Our original reviewer assesses No Man's Sky NEXT.
I was excited for No Man’s Sky two years ago. It’s rare that a game so ambitious makes its way into the spotlight; as such, it peaked my interest alongside millions of others. I joined the subreddit, pined over the trailers, pre-ordered the game (which I hardly ever bother to do) and watched a lot of Sean Murray’s pre-launch interviews. You know the ones.
While I would be remiss not to acknowledge the procedurally developed elephant in the galaxy, let’s not flog a dead korvax. Those that came along with me for the ride on the hype train know all about what was said versus what was delivered.
When I reviewed No Man’s Sky two years ago, I went into it with as much optimism as I did caution. It was a tough game to critique. Due to its nature, I initially believed that all players would, in many ways, have a totally different experience than I did. As it turns out, I was wrong about that.
No Man’s Sky launched in an unfinished state. I completed my review feeling positive about the experience, with the assumption that I had only scratched the surface of the biggest game ever made. I believed there was much more to discover and do in Hello Games’ universe so despite my own experience I gave it the benefit of the doubt.
Weeks later my opinion changed significantly. Not only had the game dragged me from desolate wasteland to desolate wasteland over and over again, but what appeared to be a design flaw in the game made reaching the centre of the galaxy an impossibility. With that, I was done.
With the launch of NEXT on Xbox One, Hello Games has managed to have almost a complete do-over. This comes at the same time a major update to the game on Windows PC and PS4 brings with it the most controversial promise that wasn’t delivered at the games original launch: multiplayer. Thanks to Xbox the hype train is once again powered on and picking up passengers left, right and centre.
Despite the number of major changes the game has had since launch, I had no desire to jump back in. I had been burned by this game and I wasn’t keen to give it another minute. But the idea of a marketing campaign for the re-launch of a game two years young interested me. How would Hello Games battle previous reviews and countless YouTube videos comparing the game content with Sean Murray’s inflated proclamations? The internet doesn’t forget that quickly.
Then I read Sean Murray’s interview with The Guardian. On the topic of the 2016 pre-launch marketing campaign, Murray said, “I’ve never liked talking to the press. I didn’t enjoy it when I had to do it, and when I did it, I was naive and overly excited about my game.”
And on his reaction to the vitriol and threats he and his team were subjected to, he said, “We did something that I think I’ve always done, when I look back at my life. When I’ve dealt with shitty situations when I was kid, moving between lots of schools, or when I’ve had shitty bosses later in life… I basically just get my head down, and I work, and I avoid.”
With those few words, Sean was no longer a video game developer willing to blatantly lie to the world in order to boost sales. He was a scared man, sweating under a spotlight and in way over his head. And he was a kid hiding in the computer room or library at school hoping the bullies won’t spot him. Perhaps this was the result of some PR advice on Xbox’s coin, or perhaps it’s just Sean. We’ll never know, but regardless, it worked on me.
In 2016 I thought, “How can a company go silent after such a PR disaster?” Now, I don’t think I would have done any different. So here we are with what looks to be the beginning of Sean’s redemption.
With that in mind I sat down over the weekend to give Hello Games a second chance. First off, No Man’s Sky is work to play. You’re constantly on the hunt for a specific mineral or plant to either craft something you need to perform a specific task, or to simply just stay alive.
After two years’ worth of updates some tasks are even more of a chore than they were previously. For example, to create X you need to run Y through a portable refiner. But first you need Y and Z to build the refiner, plus it needs to be fueled by Q and you of course need ingredient(s) to refine into X. And after all that, the refiner takes time to do its thing. This along with the constant search for materials to recharge, fuel, and craft basic components for survival is a super slow burn which, is tedious in practice but renders worthy rewards, even if they are fed to you on a drip.
Last night I found myself stuck with a broken multi-tool, which I had unwittingly traded with an NPC without considering what I would need to do to get it repaired. I had very limited resources and was stuck stuck on a barren moon. Two or three hours later my multi-tool is almost fully repaired and the prospect of continuing my planet hopping will get me playing again tonight.
And that’s the bulk of what you’ll be doing in the first 10 hours or so of this current iteration of No Man’s Sky. Solving problems by looking for stuff only to find another problem right around the corner. Quite honestly, it’s not all that different from the original No Man’s Sky. Now, though, there are more steps to complete, coupled with better rewards. You can now develop your home base, allowing you to grow your own resources. You can also take on a freighter, dragging it from system to system with your own starship.
Progressing really is hard work in NMS. Some will hate the slow pace; others will find value in it. Games don’t get much more divisive than this.
The NEXT update brings with it what Hello Games calls a thirty-hour campaign. It’s really not much more than text squeezed in to gaps within the main gameplay loop and a few navigation points to travel to. It has you doing things you would do in NMS anyway and doesn’t offer any significant depth to the game. But if you’ve nothing specific you hope to achieve then it works as a good starting point for your travels.
Me, I’m just on the lookout for the perfect planet to call home. Something with high cliffs overlooking an ocean to build a base on, and weather that won’t murder me. It’s this that finally makes NMS worth a shot. There’s now enough content for you to play your own way.
Dogfighting in outer space is still quite frustrating and repetitive with enemy ships doing loops around you and attacking head on. Rather than any specific skill level required to win these fights it’s a matter of who has the stronger shields and more powerful weapons. No doubt further improvements will be made in the future.
I envy anyone out there experiencing No Man’s Sky for the first time this month. While the gameplay loop and core mechanics remain largely unchanged, added features like the land vehicles from the Pathfinder update, the more interesting planets with improved fauna and landscapes and the recently improved base building have made this game feel much closer to what was promised two years ago. It’s still the same game, but it’s prettier and with many more ways to play it.
The media package given to Stevivor when NMS launched two years ago contained an open letter from Murray. Two years ago I thought little of it. Today it reads like a preemptive apology. As if Sean was terrified of the inevitable reaction to his claims. It made me feel for him even more than his Guardian interview.
Humans aren’t infallible. We make mistakes all the time. Hello Games’ mistakes were huge. And it’s initial response to criticism probably wasn’t the right approach from a PR perspective. But using the time to work towards making NMS the game Murray intended has brought redemption in my view. I will buy another Hello Games title in the future.
This all said, it still doesn’t change the fact that the original No Man’s Sky was subpar when it launched. All other games are stuck with their original review scores and I feel it wouldn’t be fair to provide a new score to this new and improved version of a two year old game. Still, I recommend you give No Man’s Sky NEXT a try.