The human adventure is just beginning.
The very first words No Man's Sky's unseen, unheard protagonist reads when starting the new Atlas Rises missions are the words that have guided all the best humanistic science fiction: “You are not alone.”
It's the ethos that guides nearly every aspect of the update. After a full year of No Man's Sky being a fundamentally expansive, but lonely experience, Hello Games have introduced new systems and features that make the universe seem smaller, not larger. Whether that makes for a better game than the one we got a year ago is a valid question. While the answer is a confident yes, that begs the more important question of whether it's enough to make the galaxy worth exploring again. That has a more complex answer.
No Man's Sky doesn't aim for the same goals as games like Elite Dangerous or Eve Online or Star Citizen, though a few of the changes present in Atlas Rises will give that illusion. In fact, while the more substantive additions don't hurt the experience, they also seem compulsory. Stuff like the new mission/bounty boards, for example, provide a more direct beacon of goal-oriented gameplay. However, none of these missions diverge from activities the game already proposed to you along the pre-existing Atlas Path. These missions are now the most reliable way to build up a nice pool of currency in a hurry, and are there to provide structure, but they also seem to strip away some of the mystery and loneliness that previously made No Man's Sky an alluring and mysterious journey.
No Man's Sky still excels in those stretches where the more traditional game elements--the trading, the dogfighting, the freighter raids--get out of the way, and it’s just you, your ship, and a near-infinite universe. It is a stronger, singular piece of work when you stop looking for the next milestone, and start letting pure curiosity guide you. Whether for five minutes or five hours, setting foot on a world where the procedural generation gods are on your side and create something of incredible alien beauty is an experience with few analogues in gaming. These moments are easier to appreciate with the new graphical enhancements injecting a new breath of life into everything from the sunlight gleaming off a planet's horizon to the gentle inviting sway of a patch of grass. It's understandable on paper why Hello Games would add a more capitalist/mercenary element to invite a bigger audience, but it still slightly cheapens what is otherwise largely a meditative, not exploitative, experience.
That's not to say all of the elaborate new elements betray the more zen aspects of No Man's Sky, however. One of the more vital additions to the game from the previous Pathfinder update is the ability to build bases, should you find a world you love enough to want to make it your home. The Atlas Rises update takes things a step further with a new portal system that allows you to invite other players to your homestead, using a glyph system reminiscent of the portals from Stargate. It's a mild double edged sword, however. In order to collect the full set of glyphs, you have to progress a ways into the new story mode, and even then, there's the possibility of not even coming across the specific landmarks to unlock them.
Fortunately, the new story mode, in which you encounter Artemis, one of the first explorers of this universe, is strong enough to pull you along regardless. For new players, the early missions in the storyline act as the game's ersatz tutorial, but the training wheels come off fairly quickly. It's a story that plays to the game's strengths, holding the never ending journey sacred, and giving players a consistent empathetic voice, while also taking them to far more personal, affecting places than the original Atlas Path ever did. It's still a quest to the center of the universe, but what you will find there is immensely more gratifying.
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It remains possible, however, to ignore all of that and play the game however you please, enjoying all of the improvements made to No Man's Sky's familiar systems. Mining elements remains an inescapable touchstone of gameplay, now made easier by an updated scanner which will show you if a world even has the specific element you want before landing. In situations where said element juts out of an easily identifiable landmass, ships now have the ability to skim the surface of a planet, making the original version's cringeworthy pop-in problems less of an obstacle when dealing with quick excavation runs.
Fighting ship-to-ship with space pirates is a lot less stiff than before, while also allowing you to use the new communicator function to speak directly to your aggressors and either exacerbate or avoid a fight. The inventory UI is still a wee bit on the cluttered side, but a new menu allows you to manage every aspect of the game's mission structure with ease. Lastly, while you can still roam around on foot, once you have a base set up, land-based vehicles are an option, taking much of the pain out of traversal.
All of this leads back to the original, lingering question: Whether it's worth exploring this universe again. With the addition of Atlas Rises, No Man's Sky is a more robust, welcoming, and accessible experience than before, but it's not a night and day difference. It's less of a new game than a grand realization of what the concept was going for to begin with. It's a game that beckons you to go forth and explore the universe, but Hello Games' fascination with the universe they've created doesn't extend too much further than that and more importantly doesn't need to. There's profundity and power in a game that has no greater ambition than for the player to find a place of beauty and peace in the universe and simply be there for however long they need. That’s the game No Man’s Sky has been since the beginning, and what players will find in its current iteration, for good or ill, is a refined--not redefined--version of that game.