Almost a year to the day since its controversial release, No Man’s Sky is still frequently awe inspiring. There’s beauty in its hyper-saturated sunsets and navy-hued space-scapes; there’s fascination in the occasionally hilarious procedurally generated creatures, or the rush of fear as a radioactive solar storm ravages a planet’s dusty surface. There’s still a thrill in diving below the top layer of cloud to find out what kind of biome lies beneath – even if a world’s surface can often look completely different to how it appeared from the dark blueness of space.
“What is No Man’s Sky?” was the question that circled, endlessly, around developer Hello Games while it worked on the game. Come its release in August 2016, it seemed that head honcho Sean Murray and his team didn’t really know the answer themselves. Part survival game, part ambient exploration, part mindless wandering simulator, part clearly unfinished experiment, it felt like a fabulous concept that had run away into something unattainably ambitious. The new Atlas Rises update is the closest the studio has come to really answering the big defining question about what its game does.
An overhauled storyline offers up a tangible directive that allows players to better plot a course through the umpteen planets that litter the procedurally generated universe; portals allow for quicker travel between worlds; there’s the first glimpses of a multiplayer component; not to mention dozens of minor tweaks that bring No Man’s Sky closer in line with a space sim like Elite: Dangerous.
There’s still a fair number of imperfections in No Man’s Sky, too, though – stuff that Atlas Rises fails or doesn’t attempt to fix. Progress is still slow and inventory management is still a complete slog, lessened somewhat by a couple of tweaks that allow for quicker recharging of weapons and tools, but still cumbersome and annoying. Unless you’re one of those players who enjoys zoning out while laser cutting vast chunks of aluminium, resource collection can also be quite dull, serving as an almost constant distraction from the parts of the game you want indulge in: exploration, discovery and developing your ship, space suit and all-purpose multi-tool.
So, what is Atlas Rises?
Well, it’s big. A new story is the main draw here, but it’s still a pretty loose and obscure affair, about the faltering fabric of the cosmos and the arrival of a new inter-dimensional species. As you progress, the game offers up incidental slow-building titbits of information to pull you through its mysteries, while explaining some of the relics that litter planets, including the sentinels. It boasts 30 hours of content but there’s no really knowing how accurate that claim is. There’s a clearer objectives system that far better ties together all of your ongoing tasks. Missions are easier to parse, and it’s now a more accommodating game for that subset of players looking to follow predestined course of action without having to create their own fun.
The update has you following a bunch of fetch quests to uncover a ton of new details about the lore of the universe, while continuing the game’s storytelling technique of giving you sparsely detailed bits of dialogue and having you choose a voiceless response to progress forward. The problem is that, while all of this exposition is actually pretty intriguing (by far the best No Man’s Sky has delivered in terms of narrative pull-through), the moment-to-moment activities may still feel boring to some – unless you’re playing in Survival Mode, where the increased danger and scarcity of resources does increase the tension enormously.
You’ve likely put enough time into No Man’s Sky by now, so the idea of repeating the same task to learn one individual word of an alien language is hardly an exciting prospect. The fact that the game’s other tasks are procedurally generated is a similarly problematic solution to regaining player interest. Randomly created missions offer up the opportunity to complete tasks in three individual tenets of play – exploration, trading and combat. But they’re not quite rewarding enough to stand up to endless hours of repetition.
What does help is the new Guilds feature, which essentially add a progression system for each of these three play styles. Trade things and you’ll attain a better standing with the Merchants Guild; venture out into the stars and you’ll progress in the Explorers Guild; do battle and you’ll become a more valued member of the Mercenaries Guild. The individual tasks you’re doing may not be the most interesting on their own, but the fact they tie into these Guilds is the best way to deliver near constant sense of forward inertia for your space traveller and his/her ship.
All of this rests upon a much stronger foundation of interlocking systems – better trading and a more diverse set of items to purchase and create, as well as better signposted maps and interfaces. For the first time No Man’s Sky feels like its heading towards a rounded set of options for a broader set of players. It’s by no means amazing at all of these, and the main draw is still clearly its open-ended approach to exploration, but Atlas Rises is a massive improvement on 12 months ago.
Combat, for example, used to be painfully simple – even tiresome. Atlas Rises goes a fair way towards adding a decent amount of challenge to dogfights, removing the autopilot that prevented you from crashing into a planet’s surface along the way. By handing more control to the player when flying around, No Man’s Sky now feels perilous at times, especially if you get jumped by a handful of newly-improved pirates.
Worlds are even more beautiful now, with far greater level of detail that ranges from the minute intricacies of a planet’s terrain, to the swirling gas clouds that form out in space. It’s pin sharp on PS4 Pro, with flora looking stunning, and the entire thing still pops with the hyper-coloured style that made the game such a striking hit when it was first revealed.
Hello Games has also said that the variety of individual biomes has been greatly increased to be even more weird and wonderful – so far, the game has offered up dozens of new worlds, but nothing noticeably more bizarre than at release. Save for a couple of new neon-lit structures found along the main quest path, it’s still down to the algorithm that randomly fuddles all of the artistry and prop design together into something masquerading as new and fresh – it often isn’t new and fresh at all, but there’s definitely less repetition than before and it still has the tendency to wow you when you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer.
No Man’s Sky will likely never outrun the inevitable monotony that comes with procedural generation, but with Atlas Rises, Hello Games has begun to more firmly shape the kind of game they want this to be – albeit with the exception of a half-cocked ‘multiplayer’ mode that allows you to see floating orbs representative of other players in the universe.
It’s no doubt a sign that the studio eventually wants to achieve a fully synchronous online universe, but right now it feels slightly half baked. Instead, Atlas Rises’ greatest achievement is its delivery of tangible single player goals that reduce the aimless space-wandering, while never removing the wonder of discovering, even if that discovery is a little less impressive one year on.
What is No Man’s Sky now, then? It’s better. Hello Games realised it has to show some players how to best enjoy their game – with more signposted objectives and a broader set of options with which to play around with. For that it’s worth dusting off for another jettison into space, even just for a few days of tooling around in its lush watercolour galaxy.