No Man’s Sky Beyond presents some of the best and worst of VR in 2019, which makes it one of the most interesting releases of the year.
Before I go into more detail, let’s talk about platforms. The fact that it’s running on PlayStation VR at all feels like a miracle of optimization, but the virtual world is going to look blurry and indistinct due to the graphical downgrades needed to get it running on a console-based VR platform.
So how did things go when I tried to use virtual reality headsets tethered to a powerful gaming laptop? Well ...
It works, if you don’t mind the vomit
I ran into horrible performance issues trying to play the game on a Rift S connected to an ultra-powerful gaming laptop — the GPU is a mobile version of the RTX 2070. People who own Rift hardware might want to tread carefully at first; I’m writing this through a bad case of simulation sickness due to the poor frame rate when played through the Rift S.
Those issues disappeared when I tried playing with a Valve Index, but why would I have to switch platforms at all? Most people aren’t going to have multiple systems on which to try the game, and I don’t have a good reason for the jump in performance between headsets.
But I was able to explore the world of No Man’s Sky once I had the game running smoothly through the Valve Index, and it left me in awe. Even my starting ship looked like an impressive piece of technology when I felt like I was standing next to it at my normal height.
That scale is the most striking thing about playing the game in VR for any amount of time; everything is much larger than it appears on a traditional screen, which made me feel like a tiny speck on very large planets in virtual reality.
The game comes with a variety of movement options, so you can walk around as you normally would in the game with an analog stick if you have an iron gut. I found myself being able to play for much longer using the teleportation controls. The choice is up to you, however.
I also realized very quickly that any muscle memory I had built up playing the game with a mouse and keyboard was worthless when playing No Man’s Sky in virtual reality. Everything controls differently, from needing to point out floating displays on the back of either hand to pull up menus and options, and needing to physically aim your weapons and mining laser at what you want to hit.
Grabbing something, or even heading into the cockpit of me spaceship, requires me to lock onto the object — or the canopy of the ship — and then physically make a pulling motion to activate it or collect it. Using the Index controllers, this meant physically squeezing the controller and pulling back. It makes sense within the context of the game, but is a little tricky to describe in words.
Zipping through the rest of the menus by using the wireless controllers like laser pointers feels natural, but getting used to controlling everything with these updated movements and gestures is slow going at first. The ability to aim your mining laser and walk around the environment to explore the dizzying canyons and gigantic boulders is certainly an enjoyable experience, even if it takes some practice, but everything changes once you get into your ship.
The cockpit of a spaceship or plane, or even the cabin of a car, have always been ideal environments for virtual reality. You’re naturally sitting when you’re inside these places, and the player is surrounded by easy ways for the developer to send you information. Just put it on a dial or readout. No Man’s Sky handles the controls by asking you to grab onto the flight stick and throttle with your virtual hands, which allows you to speed up by pushing forward with your left hand, slow down by pulling back, and then fly by pretending the virtual flight stick is the controller that’s already in your hand.
This threw me at first — I kept wanting to control the virtual hand to move the stick, if that makes sense, when the game wants you to pretend the hand is yours and move the controller as you would the flight stick — but it became second nature once I put a little time in.
And it’s everything I wanted it to be. Taking off in my ship, hands on the controls, was a total rush. I craned my neck to watch the planet move further and further away behind me, until I was in space and zooming to my next destination. Needing to “grab” the flight stick to make any course corrections felt natural once I realized I could let go and just kind of hang in my ship and use my hands without causing myself to do unexpected dives or anything of that nature. It just felt peaceful, and kind of lonely in a pleasant way. Even better is how you get out of the ship; you have to grab a handle on the inside of the cockpit and open the canopy itself. Once that’s done, you automatically leave. Neat!
Seeing the world of No Man’s Sky in VR is certainly a treat, and it makes the size and vastness of the game feel much more immediate and real than it does when I’m looking at a standard screen. My ship is a place I can hang out now, and each planet is a new environment I can explore, complete with some very large creatures that are much more frightening when I have to lean back and look up to take the whole sight of them in.
Hello Games didn’t take the easy way out at all; the menus and interactions have all been adjusted or remade in some way to make sense in virtual reality. It’s an impressive achievement, especially for a free update.
But I’m still not sure why performance was so low on the Rift S, and the PlayStation VR just barely has the power necessary to run the game at all. Still, I would rather play on PlayStation VR at the moment; smoother performance with slushy visuals is much easier on the stomach than a sharp but juddering image. Playing with the Valve Index was the best experience, but it’s not like most fans are going to have multiple headsets to try.
Virtual reality is still a complicated technology with a lot of unknown qualities whenever you buy a headset or even pick up a new game, and that’s a frustrating situation for everyone trying to experience No Man’s Sky in this way.
Once everything was set up and running well, however, I really did feel like I was living the dream.