No Man's Sky is perhaps the finest example of just how different games are these days than even 10 years ago. Gone are the times when brand new titles would release, feature-complete and immutable in their plastic-wrapped forms. For better or worse, things have changed, and games have room to evolve and grow drastically long after they've first launched.
I won't dwell for too long on the state that No Man's Sky crash-landed into our living rooms back in 2016. Overzealous marketing, poor performance, and the feeling that the small team at Hello Games had greatly over-reached—you've heard it all before. Truthfully, most games would have stopped there, taken the money and run, but No Man's Sky did something completely different indeed.
Thanks to regular updates, near Sisyphean-levels of dedication, and a community-first focus, what you'll load up now is a night and day difference when compared to the launch experience. As such, it seems right to review No Man's Sky for what it offers in 2021. Here's whether it's worth playing, almost five years after its initial release.
Perhaps the best place to compare No Man's Sky 2021 to its previous forms is in its opening segment. You're still dropped onto a random planet with little more than a mining beam and a broken ship to fix, but where you'd originally be given some vague directions from a blinking computer screen, there's now a fully formed tutorial sequence to get you off-planet and up into the stars.
Resources have been streamlined, superfluous crafting recipes culled, and objectives are presented with laser-focused precision. Surviving in these opening moments is still a challenge, but gone are the days of 'you work it out', of scrambling around as your suit overheated and your inventory filled with a hundred elements and items that you had no chance of comprehending.
No Man's Sky's first planet has one goal, to give you enough information to fix your ship and lift off, stepping back to let you experience the transition from the atmosphere to vacuum in all its glory. And it is still very much a spectacle all these years later.
No Man's Sky has always been a game made up of two main parts: planets and space. The differences in plant diversity and biome variety are clear every time you step out of your ship, but the improvements absolutely extend up into space also.
Celestial bodies now have huge rings of ice and dust to fly through, some galaxies have two stars bouncing light off of the cockpit of your ship, and at the press of a button, you can summon the Anomaly, a giant space station that warps into view with a satisfying whoosh.
Docking animations have been constantly tweaked since the huge Beyond update that landed in 2019, and the void of space is now busier with oddities to explore. Exiting out of pulse travel will often throw something for you to look at; an abandoned freighter, a luminescent jellyfish drifting through space, a transmission coming in from a nearby trader.
No Man's Sky is much less lonely, less sparse than it used to be, the Universe going from largely empty to bustling with alien activity. You'll occasionally run into a bug, often a hangover from one of No Man's Sky's many past lives, but given the work ethic and dedication shown by Hello Games in recent years, they're easy to overlook.
You Are Not Alone
What's most impressive is that Hello Games hasn't been afraid to stray from the world design first presented to us pre-launch. No Man's Sky once boasted a huge world that was impossible to experience in its entirety, and one in which meeting another player would be akin to a miracle. The Universe has gotten a lot smaller since then, or at least the focus has, to the game's benefit. These days, it's fairly common to come across other ships, other players, even planets that have already been mapped and built upon. While I do miss those lonely days spent charting out the galaxy in my own name I must admit, it's nice to see friendly faces every now and again.
Multiplayer now has a big part to play. You can squad up with your friends, take on Community Missions aboard the Anomaly, and share portal coordinates with others to show off planets you've discovered and bases you've built.
No Man's Sky has soared in part thanks to its devoted community, so it's impressive to see the devs weave it so fundamentally into the game's backbone. I don't think I've ever experienced a more positive player base than in No Man's Sky.
Players will help you out of pirate attacks, some will even drop valuable resources for new players to sell, and taking even the most cursory look at the game's Reddit will yield coordinates to flashy ships and other points of intrigue. Griefing is essentially non-existent, as is the usual toxicity one might experience while playing an online game in 2021.
There are of course a few bad apples, but there's an overwhelming sense of pride in the community, a readiness for others to show you just how great No Man's Sky can be.
State of the Game
I suppose the question on your lips is whether or not it's worth jumping into this nearly five-year-old game, especially with so many game-changing updates being delivered regularly.
No Man's Sky is somewhat of an outlier in the games as a service space in that every update is free, and there are actually no microtransactions to speak of. New content is added every few months, from cosmetic items to reworks of planetside biodiversity.
It's even available on Game Pass, so in theory, you'd be getting one hell of a deal jumping in now. Remarkably, despite just how much has been added over the years, there's a sense that No Man's Sky is really only starting to reach its full potential. I tend to load it up after each major update and am consistently given new and interesting things to do.
In some ways, now is the best time to start No Man's Sky. In another way, every new addition comes with its own reason to play. The recent next-gen updates present arguably the best version yet, reducing load screens and transforming already beautiful landscapes into vistas of genuine wonder.
No Man's Sky offers an incredible and diverse experience in 2021. Whether you want to play space-Attenborough, become a bounty hunter, or squad up with friends, the Galaxy is filled with things to do. It's a totally unique experience, bolstered by a thriving community and backed by a developer that communicates with its players with total honesty and transparency. There's a transcendental VR mode in there, and perhaps the best justification for the share button there has ever been in the gaming space. Five years on, it's nowhere near its final form.
Now is as good a time as any to jump in, if only to be along for what is sure to be a long and ever-changing ride. Put the events of 2016 aside in your mind for a moment, and give No Man's Sky a try. It's one of a handful of experiences like this that absolutely deserves a second chance.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5