Next is the reason to play No Man's Sky again

I've spent the bulk of the last few days playing No Man's Sky following the release of its Next expansion, and you know what? Next is almost entirely good, including some of the features it adds that I don't personally enjoy. As with the three earlier expansions, Next doesn't rebuild No Man's Sky as an entirely new game but instead adds new features and supports new and different ways to play it.

Here are my thoughts on No Man's Sky Next after about 25 hours of play this week.

The deeper focus on crafting is ultimately a good thing, even if you hate crafting

Creative Mode or Normal Mode? If one element of No Man's Sky is going to push you in a specific direction it's the crafting and resource gathering, which has been both overhauled and expanded in Next. It always felt odd to me that a space exploration game began with you running around with your head down shooting rocks and plants for an hour, and now it becomes an even longer process since it takes a few extra steps to get your ship up and running. You no longer just need to gather resources, you need to refine them.

Even though I don't care for the crafting in No Man's Sky (and honestly never did), it's a much better system now. As someone who just wants to fly around and look at weird alien stuff, having to constantly refuel life support, hazard protection, weapons systems, ship systems—even needing to gather resources to fill the mining laser you use to gather resources. The crafting always felt at odds with the nature of the game: here's a few quadrillion planets to visit, but here's a few quadrillion speedbumps in your way.

For people who really dig crafting in general, the old system wasn't great, either. It was far too basic. Now it's more robust and satisfying. There were already items that required several ingredients and steps to make, like warp fuel, but the complexity has extended down to other items as well. There's now a refinery process, a piece of equipment you need to place on the ground, add fuel to, then process raw materials with, and sometimes you even need to process the resulting materials a second time to make something else. It feels like you're really crafting instead of just murdering rocks and trees and sticking their broken corpses into a gas tank, and for those that enjoy a bit more complexity Next is a great overhaul.

To be clear: I don't like it! But I respect it. And now that there's actual co-op multiplayer, people who do enjoy that aspect of the game can work on building projects together. (Me, I'll be sailing around in Creative Mode.)

It looks and sounds even better than it did

No Man's Sky was always a staggeringly lovely game, a lush and colorful intergalactic postcard generator. Land on a planet, look around, and you're bound to find the cover of a pulp science-fiction novel just waiting to be photographed. 

Its looks have improved over the past two year and Next drops still more beauty into your eyes with new cloud systems, more impressive storms, better planetary generation systems, and improved textures. Planetary rings, which appear in just about every star system now, are the icing on the cake. Whatever algorithm generates beauty, Hello Games definitely worked it out early and keeps refining it.

There's new music and sound too, and it's all lovely, from the ambient planetary sounds to the indecipherable broadcasts of a freighter fleet to the haunting and stirring soundtrack. This is one of the few games I will always wear a headset for.

The menus are still pretty awful, though

To switch from first-person to third person, you have to press a bunch of keys to cycle through what I think is intended to be shortcut menu. It's a pain. When fueling and loading a refiner, one act requires you to press X and the other a mouse click. It's also a pain, and a confusing one. There's a menu you can't scroll at all without using the W and S keys despite having a mousewheel. It's a pain. No Man's Sky needs way more hot keys and way more thought put into mouse and keyboard controls.

This is stuff that can (and I hope will) be adjusted in future patches, because it's deeply unintuitive and cumbersome now (though perhaps it makes more sense on a controller). Flying in third-person mode with a mouse and keyboard is also extremely ungainly at first, though I've found a couple days into Next it's feeling much more natural.

Alien creatures are no longer front and center

One area No Man's Sky has still never quite realized its original promise is when it comes to alien creatures. That original E3 trailer with it's lumbering alien dinosaurs and flitting butterflies and massive sandworms—the game just never came close to living up to it, and despite everything the expansions have added, it still doesn't.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but after landing on dozens of planets since Next arrived this week it seems like creatures simply don't appear as often. They're still present on most planets, but there seem to be fewer of them, and fewer variations of them, and they're typically smaller (large creatures had a lot of trouble walking on procedural terrain with procedural legs and usually wound up looking stupid). It feels as if they've just been dialed back as a whole because, quite frankly, they simply didn't work that well. If another big expansion arrives someday, I hope it focuses on making alien creatures something more wondrous so they can take center stage again.

Whatever your playstyle is, it's now supported

Solo play, co-op, survival, crafting, exploration, base-building, money-making, ship collecting, fleet management, farming, radiant task-based missions, and no-hassle creative mode wandering—the updates to No Man's Sky haven't just added new stuff but support for the different ways people want to experience the galaxy. Letting you join up with friends or connect with strangers gives us another experience to try, and you can always disable it if you still want to pretend you're alone in the galaxy.

You're not, though: Tens of thousands of others have either tried No Man's Sky for the first time or returned to it this week, and it's easy to see why. There are still plenty of rough patches to smooth out, and obviously not everyone is going to be digging the new, more complex crafting system. That's what's great about the current state of the game, though: there are lots of different ways to play.