Just over a year ago I did something I very rarely do these days, which is buy a game at launch. Due to a daft backlog and not much time to play I tend to wait for heavy discounts before committing, but No Man’s Sky grabbed me with its early trailers and I couldn’t resist diving in to explore its universe.

I wrote a couple of posts about it back then:

No Man’s Sky reminds me of Morrowind

I lost my spaceship in No Man’s Sky

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I played for a good while – the kind of duration you might eke out of a decent single player, story-driven game, despite NMS at that time having no real story to speak of other than what you projected. It was a beautiful and intriguing setting with a fiddly inventory mini-game and endless resource faffing.

The space fantasy was intoxicating, but I’d had my fill. The updates since were interesting but didn’t manage to give me a reason to care about anything.

Atlas Rises, the latest update, is an altogether different affair. It has a focus on story and context, adding weight to every mechanic in the game’s design and focusing on providing a reason to explore the amazing universe. It also provides a way to discover the game’s subtler and trickier features, providing genuine reason to explore the options. The universe feels considerably more alive.

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It reminds me, oddly, of the first two Assassin’s Creed games. The first game was stunningly beautiful and had an intricately realised world in which you couldn’t really do much, and were trapped in a handful of highly repetitive mechanical loops which got stale very quickly. Despite the scale and scope of the game, it felt like you’d seen everything it had to offer within its first two hours, visuals aside.

Assassin’s Creed II was something of a revelation, not only finessing the systems but also layering on a satisfying, pulpy adventure story with a compelling and charismatic lead. The improvements to all the systems made it fun to play but it was the story which gave it context and purpose, and kept me playing even after the combat, stealth and parkour had long become overly familiar. The leap from the first to the second game was amazing and very rewarding.

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That’s where No Man’s Sky is now, although this has all come about through free updates – itself a surprising thing. The quality and quantity of the changes have even started to turn the tide from the extreme backlash reaction at launch towards respect and general positivity, which didn’t seem possible even a couple of months ago.

Crafting purpose and direction and story onto a freeform, procedural sandbox like No Man’s Sky must be incredibly complex. That they’ve managed to do it in such an eloquent, natural, seamless manner is quite something.

Oh, and the other thing: the photo mode is a glorious, special thing. I should probably write a separate post about that.

Pro tip: if you bought the pre-order way back when, don’t redeem your Steam bonus ship right at the start, as you’ll miss out on one of the best bits in the opening. Wait until after you’ve at least made your first full hyperspace jump.

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