No Man’s Sky is a game about infinity. It’s not just about having infinite things to do, which is how games often express themselves. It’s a game about being an inhabitant of an infinite universe, an infinitely tiny speck among the stars.
At launch, No Man’s Sky was almost lonely, as you moved from one planet to the next in a solitary adventure despite the universe being shared, supposedly, with all of the rest of the players. After an intense cycle of hype and marketing, many players were disappointed to find that their “forever game” felt much smaller than they expected. Other than scanning plants and animals and discovering new planets, there wasn’t much to do.
The No Man’s Sky of today is nigh unrecognizable compared to the sparse game it was when it launched. The game still boasts the distinctive art direction that initially made it look so appealing — basically any planet you visit looks like the cover of a 1970s science fiction novel. But now the universe is a busy, almost cluttered place. As I play, I get the sense that I will basically never run out of things to do. My base can always be bigger or more beautiful; my small fleet of ships and freighters can only grow; there is always technology to add or upgrade to make my travels run a bit more smoothly. The universe is also very full — everywhere you go is full of life, in the form of alien plants or animals, or aliens on the space waystations in each galaxy, or even other players who can join you in special missions.
While I was partial to the emptiness of the original version, the game in its current state is simply a lot more inviting, especially the animals. On the planet where I made my first base in my current save, there were roving bands of creatures that looked like miniature T. rexes with bioluminescence on the backs of their necks. I gave one some Creature Pellets (which I crafted from resources in my surroundings) and they became my animal companion. I can even ride them around, which was useful before I had any exocraft — land vehicles — unlocked.
This isn’t to say that No Man’s Sky is some kind of wholly unique experience. If I were particularly cynical, I’d describe it as a science fiction take on Minecraft, because mining and crafting make up the bulk of its activities. You want more fuel for your spaceship? Mine some dihydrogen and craft some launch fuel. Want new parts for your base? Mine some carbon and ferrite dust and then craft them. Want to make your mining multitool more efficient? Most technology requires you to mine and craft something before it can be fully installed. What No Man’s Sky also shares with Minecraft is that it’s largely self-directed. While there are tons of quests, there’s no real urgency behind any of them. If you’d rather ignore them all and just warp out into the unknown universe, there is nothing stopping you. The only things you lose by not following these missions are the free technology and a bit of tutorializing, but maybe you prefer that kind of challenge.
While all of these self-directed tasks are on offer, you can also set out to join the constant motion of the universe. Once, spawning into a new galaxy, I got a call for help from a nearby freighter. I’d done this mission before and knew that once I defeated all the enemy ships, the freighter would offer me either a cash reward or ask me to be the new captain of their ship. I gladly accepted the freighter as part of my fleet, and added a science terminal and overseer, which allowed me to finally unlock exocraft. A few galaxies later, another freighter sent me a message — they wanted to join my fleet, for a price. I didn’t have the cash and had to turn them down. After another few warps, I got another incoming message, this time from a single wrecked ship, a recording telling me to “not believe their lies,” with coordinates to a distant galaxy attached. I can investigate, if I want to, or move on and let these characters fend for themselves. But each new warp, each new planet, each new call from a strange signal is another chance to explore the unknown of the universe — and as you keep exploring, you only find how much of this universe is still unknown.
No Man’s Sky might be busier, but it’s also never been easier to wrap your head around. While there are a lot of systems built on top of systems, they mostly work in concert with each other. Having a base allows you to follow a quest line that unlocks new technologies from the base computer, which makes exploration easier, which gives you access to better resources, which allows you to craft better technologies, and so on. There are sometimes conflicts between quests that were added later, but the game leans in favor of giving the player more. If two different quests require you to install a personal forcefield, they’ll both give you the upgrade you need, and it only needs to be installed once to be valid for each quest. Once, I could see the game getting confused because I had hired an overseer to work on my freighter instead of my base, and the mission text kept instructing me to return to my base when I needed to go to space. No matter — I could still fulfill everything I needed to do to move on.
One of the biggest improvements is spaceflight, and especially battles in space. By holding down the left trigger you can now lock on to enemy ships, something that wasn’t available at launch. Actually hitting something has never been easier; in fact, I’ve actually won some space fights where in the past I’d either be exploded by pirates or forced to run away. There appears to be some changes to how the spaceships handle, or maybe I just notice them more now that flying in space feels like less of a chore. One thing that always tickles me is that whenever I brake hard in space, my ship starts going backward. In a game with whispering eggs and laser guns, this little bit of real-world physicality is grounding.
Despite how different the game feels, No Man’s Sky has retained its specificity. While it has much more of the stuff that fills other games, its best part is still what it launched with: seeing new places. In my absence, No Man’s Sky has gotten an abundance of new kinds of places to see. On an airless planet, I watched a meteor shower light up the star-filled sky. On an erupting planet, I dodged between the legs of tall, bipedal creatures in the sweltering heat. On a fractured planet, I found a souvenir — a floating cube that looked like it was made of panes of broken glass. They live in my base now, situated on a hill of a ringed planet overlooking a frigid lake that reflects the sunlight. There may be other views in the universe like mine, but as I build out the base and add new cosmetic items, this one really does feel like it’s mine, my home away from home as I warp across the universe.
Whenever I visit the Nexus, the multiplayer hub for No Man’s Sky, I am struck by how inconsequential my journey feels. Seeing those other players, many of whom are much farther along in their journeys and know their way around much better than I, shows me how far I have to go. But No Man’s Sky is a game about that exploration, about chasing new experiences, vistas, sunsets. In an infinite universe you’ll never see everything. But there is a joy in discovering just how small you are among the stars.