering the latter could really take the shine off the former, and while it’s still too capable of this, the balance is much improved. Planets can now have vast volcanos all over them, angrily erupting all over you. New creatures can burrow through the ground, some spinwheeling their way through the soil, spraying dirt up in their path, before they burst out the side of a cliff. And storms - rather than just phasing into existence - roll in with the new dynamic clouds (which look a bit oddly gloopy), letting you see weather patterns before you even land. That’s a very nice touch. Firestorms aren’t quite so impressive, but hot planets will occasionally just have the ground catch on fire, which looks very cool.
There are new features too, like the “Colossal Archive Buildings”. These are tall structures you’ll occasionally find on a planet’s surface, which have a few market stalls, aliens to chat with, and most significantly, a computer terminal to access that will give you a big tasty narrative mouthful about the history of one of the races. And of course there are new things to craft, meteors crash into planets as you wander about, lightning lights up storms, and apparently there are tornadoes and gravitational anomalies, although I’ve yet to encounter these last two.
What’s surprised me most on my return is that elements that really got me annoyed in 2018 still remain, but have been tweaked, streamlined or just plain fixed, and don’t feel nearly so egregious now. So while the opening still forces you down the path of refining bloody elements in a silly machine, it’s not nearly so over-complicated, far faster to do, and getting your ship up off the ground won’t take you long at all. Which is to say, if you fancy it, you can just tell the game’s various narratives to shush, and just go off on a big universal jaunt almost as quickly as you could when the game first came out.
However, choose to follow those threads and they’re far less irritating than I remember. Not least because there’s some internal consistency to the keys used to interact. There’s more purpose, more of a sense of being taught the game’s basic elements as I go, without ever feeling like I’m being mired in one particular area that doesn’t appeal. So when it requires that I build a bit of a base to get through one of the mission chains, it’s literally a floor, wall and roof. That I then knocked that down and just put my machines out al fresco didn’t bother it in the slightest. Also, having a “base” feels far less silly these days, with the ability to teleport to it from any space station, anywhere in the universe. It also helps that aliens will sometimes just go and land their ship right near you now, from whom you can buy various bits and bobs you might not find lying around.
Of course, that last part does grate against what was, and still is, my least favourite thing about NMS: I never feel alone. What I desperately want from this game about exploring uncharted solar systems is to… explore uncharted solar systems. It’s all very well that planets claim to be unmapped, that you’re supposedly the first person there who gets to name them and all the life upon them, but you’re blatantly not! If anything, you’re the sodding British Empire, turning up to fully inhabited places, sticking a flag in them, and declaring them yours. Because there’s not a stuffing planet or moon in the endless galaxies that isn't already occupied by Sentinel forces, along with warehouses, research stations, abandoned bases, and now towering archives. Let alone that there’s a whacking great space station hovering in every system, packed with various alien life!
While the rewrites of the story have tried to justify the inherent silliness of the Sentinels’ omnipresence, there’s no escaping that there’s no real pioneering space exploration here. You’re some figure who turns up centuries after everyone else already got there and declares you’re naming all the planets and plants. “Um, sure Mr Amnesia, you do that.”
I so dearly wish it could let me choose to go off-path and find totally unvisited territory, systems with no handy shops or planets littered with fizz-popping technology. I just want to be alone! Why can’t it leave me alone?
As ever with NMS, too much exposure breaks the magic. The new wave of flora and fauna types make variety ever more possible, and yet the proc-gen still never really offers the diversity it promises. Too quickly I’m seeing yet another fish-like flying through the sky, and almost the same cow-dinosaur stalking the hills. Plus it’s galling to see the same rock structures on planet after planet after planet, as exciting to notice as the new ones might have been the first time. I know it’s not really possible to have it invent brand new designs and be sure they’ll work, but I still wish it were.
And they’ve still yet to address issues that are years old now. It still completely doesn’t bother to explain what an Atlas Pass is, it still has so, so many sizeable rocks and plants that can’t be scanned, and those damaged containers still require you to remove rusted metal for no damned reason at all. (That really feels like a feature that was put in for development later, then completely forgotten.) And yes, every single planet in the universe has the exact same red, blue and yellow plant growing on it, even if the blue ones now make your jetpack all excited.
But it’s been another 20 hours already. I’ve yet again started from scratch, because the game advances so much each time I play it feels too weird to try to pick up from earlier. And I’m having a just lovely time, picking at mission chains when I fancy it, digging up the astoundingly valuable skeletal remains under some planets’ surfaces when I don’t. I’ve hired some workers for my almost entirely outdoor base, but am not particularly fussed about what they’re up to. When I’ve had enough of anything, I just pop up the Galaxy Map and head off somewhere completely new, maybe zap some spacerocks for a bit, then land on yet another planet to see what’s happening.
And gosh, it’s prettier than ever. It really is finally realising that original intent to look like the science fiction book covers of the middle 20th century, and I find myself using the game’s camera mode all the time. Even if I still have to buggering press X, then QQQ, then click, then EEEEE to get to third-person, then click, then press X, then EE, then click to get camera mode on. FFS. ONE SODDING SHORTCUT BUTTON, HELLO GAMES. Let that be the entirety of version 4.0’s additions and I’d be delighted.
Origins is definitely a great time to jump back in to No Man’s Sky if you’ve been away. I feel like it brings the freedom and airiness I liked so much about the original version back to the far more detailed and involved iterations that have come since. Its emphasis on new planet possibilities, weathers, creatures, and all that good stuff, is far more enticing than yet more multiplayer options, or another way to put a roof on a pretend house. And yet, those things are extremely well detailed already. No Man’s Sky will never be able to deliver the impossible promises it stupidly made, but I’m so impressed with how close it’s getting. More than ever before, it feels like a game that can be played however you want, without making you feel like you’re playing it wrongly for doing so. Also, giant sand worms.