No Man’s Sky Beyond scrapes away the grind, finds the fun

No Man’s Sky was never going to live up to its own ridiculous hype when it was released three years ago. The game that launched in 2016 was equal parts impressive, confusing, and frustrating.

But the post-launch support from Hello Games has been incredible. The studio released the Foundation update in 2016; Path Finder and Atlas Rises in 2017; Next, Abyss, and Visions in 2018; and now, Beyond in 2019.

The No Man’s Sky of Beyond is a far cry from the No Man’s Sky of three years ago. It’s still the same idea, just better realized, and much closer to the vision that was originally pitched to players so many years ago.

Same universe, new me

The first few moments of the game feel relatively unchanged from the original release. I wake up on a strange planet as an amnesiac spacefarer with a mess of broken equipment. I am a/the Traveler, and my first goal is to repair my stuff.

My Exosuit protects me from various environmental hazards, my Multi-Tool lets me survey or harvest the resources around me, and my ship lets me travel the stars once I get everything up and running. I need to gather resources, craft components, and learn about the world around me in order to repair my gear, and I’ll later find blueprints that let me build new modules and structures as I trek across space. Nearly everything is trying to kill me, and everything from my mining laser to my life-support systems requires some form of fuel. Staying alive is going to be a challenge.

None of this is new. The original version of the game threw tutorials at you to get you off that first planet so you could explore the galaxy. What’s different is how the game goes about getting you started, and how much more enjoyable the experience becomes once a healthy chunk of the busy work is removed.

Each new technology is introduced with a gentle side mission with on-screen guidance.
Hello Games via Polygon

One of the biggest changes can be found in how the game is structured, and how much guidance I’m given about what to do next. I head to a space station after I repair my ship. Then I start building my own base. Then I staff that base with helpful aliens. Then I run missions for them to improve my base. I meet other enigmatic Traveler-types who point to a deeper, universal mystery that I can choose to explore and, ultimately, solve. I keep improving my base with my staff until I can build rovers and submarines that I can then use to explore more of each planet.

Before I know it, I’m 50 hours into the game and I’m still running errands for a newly hired engineer. Exploring the universe used to get boring quickly when I barely knew what I was doing, or what accomplishing it was getting me. But the game now provides goals — build this, research that, go here — to keep me moving forward, and each new idea or system is explained when it’s introduced.

Exploration comes to the forefront of the experience now that I’m no longer struggling to figure out what I need to do. The universe makes a lot more sense now, while still providing the same sense of awe that has always made No Man’s Sky such a fascinating game.

The end result is a game that moves much faster, while educating you on its own world in a much more effective way. It’s a combination that feels like an improvement in both directions. There’s so much more to do in this latest version of No Man’s Sky, and almost all of it is enjoyable.

I can also play in VR using updated menus and interfaces built specifically for this mode, although performance on certain setups can be rough.

Getting out of the way of itself

Beyond is not just about large, sweeping changes. Some of the improvements are as simple as being able to sit at a table with an alien NPC, or as complex as taming and riding my very own space critter — which I spend way too much time doing. There’s no real mechanical benefit to these things, but they make the experience richer, or at least a tiny bit more real.

Riding animals is often slower than walking, but I sure do love my new space-saiga friend.
Hello Games via Polygon

Making sure the many systems of No Man’s Sky don’t get in the way of enjoying the game is a major theme in the Beyond update. Inventory slots can now hold 10,000 units of a resource, which makes stockpiling huge amounts of commonly needed supplies much easier. I don’t have to spend nearly as much time managing my inventory to make sure I have room. The mining laser also works for much longer between charges, right out of the gate.

Sentinels, the universe’s grumpy Fish and Wildlife Service drone army, are a lot less observant and trigger-happy while I mine planets, so I’m not constantly being attacked in a way that distracts me from my current goal.

I can move upgrade modules around in my inventory, letting me optimize my loadouts. Placing upgrade modules in adjacent spots still gets you a boost to their enhancements, but I’m no longer stuck with them in a single position, or the place I accidentally installed them if I’m not paying attention. It all adds up to create the sense that the game is working with me, where I used to feel like I was forced to find enjoyment while working around the game. The parts that felt like work instead of play have mostly been massaged out, and good riddance.

Less lonely

And I’m no longer alone in the universe. There’s a new hub, the Anomaly, which is now a logical in-universe gathering point for all the players exploring the stars. Here, in a space station that exists everywhere at once, I can see other players and their spaceships. The Anomaly might have been a bit of a mess when Beyond launched, but a series of smaller patches have drastically improved the performance in just a few days. Hello Games still hasn’t taken a break, it seems.

Meeting Iteration: Helios on the Anomaly.
Hello Games via Polygon

I can also interact with a host of new characters that provide more variety than the generic NPCs from the same three races I used to find on every space station. These are Traveler-like entities who take a similar interest in the universe. They crave information about exploration, sell me special blueprints, or just eat the food that I’m now able to cook.

I can even team up with other players and take on missions together that will earn us all big rewards. I can invite those players into my universe, where we can explore and build as a team. It’s still a hostile universe where I have to scrape together resources to survive, but now I can ask for help.

Luckily, the social experiences are all opt-in, so you can choose to keep the universe to yourself if that’s your preferred way of playing No Man’s Sky. But that isolation is no longer mandatory; space can now be a friendly place, if you’d like it to be.

The update is free if you already own the game, so it’s not like you have to make a purchasing decision about whether to pick up the new content. And Beyond doesn’t change the core game of No Man’s Sky, so skeptics may still not be satisfied.

But for anyone who feels like previous versions of the game were a near-miss, Beyond is the best excuse to reinstall it. The busy work has been scraped away (in most cases, at least), and it turns out there was a lot of fun to be had underneath that layer of frustration.

No Man’s Sky Beyond is now available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The update was reviewed on PC using a downloadable Steam “retail” copy of the game purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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