At this point, anyone who’s been following No Man’s Sky has an idea of what developer Hello Games is trying to deliver: a massive, open-ended space exploration game that thousands upon thousands of people will play without (likely) ever coming into contact with each other. But how does it all work in practice? What do you actually do in the game, anyway?
These were the kinds of questions we set out to answer when we sat down with Hello Games managing director Sean Murray for a demo of No Man’s Sky yesterday, after which the studio set us loose — for maybe 20 minutes in a PlayStation 4 build — to explore the cosmos ourselves.
If you’re wondering about how No Man’s Sky actually handles the procedural generation of its 18 quintillion planets, Murray briefly walked us through a solar system to explain it. He started on a “totally boring flat world” that was essentially a perfect sphere, and ended up on the kind of planet you may have seen in footage of No Man’s Sky: lush, with grass the color of grapefruit flesh, populated by advanced vertebrates on land and in the sea.
“We get things that generally look like an artist might have built them,” said Murray of the game’s planet generation algorithm.
No Man’s Sky has four basic pillars: exploration, survival, combat and trading. They aren’t skill trees per se; No Man’s Sky isn’t like a typical role-playing game, where you’re assigning upgrade points to fill out nodes on an ability chart or something.
“Players can go fully down one of those rabbit holes, one of those roots,” said Murray. “So they can be entirely an explorer, if they really want to be. [...] They can be a survivalist; they can hang out on just one planet and try and see how long they can survive.” But Hello Games expects that most players will mix it up rather than focus all their attention on one aspect of the game.
The aforementioned pillars are activities you can undertake in No Man’s Sky. You upgrade your skills by going into the pause menu, where you’ll see three tabs: suit, weapon and ship. Each of those elements has its own inventory, and you install “technologies” in the inventory slots to advance your abilities. You can think of the technologies as crafting “recipes” that you acquire over time.
Murray demonstrated one of the weapon improvements, a grenade launcher-like upgrade that allows you to alter the environment by blowing chunks out of the ground. This came in handy on the planet Murray was exploring, where the ambient temperature hovered around -160°C. The frigid air had completely eroded the thermal protection built into his spacesuit, and his health was plummeting. So he blasted some soil away to open a path into a massive subterranean network of caves. The air down there was balmy, and he lived to continue exploring.
Temperature is a constant concern in No Man’s Sky, and as such, it’s given prime placement in the bottom left corner of the screen. We started on the same planet as Murray, but flew into space and landed on a second world that was the polar opposite, with a surface temperature near 700°C — hot enough to melt aluminum. There, we took respite from the sweltering environment in a pod that contained some resources. No Man’s Sky is very much a survival game; in addition to keeping track of the temperature, you’ll need to mine for resources in order to stay alive.
Many of the technological installations cost resources, and you also have to spend them to maintain your equipment. On the cold planet, for instance, Murray recharged his thermal shield by expending some minerals he had mined from the area.
As you explore the solar system you start in, you’ll learn which planets contain which resources. Most of them are elements from the periodic table that we know: plutonium in red crystals, carbon in plants and so on. But there are also fictional elements in the universe of No Man’s Sky, like “heridium” and “red mercury.” You can scan the environment to help find these resources and to scan creatures into your database, and you use your binoculars to mark waypoints, which is crucial. Resources are scattered throughout the universe, but Murray told Polygon that in most cases, creatures are unique to the planet they live on; that’s why you can name the creatures you discover, in addition to the planets.
“If I am here and I land on this planet, no one else has ever been here before, in all likelihood,” said Murray. “I can’t go to YouTube and find a video of it; I can’t look up GameFAQs; there’s nothing to help me. And if I record a video of it, that’s unique.
“And that’s a cool thing,” he continued. “But it does mean you are properly lost.”
One of the waypoints we came across was a small base; inside, we found a humanoid alien of a race known as the Korvax. During his demo, Murray had found a stone monolith inscribed with the Korvax language. A pop-up appeared with a sentence containing gibberish except for one word that was in English, along with three responses. The monolith seemed to appreciate his words, and his character slept through the night and woke up with restored health. Of course, Murray knew the right choice in this case; you may have to work harder.
“The more I explore, the more I know about certain races, the more I interact with them, the more of their language [I’ll] learn,” Murray explained. “And that leads to things like the ability to trade with them for ships, weapons, tech upgrades, things like that.” Interacting with the alien races in No Man’s Sky affects your standing with each of those individual factions, forming relationships that stay with you as you cross the stars.
Of course, you can also burn every bridge if you want to play the game as a warmongering destroyer of worlds. Combat is an important element of No Man’s Sky whether you want to fight or not; while we were exploring the planet we landed on, some beasts began running toward us, looking like they were going to attack. Most planets have built-in guardians in the form of a robotic race known as the Sentinels. They’re there to maintain a pristine landscape, and will generally leave you alone unless you destroy too much of the planet while mining, attack them or start killing animals.
Murray drew the ire of the Sentinels when he came to a reinforced steel door to a factory. He didn’t have hacking technology installed in his suit, so he started firing his weapon at the door instead. He blew it away, as well as the robots that came after him. An alarm was blaring inside, and he had to disable it — through another Korvax language prompt — before he could steal the factory’s “product recipe.”
He got killed as soon as he stepped back outside, however, since backup had arrived. Enemies in No Man’s Sky track you with a system like the wanted level in Grand Theft Auto; Murray said that in addition to the small Sentinels he faced, he would eventually have to contend with walkers, ships and even freighters attacking him.
We opted for the pacifist route, spending our time exploring the freezing planet we started on and the scorching-hot world we visited next. Between the two, we flew around in space for a bit, and briefly landed on a small space station. It was empty, but we did enjoy a nice view from the porthole: a glimpse of the planet we had just left, with Murray pointing out that the area we had been exploring on the surface was perhaps equivalent to the size of our cursor — a few pixels wide from this high up.
That’s a sample of the activities available to you in No Man’s Sky. What remains to be seen is whether they’re interesting enough on their own to remain engaging for hours, and whether they can be strung together in a way that allows you to carve out a role in this expansive universe.
Murray provided one example of this, telling us about a tester who decided to live his in-game life as a specific kind of mineral trader. All this person did in No Man’s Sky was visit ice planets — he had upgraded his suit’s thermal layer so it could withstand the bitter cold — and mine them for resources, then travel around the cosmos bartering for goods with those minerals. It’s a rather pedestrian existence, to be sure, but he had made it his own.