August 9, 2018 // 3:30 p.m.
I’ve always loved the idea of No Man’s Sky. The notion of being a tiny part of a vast and strange universe, finding my own adventures in a procedural science-fiction generator, appeals to me more than the rather po-faced cargo-ferrying of Elite Dangerous (although I have a soft spot for that game as well). Even when the original release didn’t quite live up to this ideal, I still felt a thrill every time I warped to a new system, watching the colours shift as a new kaleidoscope of uncharted worlds popped into view.
Since that troubled release, Hello Games has released a gamut of impressive updates, adding buildable player bases, terrestrial vehicles, a completely revamped story and trading system, and tons of other stuff. Now, as of the NEXT update, Hello Games has added proper multiplayer, alongside a host of other features. The resulting experience feels far closer to the game that was shown off in the trailers all those years ago. One that is capable not just of generating worlds, but generating stories.
Here’s an example. Early in my new No Man’s Sky game, I warped into a new system, arriving in the middle of a pirate raid on a Korvax freighter. I decided to help fend off the marauders, successfully blowing them into space dust. Afterwards I received a call from the freighter’s captain, asking me to come onboard.
'Oh, cool,' I thought. 'He’s going to give me a reward.'
And he duly did, although it was not the reward I was expecting. It turned out the captain was having second thoughts about his command, and he offered the freighter to me, free of charge. Not only that, he also offered me ownership of the smaller frigate escorting the freighter on its journey. Within moments I went from being a lone pilot searching the stars to having command of my own small fleet. This meant I had a mobile base, a place to store any other starships I purchased, and the ability to send my frigate on expeditions to earn money and find rare items.
This turned out to be a fantastic platform from which to plan my further voyages. The point, however, is that it happened entirely by chance. Where vanilla No Man’s Sky quickly went from enchanting and mysterious to rote and predictable, No Man’s Sky Next has a far greater capacity to surprise and delight.
What’s more, you can now share that experience with a friend, although I must admit my experience with No Man’s Sky's multiplayer hasn’t been the best. It functions by letting up to three players join a fourth player’s game, while items earned and money gained is tracked across the experience.
Before trying out Next, I hadn’t played the game since before the Atlas Rises update, and since then whole chunks of the game have been entirely redeveloped, not least the trading and crafting system. Consequently, much of my time in multiplayer was spent figuring out how everything worked again. I couldn’t even remember how to take-off at first, which made for a rather embarrassing 10 minutes.
Once you’ve got your head around the new systems, alongside things like keeping track of where players are, No Man’s Sky’s multiplayer works perfectly fine. There’s no limit on where players can go and what they can do when part of a server. You can explore planets together, or go about your own business and meet up at a different point later.
You can also partake in newly introduced side-missions, which are basic proc-gen affairs like 'Kill X number of pirates' or 'Harvest X number of resources.' But they’re fun to complete whilst exploring the galaxy. I particularly like the photography missions, which ask you to take a photograph on a certain type of planet. They’re a great excuse to get creative with No Man’s Sky’s photo mode.
Yet while Multiplayer is the major new feature of Next, it’s the smaller features, coupled with those introduced in Atlas Rises, that make No Man’s Sky a game worth playing. To start with, Hello Games has made a substantial visual overhaul of the game, which not only makes things like planetary terrain look sharper, but introduces new features like more dramatic planetary storms and, best of all, ringed planets, which are a fantastic addition to the sci-fi atmosphere, especially when viewed on the planet’s surface as they arc-across the sky. Can we have Halo-style Ringworlds after this, Hello Games?
Hey, I might as well ask.
Frigates are also new to Next, letting you command not just one Capital Ship but as many as you can afford. These can be dispatched to neighbouring systems, either to help you chart worlds, trade, or earn money in other ways. The reports of said missions are transmitted back to you in your freighter’s new Command Room as a sequence of micro-fictional stories charting your frigate’s activities. Frigates can also be called to aid you in combat, making No Man’s Sky’s battles feel that much more dramatic.
Next also makes greater use of the Terrain Modulator introduced in Atlas Rises. You can now build bases anywhere on a planet, including underground and even underwater. In addition, the Terrain Modulator can be used to find hidden treasures, from fairly common buried technology, to harvesting the cargo from crashed freighters, to very rare alien artefacts, worth hundreds of thousands of units if recovered.
Indeed, a lot of the strength of the Next update hangs off the spine that Atlas Rises added to the game. The stronger story element gives you more reason to push forward through the galaxy while maintaining the mysterious atmosphere that NMS is so good at providing. The broader range of planet types also helps to stave off the sense of repetition that plagued the launch version of the game. There’s still a lot of recurring content, because the game has to fill planet-sized landmasses with something. But it no longer feels like every planet is identical or has already been colonised by someone else.
Overall, NMS is much improved. But there are still some idiosyncrasies which bother me, and a few features that I don’t like at all. Foremost amongst these is the crafting system, which I find even more bamboozling than before. Now, not only are there dozens of different elements, but there are different types of individual element. Carbon for example can now be "refined” into condensed carbon, while copper can be refined into chromatic metal. These aren’t fringe examples, either, as chromatic metal is a core component of making warp-cells, which let you move from system to system.
Frankly, I find the whole system to be a massive headache, and I wish I could avoid it entirely (yes there is creative mode, but that removes all the story content as well, which I do want to investigate). You can buy many of the items that you’d otherwise need to craft from space stations. But their inventories are randomised, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll have chromatic metal when you need it. I want to explore and do missions, Hello Games, not spend half my time faffing around in the menu screen just so that my spaceship can take-off.
The other problem is that buying a new ship or a new multitool still involves scouring systems for the right item, rather than simply visiting a shop and buying a new one from a list. Now that NMS has a strong core of content, it’s no longer necessary to “encourage” exploration by gating off these fairly basic upgrades. One big improvement worth noting is that you can now expand your suit inventory simply by buying an upgrade at space stations. You only get one additional slot per station, but at least it no longer comes down to stumbling upon a drop pod on a planet.
At this point, there’s little question that No Man’s Sky is a decent game. I’m still not sure whether it’s a fantastic game, although it certainly has fantastic moments. Where I feel most different, however, is that I’m now genuinely excited for the future of No Man’s Sky rather than sceptical of it. Sean Murray has stated that Hello Games’ work on its space baby is far from over, and given just how much NMS has improved since 2016, by 2020 No Man’s sky could be very special indeed.