What do you do when you have 30 minutes to explore an entire universe? That's what I was wondering when I sat down to play No Man's Sky earlier this week at a hands-on preview event in Los Angeles.
The demo started out on the surface of a planet named Balari V. It’s a cold place. Let me restate that. It's a VERY cold place: The temperature reads -163 degrees and my space suit's shield is slowly ticking down to what I assume will be a frozen, fatal zero. I execute a scan, which flags points of interest in my locale. Most items identified are resources that I can pick up if I so desire, but there are also a couple of structures nearby that I can use for shelter and to recharge my shield.
I slowly trudge across the snowy landscape towards them, but not before pausing to scan a couple of strange alien dinosaur-like creatures that I see some way in the distance. Apparently, I'm the first person to do this, and I'm given credit for discovering them. They're automatically assigned a name by the game, which I can change if I want to. For now, though, time is of the essence, and I need to find shelter.
Turns out that the small structure I finally reach enables me to save the game, as well as recharge my shields, and I pause for a moment while they do. No Man's Sky is an interesting game in that it's a mash-up of different genres. It has elements of a first-person shooter. You have a gun that you can use to mine resources – in the form of various elements – as well as protect yourself from aggressive creatures. Your ship is also armed, and it can be used to attack other AI ships to steal their cargo – which essentially enables you to garner more resources. However, doing so attracts the attention of the mysterious Sentinels that patrol No Man's Sky's universe, and results in you being given a wanted level that requires you to quickly run from the situation, or end up in an ever-escalating fight with Sentinel craft. It reminds me a little of how Grand Theft Auto works.
No Man's Sky is also reminiscent of an RPG in that you can use your collected resources to upgrade your gun, space suit, and ship to fit more effective technologies, such as better shields, weapons, and longer-range hyperdrives. You can also trade resources for money at space stations, as well as buy new ships and technology.
Then, of course, No Man's Sky is first and foremost an exploration game. Developer Hello Games wants you to enjoy the feeling of traveling around its vast universe discovering new planets, creatures, and plants, and generally going where no-one has gone before. As part of that, there are ancient monoliths to discover that teach you the language of alien civilizations so that you can eventually talk to the alien creatures that you'll inevitably encounter while on your travels.
It's clear that this is a huge game with many facets, and I have about 20 minutes left of my demo. Shields recharged, I leave the base I was holed up in and head back to my ship. What I want to do is travel to the planet I can see looming large in the bright blue sky. Doing so is a breeze – I just jump into my ship that's parked nearby, take off, and within a couple of minutes I've broken away from the atmosphere and am heading out into space towards my next destination.
It's impressive: Flying from the planet's surface to space is a seamless experience, and soon enough I'm entering the atmosphere of the next planet. It's a largely water-based world, and as I fly over its vast seas, I spot a few islands, and land and look around. This planet is far more temperate, so I don't need to worry about my shield, and indeed seems to be home to many more creatures than the frozen snowball where I started my journey. I scan numerous creatures - many of which are weird and wonderful - and add them to my discoveries, while looking around my immediate environment for points of interest. I end up swimming from one island to the next, and am impressed to discover that the seas are as rich as the lands in terms of flora and fauna. This is a fully-realized ecosystem that I can barely believe is procedurally generated.
After swimming for a few minutes, I reach the next island and collect resources. It seems that there are several ways to do this: there are abandoned items inexplicably littered across the landscape – crates of loot essentially – that I can open to see what's inside, and I can also mine resources from rocks and plants. I collect carbon, silicon and plutonium in this way. Looking at my inventory, I see I have a sufficient amount of them to upgrade my space suit's shield, which I do.
As I execute another scan of the environment, I see there's a nearby base, and head towards it, walking through the reddish purple grass that seems to be growing everywhere. As I approach, I notice there's a space ship parked next to it, and, when I finally enter the base through its door, there's an alien NPC present. I walk up to it, and am prompted with four different lines of dialog to pursue. I choose to signal that I want to learn more about the alien's language. I'm told that the alien slaps me on the back and bares his teeth. I don't know whether that's a good or a bad thing, but the fact that I'm still alive makes me assume the former.
Back outside, I head over to a nearby alien monolith, and when I approach it, I'm again given several dialog options. I choose to learn a new word from an otherwise indecipherable alien sentence, and one of those words changes to become "command." I'm also told that my standing with the alien race that created the monolith has increased. Quite what the advantage of this is, I have no idea, but I assume over time this will have positive effects on trading and communication, and as I learn new words, I'll be able to understand more of those otherwise indecipherable alien sentences.
I realize I've wandered a long way from my craft, and indeed don't even know where it is, so I end up walking around the environment looking at its creatures and enjoying the rather remarkable views. I have no idea how I can get back to my ship, and that concerns me. I assume there must be a way of waypointing it, but I don’t know how to, and that’s one of the questions that's left unanswered as time is called on my demo.
Playing No Man's Sky was certainly an amazing experience. Traveling from planet to planet was incredible, and flying around looking for a landing point was deeply impressive - and seamless. But having experienced just a taste of the game, I'm definitely left with questions – and not just about how to find your ship when you wander too far away from it. No Man's Sky is intimidatingly huge, with many billions of planets to discover, and I wonder exactly how progression is going to work. Is it all about mining resources and using them to upgrade items so that I can eventually make the trip to the center of the universe - which is the objective of the game?
Or is it about exploration? That aspect is definitely really interesting, and holds a great deal of appeal for me. What I've seen so far is stunning, but I'm very keen to discover just how different planets are, and how the wildlife changes from one ecosystem to another. Then there's the trading, interacting with alien species, space combat, dealing with the Sentinels, and discovering the alien monoliths. All these aspects of No Man's Sky are something that I barely scratched the surface of during my demo, and I was left wondering how deep they go.
In my interview with Sean Murray, managing director of Hello Games that's a companion piece to this article, he says, "We tell people that No Man's Sky is a journey from the outside edge of the galaxy to the inside, but how people go about that is up to them. They can do that by building up their ship by trading, or by taking out other AI and ships that are trading. They can be a space-jerk basically – or a good citizen."
Based on my short time with No Man's Sky, what that seems to translate into is very much a sandbox game where you follow your own path. How rich, interesting, and indeed unique that path will be for every player remains to be seen, but I'm very intrigued to find out when the game is released on June 21st.