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Pop CultureSeptember 6, 2018

No Man’s Sky is finally, finally great

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Occasional No Man’s Sky correspondent Josh Drummond finds the infinite space-based sandbox game just got infinitely more fun.

At the beginning of this year, No Man’s Sky – 2016’s soaringly-ambitious, savagely-received space exploration not-sim – was all but done. Apart from a very small (but very enthused) player base, the numbers of which spiked briefly each time developers Hello Games released an update, the gaming world had moved on. The game was viewed as the ultimate launch flop, a missed chance, a cautionary tale. Since the last big update, Atlas Rises, in 2017, the developers had maintained the silence they’d seldom broken since the game’s star-crossed launch.

Professional game reviewers were profoundly mixed. IGN gave the game a 6 out of 10, which is the IGN equivalent of “raging shitfire, avoid.” The Spinoff’s own Jose Barbosa was cautious, but erred on the side of positive:

“When the game gets close to that stuff, that dark, ambient, literary sci-fi type of experience, that’s when I really loved playing No Man’s Sky. The more conventional resource grind or space battle stuff: not so much. The game isn’t a triumph, at least not yet this early in, but, like the in-game universe itself, the potential is so tantalizing. It feels like greatness is just a nano-parsec away.”

Many of the gaming public were… less enthused.

It’s funny, in an unfunny way, to look back at how things were back then. Such was the hype for No Man’s Sky before launch that it made minor celebrities of people who streamed gameplay from leaked copies of the game. I remember watching as viewers of that early footage went from excited, to disbelieving, to enraged. It was probably the biggest opportunity since Gamergate for the mouth-breathing man-children of the internet – so-called hardcore gamers – to play their very favourite game; fomenting toxic internet drama.

Sean Murray became the most hated name in gaming. One gamer drew up a spreadsheet of every gameplay-related statement Murray had ever made in all his many press interviews and rated them against the internet’s own impossible standards for truth. Death threats? Of course there were; from both furious-would be fans and the game’s ardent defenders.

In the face of such a colossal backlash, Hello Games did the only thing they felt they could do. They went silent. Perhaps, in silence, they found space from the screams.

This wasn’t received well either. One of the most highly-upvoted posts on the No Man’s Sky subreddit from the time reads:

“I do not care anymore. At all. Update your game, don’t update your game. I don’t care! Your silence has damaged your company and individual character more than you will ever realize.

Have my $60. I’m over it because I do not care anymore. Any game that you work on from here on out, I will not buy out of sheer principle. You are a terrible dev; mostly because you will not communicate. Sincerely, I don’t care. EDIT: spelling.” 

– u/ChingChangChui

There were occasional oases of sanity. A game developer posted an explanation of how the development process could lead to features being scrapped at the last minute.  

“It seems the real issue seems to be the people feel misled and lied to. I want to objectively ask you why you think he would do that? What does he have to gain from lying about these features? Isn’t that pretty much professional suicide? You feel like he did lie now please share why you felt he lied.”

To those who are upset and angry over what they got vs what they were told they were getting, are you willing to let them fix their mistakes? A lot of people feel you are here just to watch their ship sink and burn. Is it past the point of apologies and redemption for you? I want to know your honest opinions here.”

Slowly, the rage burned down to embers. Most of No Man’s Sky’s player base either hocked off the game or put it away to gather dust. What remained was a small, passionate community who set about enjoying the game for what it was, rather than what they’d expected it to be.

One player circumnavigated a planet on foot. It took him two weeks.

Others formed the communities r/NMS portals and r/NoMansHigh, the former for discussing in-game mysteries and clues to the future of the game, and the latter for enjoying the happy confluence of No Man’s Sky’s trippy visuals and chilled out vibe with herbal stimulation.

Meanwhile, dedicated players formed the Galactic Hub and its many offshoots. In a game where the only possible multiplayer interaction was naming planets, they began to explore and colonise space, sharing discoveries on homebrew websites and apps. They even had a war.

After months of silence from the developers, mysterious cassette tapes were received by prominent No Man’s Sky community members. This signalled the start of a long-running ARG, or alternate reality game, that added to No Man’s Sky’s lore and guided players to news of large, free game updates that substantially increased what it was possible to do in the game. The first of these, Foundation, added base-building. Then Pathfinder added planetary vehicles, and Atlas Rises came with a number of gameplay enhancements including an expanded and rewritten storyline.

The updates were mostly well received, and each time one dropped, the player base would spike, briefly, before settling down to the same core of enthusiasts. Then Hello Games went quiet again.

This time, the silence would last for a year.

What happened NEXT

After a final phase of the long-running ARG, it turned out that Hello Games had spent that year working on a truly massive update; one that would bring the game to Xbox One, revitalise its visuals, fundamentally change a number of gameplay systems, and introduce proper co-op multiplayer to the former resolutely lonely universe.

I watched it all unfold with interest, mostly from afar. I might be a tiny bit obsessed with No Man’s Sky, but as I’ve written before, I’m as fascinated by the meta-narrative and the drama around the game as much as I am by the game itself. Before NEXT, if I’m being honest, I’d say I was more interested in the former. It feels like a guilty admission, but I didn’t play the game all that much anymore, apart from the occasional after-work nerve-soothing session. I’d never even beaten any of the main storylines. It was a very relaxing game to play, but for me, there wasn’t a lot left that I truly wanted to do in the game.

NEXT has changed that.

I’m now hooked on No Man’s Sky in a way I’ve never been before, even back at the beginning. While some of my frustrations at what the game isn’t still definitely exist, what’s there to enjoy is vastly improved. I’ve been playing every night I can since the update released. I haven’t done that since Skyrim came out.

But perhaps I would say that. I was one of the dwindling minority of players who genuinely liked or played the game at all after the hype-storm of No Man’s Sky‘s launch had blown away. For me, the proof point of No Man’s Sky NEXT’s success has been watching formerly sceptical or disillusioned friends pick it up – and love it. The best part is, thanks to the multiplayer, I can be with them while they do it.

I’ve got a clear memory of one friend’s first impression of No Man’s Sky when it first launched: “I watched a Twitch streamer shoot rocks for an hour and then the game crashed. It looked like the shittest thing ever.” That same friend is now logging on for extended play sessions where up to four of us will take on space pirates, do co-op missions for valuable cargo, or just take photos. No Man’s Sky has often been called a screenshot simulator or a wallpaper generator, and it absolutely is, but now there are real gameplay systems underlying the beauty.

So far, it seems most gamers agree.

NEXT was one of the top played games on Steam in the week after it launched, temporarily beating out even heavy-hitters like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, and positive reviews for the update rocketed No Man’s Sky overall Steam review rating from the “Overwhelmingly Negative”  it’s had since launch to the positively giddy “Mixed.” NEXT was also No Man’s Sky‘s debut for Xbox One, where it was one of the month’s top-selling games, raking in an estimated $24 million US.

All this, for a two-year-old game widely considered the worst-received launch title since Daikatana.

As the tide turned, formerly disappointed gamers discovered something they probably didn’t know they possessed: the ability to be (often grudgingly) gracious. One even went through the spreadsheet of missing features, checked it against the updated game and found that nearly all of them were now included.

Sean Murray has begun publicly talking and tweeting again and has opened up about how the backlash affected him and his team in several revealing interviews, the best of which is can be found over at IGN Australia.

“I was somebody who never really wanted to talk to the press. I didn’t particularly enjoy it when I was doing it. And I don’t think I was very good at it.”

There’s something strange about revisiting Murray’s earlier public appearances with this in mind. Suddenly, that sheepish smile looks a little more rictus, the constant movements more like cascading nervousness than bobbing anticipation. Perhaps, in some worried way, Murray knew what might be coming.”

NEXT steps in an infinite universe

Since NEXT released, my friends and I’ve explored colossal underground caverns, continents, endless seas, and fed giant, six-legged creatures (running commentary: “Stand still! Stop chasing it, Josh! I’m trying to take a photo!”) We’ve stood at the foot of trees hundreds of feet tall, flown the void of space, built bases, and experienced some of the wildest and most hilarious bugs ever to grace a video game (at one stage, each of us was attacking an enemy freighter that appeared in a different location for each player, making it look like teammates were exacting a vicious vendetta on an innocent asteroid field.) We’ve gone on Stargate tours of the known universe, seen wonders built by algorithms or by other players. I even finished the storyline. The gaming world’s biggest sandbox is now filled with toys, instead of just sand and the occasional cat turd.

All that, and I haven’t yet touched on the new emergent gameplay systems in play amongst No Man’s Sky player communities. Organising in scattered Discords and subreddits, players are cataloguing and hunting rare creatures; building bigger galactic hubs, cities, and stations; and even establishing space police forces and something like intergalactic AA – friendly players who fly to you if you should find yourself stranded on a planet without fuel.

No Man’s Sky is now every bit the game that it was “promised” to be, even though those promises were more fevered imaginings than any actual guarantees. Frustrations remain, as they would with any game. No Man’s Sky still insists that you put in work before you reap the rewards, making it both a time-sink and a grind. Space combat is still not as much fun as it seems like it could be (although it’s been vastly improved.) Even though the worst of the launch glitches are ironed out, there are still plenty of bugs, some hilarious, some cruelly game-breaking. Inventory management is still an absolute bitch; illogical, unintuitive, and time-consuming. It’s one of very few bits of the game that is genuinely awful, and somehow, the most recent update has actually made it worse.

But, somehow, the game manages to be far more than the sum of its parts. For me and my friends, it’s both a fun toy and a transcendent beauty generator. True, some of the original game’s appeal was in the sense of loneliness it fostered, but somehow the addition of multiplayer hasn’t diminished that. The first time you see a friend’s starship break atmosphere at Mach 30 before kicking up a cloud of dust as it lands next to you is just as wish-fulfilling as blasting off alone into a star-studded void. That’s an incredible achievement. No other game makes our group of jaded gamers stop and say “wow” – audibly, over voice chat – with the frequency that No Man’s Sky manages. If you doubt that, you should see our screenshot collection. (Some of mine are collected here for your convenience. Most of them are shots from our co-op play sessions.)  

If you were on the fence about No Man’s Sky, waiting until it was good, now’s your chance to soar. And if your copy has been gathering dust since launch, fire it up. The universe is waiting, and this time, you can bring your friends along.

Keep going!