Impressions: No Man’s Sky Beyond shoots for the stars and delivers a great experience

Platform: PC/HTC Vive (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One

I feel like I’ve restarted No Man’s Sky more than most, often after a major content update, and often with mixed feelings about the game afterwards. No Man’s Sky’s infinite universe and its love of randomly generated worlds, creatures, and resources have always fascinated me, but the core game has always felt slower than space molasses.

That said, the No Man’s Sky Beyond update is impressive, partly because it’s one of the best VR ports we’ve ever played, and because it makes No Man’s Sky feel fun and addictive, rather than repetitive and boring.

Clear Skies

Although the core gameplay in No Man’s Sky hasn’t changed much in the Beyond update, it has been tweaked significantly to change the pace of your average space adventure.

While No Man’s Sky at launch catered specifically to players that loved exploration for exploration’s sake, the last several updates have taken a more, “play your way” look at the core NMS experience. Allowing you to venture off into the depths of space in search of thousands and thousands of pounds of ferrite and carbon to build your ideal base to call home, or to just kick back and enjoy a nice casual stroll through jaw dropping, randomly generated worlds.

That said, most of the tweaks in the Beyond update are focused on increasing just how quickly you can do pretty much anything in No Man’s Sky. This includes tweaks to everything from inventory capacity to the efficiency of your mining laser, all of which serve to make your life among the stars less of a hassle and more like the fun survival experience you might expect.

Even better, the tutorial and basic starting quests do a lot more to guide new players into advanced mechanics without feeling like they’re overwhelming you in the moment. These tutorials are a bit long winded, but for new players they provide an essential steppingstone from waking up on a hazardous planet, to building a proper working space colony and decrypting the mysteries of the universe.

The result is a streamlined No Man’s Sky experience that rewards you for getting lost in the moment by giving you clear goals and ways to accomplish them, without tripping over so many of its own mechanics that players lose interest entirely. 

Lost Time

No Man’s Sky has always been immersive, but the Beyond update has finally found a sweet spot between survival and exploration that draws you into the details of everyday space colonization.

What might start out as a simple forward outpost quickly evolves into a bustling base with a host of alien friends that need various supplies and objectives completed to properly do their jobs. These NPCs are also the key to unlocking many of the new vehicles in the game, which makes building a proper base finally feel satisfying and worthwhile to do by yourself or with friends.

Compared to earlier versions of the game, where No Man’s Sky felt like it was trying to force you to dote on the themes that the developers liked the most, you’re now offered a host of activities that you can spend hours or even days trying to complete.

Whether you’re learning how to tame animals and mounts so that you can ride a 10ft tall Electrboogaloo, or putting the finishing touches on your Nautilon so you can go deep sea mining, No Man’s Sky finally feels like it offers a whole host of missions, objectives, and reasons to actually explore the nearly infinite galaxy Hello Games has been working on for years.

A universe of friends

As you might expect, the expanded multiplayer of Beyond is nothing but a positive addition to the larger No Man’s Sky experience, allowing you to team up with friends to build bases, explore new worlds, or knock out tough objectives cooperatively. Everything that’s fun about No Man’s Sky gets much more fun when enjoyed with friends, and the Beyond update is keen on expanding how often you’ll encounter other players so that you can team up to work together.

The Beyond update expands No Man’s Sky’s multiplayer experience up to eight players on console and up to 32 players on PC, which allows you to create a much more active community of players on a single planet or system. Even better, you’ll now be able to see people in your instance as fully animated characters rather than as floating orbs of light, which in general makes the cooperative side of the game feel more lifelike and organic.

You can also team up with strangers and other players in the Anomaly, a new player hub that can be accessed from almost any backwoods corner of Hello Games’ infinite universe.

The Anomaly allows you to relax with NPCs and players alike, check out different star ships as they enter and exit the station, and access vendors for blueprints and other valuable resources and upgrades. You can even team up with other players to complete missions that net you huge piles of resources to take back to your personal base or to use with friends to create the bustling metropolis you’ve been dreaming of since No Man’s Sky launched back in 2016.

That said, no multiplayer experience is perfect, and No Man’s Sky’s still has its fair share of bugs and glitches. Some of these are as simple as wildly fluctuating ping and connection issues, to more complex issues with laggy terrain manipulation and desync issues.

Unfortunately, you’re also still limited to parties of four or less players, and there’s no guild or clan system in sight, so you’ll need to get creative if you want more than four people playing together at once.

These seem like the kind of features we’ll hopefully see added in the coming months, but for now the only decent way to get any large group together on the same planet is by shuffling players across squads in a clunky game of musical space chairs.  

It’s unfortunate, but hopefully Hello Games will continue to expand the multiplayer options available in the coming months. For now, it’s definitely a good start, and a far shy from the experience we had when No Man’s Sky initially launched.

Stepping into the stars in VR

It’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts of the best part of the Beyond update, because No Man’s Sky in virtual reality is one of the best VR experiences we’ve ever played and should be at least the minimum bar for VR ports going forward.

It’s not perfect, but it’s undeniably a great addition to the main game and a fantastic alternative to playing sitting at your desk or on the couch. My usual rule of thumb with VR ports is to gauge whether the VR version of the game feels like it adds something new and interesting to the experience of the vanilla game without distracting from the core gameplay.

In No Man’s Sky VR there’s just no way to set aside how cool it feels to watch an alien landscape stretch out in front of you as you cruise the atmosphere in your shuttle, or blast into faster than light speed once you get off the tutorial planet for the first time. The landscapes look stunning, and the crazy creatures trying to rip you to pieces are a hundred times more intimidating and terrifying when they’re inches from your face.

That said, what makes No Man’s Sky VR feel special is that it feels more natural to play No Man’s Sky in VR than it does with a controller or mouse and keyboard.

This is because Hello Games chose to almost completely abandon the idea of a traditional control scheme, and instead created a set of custom, virtual controls that you interact with entirely in VR.

Some of the basics for moving around via teleportation or traditional locomotion are still bound to your touchpad, but for the most part everything else is only accomplished with a click of the triggers or a light touch of the grips. On my HTC Vive these motions are already familiar, and I quickly found myself more focused on my character’s hands in game than I was the controls I was using out of game.

The in-game controls enhance an already immersive experience and give you a sense of presence in the game world. You don’t just use the touchpad or a set of analog sticks to fly, you reach out and grab the virtual controls. If you want your analysis visor down, you’ll need to reach up to your helmet and activate it like Cyclops from the X-Men. You don’t even open your inventory so much as bring up an interactive holo menu in real time and interact from there.

There’s also no barrier between normal players and people playing in VR, which means that you’re free to interact with other players whether they’re strapped into a VR headset or not. So, you don’t have to worry about empty, desolate VR lobbies, and can pick up playing with any of your friends that own the base game at the drop of a hat.

No Man’s Sky VR is free as part of the Beyond update, and now that the rest of No Man’s Sky finally feels like the fun and addicting experience it was always meant to be it’s a pretty low risk chance to dive into one of the best VR adventures on the platform.