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Six years on, No Man's Sky is a masterpiece

A screenshot taken from No Man's Sky
(Image credit: Hello Games)

Welcome! This column is part of a regular series in which we share what members of the Tom's Guide staff are playing and enjoying right now, with an eye toward helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our previous entry, where we talk about Cyberpunk 2077.

I'm a late bloomer, both to No Man's Sky and to space games in general. Star Wars Battlefront I & II aside, most of my two and a half decades of gaming have been spent playing almost everything but space titles. Survival and/or exploration RPGs haven't really been my thing either. Combine the above with the abysmal launch of No Man's Sky back in 2016 — truly a publisher's and developer's worst nightmare — and understandably, I totally overlooked Hello Games' universal epic.

And oh boy, have I been missing out. 

No Man's Sky (NMS) recently popped up in my Steam recommended list and, intrigued to see how the game was doing six years after it's disastrous debut, I had a look. Given all I knew about the game was its messy release, how overhyped it had been (glad we've all grown out of that...) and how let down the community felt at the time, its reviews surprised me. They were positive. Apparently, developers Hello Games have worked non-stop for over 6 years to fix their mess, patch the game and continue its development. All without charging users a penny for major updates or DLC.

The result is that, through hard work and an ostensible sense of duty to their customers, they've earnt a devoted fanbase and turned NMS into what it is today: in my opinion, a masterpiece. Coming up is my second weekend devoted entirely to playing it, and I can't wait.

Open world? Try open universe

Ever had that anxious feeling when swimming out into the sea in open world games? I get it whenever I replay GTA San Andreas or Morrowind. It's called thalassophobia, defined as a fear of large bodies of open water. Whatever the space equivalent is, No Man's Sky gives me that. 

The game is enormous. One of the primary aims of play, aside from staying alive, building stuff and acquiring goods, is to explore as many of the over 18 quintillion randomly generated planets as you like. That's right: quintillion. Travelling within a single planetary system can literally take weeks without warping, such is the scale. Yet it's beautiful, so much so that I've sometimes considered taking the slower route.

(Image credit: Hello Games)

I've put around 30 hours into NMS now — a similar amount of time as I'd devote to an entire story-driven major title before happily considering it finished. In those 30 hours, I've touched down on, drumroll... 8 planets, although 2 were technically moons. Out of those, I've totally explored zero. 

People talk about replayability a lot when discussing games, especially when weighing up value for money. With NMS, the whole 'replay' aspect is simply superfluous. This game just offers so much playability to begin with. 

I've heard and read reviews from people who've played since release, logging thousands of hours. The only thing preventing them using their original saves has been the sheer amount of development the game has experienced during their time playing, which has rendered their early save files unstable. If that isn't a fine testament to how much this game offers, and to the work its developers have put in, I'm not sure what is.

Nothing is perfect

It isn't all sunshine and daisies though. And while I've just gushed over its size, beauty and the work that's gone into it, I'm not sure I could put as much time into No Man's Sky as others have.

One of the common gripes at launch still rings true today. The gameplay is already becoming somewhat repetitive, even after my measly tally of just 8 out of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. You farm for crafting resources, explore places to find things, fly to a galactic or pirate station to sell stuff and then potentially run the gauntlet of the sentinels (the evil empire of robots) to get back to your base or on to a new planet. Then repeat. I'm left wondering: is that all there is for me now — doing that 18,446,744,073,709,551,608 more times?

A screenshot taken from No Man's Sky

(Image credit: Hello Games)

Don't get me wrong, it's fun initially, role playing a space trader and all, but without a range of different enemies to fight (there are only the sentinels, and these can be avoided pretty easily), there's never really much jeopardy to keep things interesting. And with a main storyline that is frankly paltry, bordering on downright boring, I do have my doubts about No Man's Sky being the right long termer for me.

There is a saving grace though, for me at least. Base building. 

The office (in space)

Base building in No Man's Sky is brilliant, and for me the finest aspect of the game, followed closely by the option of obtaining huge starships called freighters. And while I joked about not doing much on the game in 30 hours, realistically around 20 of those have been spent building my first base, which is basically two large, square office blocks, one with a starship launchpad on top.

A screenshot of No Man's Sky, taken on Steam Deck

Welcome to my office. (Image credit: Future)

It's just so much fun. Especially if, like me, you spent many childhood hours on The Sims. You build, tear down, add, subtract and then finally, when you're happy, engage in the best activity of all: decorating. I spent 5 hours last Sunday night doing my wiring. It's glorious, and will only get better as I progress and unlock more base-building blueprints and start building crazy underwater bases and what not. I'd even go so far as to say base building, and what I have in mind for future bases, is what is primarily keeping me at the drudge of obtaining resources. That and saving up for a freighter.

Admittedly, base building is also where I've most noticed whatever bugs this game has left. Occasionally I've had to back out of the game entirely due to the game deciding it no longer wants to let me place walls properly, that kind of thing. From where this game has come from though, the bugs are relatively minor, and if your opinion of this game is based upon its poor state early on, I urge you to reconsider. 

A screenshot taken from No Man's Sky

(Image credit: Hello Games)

So, while I previously called the game a masterpiece, that's not to say it doesn't have flaws. It does. Aspects are monotonous, the storyline and enemies suck, and there are still a few bugs. But don't all masterpieces have flaws? The Sistine Chapel ceiling. Beethoven's symphonies. Futurama. All are marvelous feats of artistry, but there will always be something someone doesn't like about them. We can still judge them objectively as fantastic achievements, and that's how I feel about No Man's Sky. Its scale and beauty; that it's shaken off a reputation as one of the buggiest flops ever to not only work, but be verified and run perfectly on the Linux-based Steam Deck; that it can be fun for someone who doesn't even like the genre and provide literally thousands of hours of gameplay for the devoted player base who do. These really are great accomplishments. So well done Hello Games. 

Now for another Sunday spent wiring.

Next: Here's how to install Steam on Mac to access the games from your Mac. 

Peter Wolinski
How-to Editor

Peter is the How To Editor at Tom's Guide. As a writer, he covers topics including tech, photography, gaming, hardware, motoring and food & drink. Outside of work, he can usually be found telling everyone about his greyhounds, obsessively detailing his car, squeezing as many FPS as possible out of PC games, and perfecting his espresso shots.

  • Azrayle
    If you truly want to unlock this game, look up how to collect 'glyphs' and then visit https://www.reddit.com/r/NMSCoordinateExchange?utm_medium=android_app&utm_source=share
    Reply
  • Korozyon
    The only thing preventing them using their original saves has been the sheer amount of development the game has experienced during their time playing, which has rendered their early save files unstable. If that isn't a fine testament to how much this game offers, and to the work its developers have put in, I'm not sure what is.

    Not migrating the player saves during updates and rendering them unplayable == testament to the game and the Devs 🤔
    Reply
  • Boba Lazarević
    The review is basically: "the game is boring and buggy, but otherwise it's perfect".
    :rolleyes:
    Reply