What a difference three years can make. I remember seeing No Man's Sky for the first time back at E3 2014, with its promises of a vast universe to explore. When it finally launched in the summer of 2016, what I found was a game that could be described as "sparse" at best. Juggling my inventory was annoying, many of the planets felt largely the same, and progression was worryingly vague. I wasn't alone, and the backlash against No Man's Sky was a major part of its debut year.
There's very little time in my life to play games that I'm not reviewing. Our Editor-in-Chief Kat Bailey tackled our original review of No Man's Sky and subsequent updates have usually been under her watch. I've noted some of the changes with interest, but never had the time to truly give No Man's Sky another shot. With the release of Beyond, I decided to rectify that.
Instead of jumping back into my old save, wandering the vast reaches of space with no idea what I had done before or where to go next, I decided to begin anew. I'm working on dodgy memories from three years ago, but right from the beginning, I can say that No Man's Sky is a cleaner game now. Hello Games has clearly worked to give the game focus. The Exosuit now guides you through some early basics, like scanning for priority resources, refueling, and crafting. Recipes are much cleaner, and the resources needed to craft items are clearly marked in the HUD, and you can pin formulas to keep them on hand. The early quests work you through several key mechanics in planetary exploration, like underground mining, resource refining, and base-building. Certain mechanics like scanning and terrain manipulation are closed off to you in the beginning. No Man's Sky Beyond is a smooth slope upwards, rather than a steep drop into yawning chasm.
I vastly appreciate the new third-person camera, which was actually introduced last year in the Next update. In the original game, it was entirely in first-person and I recall not even having a body at all. Now in the opening minutes, the camera pulls out to show my space-suited traveler and stays there. I prefer third-person to first-person; for some reason having a body I can see anchors me further in game.
My early days of exploration in the original felt a bit... rote. The procedural-generation system could make infinite planets to explore, but that didn't matter because they mostly looked the same. Occasionally, you got a draw of a really unique-looking planet, but it felt rare. Now, there's a little more variety apparent once you get off the first planet. In No Man's Sky Beyond, I've marched into the depths of a radioactive storm, without knowing if I was going to survive the experience. There were a series of caves that I wandered around in, making the game feel like a more visually-robust version of Astroneer. I found a small lake on my second planet and took a swim alongside a swarm of manta ray-like creatures. I actually fed one of the weird, malformed animals on my third planet, a rotting world that I decided to leave almost immediately. For me, seeking out new, interesting worlds should be the primary aim. In Beyond, I actually feel like I'm exploring a vast cosmos.
This also marks the first time I played around with base-building, which was also added in the Next update in summer 2018. As a system that was grafted onto No Man's Sky after launch, I was worried that it was going to be akin to Fallout 4's cumbersome base-building. Instead, it's been easy to snap together various structures, research new additions, and construct a sturdy basecamp to protect me against the environment. My tiny cabin pales in comparison to some of the buildings and bases I've seen on the No Man's Sky Reddit, but having the choice to build only enhances the feeling of taming a wild frontier.
Heading out into space itself, I ran across raiders and "mined" asteroid by simply shooting them. I found my way to the updated space station, which finally has a scope and scale to it. Non-player characters wander about and quest-givers point you in a direction, rather than a single random alien in a small room. It makes the galaxy itself feel a little more alive and vibrant than before. Hello Games even added a brand-new player hub space called the Space Anomaly, though I haven't gotten far enough to find my way there yet.
Admittedly at its core, No Man's Sky is still mostly the game I played back in 2016. I'm still scanning, mining, and crafting my way across the cosmos. But while the original paled in comparison even to other indies like Starbound or Astroneer, No Man's Sky Beyond feels like a more robust, and visually impressive version of those titles; a big brother that carries forward the same ideas. I love this strain of survival sandbox games, and I'm glad to see No Man's Sky finally taking its place alongside some of my favorites. While I'll stick to Minecraft and Terraria as my go-to portable fixes, No Man's Sky looks to be the one I'll be playing on PC when I have a spare moment.
I wrote last year that No Man's Sky was a testament to the modern era of game development. For better or worse, it was a game that simply wasn't up to snuff upon its first release, but Hello Games continues to iterate and improve upon the formula. While I wish Beyond was the game that first launched, I can't help but feel excited about how far the game has come already. It makes me wonder what it'll look like another three years down the line. No Man's Sky Beyond finally fulfills that feeling of wanderlust that I wanted the original release to have, to the point that I might actually have to carve time out to continue playing it. (Hopefully today's update can fix those bugs and crashes others ran into.)