Games Review: No Man’s Sky NEXT (Xbox One, 2018) is kind of all I want to play right now

No-one is more surprised by that headline than me. When we reviewed No Man’s Sky at launch back in 2016, our reviewer took an especially dim view of the game’s failure to implement a litany of the mechanics it had promised. They were not the only person who felt this way. We all remember what those weeks and months were like, with Hello Games under daily seige by an aggrieved online mob, convinced they’d been deceived.

I didn’t necessarily disagree with many of the points in that review — there wasn’t much to do, the menus were awful and the tiny amount of inventory space was a pain in the arse — I did hold a different opinion than most on the target of much of the harassment thrown Hello Games’ way. Sean Murray‘s oft-cited media appearances and assurances of certain features were used as a cudgel against the developer, considered a stretching of the truth at best and outright lies at worst, designed to dupe excited gamers into buying their terrible video game.

I never bought into that line of thinking. I felt then that No Man’s Sky was simply incomplete and that, with another year or two of development, the experience would be wholly different. That’s pretty easy for me to say now with two years of hindsight, but I promise it’s true. In my heart, I felt like Murray hadn’t been lying. It seemed to me that he was able to do things like go on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and sell the game so well because he really believed they’d be able to implement every feature and mechanic he’d spoke about. As the poet laureate George Costanza once said, it’s not a lie if you believe it. Why would Murray lie? What would he possibly have to gain by doing that? He was the head of a small, independent developer with a staff of less than 15 people. I’m friendly with enough indie devs in my personal life to know that none of them would pitch the kinds concepts Murray was pitching unless they were sure they were achievable. What Murray failed to see, I suspect, was that when you sign up with a big publisher like Sony, there’s only a certain amount of time in which they’ll be prepared to bankroll you and market your game before they start wanting to make their money back. It always seemed to me that what Murray and his team thought they had was time. They didn’t. And so, ready or not, out the door it went. No Man’s Sky was clearly unfinished when it landed in reviewer’s hands. Tucked inside the press kit was a letter from Murray. It’s not uncommon to get nice letters from developers with a press kit, but I remember Murray’s vividly because I’ve never read another one like it. “I feel sick writing this,” it began. “You are about to play No Man’s Sky and I don’t know what you’ll think.” It was a nice letter too, but it read like a plea for mercy.

After the months of online backlash, the ringing silence from Sony who utterly failed to come to Hello Games’ defense, and the fact that Hello Games appeared to have gone dark after confirming they were still working on the game, it was a surprise to see that the developer still had its doors open. When they released their first major update last year, adding a suite of promised features and a number of new ones, I realised there was hope. If there’s ever been a modern video game launch more disastrous than No Man’s Sky, I don’t know what it is. Plenty of other studios would have closed their doors and disappeared under pressure like that. I wouldn’t have blamed Hello Games if they had. But they hadn’t. I don’t know where Hello Games managed to find the resources, much less the willpower, to keep working on the game but they did. No Man’s Sky Next represents the game’s second major update, Version 1.5, on the two year anniversary of its launch. Now, at last, it is incredibly close to being the game you hoped for back then.

There’s so much that’s changed since launch. At its heart, this is still a game about pointing a laser at rocks and collecting things. But there’s so much you can do with those rocks now that the exercise feels worthwhile, as opposed to the chore it was before. There’s a fully fledged base building system. The menus have been redesigned and inventory space has been upped considerably so you can have tons of cool multipurpose rocks. Your multi tool has myriad uses as opposed to only one or two. All the resources you collect have a direct use, from survival applications to cosmetics to weapons, and even ship and suit upgrades. You can obtain freighters and larger cruisers for storing all your hard won spoils. Don’t hoard too many though because you’ll attract the attention of pirates and raiders who’ll drop out of subspace in nimble fighters to harass you, forcing you to jump into your star ship and get into a dogfight. The system for procedurally generating every planet and its unique flora and fauna has undergone a massive overhaul, and they feel much more natural and alive as a result. The worlds you visit now feature temperatures, weather patterns and animals you could more easily believe evolved there. You’ll still get the odd animal that makes you yell “What the FUCK?!” at the TV, but it happens far less regularly.

There’s also the much-desired multiplayer. You can now take three friends with you in a party and go adventuring together, and you can run into other players throughout the galaxy in real time. Where you felt incredibly alone in the game at launch, now it’s quite common to see squadrons of player ships swooping out of the clouds and buzzing the planet you’re on as they search for a spot to land. The galaxy is alive and teeming with life in a way it simply wasn’t before.

It’s almost all I’ve been able to think about for the last couple of weeks. I look forward to pouring a glass of red wine at the end of the day, putting on some music and hitting the couch to play No Man’s Sky. Where previously you could run out of things to do in a few short hours, now there’s a rather zen loop of arrival, discovery, establishment and departure that is very satisfying. You feel like a visitor in a much larger sandbox rather than a single isolated being, lost and alone. In the same way you can throw on Minecraft or Terraria and lose yourself in them for hours, No Man’s Sky now offers that kind low-intensity exploration/creation vibe without a truly clear direction or objective that you didn’t set for yourself. It has objectives, certainly, and following them will teach you about the game and how to play it, but No Man’s Sky doesn’t expect you to follow them if that isn’t what you want. Go off the beaten track, visit a new system far from anywhere. As long as you’ve got the resources to get there, the game won’t stop you.

The multiplayer aspect is a huge boon for the game too. Being able to squad up with friends allows you to not only discover and scour new worlds quickly, but also allows you to establish the kind of bases that would take a single players hours to construct in only minutes. Finding an ideal world, claiming it as your own and slowly making your mark on it as a group is its own reward. As you all progress and share the spoils of your discoveries, you’ll all start to upgrade your kit and before long have a squad of extremely sweet rides and top quality gear.

That No Man’s Sky Next exists at all is, frankly, a miracle. The result of this update is a game that is better and stronger for everything it’s creative team have been through. They couldn’t take the sky from Hello Games, and I’m grateful for that.

FOUR STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights: Vastly improved in almost every way; Multiplayer is great; Exploration far more enjoyable
Lowlights: Still may not be enough game for some
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Review conducted on an Xbox One X with a retail code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.