No Man's Sky is slowly changing from a cautionary tale to a story of redemption

When Hello Games released No Man’s Sky in the summer of 2016, the level of hype surrounding its launch was extraordinary. It was a bold game that made lofty promises in its marketing materials, and it was created by a small studio with a grand vision. Upon its arrival we felt like it did some things right, but as time went on the blemishes became harder to ignore. 

People demanded refunds in droves and compiled lists of “lies” purported by the developers. It eventually earned the dishonor of being labeled our “Gaming Disappointment” of 2016. By this point, mostly forgotten, it was stashed away in the minds of people that played it, traded in at game stores around the world, and relegated to a “maybe if it’s on sale” purchase for those still vaguely interested.

Despite the fact that you can never change a first impression, Hello Games is proving you can do a hell of a lot in terms of repairing an image and is turning No Man’s Sky from a cautionary tale of hype and over promises into an example of how a game can redeem itself over time. 

The Initial Fallout

I was one of the people that found myself able to look past the broken promises, missing features, and lackluster release to find the shining bits of potential and wonder in what No Man’s Sky 1.0 was like. In fact, I wrote a whole journal entry about it. Discovering some of those planets was absolutely breathtaking, and the sheer diversity on display kept me busy for hours.

But it didn’t last. Eventually I started to realize how empty it all was, and that I was simply flying around for the sake of it, perhaps telling myself I was having fun when I was really just seeking a purpose.

After a while I stopped playing and stopped caring. Like most people, I moved on.

The Foundation Update

Then, after months, the updates started. The first major update landed in November and was dubbed “The Foundation Update.” This introduced an over 1.3GB patch for players and brought with it brand new game features like base building, use freighter ships, and multiple game modes and save files. It was stll a far cry from what was originally promised, but was clearly a step in the right direction. The fact that Hello Games was dedicating time, effort, and manpower to a poorly received game several months after its release  was a good sign. At least it made it seem like they weren’t trying to completely lie to people.

At the time of the update it wasn’t enough to draw me back in, but I’ve seen some of the amazing things people have built. Even in games like Fallout 4, which feature robust building mechanics, I’m never able to make anything worth remembering, and never got into the craze of terraforming and world shaping that is Minecraft. But there was some real potential here.

A big issue the core game had is that even though you could visit all of these quintillion planets (or however many there are) they all felt previously explored and abandoned. With various outposts and small buildings sprinkled throughout the solar systems, it never really felt like you were discovering anything. You were just picking up other people’s scraps and plodding along without a purpose.

With the ability to actually manipulate worlds and build bases the game finally gave you a bit of agency in your journey beyond just buying different spaceships.

The Path Finder Update

Then, four months later in March of 2017, Hello Games released what has been referred to as “The Path Finder Update.” Similar to The Foundation Update before it, the Path Finder Update introduced significant changes to the game, namely, the ability to drive land-based vehicles, base-sharing, ship and weapon specialization, a new permadeath mode, and a long list of other small changes.

Oddly enough, another mostly poorly received sci-fi space exploration game, Mass Effect: Andromeda, casts the player in the role of a spacefaring soldier known as The Pathfinder. As far as we know the two games are entirely unrelated despite releasing within a year of one another (though early development plans for Andromeda had interesting overlap with No Man's Sky).

But once again, just like The Foundation Update before it, The Path Finder Update wasn’t enough to make me come back. My copy of No Man’s Sky was still collecting dust on my rack of PS4 games. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious again.

One big issue with the base game is that you had to either walk or fly literally everywhere. It was easy to overshoot your landings, and maintaining a ship could get expensive. On the flip side, many planets are dangerous and volatile to explore on foot (and that's not to mention how long it can take to get from one point to another).

The Atlas Rises Update

And now there's the recent “Atlas Rises" update. It’s hard to really describe how enormous this update is if you never played the game previously, but it’s almost like up until now No Man’s Sky was just a loose framework of ideas with a common theme. But now all of its pieces belong to an overarching puzzle that have come together to create an actual game.

For starters, the game now, finally, has multiplayer. Previously you could share bases (via the Path Finder Update) or see the names of planets others found already, but you couldn’t actually see or interact with one another. With the Atlas Rises Update, you can now see glowing balls of light in places of where players are standing in their version of the game.

On top of that there is now an actual story, with a new alien race and 30 hours of content. That’s correct: thirty whole hours of new content. An entire game’s worth of story content was added to a year-old game this month; it’s unprecedented.

There are also tons of new biomes now, like bubble planets and whatever these floating platforms things are, and even bizarre synthetic worlds. You can even sculpt planets themselves with incredible terraforming capabilities using a terrain editing multi-tool. Base building was a solid start, but now you can even shape the planets themselves.

So I'm playing No Man’s Sky again. Now I don’t feel like I’m screaming into a void, alone, drowning in a galaxy of infinite planet templates that are all the same with varying colors and plants. Instead I have power of base building and terraforming; I have purpose, with an involved story and more detailed alien interactions. I have freedom of movement with the game's new vehicles and controls. 

The Path Ahead

No Man’s Sky today is a very different game from a year ago when it first released. There’s no denying the fact that it was a shadow of what was promised. and even if you enjoyed the time you spent with it, there was a distinct sense that something was missing. While it's still not perfect, Hello Games has made huge strides in the right direction.

Most importantly though is that all of these post-launch updates have been entirely free. The developers know that they did wrong by their fans and are (slowly) earning back respect. What was once a narrative of “look what happens when hype goes wrong” is now a story of “this is how you do right by your fans,” and I’m hopeful it will only get better from here.

If you’ve been on the fence, stuck your copy on the shelf and forgot about it or traded it in/got a refund, then I encourage you to give No Man’s Sky another chance.