What struck me when booting up No Man’s Sky in the wake of the “NEXT” update was the first question posed to me by the game. After just a smattering of logos, before any hint of a dramatic orchestral swell or endless vistas filled with countless stars, I was given the option to play a game or join a game. Wind back time two years from now and the significance of that previously omitted prompt (and many others) was smattering the gaming press with red-hot asteroids of confusion, disappointment and open hostility. Despite a plethora of factors, including developer Hello Games’ tiny workforce, the initial release’s file size and the unfortunate but well documented fact that sorcery isn’t real, No Man’s Sky was not the industry re-shaping, forever-game that so many people wanted. Through a combination of inexperienced PR, reckless reporting and pressure from an industry giant like Sony, promises were made, broken and everyone lost their collective shit. Hello Games went mute and diligently continued to iterate on their quirky, bright, procedural generation experiment.

I didn’t play the game at launch, despite following it keenly for years beforehand. I, like many, was biding my time. Following the Atlas Rises update in 2017, I jumped on-board, played for about three hours and put it down. I enjoyed many aspects of the game, but found the overall experience to be hollow, more lonely and aimless than I felt I could engage with. I resumed my vigil.

Cut to yesterday, July 24th 2018, the release of NEXT. I’m hit with that first choice and I can already feel a buzz in the air. I start a new game and within minutes I’m almost dead, freezing to death on a seemingly barren hell of a planet. Some dormant resentment for Sean Murray and Hello Games makes me assume this is a design fuck-up, I’ve been given an impossible hand. Then I find the clumpy little yellow plants I must harvest to restore my hazard shield. I check myself, put my apparent prejudice aside and set off. Hours go by. Seeing my character in 3rd person for the first time is consistently pleasant - I love the art-direction they’ve taken for charterer design. I’m now combing the temperate, lush moon orbiting the planet I started on for resources, cargo drops and relics that can teach me an alien language. I’m dead-set on mastering the dialect. I have my eye on a ship that I’m saving for. I’ve built my first base and I’m already looking forward to tearing it down and starting again with the new materials I’ve unlocked. I’m dying to leave this place and reach the space station nearby that the subtle story-line is prompting me towards but I’m slowly falling in love with this Endor-eqsque moon that my Girlfriend and I are gradually exploring, diligently re-christening it’s flora and fauna (the lumbering “Walkasaurus” and bouncing plant abomination “Pineapplebumce” were our space-pets of choice). I have so much to do already and I have only sank a few hours in. I couldn’t pull myself away, playing into the early hours of the morning.

Before I finally yawned one time to many and called it a night, something magical happened. At first, a simple system prompt. Then an icon, off in the distance, off-planet. An hour passed. Then a ship entered orbit and eventually landed beside mine. A being, like me but different. Another player. We exchanged waves, thumbs up and a selection of the other social actions available to us. In this supposedly endless galaxy, I was no longer alone. My new acquaintance flew to my nearby base, where I joined him. Curiously, he broke part of my roof, fixed it and flew away. We will never meet again, but we might.

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There is so much complexity and emotion surrounding this game. For many people, the problems that occurred in 2016 will never be sufficiently resolved by the folks at Hello Games. All I can tell you is that I’m more than satisfied with the version of this game available to us now. More than just that, I’m excited and maybe most importantly of all, inspired. See you among the stars.