No Man’s Sky has been gathering buzz since its reveal trailer first debuted during VGX in late 2013. Joe Danger developer Hello Games takes a sharp turn away from the structured, colorful play of its challenging side-scroller in favor of an open exploration game that gives players a ship, a multi-tool, and an untouched galaxy filled with planets to explore.
We’ve now seen the game in action and peered behind the curtain at some of the tools used to construct it during a behind closed doors E3 preview, and the promise held in that debut trailer appears to be real. Here’s a closer look.
Your very own space adventure. No Man’s Sky is a game of discovery. The multitude of approaches that players can take when tackling the game all boil down to a relatively simple gameplay loop: gather, improve, explore, repeat. You shore up your store of resources, improve your tools in a way that suits your approach to the game, and explore deeper into a galaxy full of unknown wonders.
All players start out on a world at the edge of the galaxy, with nothing more than a spaceflight-capable life pod that can reach any planet or space station within the solar system, but no further. Using your starting tools, you earn enough money to upgrade you ship, suit, and multitool to the point that you can explore further, dig deeper, and survive longer in alien, often hostile environments.
Tailored exploration. Players can approach their explorations in any number of ways. The life pod is just a starting point, one that you quickly trade away for a larger ship with improved capabilities. What those capabilities are depends on how you want to play. There are hyperdrives that improve your speed and potential travel distance, offensive and defensive enhancements for space combat, and stealth devices that help you avoid combat.
For land-loving explorers, improve your suit and its jetpack to better survive and move around in an assortment of harsh environments. You’ve also got a multi-tool that serves as a personal defense weapon, mining laser, and scanner. As with the ship components and suit, there are ways to improve the effectiveness of all of these elements.
Players seek out these upgrades by docking with space stations and spending currency, which is earned from mining, discovering new species, or engaging in various types of combat. The particulars of individual upgrades aren’t being discussed quite yet, but the idea is to let players take their own approach to exploring the galaxy.
Be the next Charles Darwin. Suppose you want to live out your dream of becoming a space-age Charles Darwin, devoting your existence to the discovery and research of new species. Every time you come across a planet with animal life on it, your multi-tool serves as a scanner that identifies the various creatures you come across. If it’s a brand new discovery, you get to name the creature in question; that name, along with a procedurally generated Latin name are then added to a galactic encyclopedia. You also get some currency as a reward.
Assuming that’s the route you follow, you’ll want to upgrade your multi-tool, enabling it to scan for larger life forms and pick them up from a greater distance. You might want to add non-lethal weapon capabilities as well, since it’ll be tough to research your more hostile discoveries without subduing them, and you’d probably prefer not to kill them. A more powerful hyperdrive for your ship makes it easier to reach unexplored frontier worlds, and stealth capabilities allow you to slip out of potentially dangerous situations.
Other jobs on the frontier. Research is just one possible path that players can pursue, and there’s nothing locking you into doing just that nor is there any structured “path” to follow; you just do it. You might prefer to act out the dream of becoming a space pirate, terrorizing convoys; or police the spaceways instead, destroying any pirates you come across. The upgrade possibilities allow for any number of variations, and there are no restrictions on mixing things up.
A randomized frontier. No Man’s Sky is powered by a robust set of tools that operate on some very simple, relatable ideas. The team at Hello Games designs a single art asset in a range of different categories — a palm tree, a short-range fighter-like spaceship, a four-legged lizard, for example — and then applies a set of sliders to each one, not unlike those we use for character customization in an assortment of RPGs.
The game populates each planet and solar system with celestial bodies, plant/animal life, and objects by hitting a randomize button behind the scenes, and then applying an algorithm that inserts the randomly created art assets in a way that makes sense. In this way, everything from forests and fields of grass to entire ecosystems and convoys traveling on preset trading routes appear throughout the galaxy, and they’re all unique.
The thrill of discovery. One of the key concepts driving No Man’s Sky is the idea that discovery should be a rare thing — a thrill to be treasured. Roughly 90 percent of the planets you come across will be barren, lifeless rocks, good for mining and resource-gathering, but little else. The other 10 percent can support life, but roughly 90 percent of those only feature a small handful of lower life forms, maybe some fish or birds, or even simply bacteria. The other 10 percent support more elaborate ecosystems.
This spiral of increasingly rare living planets continues, with the rarest of the rare amounting to lush utopian environments that bustle with life from every angle. The idea isn’t to bore players; there’s always a fresh, alien environment to discover, whether or not it’s teeming with life. But the idea is for the really special ones to remain extremely rare, so that players can truly appreciate the rarity of a find when they come across it.
The idea is to always explore deeper into the galaxy. In the fringe system that you start out in, even the most life-supporting planets you come across are going to feature relatively mundane forms, familiar Earth equivalents that aren’t quite of the world we know, but aren’t completely alien either. The closer you get to the center of the galaxy, the more dramatic mutations you’ll see from the game’s procedural generation tools. It all comes back to the sliders here; the range of variation at the fringe of the galaxy is small, but it grows as you move closer to the core.
This extends to new ships as well; space station marketplaces are mostly filled with plain-looking ships with dull colors and unpainted metal. You’ll only rarely encounter more elaborate designs, more dramatic mutations. As with the exploration of planets, this discovery of a spacecraft that feels truly unique is meant to be a rare thrill.
Let’s be absolutely clear: No Man’s Sky is very heavy on promise, but a game like this requires a more thorough exploration than a hands-off look at a partially tailored demo can possibly offer. Hello Games is smart to let us peer behind the curtain at the invisible puppetmaster that decides what shape each new discovery takes; we haven’t seen all of these big ideas play out, but we have seen the truly staggering scope of what the game’s random content generator is capable of.
There’s no release date, not even a release timeframe, that Hello Games is willing to discuss yet. The game is coming to PlayStation 4 first for sure, though the door remains open for other platforms to be added at a later date. Even without seeing what the full game can do, we’re very excited about the obvious promise here. Stay tuned for more details whenever we get them.