It is hard to overstate the amount listed in No Man's Sky's 1.3 patch, "Atlas Rises." Released on the game's first anniversary and following a lengthy and intricate ARG, the patch doesn't focus on improving any specific area so much as sweep a broad brush across the majority of the game. Little has gone untouched.
The update begins by describing the game's new, 30-hour story, heralding the arrival of the game's glowing, geometric fourth race. The new story, complete with a "quest system and branching narrative" suggests that it's going to bring together many of the more interesting concepts of the original game that were mentioned but left frustratingly undeveloped.
Additionally, galactic trade has been entirely revamped, adding "wealth, economy, and conflict" to the game's star systems, and the map interface has been altered to address these changes. "Improved waypointing" will allow me to "see [my] journey so far, from beginning to end." That journey will now be filled by the new mission system, which generates endless goals and rewards on top of the new story mode.
The notes continue, of course. New, exotic worlds. Higher quality textures. Better biomes. Deeper trading. Terrain editing. The list of changes threatens to drown you, and if you are interested you should take a deep breath and read the full notes. The additions are presented proudly. Colorfully.
Worth mentioning on it's own though, is "Joint Exploration," which amounts to the careful, measured addition of multiplayer. Appearing as floating blue orbs, up to 16 players can now meet on a planet and explore it together. "Interaction," stresses the patch notes, "is very limited," but I am looking forward so much to exploring these newer, stranger worlds with my friends.
There are hundreds of tiny additions which I have barely begun to dig into.
I have been trying to identify a through-line between each of these huge changes that goes beyond "quality of life" or "new content." To work out what this patch wants the game to become. Two possibilities come to mind.
First the galaxy presented by these patch notes feels substantially stranger, more alien. The new ships, as much cuttlefish as they are machine. The fourth race. The exotic planets, whose surfaces appear to be synthetic. No Man's Sky has always hinted at sincerely alien structures and spaces, but never quite managed to evoke them. This new strangeness, in combination with what seems to be a wide-reaching refinement of the game's visual aesthetics, might just get the game closer to its alien inspirations.
Second, No Man's Sky at launch, and during its first two patches, was a profoundly lonely experience. Rather than exploring an alien galaxy, it often felt as though I was lost at the center of a vast field and any contact with others was beamed to me as if from a great distance. With the addition of galactic economies, a new story mode, "joint exploration," and missions to take me from place to place, I am so curious to see if this space feels more alive.
There are broader, more difficult questions to be asked. Is a 30 hour story mode something that No Man's Sky really needs? Are the procedural missions going to be evocative enough to escape the sensation of a to-do list? Is a galaxy defined solely by conflict and trade going to end up feeling just as cold as an empty one?
With "Atlas Rises," I am returning to No Man's Sky. No doubt about it.
There is a very good chance that I might be playing a completely different game.