No Man's Sky Next is Very Good
We're a real long way off from No Man's Sky's initial announcement, and even further from when it started out as a one-man project at Hello Games.
But now, it finally feels like a video game. Further, it feels like a totally different game than the one that existed just a few days ago.
Next was an appropriate title for this new updated release.
A more cynical/typical video game company would have sold this as a full sequel, and probably could have gotten away with it even in spite of the rage the first game received. That this is a free patch for existing owners says a lot about the character of the folks at Hello Games.
I was never among those that hated Sean Murray.
The eccentric lead developer of No Man's Sky has been called all sorts of awful things by the lovely denizens of the gaming internet...but to me, it always seemed like he was caught in a terrible position. No Man's Sky, a small passion project made by just a handful of people, found itself as one of the marquee titles on Sony's 2016 PS4 release calendar.
And Sony clearly had no idea what they were doing with it, so they just kept shoving Sean out there on stages and popular TV shows, asking him to describe a game that was constantly evolving and probably under-funded for its scope. Here was a game with the ambitions of something like a Star Citizen, being made by less than 15 people in a relatively short time frame for two platforms, on an unproven new bespoke engine and with no money for real online infrastructure.
Online was the big elephant in the room. Everyone asked about it all the time and Sean did his best to dodge the question. And he didn't always dance that well. Eventually, people found early models for what are now the third person player models in the game, and finally, Next has added full seamless online play two years after launch, after walking to that point over several updates.
THE BIG LIE?
I don't think Sean directly lied about online play. The game was always built to connect to a live server...but I think something went really wrong along the way.
If you go back and carefully watch those old interviews, the awkward pauses tell you a lot. My completely-without-insider-knowledge guess is that at some point mid-development, they realized the universe was way too big for anyone to ever run into each other accidentally, and that they didn't have the money to build anything other than the asymmetric systems we actually got.
But they underestimated the dogged relentlessness of hardcore players.
It only took a matter of moments for players to figure out how to get to the same planet and realize that the server was completely asynchronous. Time wasn't even a constant on each planet, and there was zero way for players to see each other at launch. And the population of discovered locations and named creatures out to other clients wasn't instant.
Now, this makes a lot of sense to me, as someone with the barest puddle of development experience and some notion of how much you can do with a handful of people and a handful of money. But it's far less than anyone would expect from a title that Sony is out there pushing as a marquee Playstation release.
We'll probably never know if it was Sony's decision or Hello Games' decision not to go for full multiplayer in the first build of the game. Indeed, both parties seem to frequently deflect blame back at each other in interviews. And Sony hasn't officially mentioned the game in years, seemingly declining to even print new PS4 disc copies for the release of this big update.
With the launch of Next, the game finally has full multiplayer, running on top of the other asymmetric systems that were already in the game.
And along with it...Hello Games has essentially rebuilt the whole game.
A SEQUEL... FOR FREE?
Everything in No Man's Sky, outside of a few basic UI elements and some of the sound effects, has been completely overhauled or changed in Next.
The game defaults to a third person view now when you're on foot. Your player avatar is fully customizable at almost any time, either inside space stations or in a special platform you can build yourself. You can play as all the different alien races in the game, and in addition to a huge pile of color and part options, there's a bunch of room here for almost limitless cosmetic choices in the future as more updates roll out.
The feel of the gameplay works remarkably well in third person. The back of the character's suit is used to relay some of the basic hud information. The character animations are very good and fit naturally into the world.
Crafting and building have been completely overhauled, with new names for most resources and an entirely new development chain for all of the major technologies, items, and upgrades. Since this is a survival/crafting/exploration game...that basically means that the entire core logic of the game is new, which takes some getting used to. There's a portable refining station now that exponentially expands the flexibility of materials you find. The scanner and visor now more clearly point out where you can go and what you can find...meaning that the whole gameplay loop is tighter and more satisfying.
Graphics are almost completely new in spite of running on the same basic procedural voxel-based engine. Planet surfaces, ships, and textures are dramatically more detailed, even on a base PS4 console. Planets are much bigger-feeling, with wide valleys, tall mountains, and intricate cave systems. Detail draw distance is blown way out, and pop-in is minimal. You'll actually want to explore these planets now instead of just feeling like you've seen it all after ten hours.
And there's now a wonderful undulating volumetric cloud layer over planets that casts shadows.
The plot is further streamlined and fleshed out with lore for you to discover, and a clear progression that guides you through the vast universe. This came to the game a couple of updates ago, and has been further refined here. The game is a little more challenging in its survival aspects, but that also brings some needed urgency to its quieter moments.
If you don't really like survival games, you still won't like this. Although it has quests and space combat, it has far more in common with State of Decay and Minecraft than it does something like Mass Effect.
But no longer does it feel like half a game.
It's no longer a fascinating tech demo with a lurching game thing constructed on top of it. All of it finally came together. Maybe it was thanks to the help of a new publisher in 505 Games, or the expiration of the console exclusivity deal with Sony, or just the financial boon of the initial launch doing really well in spite of all the online hate.
Whatever the case, Hello Games has done right by their vision and built a game that I finally don't have to hesitate to recommend, and I'm completely engrossed by it in a way I never really was with the initial version, even after the patches. All of the systems and the technology itself now cascade together into a much more enjoyable whole.
And thankfully, it's very easy not to be griefed.
I'll have a proper review of the new Xbox version up sometime in the next week or so, once I've finished pouring through its vastness and strip mined a bunch of planets. :)