It’s quite something that after five years and thousands of hours, I’m still having an absolutely lovely and chill time with No Man’s Sky.

The last time I put words to page about it, I celebrated its rediscovered messiness. Since then, so much more has been added and with that, so much more mess.

As I wrote last time round, it’s the good kind of messy. The messy that keeps things interesting, keeps everything from seeming a little too rote, ensures the game never feels clinical in its approach. It’s the rough edges, unfiled.

Case in point: settlements.

One of the more recent additions to No Man’s Sky is the ability to run a small settlement for a bunch of aliens.

As the overseer of the settlement the player is charged with making planning decisions, helping out with construction and settling petty complaints between townsfolk like some sort of cosmic headteacher meandering through a space playground dishing out space litter duties.

In my own infinite wisdom, I’d decided that rather than try and find the best or nicest looking settlement, I’d take the first one the game threw at me.

Molyneux save me, did I ever end up with a rough one.

The settlement I look after is on a freezing world with regular long and blinding storms. Vy’keen scatter themselves around, taking brief walks in-between the hellish weather fluctuations and sentinel assaults on the base, running for shelter and safety when it all kicks off.

It is rarely not kicking off. This is a settlement of tremendously healthy and well exercised Vy’keen thanks to the storms.

The weather is so terrible that it often takes me five or ten minutes to find whatever half built building I need to drop some materials off at. It’s so terrible that on the occasions where Sentinels (No Man’s Sky’s intergalactic robot coppers) decide my settlement is an anomaly too far and opt to try and shut it down, I often have to take the game’s word for it because like I can see anything through the storm.

For all I can see, the Sentinels could be stopping by to hold a Punch And Judy show. Either way, they’ll need shooting.

It is honestly ridiculous. It’s so extreme that it borders on unplayable. I get mere moments in the clear even as fully decked out with protective gear as the game permits.

I love it. I love it because yes, it really sells the whole harsh world thing. But also, I love it because it’s frankly funny. There is absolutely no need for the game to have planets this brutal and plenty of other games would knead the kinks out into something vastly more controlled, more palatable.

No Man’s Sky is all like “nah” and goes all in. Nobody really needs to see what’s going on anyway, right?

It’s all part of the joy of the settlement stuff for me and kinda why the addition of these microgames within a larger game, and the way Hello add stuff to the game, amuses me so much.

It’s how absolutely unnecessarily completely Hello Games commit to them. Exploring derelict freighters doesn’t have to be an over the shoulder horror minigame complete with spoopy tales of how the derelict came to be! But it is.

Settlement management doesn’t have to involve procedurally fleshing out the settlement with new buildings, it doesn’t have to involve petty disputes, citizens determined to go and wander into harm’s way because they’re bored and especially doesn’t need little management game style bubbles showing the current thoughts of each citizen. But it does.

And it certainly doesn’t need to include planets that are complete stormy horror shows, but it does.

I don’t think I’ve played any game ever that’s been quite this sort of journey. From the strange, janky, Out There but you can explore the planets for realsies of the game at launch to this beast of an MMO that exceeds most of the promises that Cloud Imperium have been struggling to even meet the basics of with more money and more time available to them to begin with.

I suspect it helps that whilst each addition over time widens the amount of things to do in the game, they’ve been discreet enough so as to largely be optional – it is a big dicking around in space simulator first, a videogame second and once you’ve got the initial speed bump done with, the game leaves you be. It is the agreement every good MMO makes with the player, an understanding that this is a world to be in, the entertainment to be found there is on you.

And, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, it’s definitely the jank too. That the game follows the all too rare Bethesda ethic of it’s better to have this stuff complete with all the problems it brings than not have it, we’ll worry about it falling apart later and it will forever teeter on the brink of falling apart. That, I find, is where the most magic has been found in recent years.

I know intimately the reasons why most games aren’t this, it’s because it’s bloody well difficult to pull off at scale. I don’t think I ever expected this silly little sci fi book cover generator to become what it is, I certainly don’t want every game to follow the same paths Hello have in transforming the experience so thoroughly into something else,

I’m glad this one exists though.

And I’m glad that for all the changes over the years, that little game I enjoyed taking screenshots of is still a videogame I enjoy taking screenshots of.

Yeah, that’ll do me.

A spaceship nestled amongst alien flora

Can’t lie, I like a good spaceship. Whether it’s the post war airforce analog of Dan Dare’s Anastasia, the flying St John’s Beacon-isms of the Dalek flying saucer from the 60’s Who film (any flying saucer is great really but that’s the gold standard), my personal all time favourite of The Liberator (Scorpio just doesn’t cut it) or the absurdly ominous kitbash of the Star Destroyer. Spaceships, frankly, are good.

A spaceship taking off from an alien planet.

Well. Film, TV and comic spaceships are good. Videogame spaceships have largely failed to grab me in the same way. I’m not even sure why. When sitting down to write this post out I tried racking my brains for some spaceships in a game somewhere that I really love and I guess there’s the R-9, that’s pretty good though that’s more for the attachments, I guess. And errr, well, that’s where No Man’s Sky comes in because the spaceships are fantastic and there’s so many variations to pick through thanks to them being built out of modular parts.

A fleet of capital ships and freighters in orbit around a ringed alien world

And sure, it’s a bit of a cheat because the ships in No Man’s Sky do often riff on familiar ships but no matter, they’re really something. The only real problem is that the game only lets me own six at any one time so picking the fleet I desire most is as much a part of the game as anything else. In a game where the appeal is predominantly aesthetic, it’s actually a rather hefty part.

I’m rarely entirely content with my fleet but right now, I reckon I’ve got a bit of a special bunch. I mean, take a look at these.

A bulbous red "royal" spaceship from No Man's Sky.
A yellow "royal" spaceship in space, like a sleek space duck from beyond the stars.
A shuttle craft from No Man's Sky
A fighter class ship from No Man's Sky, somewhere between Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica in style.
A squid ship from No Man's Sky. Imagine the Starship Enterprise but as a fish. That doesn't help, does it?

The ridiculous thing is that my fleet doesn’t even touch the sides of the amount of ship designs in the game. There’s an absurd amount of variations from the curious Captain Blood-esque living ships to 70’s SF book cover style haulers, tubular shuttle craft, “bug” spaceships and even a bunch that look like they’ve popped straight out of the Dyson factory. It should be illegal to have this many spaceships in one videogame.

Like, Destiny 2 has a bundle of spaceships but for the bulk, it’s a paint job to tell them apart. To be fair, they’re often exceptionally good paint jobs because that’s Destiny for you! Just, you know, spaceships.

A moody shot of a spaceship from the rear, set against a red and purple nebula

Because my brain is terrible to me at the best of times, I absolutely do find myself looking over at the ridiculous amounts of money Star Citizen asks for their post-Aliens militaristic in-game spaceships (some of which you’d currently only be buying a promise that it’ll appear in the game at some vague point in the future), then looking back at how I could, if I wanted to, swap round my ship for a markedly different one at nearly every stop I make in No Man’s Sky.

I do know it’s kind of mean but, again, spaceships.

In summary: spaceships.

[originally published July 2020]

One of the joys of No Man’s Sky at launch was the chaotic worlds the game would generate. It was a game that could often be beautiful, but only from the correct angle. It was a game that was as likely to generate an awe inspiring planet to explore as much as it could generate one that looked like somebody threw up over a map from the original Halo.

A screenshot from the launch version of No Man's Sky. It is a radioactive planet, an assortment of rocks and veins cover the landscape. It is not pleasing to the eye.
My very first planet from No Man’s Sky’s launch, sort of like a rock of space vomit.

I loved it. Not just because I never quite knew what I’d find when landing somewhere but also because I really, really, enjoyed finding the angle it looked amazing from and *click*, taking a screenshot.

Over a series of updates, that all changed. I think it kinda had to because the promise of visiting dinosaur laden lush planets was a huge part of what people wanted from the game, not something akin to your cat sitting on the keyboard whilst you have Vue open.

An earlier version of No Man's Sky, mid scan. A quadrupedal animal is labelled "Frying Tonight"
I’d forgotten quite how much UI there was.

I can’t say I didn’t appreciate it myself either. It took Hello Games a couple of rejigs to get it working but when they were done, the results were astounding. It became incredibly difficult to take a rubbish shot because the game looked that good pretty much most of the time, from most angles.

Unfortunately, this came with the cost of the universe feeling increasingly uniform. The tidier the generation, the more things looked similar no matter where you travelled to. A wonderful thing for setting up a virtual space home in but yeah, exploration meant seeing the same thing, often. I won’t say the game lost something, it was just different.

An alien looking landscape from No Man's Sky. A rocky outcrop, a rock floats in an orange and red sky, a planet is visible in the sky.
A rock formation that looked great before the 50,000th planet I landed on to find it present.

By the time the Beyond update dropped, it was an absolutely remarkable kind of different. I don’t know what they’re putting in the snacks down at Hello Games HQ but blimey, whatever it is made the game look breathtakingly beautiful. Closer than ever to the great infinite book cover generator dream that sold me on the game from the off.

Gosh, look, I’m getting tingly thinking about how often this silly videogame had me in awe of the talent behind it. I’m a sucker for the craft of game making (not just art) and No Man’s Sky became an absolutely pure show off game. Really, really something.

A much more recent picture of No Man's Sky. A canary yellow spaceship sits amidst an asteroid belt. An enormous glowing space jellyfish  floats in front of a planet.
This pic gets me every time. Seriously good stuff.

I wrote about the game a few months back, fully expecting that to be close to the game’s final form. It’s been four years, it looks astounding, more than had my entertainment from it all. But no. That absolutely was not close to it’s final form.

Since my last piece, explorable space wrecks with more than a tinge of survival horror to them got added to the game and a few weeks back, an absolutely enormous update to the world generation. No Man’s Sky is a big mess again and for the fourth year running, Hello have made me fall in love with the game all over again.

A screenshot from No Man's Sky. A blue squid spaceship flies through an enormous red capital ship.
This was the first shot I took after Origins landed and, well, SOLD.

Which is just rude, really. They should let someone else have a chance.

There’s just so much stuff now. So many new plants, rocks, things, creatures, colours. It’s an absolute treat and best of all, it’s chaotic again! Just chaotic with 4 years of lessons, 4 years of improvements, 4 years of making the thing increasingly beautiful. Because of all this it’s messy in a way the launch version never could be. Stuff everywhere! Incredible storms tearing up the sky! Massive cloud cover! So much stuff to see that I’ve barely touched the sides of it.

It’s really good you know and I’m feeling proper spoiled by it.

What a game. What a game.

A fighter ship flies through some clouds, multiple suns and planets hang in the background.
A remarkable alien planet, spiky rocks and red grass cover a harsh clouded landscape. Strange plants reach up into the sky.
A binary star system, a spaceship flying through space towards a nebula and two planets.
A cold planet, a yellow spaceship parked in the foreground.
A blue sky, orange grass - a mysterious organic ship sits barely in view, a metallic dog like robot walks past.
A side on picture of an alien traveller, green with a white patch, boggly eyes and a thoughtful expression.
An astronaut runs through a storm covering a red planet, mist fills the air and the only light is from the glow of the astronauts backpack.
A pineapple creature looks out to a vaporwave sea.
One of the robot dogs close up. It has a silver disc akin to two plates stacked upon each other, for a head.
A knowing look from the green alien from earlier - in this shot you can see they have what appears to be akin to a marrow for a head.
A lizard chum wielding a laser blaster against a dirty pink sky.
The same lizard chum, walking through the woods.
An astronaut listens to an alien egg.
An astronaut jetting through a strange landscape, black mushrooms with glowing red veins are in front of them.
A dusty landmass, rocks and cacti in the foreground
A spaceship careering through the clouds as a lightning storm erupts in front.
The robot dog with a disc for a head, bowing downwards
The astronaut on a frozen planet. Crystals dot the ground and pants with glowing tips stretch into the sky.