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Thirty Minutes With No Man's Sky

A hands-on report with Hello Games' enormous sci-fi galaxy or Jared Leto's next musical side project? You decide.

No Man's Sky is a survival game. There, now you know. The public conversation around Hello Games' unthinkably sprawling, procedurally generated sci-fi whatsit seems to have shifted from "holy crap that's a lot of different planets" to "OK, but what do you actually do?" during the last year, so it's time someone outside of Hello at least attempted to answer that nagging question (so people will finally stop asking it). I recently played around half an hour of No Man's Sky, which turns out to be exactly enough time to just start feeling like you maybe kind of have almost begun to get a handle on the sorts of things that will be occupying your attention in the game, but my initial impression is that your first and most pressing order of business will be to collect a hell of a lot of stuff, and use it to keep yourself alive in a cold, uncaring universe.

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Crafting things and installing upgrades is the name of the game, and there's a three-pronged upgrade system split between your weapons, ship, and spacesuit. Those categories ought to be self-explanatory, but for the sake of exhaustive detail, here goes. On the weapons side, you have both a mining beam, which is mostly used for breaking down resources, and a rapid-fire projectile weapon, which is more suited for fightin'. I also crafted something akin to an energy grenade that you can use to blow giant holes in the landscape (and potentially access subterranean areas, if they exist on a given planet), and your upgradable binoculars also fit into this category. Ship upgrades seem to be pretty resource-intensive and I didn't manage to complete any of those in my short demo, but they'll govern your ability to jump between different systems, and presumably other nuts-and-bolts features like fuel capacity, sublight speed, and so on. And the suit will keep you alive and mobile, with components ranging from shields and thermal protection to a jetpack.

From what I played, No Man's Sky's gameplay loop is intensely resource-based. It seems that everything you need to create, recharge, or refuel requires one of numerous types of resources, and that means you'll be turning your mining laser on plants and rock formations to break them down into their component elements, looting abandoned supply crates for other types of elements, hacking or shooting your way into alien factories to claim their stashes, and generally just scrounging everything you can find on your eternal quest to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. The build of the game I saw at E3 last year was using an entirely fake periodic table, but now it's back to using real element names for the more common crafting resources, ones which Hello says already spark some familiarity in most players. So you'll be looking for carbon to turn into rocket fuel, silicon to craft computer chips with, and plutonium to charge up vital suit systems.

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Those resources were absolutely everywhere in the planet Hello had selected for us to play on; red plutonium crystal deposits dotted the landscape, any tree could be lasered down into carbon, and so on. To hear Hello's Sean Murray tell it, that'll be the exception to the rule. In our interview, he mentioned the ideal scenario is to have something like nine relatively barren planets for every one lush world bursting with life and resources, in order to create a feeling of genuine discovery when you actually find a place with things that you can use and that isn't actively trying to kill you. It's here where the necessity of stacking the planetary deck for public demonstrations may be working against the game, or at least what I want out of the game. You can't get a sense of the exploration, loneliness, and struggle inherent in advancing through the galaxy when everything you need is laid out right in front of you. But I'm excited at the prospect of jumping from system to system, scanning the biome of each planet I find (which there's an upgrade for) to see what's valuable, and moving on to keep searching. Murray mentioned things like black holes will also manifest and affect your exploration, although he didn't say how, and other astrophysical oddities like binary star systems will also be present. That gets my heart racing. I'm still holding out hope for this to be the Star Trek game I've always wanted, or at least the closest thing to date.

At any rate, all this isn't to make No Man's Sky sound like a mundane resource-management sim; it's still a first-person action game at heart. As usual for this type of open-ended game, the pacing and action are as fast as you want to make them, and juggling that many different resources made for some tough choices even in the short time I played the game. I turned my attention toward crafting my first hyperdrive--which I had the blueprint for but not the resources to make--so I could try to jump to another star system before my session was over. That turned out to be hard to pull off since I was on a frigid planet with a temperature hovering around -160C, which meant my suit's thermal protection was constantly burning energy. It quickly became apparent that you'll face frequent situations where the resources you're pursuing for some long-term goal--the hyperdrive, in this case--may also be needed for your immediate survival, such as charging up that thermal system or restoring your shields when you're being hammered on by the ubiquitous robotic space police. It seems you'll at least learn some unconventional tricks for dealing with harsh environmental hazards that don't deplete your precious resources so quickly. During his presentation, Murray used that energy grenade to blow a hole in the side of a mountain that revealed a big, Minecraft-style underground complex. He darted in there where the temperature was above freezing, giving his suit a chance to chill out.

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At one point, I managed to piss off those space cops by trying to shoot my way into an alien installation that I didn't have the tools to breach more quietly. (It's worth pointing out that things like illegal hacking chips and drug-smuggling will also draw their ire, so charging in guns ablaze isn't the only way you'll get into trouble.) You've got a five-point wanted level here similar to the one in Grand Theft Auto: the more you violate space law, the more menacing the robots who show up, from little flying drones to dog-like quadrupeds to mean, towering bipedal walkers. It seems the more you fight the robots, the worse the robots who show up to fight, so you'll probably want to avoid doing anything that raises the authorities' attention as you explore unless you want to hightail it back to your ship and get yourself offworld till your wanted level ticks back down. Since the game intends to be so gigantic and populated by different alien factions, I asked if there's some kind of story justification for why these same-looking robotic police are ubiquitous across the galaxy, and the answer is yes. Hello says it's working with a writer to flesh out a backstory that contextualizes that sort of thing.

Speaking of alien races, the big new feature on the marketing roadmap being shown at the event I went to was interaction with AI characters. Murray's presentation included a quick chat with a space-suited representative of the Korvax, one of the game's races. Interacting with these characters is pretty straightforward: zoom in the camera, pop up a dialogue tree. They may want to trade with you, dispense some information, or just give you a shiny new weapon. The catch is, you initially won't have any idea what that alien is trying to say to you, since learning alien languages is a core mechanic in the game. I only saw one obvious way to learn, by approaching an inscribed stone monolith (though I hope there are others), and it seems you'll generally only learn one word at a time. But that one word might be enough to intuit what a given NPC is trying to ask you, if it's the right word. In another example, when I blew open the doors of an alien factory to raid it for resources, I set off an alarm that brought the robo-cops running. There was a terminal inside I could interact with, and if I'd been able to read what it said, I could have easily shut down the alarm and gotten back to raiding. But since I couldn't read it, I picked the wrong answer and locked the alarm in the "on" position, which made for a rough time.

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NPCs will enable trade in the game, in the form of a little robotic market vendor I found on the planet I was exploring, other vendors who hang out on space stations, and so on. Every player will start on a uniquely random planet with no resources to their name, so your first few hours will be spent extracting materials from the environment to build your first hyperdrive and get out into the galaxy (and this will take some players longer than others, depending on the richness of the planet they start on). But Hello says that once you've got your basic gear in place, it would be viable to largely focus on working the markets, buying low and selling high to get the resources you need, rather than scrounging them planet to planet. Only time--and hours with the final game--will tell exactly how much you'll be able to focus on one play style to the exclusion of others, but the potential for player expression here seems significant.

Murray's presentation included an impressive developer-mode demo of warping instantly from an utterly bare, spherical planet to one where the hills followed the uniform curvature of sine waves, on through mathematically more complex worlds until finally reaching a truly naturalistic planet teeming with life. For one, this served as a nice peek behind the curtain at the way the game generates each planet algorithmically from a small amount of data as you approach it. That is, there are no load times in the game not because the engine is streaming in level design as you move around, like in most games, but because the game is amplifying the tiny seed data into more complex structures on the fly with the mystical power of math. Beyond the impressive tech, though, this gave an impression of some of the more exotic things that might be possible in the game. I heard word going around the event there may be things like stargates that link different worlds directly together, though where you'll find something like that or how you might access it, I have no idea.

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Although playing No Man's Sky for 30 minutes was just enough time to figure out that I wanted to play a lot more No Man's Sky, it's at least nice to know at this point how the game is designed with respect to recognizable video game genres. Hearing Murray mention The Long Dark, Stranded Deep and Terraria as personal favorites and inspirations made it clear that giving the player the freedom to explore, gather, craft, buy, sell, fight, flee, learn, and survive in this endless galaxy is what the game is all about. Previously, I haven't found a game of this type that's gotten me personally invested, but No Man's Sky is the first one with the breadth and the setting to make me very, very anxious to spend a much longer amount of time with it.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+