After the third major update, Atlas Rises, No Man's Sky is what it was meant to be.
A common criticism of the game was that it's as wide as the ocean and as deep as a puddle. I never thought it was that dire, but the depth has improved dramatically. A game with "Mostly Negative" reviews on Steam has achieved "Very Positive" recent reviews for the first time.
So what makes things different now?
First, there's a new main story, separate from the Atlas Path (which has also been tweaked). The fourth race is revealed, and you learn more about the mystery of the simulation you're in. Interestingly, there's a story reason for why multiplayer is appearing now (more on that later), and why it's only "glitches" of other players. The ends of the Atlas Path and actually traveling to the center of the galaxy still do the same things they did before, but you now have another option for how to proceed.
Second, there's just more variety in everything. There are more plant and animal types (including those giant animals from the E3 trailer), and more planet biomes. Many more blueprints to have focused and varied builds for your ship and multitool. Each ship type (including the new, rare exotic ship type) handles differently now, and comes with a set of bonuses for different types of gameplay. Different star systems have a conflict rating and economy rating to determine the danger and trade in that system.
Portals now allow you to easily share coordinates to anywhere in the galaxy and go check out other people's amazing creations or interesting planets.
Mission boards in space stations let you build up faction standing and get rewards for doing things you'd probably already be doing anyway.
Crashed freighters on planets add to the landscape and offer a way to get some loot. Mostly, for me, they make the galaxy feel more alive.
And yes, multiplayer has been added, in a limited fashion. You can see other players as a glowing orb, and you can hear voice chat within a certain radius. There's no other interaction possible, with the exception of making a lasting monument that you and this other player met. Imagine Journey with voice. The plot reason for this (as explained in the release announcement) is that the simulation is experiencing issues, so other subjects in the same area are starting to bleed through. I took a trip to the former Galactic Hub, a project started by players even before the portals were activated, on the day the hub was moving to a new location (the new update significantly changed some planets, leaving the Galactic Hub capital a bit on the cold side). There was a party in the old capital to celebrate the move, and there were tons of orbs in a cacophony at first. But after a few minutes I saw what this limited multiplayer could offer: emergent gameplay. Someone set up an exocraft race, and I watched what may have been the first real-time exocraft race.
Yes, there are other new features. Redesigned UI, tech and cargo inventory slots, lower flight capability, crafting improvements, and so on. Those are nice quality of life improvements, but for me, it's all about depth. The game now has deeper gameplay, deeper story, deeper mystery. No Man's Sky, even at launch, scratched an itch I never knew I had. But the magic did eventually wear off. Even with base building and freighters and exocraft, there was only so much you could do before it got a little boring. Those beautiful planets that were pieced together procedurally used the same set of components, and once you'd seen them all, the newness wore off a bit. Now it's so much better in every imaginable way, and the replay value has skyrocketed.
If you were interested in this game before, but were holding off to see if there were any massive improvements, this is what you were waiting for.
Image credit: Noderpsy on reddit