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Hands on: No Man’s Sky

No Man's Sky has 18 quintillion planets, but we barely survived 1

No Man’s Sky is the largest survival game of all time

Scale. This is how developer Hello Games has described the ludicrously ambitious No Man’s Sky. There are 18 quintillion planets to discover, and each is unique, generated by algorithms within the game. You’ll be able to pilot a spaceship down to each one and — if it doesn’t immediately kill you to do so — land on it and explore it.

Trailers for the game released so far reveal how fascinating these planets can be. They show worlds decked out with space dinosaurs and lizard-turtles, wandering through bright-red grass under blue-green skies. And then you hop in your ship, aim it at the sky, and seconds later blast into orbit, with freighters dropping out of lightspeed and fighters swooping in on attack runs.

No Man’s Sky‘s lofty, procedurally generated universe offers an unfathomable number of places to visit. Moment-to-moment, however, No Man’s Sky is much more down to earth. In fact, as Hello Games founder Sean Murray told Digital Trends during our first 30-minute hands-on time with the game at a Los Angeles PlayStation event, those great-looking trailer moments will be made all the more incredible once the player has earned them — by trudging around the same world for a few hours, or the same solar system, to construct the stuff needed to venture out into the universe.

Building that stuff, however, requires mining, gathering, and crafting.

The final frontier

No Man’s Sky players start on an unexplored planet, with a relatively simple and thin mandate: Head to the center of the universe. On the starting planet, the short-term goal is to survive and explore, and to gather the resources needed to build stuff that will take you further.

When you’re not looking at amazing vistas or using your binoculars to scan strange plants and animals — and name them when you’re the first player to have ever seen them — you’ll be smashing rocks with your gun, picking flowers, and generally amassing the various chemical elements you need to construct technologies you need to survive.

Each new place might give you the resources and items you need to build something new, allowing you incremental gains to travel farther, survive better, and see more. Murray said the game is balanced such that you can expect to spend your first two to three hours just on that first starting planet, finding what you need to leave it. The next two to three hours will be spent just in that first solar system, exploring it to find what you need to move on.

The demo we played was set at about five hours into the game, and started with us standing on an icy planet decked out in red coniferous trees. The primary hazard here is extreme cold, and before you get far, you’ll need to gather some items from the nearby terrain to fashion a module for keeping out the cold, at least temporarily.

Related: Not even the guys who coded No Man’s Sky know it fully

It appears, at least in this grouping of small planets, that while you might be the first person here, you’re definitely not the first sentient being to find this place. Terrain and alien creatures are everywhere, but so is technology. Strange buildings adorn the landscape, sometimes circled by robotic drones; waypoint towers can be accessed to scan the area and flag resources or points of interest; pods give you respite from the elements and a place to save your game.

Recognizing that No Man’s Sky is a survival game — spread over a huge universe — is important to understanding it.

Finding protection against the elements is key to survival here. Technology provides most solutions; everything you carry, from upgrades for your running ability, to protection against toxic substances, to a jetpack, has to be built along the way as you discover it. One of the blueprints already available in the demo let us fashion a grenade that could carve chunks out of the ground, possibly exposing deep caves full of mineral resources and offering protection from the cold.

A cave might seem like a good place to lie low for a while, but you also have to worry about other hazards, like the creatures that might live inside them. Planets have predators, and the icy planet was home to a snow leopard-looking creature that would attack us, but was fairly easily scared off with a few laser bolts. During Murray’s brief presentation, he ran across carnivorous plants on another planet, making for a completely different, unknown threat.

Exploring strange new worlds

Then there were those buildings dotting the various planets in the demo. Some seem to be stations controlled by alien races; others are automated factories and facilities in service of strange robots that seem to span the galaxy.

Head inside one of these buildings and you can speak to its alien inhabitants, should someone be in there. But don’t expect to become lifelong friends, Murray said during an interview with Digital Trends.

“Purposely, we haven’t made it so there are huge numbers of races, there’s only a small number, and that’s because we want people to build a kind of relationship with them — not ‘get married, have kids,’” he said. “It’s important to us that you don’t build a connection to an individual NPC that you meet, but more to a specific race. Because we want you to explore, and we don’t want you to be like, ‘Well I can’t leave this bird man behind, because he’s looking for this specific technology and I don’t feel I can journey on until he’s completely satisfied, we’ve made friends now.’”

Interactions with aliens are quick conversations with multiple dialogue choices. Aliens will usually pose a question or make a statement in their native tongue. Learning those languages will take time as you find word-by-word translations throughout your travels. Answer a question correctly and an alien might give you a gift. Say the right things and you’ll gain “standing” with that particular race; offend an individual and you might lose face among his people.

When you’re not looking at amazing vistas, you’ll be smashing rocks, picking flowers, and amassing chemicals essential to survival.

The aliens that popped up in the hands-on demo seemed to be traders, although Murray said there are other races of different types. Some are militaristic, some are driven by commerce, some are explorers, and those different aspects will affect how players deal with them — but all those dealings will be conversations, it seems. Murray said that you might offend an alien’s honor, but he’ll never fight you to the death; instead, he’ll harm you by not selling you that thing you need.

Murray said there will be a lot to learn about these aliens, but mostly, it seems they’ll provide information and trading opportunities. To that end, you won’t happen across cities full of bird people — that’s contrary to the aesthetic and experience Murray and Hello Games want to create, which he described as being like Star Wars episodes IV, V, and VI: more of a Wild West, frontier vibe than one of futuristic cityscapes.

“If there were cities, people would want to kind of settle down, and we don’t want that,” Murray said. “We want people going out and exploring further.”

Seeking new life and new civilizations

The aliens you’ll likely interact with the most are robotic sentries on various planets. They’re self-replicating, autonomous, and apparently left behind by an ancient race of aliens with the intention of protecting the universe. As such, they act like its police force, and if you make them mad, they’ll come for you.

In the demo, Murray showed off a Grand Theft Auto-style “wanted level” that players can soup-up by doing things that are off-limits. Wantonly killing wildlife, for example, can trigger police drones to come after you. Shooting drones, attacking factories, and blowing up spaceships kicks up your wanted level and triggers ever-scarier robotic bad guys who come and try to bring you down.

No Man's Sky Hands On

There will be information to uncover about these drones for players who are interested, Murray said, that’ll shed light on the motivations of the race that created them, as well as what those robots are up to in the universe in the present. Mostly, they’re an antagonistic force that keeps players on their toes: Attack a freighter in your ship or blow open the door of a factory to loot it, and there will be consequences.

Apart from those drones and aliens with which to trade, though, No Man’s Sky will be a solitary experience, it seems. The procedurally generated universe of No Man’s Sky is a shared one, it’s true, and you might see names created by other players on things they’ve discovered. But you won’t see players themselves, apparently.

Related: Stephen Colbert named a fish after himself in No Man’s Sky, and so can you!

Hello Games is cagey on this point. For one thing, players start alone on distant planets in a huge universe, so the chances of ever running into anyone are slim anyway. As Murray has put it, No Man’s Sky is not a multiplayer game. One developer during the demo compared potential interactions with other players to those in Dark Souls — notes left behind for others to find, principally — or Journey, in which there are brief interactions with other players.

But both of those games include actually playing with other people, while No Man’s Sky’s website describes the experience as being “parallel” to those of others. In other words, it’s unclear just how interacting with other players might work. Since everyone is working their way toward the center of the universe, where the odds of intersecting are higher, and Murray has mentioned before that potential interactions with other players would be suitably momentous, it’s possible this is something the developers are being specifically unclear about to maintain a sense of mystery.

To boldly go

Thirty minutes is not enough time to really get a sense of No Man’s Sky, and trying to describe it becomes a conundrum. The mechanics of playing the game make it seem a lot like other contemporary titles: the exploration of Fallout 4, the crafting of Far Cry Primal, the emphasis on using everything you can just to stay alive of The Long Dark.

“Purposely, we haven’t made it so there are huge numbers of races, because we want people to build a relationship with them.”

From just those 30 minutes, No Man’s Sky would appear to be focused on gathering resources; building new upgrades to your ship, weapon, and suit; and wandering around until you get bored and fly away. You need a new hyperdrive, so you stop by a planet to gather metals to build it. You need fuel, so you shoot asteroids to gather some. You want to buy a new gun, so you talk to a nice alien and purchase one.

No Man’s Sky sports 18 quintillion planets, most of them dull, desolate, and dangerous. Those few in the demo — a sample size of three or four — were filled with animals that seem disinterested and aliens who mostly seem to run storefronts. During this tiny slice, an unavoidable question rises: Why? Why spend so much time visiting a near-infinite number of places? What’s out there that is compelling enough to engage in this search?

It’s an unfair question, to some degree. To be told would undermine the awe and excitement of the discovery in the first place, which is what Hello Games is trying to accomplish.

Related: Hello Games showed off No Man Sky’s massive universe at Sony’s E3 conference

“The reality is, actually for some people discovering planets and things like that is an awesome thing,” Murray explained. “You’ve seen, if you watch some of our videos, there are awesome things to go out and find. There are a lot of possibilities in just amazing visuals and aesthetics that you can see — and for some people, that is enough. That is all they will ever want to do, is see the sunrise and the sunset or whatever.

“And there are other people for whom that’ll just be a kind of aesthetic glaze. They won’t care. Because all they care about when they land on a planet is ‘What resources are here? What can I mine? How can I use that to trade? How can I buy a bigger ship? Oh look, I’ve found a rich source of plutonium, and I don’t care that there’s a giant dinosaur standing in the way.”

Conclusion

Murray compared No Man’s Sky to survival simulators like The Long Dark or Rust, highly popular games in which the point is just the enjoyment of surviving for surviving’s sake. And it seems, from this 30-minute demo, that recognizing No Man’s Sky as a survival game — spread over a huge universe — is important to understanding it.

“What you were seeing [in the 30-minute demo] doesn’t quite get across the scale of experiences, as well,” he said. “You can say it about any game. Killed one guy in Call of Duty, why would I kill them all? Some of the favorite things I’ve seen are just people coming across massive battles between freighters or something like that, and joining in and having this real moment. They’ve gone through this experience of not seeing those things, landing on many barren planets, and then finding that one utopian planet. It makes it more meaningful, especially if they’ve had to battle for hours to get to that point.”

No Man’s Sky is set to release on June 21 for PlayStation 4.

Highs

  • 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets to explore
  • This is a survival game
  • Great number of things to do

Lows

  • You’re responsible for motivating yourself
  • Massive scale makes it difficult to judge the payoff
  • Unclear how players will interact with one another