No Man's Sky is Finally the Game I Always Wanted it to Be

By Matt Wales on at

My No Man’s Sky story is perhaps a little bit different from most. Like many I was dazzled by that original E3 announcement trailer but, in the years that followed, I somehow managed to avoid all the press talk and promises from Hello Games. As such, the No Man’s Sky that I eventually sat down to play at launch was pretty much the game that I expected. Here I could amble leisurely across an endless, psychedelic universe, admiring the local flora and fauna, and engaging in the occasional bout of space combat along the way.

And I enjoyed that experience. I spent many happy hours flitting serenely across Hello Games’ universe, appeasing my adventurer’s instincts. I was mesmerised by the vibrant, stylised sci-fi visuals, the ambient soundscapes, and the gentle, soothing rhythms of exploration, discovery and documentation. There wasn’t much to do, as such, but it took a long while before the thrill of endless possibilities — and the raw excitement every time the clouds parted to reveal another unknown world — began to fade.

Those feelings did eventually subside of course, replaced with a kind of wearied exhaustion as I touched down upon yet another beautiful-but-fundamentally-lifeless world, and as I repeatedly butted up against the limited gameplay loops. The striking audio-visual ambience was captivating but, after a point, too insubstantial to carry a procedural universe that felt hollow. What’s the use of 18 quintillion planets if there’s nothing particularly interesting to do on any of them?

And so off I went, in search of other space adventures, eventually finding my way to Elite: Dangerous — as did, I suspect, many other disillusioned No Man’s Sky players. But Elite didn’t quite satisfy my itch for space exploration either. In many ways it felt like an inversion of No Man’s Sky: wonderfully refined core mechanics stifled by dull, repetitive quests, and monotonous interstellar traversal across an exceedingly boring void. I still adore its balletic flight model, the thrilling busywork of piloting, and see the appeal of its more realistic approach, but Elite's not the space fantasy I'm looking for.

Instead, I looked up at the stars and dreamed of the game that would combine Elite’s sublime core with the endless possibilities of No Man’s Sky’s vibrant universe. What I wasn’t expecting was that No Man’s Sky might be the game to do it. Over the last year, Hello Games has reinvigorated its much-maligned sci-fi epic, gradually filling-in its procedural canvas with increasingly confident brushstrokes.

First came base construction, which allowed you to project your own identity onto a chosen planet. No Man’s Sky’s original framework encouraged a kind of relentless forward momentum, baiting you into constant planet-hopping on an never-ending quest for upgrades and resources. As a result, each world quickly became an indistinct sprawl. Rather brilliantly, the addition of base building — or let's call it what it is, the opportunity to craft a home — narrowed your focus to a much smaller area. The gradual familiarity with each rock pile, hill, and valley around your base gave the immediate world a greater sense of tangibility, and formed a kind of emotional centre for your adventures. The universe may have still felt blandly anonymous as a whole, but here was a small corner that felt personal.

Base building also provided a much needed sense of purpose, adding structure to the aimless meandering at the game's heart. Now there was a reason to go out, to gather resources, and to explore the infinite expanse. And the ability to constantly warp back to base from anywhere on your travels made the experience feel less like a relentless forward march toward some unseen goal, and more like a tentative creep across the stars, slowly peeling back the universe’s secrets. Before, each new discovery felt fleeting, indistinct and transitory as you thundered ever-onward. With the ability to create your own galactic centre, and slowly expand from there, the universe felt a little more permanent, a little more real.

No Man’s Sky’s earliest update also helped to reignite the joy of discovery for me, with its improved planetary generation system making terrestrial landmarks far less common. Now, points of interest would appear every ten miles rather than every ten feet, and I no longer rolled my eyes as another man-made structure trundled into view. Instead, I’d feel a genuine mix of excitement and relief as endless stretches of barren, lonely landscape were finally broken by a glimpse of civilisation. New devices were introduced to facilitate the flow of discovery — beacons and signal boosters that gave more agency to exploration — and suddenly there was structure and drive where none had been before.

Hello Games' next big update, while a little less dramatic, continued to add finer details. Base building was expanded, giant space freighters (which already helped give you a greater sense of presence and importance in the universe) became more useful, an overhauled blueprint system introduced further opportunities for customisation, and new land vehicles took some of the tedium out of planetary traversal. Meanwhile ships, which previously felt like little more than flying inventories, gained their own identities and characteristics, including distinct benefits for trading, exploring, and combat. At this point the structure still wasn't quite in place for these specialisations to feel meaningful, but the foundations were there.

The latest update, also known as Atlas Rises, is nominally about story, but the impact is so much wider. The overhauled (and frequently breathtaking) visuals give each planetary biome a more distinctive personality, and the logical, intuitive distribution of resources across each world type makes the universe feels so much more convincing. Now, resources are found exactly where you think they’d be, on planets with appropriate climates, rather than just randomly strewn across space. No Man’s Sky finally feels like a universe governed by its own rules — an authentic interconnected space, rather than one formed of arbitrary mathematical strings — and is all the more interesting for it.

Meanwhile, the new narrative elements help draw the steadily-expanding pool of gameplay loops into something resembling a unified whole — there's now a core story quest (which further deepens the surprisingly nihilistic lore) alongside randomly-generated missions. The intergalactic meandering that remains at the centre has snapped back into focus, because there's greater incentive to go off and explore. I can still slip into my favourite spacecraft and let the psychedelic beauty and dreamy ambience wash over me, but it’s no longer all that the game has to offer. Now it's the striking backdrop for thrilling adventures with tangible rewards.

Equally exciting are the hints of what’s to come. Hello Games says that its work on No Man’s Sky is far from done, and you can already see the seeds of future adventures being sown. There’s the suggestion that, one day, you won’t just be able to claim your own corner of the universe — you’ll be able to carve out a kind of existence too. Exploration, trading, and combat are gradually being deepened into something more meaningful in their own right, so that the experience doesn’t quite lean so heavily on the never-ending cycle of resource gathering.

Already, the new flight model and enhanced combat offer a overall more thrilling cockpit experience for wannabe bounty hunters. The expansion of universe’s economy, with distinct trade commodity types and industry specialisations for star systems, mark the introduction of a more robust, intuitive system of supply and demand for traders. The new star map, which shows trade routes and combat intensity, adds another layer of life to the universe, offering up explicit reasons to visit locations.

Then of course, there are the very early beginnings of multiplayer. At present, you can’t do much beyond fast travel to certain locations and flit around as a lovely bauble in front of your pals. But if No Man's Sky’s slowly-ripening blend of building, exploration, trading, and combat becomes something that you can share with friends, other space sims might, unexpectedly, start to look a little lacking in comparison.

There remains ample room for expansion and improvement. Personally I’d love to see greater diversity in planetary topography, so that the terrain itself can delight and surprise, and would adore more diverse creature behaviour. While I'm doing a wish-list, more striking weather effects and planetary rotation would also give the universe more life. But at this point the things I want from No Man’s Sky are more ‘this-would-be-nice’ compared to the huge gaps in the experience at launch. More than anything, that speaks volumes about how far this has come.

Does No Man’s Sky finally resemble the game that so many people imagined it would be? I’m not sure that it does, or ever could. For me though, after the past year of extensive updates, it no longer feels like an anaemic exercise in mathematical showboating and superficial atmosphere. The No Man’s Sky of today is undoubtedly deeper, richer, and more engaging than it was 12 months ago, with a universe that feels vibrant and alive. There’s always something interesting to do and, in those moments when I forego the more structured experience for the leisurely ambling of old, my curiosity is always met with meaningful rewards.

More updates are coming, and you suspect Hello Games has only just started proving a point to the world — and perhaps to itself. No Man’s Sky is now the game that I wanted it to be. And it's even more exciting, with this foundation in place, to think about what it might eventually become.