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No Man’s Sky

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It’s a great time to jump back into No Man’s Sky

The virtual universe has changed a lot in a year

When No Man’s Sky launched last summer, it became a regular part of my daily routine, an obsession that lasted for months. The final product may not have been as grand or deep as many players expected, but the sheer thrill of exploration it provided was like nothing else I’d played before. There wasn’t — and still isn’t — anything quite like the feeling of landing on a mysterious planet, knowing you’re the first one to ever see it.

This premise kept me coming back despite No Man’s Sky’s sometimes sterile, often repetitive nature. I even documented my experience in an ongoing diary. After a while though, the game’s charms wore off, and what was once an exciting adventure slowly morphed into a boring chore. I stopped playing No Man’s Sky last October — and my time didn’t end on a positive note.

But while I was away from the game, it changed quite a bit. Developer Hello Games continued to add new features to No Man’s Sky through free updates, as things like base-building, planetary vehicles, and a permadeath mode, were added to the experience. This culminated last week, with the release of the game’s 1.3 update, which introduced basic multiplayer, portals to warp between planets, and a much-needed revamp of the game’s story.

The result is a game that, while not fundamentally different from the version that came out last year, is a much-improved experience with a whole lot more to do in it. If you’ve stepped away for a while, now is a great time to get back into No Man’s Sky.

No Man’s Sky

For me, the most important change has been the fleshed-out story campaign. One of the best parts of No Man’s Sky is its openness — you can go basically wherever you want, provided you have the resources — but this can also lead to a sense of aimlessness. It’s easy to spend a few hours in No Man’s Sky and not really do anything of substance. And the story that was there in the game’s earlier incarnation didn’t add much. I spent a good chunk of my early time with the game last year following something known as the “Path of Atlas,” which was a vague and ultimately unsatisfying quest line about searching for a greater purpose in the cosmos.

No Man’s Sky’s new story is much more direct. As soon as you start playing, you’ll be alerted to an incoming transmission from a fellow traveler lost somewhere in the vast reaches of the universe. Slowly, the two of you manage to beam messages back and forth, with the eventual goal of finding out just who and where they are. It involves a bit of busy work, as you’ll have to do things like seek out holographic communicators and learn new alien languages, but the narrative hook is just satisfying enough to make it worth the effort.

What’s great about this story campaign — which Hello Games says lasts around 30 hours — is that it doesn’t intrude on the free form nature of No Man’s Sky. If you stumble across a cool planet full of unique animal life, there’s nothing to stop you from spending an hour or two trying to capture photos of each and every one. Instead, the quest line gives a bit more purpose and structure to experience. It doesn’t stop you from doing the fun parts of the game; it gives you things to do when those parts get a bit dull or tedious.

The story also helps teach you a few things about the game itself, serving as a more integrated tutorial. For instance, since I’d been away so long, I didn’t know about the new ability to craft certain items, like save points or other gizmos. But I was forced to figure it out after I was tasked with building multiple signal boosters in an attempt to locate my traveler friend.

There’s also been some improvements to the planets themselves, which makes exploration a lot more interesting. For one thing, they look a whole lot better. The colors are more vibrant, and the details more pronounced. While spelunking through a cave, I came across strange new hexagonal rock formations, and when I stepped out I found myself in a field full of wonderfully lush-looking purple grass. There’s also a lot more variety to the planets you’ll encounter, including new things to discover once you land. One of the most exciting moments I had in the last few days was stumbling on a crashed freighter, a massive spaceship with hidden loot to uncover. It felt like a scene out of Star Wars.

I’ve also found myself on a handful of pretty bizarre new worlds. One was completely devoid of plant and animal life, but its air was filled with thousands of giant bubbles that shimmered in the sunlight, and looked like miniature swirling galaxies at night. To make things even weirder, towering alien monoliths dotted the landscape, each of which contained fragments of information about the flying sentinels that guard most planets. And while I haven’t come across one yet, there are also new synthetic planets, with landscapes and flora that look as if they were made in a futuristic factory.

Outside of those larger changes, Hello has also made a number of quality of life improvements. There’s a quick-access toolbar where you can do things like call your spaceship or re-power parts of your suit without having to wade through opaque menus. Those menus, meanwhile, have been streamlined quite a bit, making it clearer what you need to be doing while also adding a new section that provides details on the myriad new additions to the game.

Possibly my favorite change, though, is the new photo mode. I took a lot of screenshots while writing my No Man’s Sky diary, but they were always from the game’s standard first-person perspective, with various UI elements cluttering the screen. I could never just take a clean photo of a pretty alien sunset. But now you can pause the game, shift the camera around, remove the UI, and even tweak the time of day or add a filter, in order to get the perfect shot. It’s a great tool for documenting your adventures.

There are still plenty of aspects I haven’t explored yet — building my own home base, for instance, or encountered other players while exploring — but for the past week I’ve settled into a nice rhythm with No Man’s Sky, playing a little each night as a way to wind down. It’s exciting again. It’s still not the game many expected when it launched to outsized expectations last summer, but it’s more robust and accessible than it’s ever been. And if you’ve ever considered dipping a toe into No Man’s Sky’s alien waters, now is the best time to do it.

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