More than six and a half years after No Man’s Sky was first released, I took my first trip into the game last week, wearing the brand-new PlayStation VR2 headset. It’s probably not the only way I’d choose to play the game, but about three hours in, it’s a mind-bending and overwhelming experience.
No Man’s Sky got optional full virtual reality support back in 2019, letting players navigate its huge procedurally generated universe in PC VR and the original PlayStation VR. But the VR mode got an overhaul last week with the new Fractal update and the launch of the PSVR 2, where it’s one of Sony’s big-name launch titles alongside games like Gran Turismo 7 and Resident Evil Village. No Man’s Sky adds support for things like the new Sense controllers and features like face rumble alongside the PlayStation 5’s general graphical upgrades, and it felt like time to finally check the game out.
No Man’s Sky is all about exploration. You’re dropped onto a planet where you have to collect resources to survive and build bases, and with a hovercraft or starship, you can drive around planets or fly through space. On a flat screen, the game has fairly typical first-person shooter menus and controls. In VR, things are very different. You move by teleporting from place to place. You access menus by selecting items on wrist-mounted computers. And perhaps most obviously, you move by looking around with your actual head — an experience that, in space, is incredible.
Piloting a spaceship in VR — actually gazing up at the nearby stars through the cockpit — is awe-inspiring. On my first trip to orbit, I looked to my right and saw an absolutely massive planet with Saturn-like rings that made my jaw drop. It’s all like something out of a sci-fi dream. Yes, you can look around the cockpit when you’re not in VR, but there’s just something special about doing it while immersed in a headset. It’s practically a cliche at this point to say that VR makes you feel “really there,” but that doesn’t make it any less fun.
Screenshot by Jay Peters / The Verge
Space combat in VR was thrilling, too. On one planet I visited, I accidentally angered a robotic drone, and a fleet of Sentinel bots and ships approached me. I took to the skies to fight my attackers, and in the air, my ship automatically chased opponents when I held down the X button. I’m not a capable enough pilot to track enemies in the air with the game’s flying controls in VR, which put a joystick in one hand and a thruster in the other, but with this autopilot feature, I could channel my inner Luke Skywalker and track enemies with ease.
Driving a hovercraft on an alien world filled me with glee, too. I loved trundling over hills, watching landscapes roll by. But operating the vehicle isn’t quite as easy as the spaceship, and it’s indicative of some broader issues with the game’s controls.
The actual driving system is creative: you turn by squeezing the grips of the Sense controllers like you’re grabbing a real steering yoke and then turn your hands to yank it left or right. But holding the Sense grips requires enough effort that my middle fingers started getting tired, and frustratingly, the game would occasionally lose track of my controller, meaning I’d have to regrab the wheel again. I also didn’t find the wrist-bound screens very intuitive for other tasks, as they seemed needlessly complex.
Inside or outside VR, No Man’s Sky drops you in a strange and sometimes hostile world. On my first run, I started on a planet with a toxic atmosphere and had to make a mad dash for the safety of a cave. This can get doubly disorienting when you’re figuring out the controls of a whole new interface. I was already used to things like teleportation from other VR games, but it could be much more challenging for first-time headset users.
But again, it was thrilling to explore the cave in VR. I had a better sense of the twists and turns of the cavern, and I loved looking around to get a better view of the geology and local fauna growing all around. However, I wish the graphics were a little bit better; the environments looked a little blurry to me, perhaps due to the game’s age, which ruined the immersion just a bit.
I abandoned that run pretty quickly, as I didn’t like being stuck in the cave. I started the game in a more guided “Expedition,” with clearer missions and rewards. And after getting dropped on a lush, green, and thankfully, clean-aired planet, I built myself a basic home by placing the tiles and roof with my virtual hands. I pulled together the resources for that hovercraft and really felt my adventure begin.
If I keep going in No Man’s Sky, I’ll probably do a mix of VR and non-VR playtime. Outside of the ship, the game’s non-VR controls feel drastically more intuitive to me. The next time I need to spend extensive time on a planet, I think I’ll opt for my TV and a controller. If I felt like I was going to play the game for hours on end, I probably wouldn’t do all of that time wearing the PSVR 2. If I already had a PC VR headset or a PSVR, I don’t think I’d upgrade to PSVR 2 just for No Man’s Sky; PSVR 2 features like face rumble are nice, but not must-haves.
But as soon as I’m in a spaceship, I know I’m going to opt for the headset so that I can relive the feeling of actually being a space pilot. For me, a total newcomer who has heard a lot about No Man’s Sky but never actually played it, I can’t stop thinking about my first brushes with space. I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of the vast possibilities in No Man’s Sky and I can’t wait to get back in the pilot’s seat.