By Sam White
After months of uninterrupted silence from developer Hello Games – an unprecedented absence of communication that has elicited everything from mild criticism to Reddit rage – No Man’s Sky received its first major content update, entitled The Foundation Update, this past weekend.
The update adds a host of interesting new features and tweaks to the base game. It also splits the game into three unique component modes: the standard mode, a survival mode that makes staying alive and collecting resources even tougher, and a creative mode, which removes survival mechanics and gives you free rein to build whatever and buy whatever without a monetary restriction. Mostly, though, as the title would suggest, the Foundation Update is a canvas on which to build going into the future.
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Hello Games isn’t done with No Man’s Sky, despite what the empty Twitter feeds may have suggested. For me, having really enjoyed No Man's Sky’s captivating sense of discovery, and despite its numerous flaws, I still have faith in the studio. I see The Foundation Update as a real point of optimism for a game that’s had a really bad few months. It’s cool to hate, after all, but it’s admirable to see such a small studio strive to hit the vision it clearly intended.
The main draw here is base building, which allows players to settle on planets and build their own small outposts – fully customisable, expandable and equippable with crops and AI workers. Players will either like this a lot or just fly right on by, uninterested in the concept of settling down in a game where the real thrill comes from exploration. Seeing as Hello Games said in pre-release interviews that the game wouldn’t have base building, this is clearly a decision driven by community feedback, but the building itself is solid – occasionally fiddly, but otherwise easy to understand.
My favourite addition is the freighters – huge capital ships that can be landed in, explored and, if you’ve got enough money, purchased for your own use. They’re awesome and can be summoned instantaneously out of hyperspace so you can transfer your valuable goods to the freighter’s hull. Just like the bases, freighters can be customised and expanded, building your own rooms to make a portable house that doesn’t anchor you to any particular planet. However, Hello Games smartly addresses the issue of both and adds teleportation into the game, allowing you to quickly travel between freighters, space stations and your home bases. It removes the immersion slightly, but absolutely improves the gameplay experience.
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Visual improvements are clear, too – especially on PS4 where planets appear a lot richer than before, throwing up more interesting combinations of procedurally generated landscapes and animals more often. PC performance is still highly questionable at the best of times, frequently dipping below 20fps despite my more-than-capable GTX 1070 GPU.
There are also plenty more minor tweaks. You can scan planets from space to identify resources, and there are subtle streamlinings to the UI that improve play – stackable inventory makes item management less of a chore, while a quick option to refuel your hyperdrive means you don’t have to faff around in space. Clearer icons over vital survival resources such as Plutonium mean you spend less time having to decipher environmental icons while on a freeform adventure.
It all leads to a better, albeit not revolutionised, experience. It’s one I still enjoy, and I still get that sense of wonder when I land on a new planet and see something brilliant on the horizon – a sunset, a new creature or a curious-looking structure.
But it’s worth remembering that this is a foundation – a start. It doesn’t change our score for No Man’s Sky, but it’s exciting knowing that Hello Games is still hard at work. Considering we knew nothing about what the studio was up to until a few days ago, that’s gotta count for something.
Original review follows below
No Man’s Sky is an astonishing achievement. For such a tiny development team to create a universe with such vast scale, discovery and exploration speaks volumes of Hello Games. However, in company founder Sean Murray’s desperate reach for the stars, it's the fundamentals on the ground that are lacking. When this is coupled with frustrating bugs and problems, the sense of wonder quickly fades. Does it live up to the hype? Well, that depends.
No Man’s Sky has generated more hype and expectation than a Manchester United transfer window. For years fans have speculated about what the game is, what it could be and how it’s going to make all our lives whole again. Now of course, Hello Games is partly responsible for the hype Frankenstein, as is Sony, but so are we. For every new trailer we brought with it our own expectations, interpretations and demands. It wasn’t until the few months leading up to launch we finally got an idea of what this game actually is. And now we know for sure.
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No Man’s Sky is a survival game. A chance to explore 18 quintillion planets, scrambling for resources, battling against an oppressive sentinel force, fighting off bounty hunters and pirates in space while discovering and naming all the phallic-looking flora and funny-looking fauna. In my first few hours with the game, it is all of this and more.
Starting on my first planet – which I later named “mine” – because it’s definitely not yours – I begin searching for minerals and materials to repair my damaged ship. Everything is new, everything is exciting. The lush red and purple landscape is awash with new experiences, chances to learn how No Man’s Sky ticks. Within an hour I have learned that Sentinels are mean, how to mine resources, learned new language, which resources are most beneficial, the fact my backpack is the size of Jiminy Cricket’s pocket, all while exploring a gorgeous new world.
After repairing the ship, I jet off into the galaxy, and it is indeed a "wow" moment. The first time you break the clouds and reach the stars, planets all around waiting to be visited, explored, plundered, your mind boggles with all the possibilities that lay ahead.
I spend my next few hours gleefully planet-hopping, adapting my suit to deal with the harsh climates of wherever I visit. I scan everything and explore everywhere. Sentinels rain down upon me when I become too greedy. Space pirates attack my ship as it becomes abundant with treasures. Everything exhilarates, until the patterns start to emerge, and all you're left with is the realisation that the core mechanics are incredibly basic. There comes a time where your disbelief can no longer be suspended and you realise, in terms of gameplay, No Man’s Sky is jack of all trades, master of none.
Again, No Man’s Sky is a survival game, with many different things out to end you. Depending on the planet, the climate can be extremely harsh, sentinels extremely aggressive and the indigenous creatures equally fierce. At first you’ll stick it out, thinking of ways to defy the odds and get the vital materials you need until you realise that, with 18 quintillion mining holes on offer, it’s much easier to jet off in search of a more hospitable environment.
It’s hard to consider No Man’s Sky a survival game when there is very little reason to ‘stick it out’. When a planet isn’t welcoming, there’ll be dozens within the solar system that will welcome you with open arms.
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On the subject of planets, too, while they can look gorgeous at a distance, up close textures can look a little blurry. Land patterns repeat, rock formations look bland and any patch of water will be completely still. The consequence of procedural generation is, ironically, a lack of uniqueness and detail. You also won’t have to explore many planets before you get the sense of deja vu.
While talk of 18 quintillion planets and requiring hundreds of years to explore every single one will be thrown about, I can’t shake the overwhelming familiarity many of them share. I’ll land on a planet, it’ll be devoid of flora and fauna (an all-too-common, frustrating experience in my time) and quickly set off for richer climes, only to land on the planet next door that boasts an eerily-similar colour palette and near-identical structures.
Of course, with such a phenomenal scale, it’s impossible to have every planet be truly unique, but I just wish the spell didn’t break quite so soon.
When on a planet, you’ll spend plenty of time mining, which is fine, but lacks creativity. It won’t be long before you know what materials you need, and where to find them. The fact you simply have to grab them and shove them into your spaceship’s engine or combine them to craft an element to add to the hyperdrive. It lacks a certain connectivity and drive that Minecraft has in spades (and picks).
The only reason you keep collecting is because of the main objective: the journey to the centre of the galaxy – the Atlas quest – but the path to completion is a strain on my patience as monotony truly kicks in.
To move to new planetary systems, you need to upgrade your hyperdrive, doing so by combining certain elements to craft components to create energy cells. At first I was strolling, wandering around every planet, picking up the materials as I found them. But as the objective become more and more pressing, the sense of discovery no longer intrigued, and all that remained was finding the ever-elusive Heridium.
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How long you choose to chase Atlas will simply be how much patience you have with the gameplay, or how long before the immersion breaks and the realisation that you’ve done the same four basic tasks for the past ten hours hits. Either that, or the endlessly-annoying game-crashing bugs will get you.
No Man’s Sky broke far too frequently to consider it an anomaly. Often my game crashed while trying to warp to a new solar system, which is even more frustrating when the game has certain save points, meaning at times I’d have to go back to a space station, craft the energy cells and try and warp to the solar system once more, only for the game to crash again. The game's instability simply served to dull my excitement and willingness to persevere further, which is such a shame considering the excitement I experienced in the first few hours.
No Man’s Sky is a good game. Sean Murray and Hello Games’ vision of creating a vast universe on a scale unseen in video games has no doubt been achieved, and will certainly provide everyone who plays it with something unique.
However, the fundamental gameplay isn’t deep or rewarding enough for me to stick around and explore many of the planets the game has to offer. With such basic combat and inventory management, it quickly wears thin and you’ll feel like you’re dragging yourself from system to system in search of Atlas.
Does it live up to the hype? For anyone who’s been following this game for years, probably not. But if you appreciate this game for what it is – a technical marvel that will no doubt vastly improve over the coming months if the day zero patch is any measuring stick – then there is certainly plenty of fun and wonder to be had. It’s just a case of how long before the fun stops.