I was more than a little disappointed the first time I stepped out of Mass Effect 2's starship for the first time and ran into a loading screen. It was a small moment, but a telling one: Mass Effect 2 was going to be different.
Part of the charm of the original Mass Effect was its little touches. When you arrived on a planet, the airlock would open and you would step from the Normandy into an alien world. It was a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but one that really served to reinforce the feeling that you were flying around the galaxy. It made the Normandy feel like an actual spaceship and not a mere story hub.
No Man's Sky takes a page from that playbook. When the game begins, you are a lone pilot with a broken ship, and you have to scavenge for supplies to repair and fuel your engines. For a short time, the opening planet is your whole world as you walk slowly across its desolate surface carving up rocks. Then, finally, the world opens up and becomes the universe.
When your engines are finally fueled up, you first lift up from the ground, then point your ship's nose to the heavens and hit the gas. As your ship shakes and your controller rumbles, the sky begins to give way to darkness, then the curvature of the planet below becomes visible. Then that world slowly recedes as you begin to explore the star system around you; and later, the known galaxy.
Landing is no less impressive. As you draw closer and closer to a planet, space will vanish as your cockpit begins to glow from the atmosphere. Then you will begin to make out little details on the ground; and eventually, your destination. If your destination is on the other side of the planet, you can point your nose up and make like an ICBM as you roar up through low orbit.Watch live video from usgamernet on www.twitch.tv
Both are enough to make you forget that you're actually playing a video game for a moment, extreme pop-up not withstanding. It also serves to drive home how big the universe you inhabit actually is. It's akin to one of those videos that scales from the Earth out into the observable universe, and it's a reminder of why Shigeru Miyamoto purportedly abhorred loading screens and fought tooth and nail against optical media like CDs. The moment you kick to a loading screen, the illusion is broken.
Popping the Cockpit
No Man's Sky's seamlessness has done as much as anything to keep me engaged with its universe. It's made it so that whenever I see a colorful looking planet in the distance, I immediately want to go explore. That first moment when you settle down onto the ground and pop your cockpit is probably the most rewarding feeling in the game.
It's also key to the game's mood. Much of No Man's Sky's appeal is bound up in the mellow feeling of traveling from planet to planet discovering new creatures and artifacts; and while a loading screen wouldn't exactly ruin that feeling, it would certainly dent it. No Man's Sky is so scrupulous about its seamlessness that even the inventory management takes place in real-time - something I discovered to my chagrin when I was jumped by pirates while crafting some materials. The only time you really get pulled out of the game proper is when you open up the discovery screen. Even the hyperspace screen, where much of the heavy lifting doubtlessly takes place, feels like it's all part of the world at large.
Other games have also pulled seamlessness to varying extents. The original Half-Life, for example, was famous for the way it used quick in-level loads to make Black Mesa seem like one large, interconnected facility - something that was quite revolutionary for the time. Elite Dangerous, meanwhile, established a similarly seamless universe, though it wasn't until Horizons that planetary exploration was introduced.
I can't think of another game that has gone this far in making its universe seem interconnected, though. Even Horizons has a little bit a loading screen as you settle into your explorer. With No Man's Sky, all you do is pop your cockpit and hop out. The sense of immersion that accompanies that single action is probably No Man's Sky's greatest strength. In that respect, it's certainly lived up to the hype.