Platform: PS4, PC, Xbox One
Developer: Hello Games
My screen is bright white. A text prompt says “Initialize” with a corresponding button, I press it. An AI voice breaks the silence telling me it’s initializing my suit. I hear “life support systems activated” as the white light begins to fade and the camera pans to reveal a lightly raining, gritty green planet with massive fungi. The AI tells me my scanner is damaged and that my shields jetpack and multi-tool are online. The camera pans a little further to reveal a damaged ship. I must repair it. As I set off on my journey a toxic storm arrives wiping out my shields and nearly killing me before I bolted into a cave. I have been immediately thrown to the wolves. All I can do is wait out the storm - with a smirk on my face.
Planting the seeds of unreasonable expectations
I have always loved Sci-Fi games. It’s a love that started on a PC at a childhood friend’s house. It’s the winter of 2003, I have just trudged the snow to see my buddy’s new PC game. The game was called Freelancer and it set my imagination on fire for what a Sci-Fi game could be.
Freelancer was an “open world” game in that there were several star systems you could travel to and explore. You could almost say it was an open galaxy game. Freelancer gave you the power to freely explore and become a space pirate, merchant or even galactic authorities. To top it all off you could do all of this online with real people.
The game was fun, had a lot of depth and was ahead of its time, but I wanted more. I wanted to land on planets, walk around space stations, and engage in a battle that starts in space moving into a planet’s atmosphere and then ultimately ending on a planet’s surface. I wanted to call a planet my home and claim a system with my friends. In the back of my mind I knew this was too ambitious for a video game and after many years of waiting I gave up on the idea.
Warp to E3 2014; I was watching Sony’s press conference when a lone developer nervously walked onto the stage to show off the game he and his tiny team had been working on - No Man’s Sky. I watched as the player moved out of a cave system, scanned plants and animals, swam through water, and then as if by magic jump into his spaceship and fly right through the atmosphere straight into space. There were no load times or levels. It was seamless. The planet was planet sized and the galaxy, galaxy sized. Everything was procedurally generated in real time. Their game was set to scale to reality. All of this accomplished by a team of 10 or so people and some hella good math skills.
This stage announcement and trailer reignited that spark of imagination I had all of those years ago. The interviews and trailers that followed only fueled the already high expectations I had for No Man’s Sky; but my hype was beyond reasonable amounts as I and the gaming community would soon find out.
Marketing vs Reality
For anyone not in the know, No Man’s Sky launched with a resounding thud. It became the poster child for marketing spin vs reality. The game barely resembled what was seen in trailers or interviews. It turned out to be quite frankly, in my opinion, boring. The marketing for the game was so disingenuous that Sony, who helped fund the game’s marketing, dropped No Man’s Sky like a bad habit after the game’s release. The developer Hello Games, along with it’s lead designer Sean Murray, went media silent after the backlash. This sent a ripple throughout the gaming community and made the game itself practically radioactive.
The game had essentially no story. There was no multiplayer. It was very buggy. All of the planets looked dull, bland and too similar. The most egregious part, there was no driving force for anything. The only meaningful game mechanic that tasked you at all was the inventory system. Even that was a complete headache and fun killer. Imagine playing GTA and having to stop to get gas every 10 blocks and you were only driving to reach the other end of the map just for the sake of driving. There was a lot that need to be changed.
Many gamers felt that Hello games had taken their money and ran. I can’t blame them for feeling that way since the devs themselves refused to answer any criticism from media outlets and customers alike. Little did we know Hello Games decided actions were better than words. They quietly bunkered down and went to work to release a string of major updates that moved the game closer toward what was promised.
The first of these updates, the Foundation update, brought new planet biomes, new modes, base building and the ability to purchase a capital ship. The Path Finder update brought visual updates, online base sharing, land based vehicles and more varied ships with specializations. The Atlas Rises update finally brought a centralized and focused story along with exotic planets, exotic ships and portals that allowed you to jump directly across the galaxy to different worlds. These updates slowly turned the game around and began to make it a much more enjoyable experience. This was all leading up to Next, which didn’t disappoint.
I don’t think I have ever been highly excited for a game update before. My excitement for the Next update matched my excitement for the game's initial launch. I tried to temper my expectation, but dammit I wanted the Sci-Fi game I had been dreaming about all of these years. I did a ton of preparation beforehand; making sure that I stored all of my inventory in storage units because an update this big had the probability of wiping the slate clean. My base was on an Earth-like planet with an abundance of resources. I saved my game one last time and powered my machine off until the update was live.
Redux the universe
Once my update had downloaded I booted the game up ready to pick up where I left off. Little did I know the Atlas had other plans. My base was gone. The planet that my base was on had been completely reworked with better visuals, vast oceans, tall mountains, islands and complex wildlife. This was like a completely new planet - it was interesting. I didn’t really care about grinding for cash to get that S-class capital ship anymore. I just wanted to explore the planet I was on.
The Next update brings true multiplayer to the game. You and three of your friends can band together and space cowboy up the galaxy any way you see fit. It was pure glee standing on a planet looking up at the sky watching my buddy break into the atmosphere of the planet I was on to give me a hand mining some materials. It’s a feeling that can’t be matched by any other game I can think of. No one else had ever been to this planet besides me and now I get to share it.
Next also brings practically unlimited base building (when they say near unlimited they mean it. I saw a player build a base tower that was so tall it was almost in orbit). You can now build a base almost anywhere on any planet. This gives the player a lot of creative freedom. My favorite base I have seen so far is one that was built in a large underwater cave. The creativity of gamers is astounding. One only needs to look at r/NoMansSkyTheGame to see the evidence of this.
Next makes some changes to capital ships. You can now have an armada of ships. Along with your main capital ship you can employ frigates to send out on expeditions. These frigates specialize in one of five areas - combat, exploration, trade, industry and support. Choosing the right frigates for each expedition can vastly improve your chances for success as your frigates can be damaged during their mission. When one of your frigates gets damaged you’ll have to repair the damage.
Next redefines the crafting and resources aspects of the game.This one threw me for a loop when I jumped in after the update. The resources that I had relied upon heavily before were either gone, reimagined or obsolete. Another significant change to crafting is the refiner mechanic. You can now craft various refiners (portable, medium and large). These refiners can be used to refine materials into more potent versions of themselves or new materials all together. I’m not quite sure what it is I like about using the refiner so much. Maybe it’s the additional hard work and accomplishment for gathering the materials to refine in the first place. Resource deposits seem to be actual deposits in the ground now instead of towers of materials. You will need to use your terrain manipulator to mine deposits instead of your default mining laser.
Next brings an optional third person viewpoint and character customization. Character customization is a nice addition allowing you to choose one of five races in the game - Traveller, Anomaly, Vy’keen, Gek and Korvax. You can communicate or show off your new character through new gestures or snapping a quick selfie with the photo mode. Speaking of photo mode, No Man’s Sky is supplying all of my wallpapers from in-game screenshots. With all of the graphical tweaks you can truly take some awe inspiring photos.
Next introduces some smaller quality of life changes that add up in significant ways. You will now have more diverse base parts to choose from with the ability to have multiple bases. Procedurally generated tech upgrades can be used to upgrade your exosuit, multi-tool or ships. The analysis visor has been upgraded to be more useful in finding points of interest, and pinpointing your exact planetary location with coordinates. Space stations have been given an upgrade to feel more like a marketplace with a new layout and additional NPCs. You can now find and excavate ancient ruins to discover valuable treasure. Once you have a capital ship, multiplayer co-op missions allow you and your friends to team up to earn some valuable rewards or tons of credits.
Next has also exploded the size of No Man’s Sky’s community. Sales are off the charts and it’s Steam reviews have gone from negative to mixed. The community of both old and new players has been rallying around the game on Reddit. r/NoMansSkyTheGame is full of pictures of planets, group photos, creatures, scenery and stories of random encounters.
One of my favorite random encounter stories in particular, involved a player who was new to the game and found themselves on a very inhospitable starting world. You first have to do a couple of tutorial missions and repair your crashed ship to leave any planet you start on. The player’s starting world had extremely high temperatures and almost constant firestorms. The player found themselves stuck in a cave unable to make any more progress due to the storms. Just as they lost hope and were about to quit or start a new game another player warped into their system (you have to ability to join a random player’s game at the home menu). The stranger was further ahead in the game and thus had plenty of resources. The stranger helped the stranded player by gifting some resources and assisting with the ship repair. They never communicated except through emotes. Once the player’s ship had been repaired the stranger left the system to continue on his journey. The once stranded player left a thank you note on Reddit for the stranger who had helped him.
No Man’s Sky has achieved something I didn’t believe possible - redemption. Not in the eyes of all, but for many this is true. While not everything is perfect and there are still it’s share of bugs, I’m excited everytime I boot my PC up to explore, build and have fun with friends. No Man’s Sky Next update gets a 5 enchiladas out of 5.
I am excited to see how Hello Games continues to improve the game and what the future might hold. I’ll certainly be there for whatever comes next.
Follow Ryan on on his YouTube Channel: Colenado Gaming.