Playing No Man's Sky in 2022

Six years on from its release, what does the infamous space game hold for fans?

Playing No Man's Sky in 2022
Source: NME. 

I bought the hype. Hook, line, and sinker. As soon as I first heard about No Man’s Sky, I knew I was all the way on the train. I evangelized to my friends (“18 quintillion planets, explore them all!”), watched the live streams and read all the press. In the back of my mind, I knew Hello Games was a young, small studio that might have issues delivering on its promises. They seemed to have the full backing of Sony though, in terms of marketing push at the very least, so I didn't think much of those concerns. But as we came to see leading up to launch, the expectations for the game were getting way out of hand.  

In the Beginning

No Man's Sky was unleashed upon the gaming public in August 2016. In hindsight, the poor reviews and howls of indignation were quite predictable. Some outlets had good things to say in their reviews, while most gave middling scores. But it was those on the internet who felt slighted by the perceived shortfalls that most savaged the title for not delivering on its promises, and some even flat-out called studio head Sean Murray a liar. We know now that Sony had latched onto the latest (at the time) technological buzzword, procedural generation, and made the game a focus of their PR machine. As a young and admittedly naïve studio, Murray and the team at Hello Games didn’t know any better than to play along, and the expectations for the game skyrocketed to an unreachable level. Murray was quoted in a 2019 interview that he thought the studio was making a niche game, but “it turned out to be a really large niche.

I allowed myself to be scared off by the reviews, as the complaints were numerous. Most said the game got boring quickly because they felt they had seen everything on offer after 10-20 hours or less. What was there felt repetitive and grinding for resources wasn’t enjoyable. The near-complete lack of story was also mentioned often, cited as a factor in not wanting to continue playing once the reviewer had their fill of what game mechanics were there.

A screenshot from the game at release. Source: BGR.

Another big complaint came from the total lack of multiplayer options in the game. Hello Games never intended for there to be a multiplayer component, but players expected it all the same, as this was still the age of bolt-on multiplayer even in games where it didn’t necessarily make sense. Players would intentionally try to meet up, coordinating their efforts to go to the exact same place at the same time, yet they were not visible to each other.

The clunky interface and menu-like setup of most screens, overly-simplified combat, and total lack of base-building rounded out the pain points that angry fans and journalists alike claimed as reasons to avoid the game. Most believed the bones were there for a bigger and better experience, and there were genuinely great, even awe-inspiring moments to be found, but they were much too few and far between to justify sticking with the game.

The annals of gaming history are littered with titles that were released in sad shape and subsequently ignored by the developer and publisher, thus it is hard to imagine that anyone could have foreseen what was to come next.

The Redemption Arc

What transpired after the release of No Man’s Sky has become one of the biggest redemption stories in gaming history. Instead of following the blueprint of many AAA titles that were far more broken and problematic than their own, Hello Games (and especially Sean Murray) took their lumps in the press and quietly got to work making improvements to their game.

What has resulted from those efforts is nothing less than shocking, and is seen across the industry as the ultimate case study in how to support a game post-launch. As of this writing, the developer has released 20 major updates to the game, with nary a dollar charged for any of them. It took me more than two hours to read through the entirety of the update list, and that doesn’t include more than 125 smaller patches for fixing bugs and adding smaller quality of life features. That’s an average of more than three major updates and 20 patches per year since release, a staggering number for a game that isn’t a live service title.

An example of the kinds of bases that can be built in the game. Source: Escapist Magazine. 

Here is a not-nearly-complete list of major updates the developer has put out since the game’s release:

· Base-building (and claiming existing abandoned bases)
· Added Creative and Survival modes (along with Permadeath)
· Added massive freighters that act as mobile bases
· Exocraft for on-planet travel
· An actual story, continually added to and streamlined with tutorials
· Side missions and NPC guilds and factions with unique missions
· Fast travel
· Improved space combat
· Full multiplayer suite (eventually with cross play)
· Underwater environments with unique story missions and vehicles
· VR support and next-gen console support
· Farming and Cooking
· Animal companions
· Expeditions (like seasons in live service games, unique missions that all players can undertake with unique rewards)
· Additional biomes and creatures

The scope of the changes and difference between the product that was released in 2016 and the game you can play today is truly mind-boggling. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it’s actually like to play No Man’s Sky in 2022 after all these additions and changes have been implemented.

A New Adventure

Upon booting up, the first thing a new player finds is the choice between the regular game and the multiplayer version. I’ve never been much of a multiplayer person so all my observations will be from the single-player side of the house. From there, the next choice revolves around some of the biggest additions Hello Games has made over these last six years. Players can choose from one of five game modes: Normal, Survival, Permadeath, Creative, and Community Expedition.

The first four modes are self-explanatory, but the Community Expedition has been one of the additions most responsible for No Man’s Sky’s continued success (still in the Top 100 of concurrent players on Steam). These are similar to Seasons in other games, where everyone in the community starts from the same planet with a storyline and missions laid out for everyone to follow the same path. The players receive a unique loadout, then proceed through the expedition collecting milestones and rewards that will transfer to the full game when the expedition is over. Sadly, at the time of writing there was no active expedition so I wasn’t able to try that mode out, but I certainly will when the next one comes along.

Source: Nintendo.

Jumping into a new Normal mode game has you waking up on a randomly assigned planet next to a damaged spaceship, slowly looking around and getting your bearings, and then gaining control of your character. Depending on the biome on your planet (desert, ice, etc), the first thing you’ll notice (other than the well-modeled flora, fauna, and landscape) is your life support gauge slowly depleting. The HUD always puts hints and mission objectives in a text box at the bottom right of the screen, so that’s where it will tell you what resource you need to find in order to stop the freezing/burning/etc. Pressing L3 scans the environment and creates icons showing the way to some of the game’s most basic elements, such as Oxygen and Sodium.

Once you gather the necessary element, you head into the game’s main menu, where you will spend a not-insignificant amount of your playtime doing various tasks. In this case, you will be recharging your Life Support device with the newly-gathered Sodium. Having escaped the game’s first attempt to kill you, a waypoint marker will pop up on your screen, showing you the way to your next objective.

This is how the first few hours of No Man’s Sky play out. The game's early story/tutorial guides you through coming to grips with your basic systems and gameplay mechanics. This (or the lack thereof) was one of the things that caused many complaints upon release, as the game didn't do much to teach you its often-obtuse systems. Now though, these early steps will show you how to use your Multi-Tool (the device that functions as weapon, stuff-finder, environment-shaper, and more), accomplish the tasks required to fix your ship and make it space-worthy, and then suggest your next steps. But it is at this point where the experience will begin to diverge for each player, as they can begin to make their own choices on how to play the game.

Choose your path

Those who wish to remain on the story path will continue to get suggestions on what to do next, and those steps will lead to learning even more systems and making some important upgrades, at the same time advancing the story. Players will end up with a rudimentary shelter where environmental effects don't harm you, and upon which you can later build a base worthy of Better Homes and Planets.

You will soon be shown how to research perhaps the most important tool in the early game, an upgrade to your Multi-Tool called the Analysis Visor. This tool reveals basically everything about the planet you are on, from the locations of mineral deposits containing hundreds of units of desirable elements like copper and uranium, to important buildings and locations across (and beneath) the surface of your world. You also use the Visor to analyse new plant and animal life, for which you receive credits (the game's currency), which is an important part of earning money early in your journey.

Source: AS USA.

I highly recommend sticking with this path for the first five to six hours because it makes the process of learning most of the important systems easier than it would otherwise be. The tutorial objectives are spaced out rather well, and about the time when you start wondering how to upgrade this or what to do with that, another objective pops up to explain it.

But for those who have the itch to explore on their own, getting your spaceship up and running means you can get off the surface of your home planet and start exploring space. Once you leave the atmosphere and get to proper 'outer space', you'll encounter a gorgeous vista of stars, asteroids, and the other planets in your local system. The freedom to explore is complete, as you can sidle up to some asteroids and mine them for Tritium, Gold, or Silver, or you can head directly to another planet to see what kind of wacky animals are hanging out there.

You can even make your way to the Space Station hanging out in your system, where you can meet your first alien creatures, sell materials you may have gathered on the surface of your home planet, buy new upgrades with the credits you earned from scanning wildlife, and talk with vendors. And while you're up there, you may even be set upon by pirates intent on killing you and scavenging your ship's remains for treasure. You could pursue your own life of crime and adventure by becoming a pirate too, trading goods for credits to upgrade your ship's weapons, living the life of a dogfighting scoundrel.

Afraid of heights, or flying just isn't your thing? Another perfectly viable option is to stay grounded on the planet where you first woke up, exploring every inch until it gives up all the treasures it holds. You can easily spend a dozen hours walking, running, and jet-packing across the surface of just this one world, using the Analysis Visor to see all that is to be found. Mine for precious elements that you'll later use for upgrades and fueling your exosuit and your ship's various systems. Search for buried technology modules, from which you will gain Salvaged Data that you can trade in for blueprints for various technologies and base components (or sell for big bucks at the aforementioned Space Stations). Once you've finished with your starting planet, there are seven or eight more within 30 seconds flying distance where you can do the exact same thing, with a different biome and all that goes with it.

Indeed, taking the explorer path has led to some of my favorite experiences. Cresting a hill to be met with a brilliant sunrise, a valley of animals and plant life bursting with color and life, and a ringed planet hanging in the sky just above the horizon, provide breathtaking moments that can be hard to replicate in other genres. The "just one more" syndrome is real here, as every scan of the visor can reveal another valuable item or as-yet-unseen phenomenon that you have to discover before heading back to your ship. Before you know it, three hours have passed, you're dozens of miles away from where you started, and your inventory is completely full of the planet's treasures. The thrill of discovery here reminds me of how I felt playing Subnautica, stumbling onto terrifying Leviathan creatures, or discovering an entirely new biome with untold secrets.

Source: Kotaku Australia.

The most wonderful thing about No Man's Sky is that all these experiences and so many more are just there waiting for you. The title that was once described as bland and lifeless with limited gameplay now boasts near limitless possibilities for what players can do. Search for the knowledge stones to learn the complete language of the game's races. Befriend the game's creatures to complete the ranks of the six animal companions you can bring along on your journey. Build a sprawling base, fill it with plants and become a farmer, then become the greatest chef in the cosmos by discovering recipes and cooking those crops into food all day. Buy a freighter and hire a crew to run a galactic empire from your space-borne base, housing all your accumulated spaceships in its hangars. You get the point; there's a LOT to do here, and for those who are into it, this could be the game they never put down, the one to which they always return.

The graphics are beautiful, with colors that explode from the screen and details that make you want to stop and just look around the world from time to time. Spaceship cockpits are wonderfully realized with many different styles and dynamic readouts on status screens. These are stylized worlds so you're not expecting photo-realism, but the environments still feel real. The game's sound really complements the action and even does well with positionality, allowing you to hear creatures tromping across the landscape before they arrive. You can even create custom music by crafting an audio generator in the game, then saving your tunes and playing them during your adventures.

There are still pain points in the experience, and though they don't do much to harm the game's high points, they can make the early going a bit frustrating. The tutorials teach the basics, but in other instances, they just wave a vague hand toward what you are supposed to do and expect you to figure it out. The quick-menu, accessed through the down D-pad, contains many helpful shortcuts such as recharging your various exosuit functions or summoning your ship, but it can be hard to see and the game doesn't do much to tell you all it can do.

Navigating the screens where you will do your crafting, upgrading, and inventory management can be a chore at times, and takes you out of the action without actually pausing the game, so you need to be in a safe spot before taking on long tasks. Even the very important task of summoning the Space Anomaly station is harder than it has to be. The game just tells you to go there, so I spent 10 minutes searching the skies for a marker like the other space stations are given before I realized it needed to be summoned from the quick menu. And in one of the stranger design decisions in the game, many actions can only be taken by holding down a button for 2-3 seconds instead of using a single click. There is an option to turn that off in some cases, but bizarrely that it cannot be done in all instances. Holding down R3 to drop something from inventory is not my idea of fun.

Source: Rock Paper Shotgun.

But in the totality of what the game has to offer, these complaints border on trivial. No Man's Sky looks wonderful, it sounds great, and the sheer amount of things you can do borders on the absurd. You can be anyone you want, and do anything you want, and the huge number of people still playing suggests you won't have a hard time finding a squad should you want to dive into multiplayer. This is a game I can imagine spending hundreds of hours with, and I can't recommend it enough to all who appreciate this kind of experience. The hype is now real, all these years later, and I'm immensely glad I finally stepped into the spacesuit for myself.

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