Nothing about the hype, release, disappointment, and slow, disciplined redemption of No Man’s Sky has been typical. As such, the great paradox of the Next update isn’t exactly a surprise. It introduces some drastic improvements to the base game, not to mention a great deal of what Hello Games’ Sean Murray promised and was pilloried for not delivering at launch. It is a grander, more cohesive experience that makes the infinite expanse of space feel much less lonely. But what Next really ends up emphasizing through all of its quality-of-life improvements and additions was that the game we got on day one was always going to be “the game.”
You start out as an amnesiac astronaut stranded on a random planet with a broken ship that, once repaired, takes you on a potentially neverending search through a near-infinite universe. What you seek can vary; it may be answers that explain your identity crisis and the odd state of the universe or a wealth of natural resources to fund an extended tour of strange, far-off planets. Though you begin as a disadvantaged lost soul, it’s entirely possible to study your surroundings, take advantage of what they have to offer, and become a social and military force in the eyes of No Man’s Sky’s alien races.
Through multiple updates, this has always been the very soul of No Man’s Sky. Ever since the Atlas Rises update, “You are not alone” is the first phrase another living being speaks to you after you manage to escape your starting planet. There is an enormous amount of fear, hope, and power in that moment, especially after spending a couple of hours scouring your ersatz home planet for the resources to repair your ship.
The power of that statement diminishes, however, the more the game gives you command and comprehension of your environment. Without a doubt, No Man’s Sky has become a veritable sandbox. In fact, after a few initial goals are met, you receive a message asking if you’d like to continue the story, or define your own path–whatever that may be. Through a combination of new mining and terraforming tools and the freedom to build how and where you wish, it has never been easier to make any planet into a home. Finding the raw materials to do so and refining them into their most useful form is now a quick and relatively painless fact of life. Multiple land-based vehicles now exist, making traversal even less of a dangerous hassle. As for space, frigates and fighter crafts are easier to obtain. There are more missions available to haul in incredible amounts of resources or, if you’re looking to play the role of a space pirate, seek out traders and fleets in other galaxies and ransack them for sweet loot.
All this is made more enticing by the fact that Next fulfills the much-touted promise of true multiplayer, where up to four people can now party up and take on the universe together. It’s not entirely seamless. Multiplayer tended to create random stutters and bugs more than anything else I did in game–even when playing the otherwise technically astounding Xbox One X port. That said, you can still wander around, help people farm resources, and have backup while breaking into a well-guarded facility. Portals and teleportation devices are now a staple in No Man’s Sky, and showing off your new home has never been easier. Altogether, No Man’s Sky’s universe finally feels like, well, a universe. It feels like a fine place to live a digital life, while simultaneously being the least innovative or interesting thing the game could become.
With Next, No Man’s Sky becomes a competent space-faring sandbox. It’s definitely good enough to turn some of the heads who angrily ranted against the game that released in 2016. Creatively, though, No Man’s Sky neither gains nor loses anything by trying to become a mining colony sim. It greatly excels when it embraces being the No Man’s Sky we’ve always known.
The things that make No Man’s Sky a great experience are the things that have been there since the first version. In that game, you are well and truly alone. You were a drifter in a universe where the chances of meeting a stranger who spoke your language were in the single digits, and the chances of meeting one who said something coherent were even lower. In that game, you’re not being led on by loot or having the best house. Your concerns are material inasmuch as if you wanted answers, if you wanted to see what new creations the procedural generation gods had bestowed on the next planet, you needed to barter, trade, and mine.
The good news is that side of the game is still very much here, and it has seen its share of improvements, most notably to the pacing and presentation. It’s rare that graphics can make or break a game, but Next’s visual upgrades truly make a difference. The worlds are vastly more detailed, with breathtaking new lighting and physics effects enhancing everything from pollen flying off plants as they sway in the breeze to gravity and light being vacuumed into the yawning void of a black hole. The third-person camera not only grants the game a sense of scale, but also gives you a better understanding of exactly who you are in the universe, especially since the look and species of your character is now customizable at space stations. The improved effects in space make an already magnificent environment even more amazing, especially with ringed planets now a common sight.
Where much of the game’s initial hours are still spent introducing you to the core mechanics, they are now far more deeply embedded in narrative conceit; you are a newborn wholly unaware of who you are, your place in the universe, and who is guiding you along. Every new bit of information is found by you, clued in by anomalous broadcasts from derelict equipment strewn across the universe, learning from the failures of other explorers. There are aliens, but their help is unreliable until you put the time and effort into learning their language. You do this either by getting one of the aliens to teach you new words or finding the species’ codices scattered in foreign monuments. There are many more of these opportunities now, especially in space stations which have been redesigned as wide-open forums where one might find friends bragging about new discoveries, hulking armies on furlough, or scavengers hawking their new finds. You’re a stranger to them all at first, and it’s only in choosing to take the risk of ingratiation that you can find yourself in a species’ favor, with their representatives willing to offer help in your hours of need.
All of this is in favor of the Artemis and Atlas Path storylines, introduced in the Atlas Rises update. The narrative beats of each story are largely unchanged, but they are both now far better integrated into the flow of the game as rewards for your curiosity rather than staunch waypoints impatiently waiting for your arrival. That said, players returning to old saves will find it’s not as easy as just picking up where they left off, and much of what they already own gets shuffled around at random. It doesn’t break pre-existing games, but it’s a less-than-welcome relearning curve, to be sure. Both narratives still have their positives and negatives, though the original Atlas Path storyline is now a minor footnote in a journey much wider in scope, but what matters most is that both narratives encourage the things that distinguish No Man’s Sky.
At its absolute best, No Man’s Sky is a measured, gentle experience where you are rarely the agent of change, but a perpetual visitor who’s constantly dwarfed by the magnitude of a universe neutral to your presence. It is not your job in these stories to colonize the universe. Your job is to comprehend it. Your job is to recognize the spirituality in it. The primary gimmick of No Man’s Sky, since day one, has been awe. The best things about the Next update feed that gimmick. While features like multiplayer and base-building certainly put more proverbial asses in seats, they’re also the least memorable additions to an otherwise thoughtful experience.