Two years ago, No Man’s Sky’s rapturous press cycle that promised the suns and the moons culminated with the messy business of reality. While the game at release technically kept its creators’ promises of nearly infinite animals, planets and star systems, the actual experience was far more pedestrian than it had been presented in trailers and interviews. Much of the core gameplay involved trudging around similar-looking environments and shooting a laser at rocks until you collected enough materials for your spaceship. Repeat that about 1,000 times and congrats, you won the galaxy.
A community of fans ignored the game’s flaws (and hype) and embraced its slow and repetitious pace. But from the rest of the player base, the blowback was fierce. Statements made leading up to the game’s release regarding things as esoteric as ringed planets or as meaningful as multiplayer were posted on forums and spammed across social media as evidence of false advertising. Upon the game’s Steam release, thousands of negative reviews were posted, drowning the positive feedback and praise.
But an unusual thing happened in the world of game development: Slowly but surely, No Man’s Sky’s developer, Hello Games, made good on just about everything it promised ahead of the game’s launch via free updates. The latest update, titled Next, is the biggest addition to the game since launch and adds, among other things, true multiplayer for up to four people.
I spent around 20 hours with the game when it launched in 2016 and hadn’t touched it since then. That first version of No Man’s Sky was conceptually impressive, but felt like a chore to play, with few moments of true excitement or surprise. It felt unsalvageable.
No Man’s Sky Next may not totally redeem the project, but it comes close, and for the first time, I see the path Hello Games has set for it to deliver something out of this world.
The “goal” of No Man’s Sky is arguably different for everyone. Maybe you want to see a bunch of different planets, or build a massive home base for manufacture and trade. Or maybe you just want to max out your character’s combat abilities until you can play it like the guy from Doom. Those are all viable goals in No Man’s Sky, but all of them hinge on the biggest flaw Next doesn’t fix: the grind.
The grind is real. This was a big issue with the game at launch, and something Hello Games tried to address in subsequent updates. In Next, resources have been simplified and fused together, making the number of required materials a bit easier to hunt down. But still, every action you make costs resources. Even not making an action has its costs. Just standing still on a planet’s surface would wear down my life support systems, eventually requiring that I find some oxygen.
Some of these resources are easy to come by. Others are just plain obnoxious to harvest. For example: Every time I attempted to take off from a planet, I expended starship fuel. To make more starship fuel I needed to find 50 ferrite dust, make a metal panel out of the ferrite dust, find some di-hydrogen and ensure that I had an open inventory slot to combine the two into starship fuel.
I appreciate that overcoming barriers to progress feels satisfying, that this legwork can feel rewarding. But accidentally landing a few minutes away from my chosen location and having to stumble around a toxic planet for resources before I can take to the skies again is devoid of fun and mystery. It’s just a headache. I’m fine with making people work to access another star system. But going around the block for a quart of milk should be a freebie.
The punishing resource management is further hampered by an inventory system that still feels clumsy and frustrating. Improvements have been made since launch, letting players stack more resources in a single slot, but I still found myself running out of room very quickly, forced to jettison possibly-valuable items out of the airlock.
These inventory and resource issues have persisted since launch, infecting every single play style in No Man’s Sky. And while they do get more bearable a dozen hours in, they never work in the game’s favor.
Hello Games addressed these complaints in an interesting way with their first major update: Foundation, in 2016, added a Creative Mode which turned off every single resource and survival mechanic in the game, letting players explore the galaxy with infinite health and goods.
The mode was appreciated by folks looking to play the game as an ambient, challenge-free adventure. I’m glad it’s there. But it does feel like they’re missing that middle ground of people looking for something of a challenge but don’t want to be hampered by ponderous resource demands. Hell, they lean into the resource grind even more in survival and perma-Death modes.
Outside of these resource and inventory qualms, Next takes major strides towards the original vision presented to fans — or perhaps the vision fans cobbled together, mixing quotes from interviews with their own hopes, producing a sort of shared picture of what the game can be. Multiplayer is obviously the biggest addition, and it seems to work exactly as advertised. Up to three friends or strangers can join your game at any point, adventuring with you throughout the galaxy, completing missions, gathering resources and dogfighting with space pirates. There is some clumsiness, specifically the fact that resources and rewards aren’t shared, which means finding rare materials is a first-come, first-served situation, but having a buddy along does make the more repetitive segments more enjoyable.
The benefits of multiplayer were especially noticeable when I was messing around with the base-building mechanics that have been introduced over the last couple years. Next allows you to build together, making a base anywhere (rather than having to build in prescribed places) and has surprisingly few limits on how large you’d like to make your outer space real estate. Spending tons of time on a village that no one will see is just depressing, but being able to bring in a buddy and show off my handiwork made it a lot more satisfying.
It’s in the base-building that some of No Man’s Sky’s frustrating aspects can be alleviated, as you can teleport directly to built-up bases without spending any resources, allowing you to zip from planet to planet if you’ve taken the time to build each of them up.
The bases allow for improved refineries, vehicle construction and other fun enhancements. And if you’re just looking for a set of space-themed Lego you can go wild in the aforementioned Creative Mode. I made a mile-long corridor and giant ramp with Mario Kart-esque vehicle boosters just for kicks. Doing it in normal mode, though, would have sent me back into the resource rabbit hole for every single base component. That’s the rub: Everything in No Man’s Sky is interconnected, for better and worse. So while Next improves upon the original, certain frustrating designs seem impossible to remove, as what’s good and bad about the game are too tightly woven together.
Outside of Creative Mode, many of your resources will be spent leaping from one star system to the next, hoping for a utopia where you can put down roots. The core of No Man’s Sky is the freedom to explore its near-infinite worlds. At launch, another common complaint was that the planets weren’t that different from one another. Rather than an infinite number of possibilities, it really felt like there were about 10 different types of planets populated with slight variations of creatures, plants, landscapes and hazards. Spending a bunch of resources to visit a planet that looks a heck of a lot like the one I left three solar systems ago became a major drag.
Next introduces more variety on this front, with newly-added ringed planets and some beautiful clouds, but by and large the planets still seem to fall in familiar buckets. After 20 of them, I no longer got jazzed about touching down on a new landscape. Exploring these planets is more satisfying, though, thanks to the newly-added third-person camera. This is the best way to experience No Man’s Sky, as it gives a great sense of scale, especially when dealing with enormous alien creatures or monoliths. The camera works great in your ship, as well, making it feel less like a HUD and more like your own personal corner of the galaxy.
With all of these enhancements, No Man’s Sky is unquestionably a better game than what was available two years ago. But Next doesn’t totally change the game, so much as it bandages over its most glaring problem and adds more to do. At its core, this is still a game about exploration and resource management, a game that requires wading into ponderous systems and, as a reward, visiting new planets in faraway solar systems that occasionally resemble the one you just left.
No Man’s Sky is arguably close to the game its creators set out to make, and I believe its diehard fans will love Next, and that their praise won’t have to be buried by thousands of angry commenters and reviews on social media. But after spending another 10 hours in this galaxy, I’m beginning to feel like another interstellar trip is not for me.
For some, the grind is worth it so they can explore the infinite. For others, the grind itself is the infinite.