When the original version of No Man’s Sky was released three years ago, the dreamy, highly esoteric space exploration game divided opinion with its obtuse narrative and lack of previously hinted multiplayer components. Since then, developer Hello Games has ceaselessly tweaked the experience and released two major downloadable updates, Next and Beyond. Now, the whole package is available as a physical release for the PlayStation 4, providing the ultimate version of one of the most ambitious titles of the modern era, which also happens to be a wonderful showcase for the console’s virtual reality capabilities.
Playing No Man’s Sky Beyond with a VR headset (a feature also accessible on the PC version via Oculus Rift, Vive and other headsets) is an almost mystical experience. Standing on an alien world, watching as the branches of strange flora rustle in the breeze and starships fly in formation overhead is utterly beguiling and transporting, while maintaining a true sense of physical presence. Holographic menus pop up on your HUD, indicating notable mineral deposits and undiscovered creatures, and if you’re using the PlayStation Move controllers you get a wonderfully physical interface for the game’s crucial mining laser.
It’s not perfect, however. The screen resolution is lower and you have to adjust to the sometimes slightly blurred patina the VR display casts over everything. Also, the point-and-teleport movement system, default if you’re using a Dualshock controller, may take a few minutes to get used to, but at least it drastically cuts down on any sort of motion sickness that might come from fully free-body movement. These issues are much less obvious once you get into space and see the stars and planets around your cockpit. It is a revelation.
Beyond also adds to all other aspects of the No Man’s Sky offering, enhancing the multiplayer component allowing you to easily meet, trade with and assist other players on their missions, and greatly improving the structure and sense of the narrative strands, so you understand what you’re doing out there in space following clues toward the mysterious Atlas. The game feels more populated with non-player characters too, the space stations crowded with travellers rather than empty and echoing.
At its core, No Man’s Sky Beyond is still the same poetic unconventional space game it always was – you can drift from world to world, exploring alone, watching weird beasts trawl the orange plains as planets swirl in the night sky. You don’t have to interact with anything or anyone. But all the systems, from the inventory screens, to the missions briefings, have been perfected to support rather than frustrate you in your career as an interstellar wanderer. Doing these things within virtual reality has been something of a gift to me, a kid of the original Star Wars generation. It is a childhood fantasy somewhat realised.
Sony has sold millions of its PlayStation VR headsets and until now it’s been tough to recommend one experience as a killer app. Soulful, technically proficient and at times almost tearfully beautiful, No Man’s Sky Beyond is as close as we’ll get.