No Man’s Sky – A Hands On Preview

On a chilly day in February Pip headed out to a little office in Guildford in order to explore a tiny fraction of No Man’s Sky [official site], the sandbox exploration survival universe created by Hello Games. Here’s what she found:

“You’re dying from the cold and you’re being chased by two tigers but… ‘This is a nice plant’?!”

Hello Games’ managing director Sean Murray is watching me as I play a build of No Man’s Sky. I have stopped to admire a leaf. In my defence, it’s a pretty leaf. In Murray’s, there are indeed two tigers and I’m dying from the cold.

The thing is, I got lost while exploring an ice planet. I would probably be a bit less cold but about eight minutes into my play time I also destroyed my spacesuit’s thermal shield while experimenting with the menus. Rebuilding that shield so I can survive the kilometer walk back to my ship is one option, building an EMP module which lets me summon my ship directly to a nearby landing pad and then flying somewhere warmer is another. But both will require resources in the form of different elements and the lack of silicon in my vicinity is proving quite the hindrance.

For this demo the game has actually been slightly altered. As Murray puts it, the developers had increased the number of resource crates and things “because we’re supposed to sit down with someone like yourself for half an hour and get a feel for a game that needs to be sat and played for five hours.” He uses The Long Dark as a reference point. Players will probably die a lot to begin with as they get to grips with the systems and environments.

Unfortunately I don’t think anyone (including me) planned on me destroying my thermal shield and thus, even with the tweaked resources I have still managed to become silicon-poor.

I head to a nearby alien building in hopes of finding some resources and fall into conversation with a scientist I find there. I use the term “conversation” loosely. He says something but I only understand a fraction of the words. The rest is written in the Korvax language which shows up as an alien alphabet on screen. As you play you will find ways to learn these languages – there are monoliths which help teach you, for example. Learning means the text now shows up partially in English. The interactions gradually become comprehensible rather than reliant on guesswork.

Murray tells me the correct response for this preview and the scientist gifts me a gun. Hooray! Unfortunately I can’t shoot my way out of hypothermia.

In search of blue plants containing the much-needed silicon for my thermal shield I head off across the snow. Pressing down on the D-pad (we’re using a Playstation controller for this) scans the area and shows me where I might find resources as well as highlighting other things, like my ship. My distant, distant ship. I could also use the binoculars option to tag waypoints or set markers which then show up on a compass at the top of the screen. There’s no minimap so setting your own markers and not – just to pick an example out of thin air – circle-strafing a giant crab until you lose your bearings and then picking an exciting tiger to run towards, would be part of basic prep for heading out.

As I jump and run across the planet’s surface I occasionally stop to mine some plutonium by shooting my gun and destroying red crystals spiking out of the ground. In doing so I attract the sentinels. They’re these self-replicating drones which were put in place to protect the planets. Murray says you’ll learn more about the exact situation as you play but the bottom line is that they’ve gone a bit too far. I started thinking of them as a weaponised version of the National Trust.

When I watch Murray play, he demonstrates how the sentinels work by shooting his way into a locked building and destroying them as they arrive to investigate. The conflict escalates and beefier enemies show up. Eventually Murray’s character is dead and a classic sci-fi quote flashes up on the screen. He will respawn at his most recent save point.

I ask whether the sentinels and the alien NPCs affect the idea of discovery in the game. “Star Trek would be a very boring show if they just landed on one undiscovered planet after another,” Murray points out. “The key thing with Star Trek is ‘where no man has gone before’. It doesn’t bother me that much that an alien created by the computer may have visited this place before. I think that’s fine and the trade-off there is we want a living, breathing universe.”

As I play, I see what look like comets or shooting stars overhead. Murray tells me they’re ships. I think these are trade ships but apparently the person who played the game before me got attacked by a pirate. “He followed him down to the planet that he was trying to land on and wiped him out just as he could see the planet revealing itself underneath. That was a really nice moment,” says Murray.

I manage to find enough silicon to rebuild my shield but not enough for the EMP device that will let me summon my ship. I can either walk a kilometer back to it or buy the one that’s now on the landing pad. It costs orders of magnitude more than is currently in my character’s possession so it’s back to the wilderness for me.

Prolonged exposure to the cold, as I head towards the ship marker on my compass, begins to drain the charge on my shield. I perform another scan and head towards a blue marker – blue is for tech resources – and find enough silicon to rebuild my shield (“I will say you passed ten million of them on the way over here,” adds Murray, helpfully).

Then suddenly a cave! The cave is warm and I am no longer slowly freezing to death. Murray takes advantage of this respite to show me the page on the menu where the game records the creatures, larger plants and trees that you scan. I only have a handful but it would expand as I explored further and eventually it would look more like a log book, recording information about the planets and what they contain.

I manage to get lost in the cave system and we’re running out of preview time. I couldn’t shoot my way out of hypothermia but I can use a modification installed on my weapon to blast my way out of the cave system by making my own exit.

I finally reach my ship. Just before I hop in a bigger creature attacks and kills one of the nearby tiger things (I don’t remember their in-game name). I turn to observe the killer like David Attenborough would do if this was a wildlife documentary. “He’s eating its butt!” I observe, also like David Attenborough would do. “That’s the law of the jungle,” says Murray.

We leave the predator to its meal of butts and head off into space. This is the part where I really feel the difference in No Man’s Sky compared to the other games I play. There’s no loading screen to jump you between planet surface and orbit and outer space, you just get in the ship and drive off into the sky. The objects you see on the screen are the actual objects you’re heading towards instead of being a stand-in or a piece of static sky art. Thinking back over my time with the game I remember it as feeling peculiarly open. I say “peculiarly” because it’s a very rare sensation in a game – I don’t remember the last time I felt like a game space was stretching away from me in all directions.

I remember in the trailer, and in Sean’s demonstration earlier that day, that flight looked graceful, very dramatically sci-fi. That is not how it feels when I am the pilot. I find the controls take a bit of getting used to and spend the first part of the flight trying not to veer back to the ice planet and not be upside down. We’re heading towards one of the planet’s moons.

It feels quite hard to get a sense of scale moving from planet to moon as they both seem so big. Thinking about it, that might be because of how the game tweaks space. The moon looms large and sits very close to the planet. It takes maybe a couple of minutes in total for me to get there. If I was going further I could make use of a jump drive.

On page two, discussion of exploration, goals, and the cutting room floor.

From this site

86 Comments

  1. amateurviking says:

    Honestly I cannae wait to get lost in this.

    • Serenegoose says:

      I imagine plenty of people will scipio work the day this comes out, yeah.

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      Captain Narol says:

      Me too, I so much just want to jump into this world and explore it till the end of the way like a xenobiologist, meeting all kind of strange lifeforms on the journey and discovering amazing sceneries like those in the screenshots…

      I haven’t been so excited about a game project for years, please don’t desappoint !!!

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      Same. I’d been quietly calm and pessimistic about this after initial hype. Videos made it look a bit boring in the long run, but this…this just sounds amazing. When did all these survival game features come in? And scientists in buildings? With languages to learn!? Oh my, I cannot wait.

      • Napalm Sushi says:

        As someone who’s never stopped being unhealthily, childishly excited for the game and has been following its Reddit community for a while, I feel a bit giddy. None of us expected to see such huge and fully fleshed new features revealed at this stage, especially not ones (re: civilised NPCs and extensive, populated space station interiors) that were formerly explicitly stated to have been considered but cut.

        I know it’s the fashion – and probably wise – to regard this game with a suspicious sideways glance, but fuck it all. No Man’s Sky’s promises hammer all my buttons until they break and the anticipation alone makes me feel 13 again.

  2. Sandepande says:

    Sold.

  3. gpown says:

    “Star Trek would be a very boring show if they just landed on one undiscovered planet after another”

    Fortunetely, someone has already made that game! They added landing after one year though.

  4. deadly.by.design says:

    I love the concept, but I am not sure if there will be enough content to hold my interest (or persuade me to buy this year). It makes sense that they need to maintain tight focus on their core mechanics to release a coherent experience (or even just release), but I mournfully wonder what kind of game we’d get if they included building and multi-player.

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      Ashrand says:

      Honestly i would expect a less contemplative exploratory experience and one more game about ‘playing house’ through murder.

      • deadly.by.design says:

        When I came across Minecraft in 2010, I was immediately drawn in to explore every inch of the world I surveyed. After that, I trekked farther and farther to generate more land, new wonders. Go farther, dig deeper, climb higher, etc.

        At the end of the day, though, what gave that experience meaning was having a place to return to. I love the concept of NMS’s exploration and the seamless environmental transitions, but I fear the experience as a whole will ring a bit hollow for me.

  5. Optimaximal says:

    It kills me – it’s a really hard game to demo.

    There-in lies the rub.

    The negative aspect to the PS4 price-leak, which I can subscribe to, is we don’t know what this game is actually going to do for us. Is it going to be this amazing leap-forward in procedural exploration or is it going to be another boring indie crafting’n’sandbox effort?

    They’ve locked the thing behind a wall of silence, dropping info-nuggets every so often, everyone who has played it has come away saying it’s awesome, but they’ve never really adequately conveyed why it’s awesome, because the RNG means that another user likely won’t ever experience it.

    • Cooper says:

      So, erm, don’t pre-order and wait for reviews?

      It’s almost like there’s this existing system, like, I dunno, this exact website and the reviews on it, to deal with the ‘we don’t know what a game is like until it’s released’ issue we have as consumers…

      Sarcasm aside, the debate about NMS’s price is absolutely pointless until the game is in the hands of reviewers. Unless you are someone who pre-orders things…

      • Hazydave says:

        “NMS’s price is absolutely pointless until the game is in the hands of reviewers”
        Yeah, I’m not so sure that reviewers opinions are the best barometer for judging this game. Sean gave an example of how someone’s first experience would not lead to a great review. If you’re on the fence it will probably be best to wait until a lot of people have put a lot of hours into the game to discover if it is worth it for you.

  6. cqdemal says:

    This article has made me unreasonably excited to an extent I have not felt in years. Or perhaps since the initial reveal trailer of this game.

  7. Kefren says:

    It seems a shame to remove the random option of grotesque or truly alien creatures. I want to experience truly horrible things every so often. A world of the xenomorphs from alien (or just a few of them in stasis, waking if you land nearby). Things I can’t imagine but which will make me feel sick. Stuff that moves in ways earth creatures don’t; that do inexplicable things. I don’t want to just discover what can be made in Spore.

    • Rizlar says:

      Yeah, colour me cynical but this is the thing that has stopped me getting excited about No Man’s Sky from the start. What’s the point of having a squillion possible worlds if they are all inhabited by the same bunny-rabbit type thing in different colours?

      Will reserve judgement until the game actually comes out, ofc.

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      Judging by some of the creatures I have seen in previews, I think he means that they’re just careful to prevent the generation of creatures that are literal walking glitches or that fall jarringly outside the overall art style.

    • KillahMate says:

      Xenomorphs from Alien are very beautiful in their way. I don’t think Hello Games want NMS to look like Hello Kitty – they just want to maintain a coherent aesthetic so the game doesn’t look like a random number generator threw it up. ‘Ugly’ doesn’t mean horrifying, it’s more like… boring.

  8. Blackcompany says:

    Tell me it will support HOTAS for flying. I don’t think I could enjoy using the gamepad nearly as much.

    • Zanchito says:

      Alternatively, any way to map analog axes and buttons from a controller to a HOTAS, if anyone knows?

      • DD says:

        Yes. My Saitek stick comes with software to map any function on the computer to things on the joystick. I believe there are a couple free third party programs to do this as well. Joy2Key does this in reverse.

        • Zanchito says:

          I got an X-55, but I’m not positive you can map other controllers to it. Something to check when I get back home!

  9. C0llic says:

    I’m staying cautiously very interested in this. If it does fall flat, it’s likely to be a game that wows you in its first few hours, but ends up being samey (depending on how into the whole sandbox thing you are). Great article, made me chuckle more than a few times.

    • Stevostin says:

      It *will* ends up being samey. You can count on it. The question is “how long will it takes”. I laughed my ass off some Elite reviews with ppl saying “don’t buy it, it feels empty and boring after a while” and they had 1400h of /played. Everything is repetitive after 1400h. 99% of the games would hardly pass 30 by nowadays standard.

      I hope it’s interesting for 100h (ambitious figure for an ambitious game) although it’s very possible it ends up being way more than that.

    • brucethemoose says:

      Same. I’m afraid this will basically be Proteus in space with survival aspects…

      There’s nothing wrong with that, and some people would love it, but fans seems to be expecting Minecraft in space, aka AAA Starmade. Take away MC’s or Starmade’s building aspect and force players to become nomads, they turn into very different games.

    • Shadow says:

      We have no clue as to the amount of material the procedural generators have to work with, and that’s a critical detail. Given the same game is being released simultaneously on consoles, I’m skeptical said amount will be huge.

      And without building and therefore an ability to leave a mark on the planets you explore, it won’t remotely qualify as any sort of “Space Minecraft”.

      As a whole, the game seems to be leaning heavily on exploration, so its success depends on the depth of the procedural generation. Planets have to be worth exploring beyond resource collection, and if that grows stale too soon… Well.

      Plenty of uncertainty. I’ll make sure to read many reviews and conduct extensive research, particularly considering the steep asking price.

      • C0llic says:

        I broadly agree with everyone above. How long it keeps you engaged is key to its value (for me). If that happens to be 30-40 hours, I wouldn’t feel cheated by that. If we’re talking about 4-5 hours, that definitely makes it a game i’d only pick up in a sale. It seems light on complex systems and narrative, so they have a lot of eggs in one seeded basket

  10. draglikepull says:

    Everything about this sounds amazing.

    • Darkz0r says:

      Yep! Let’s hope we can waste more than 50h with it! Looks really nice!

  11. Kefren says:

    The top image reminds me of Windows XP: Stegosaurus Edition.

  12. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    No Man’s Sky.

    “I am no man.”
    – Pip

  13. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    Oh maaaaaan this sounds so good. Actually, it sounds a lot like Out There (link to store.steampowered.com) recreated with AAA sensibilities. I can’t wait!

  14. Stevostin says:

    It has way more depth than I hoped for. It handles temperature, chemical hazards, some sort of strategical element, languages, food chain. Also, it’s great that there are empty planets, and that there are distant planets. I am just sad of the “no season” thing although I didn’t hope to have this anyway.

    Also, combat seems to be a moderate part of the game.

    I am sold.

  15. Geebs says:

    a weaponised version of the National Trust

    So, English Heritage?

  16. Alberto says:

    If NMS it’s a succesful game, I can only hope big publishers turn their eyes to procedural generation and smaller teams with a tight vision of a good project.

    So, let’s hope it’s a fine gane and they make a well deserved pile of cash!

    • brucethemoose says:

      On the other hand, if it doesn’t meet the sky high expectations, AAA developers will see it as a reason to avoid that sort of thing.

  17. jalf says:

    Well, consider me interested! He had me when it became clear that he actually has a clear idea of what he wants (and doesn’t want) from the game. An open-world game that tries to be everything to everyone and simulate all possible aspects of a real universe doesn’t really hold my interest.

    But something with a narrower focus (not least one on something as delightful as “exploration and pretty things”? I would love to play a game like that.

  18. gorice says:

    This looks great but THAT FONT. Using a lambda for an ‘a’ should be a capital offence.

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      Nauallis says:

      I can’t decide if you thoth that would be funny.

      • gorice says:

        No joke. I earnestly try to correct errors like this, but I always find myself starting back.

        • gorice says:

          reply to add: The rampant misuse of Greek characters bothers me.

          • klops says:

            I’m with you. it is almost a rule to find a a reversed R or N in a name of a Russian/Soviet/Cold war themed product, especially in a game. And those letters have nothing to do with R or N and I tend to read them “right”.

            My alltime favourite is the font use in the movie title “Seven”.

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          Nauallis says:

          Actually, I just read the line, saw the pun, but wanted to shout out to your thumbnail of the Thoth AI insignia, because I grew up playing the Marathon games.

          • gorice says:

            I know :) It seems my puns were too subtle. Marathon was great, though.

            Also, @klops, you’re absolutely right. I always thought it looked silly, but once I learned to read Greek it became confusing as well.

  19. DrollRemark says:

    I want to marry every one of these screenshots.

  20. DrZhark says:

    I’m wondering how big are the planets? I think all of the existing games were you can explore a planet have a very tiny fraction of land to explore on each planet, several orders of magnitude less than the real thing.

    How diverse are the planets? So we don’t get seasons, but do we get different biomes on a planet? How many species in average could be on a planet? I hope it doesn’t end up being a few species of animals and plants per planet.

    I’m also wondering if they included bizarre options for life forms in the procedural generator algorithm.. I hope not all of the procedurally generated digital universe is populated by the same ‘kind’ of creatures i.e. like on Earth were all life has the same basic carbon components and DNA.

    So many questions… I so much hope this game gives me a fraction of the explorer’s freedom I dream.

    • jonahcutter says:

      It says the planets currently don’t have biomes. If and when that might change seems blurry.

      I expect the planets to be unrealistically small. A song as they give you a fee of planets, if they’re a fraction of the size in reality, it’s not a big distraction. But it does take some impact away from the interplanetary aspect of the game that each planet is a single biome. Traveling between planets is really just traveling between biomes then, with a couple minutes of space travel skinned over the biome transitions.

  21. popej says:

    Releases about 3 weeks after my son will be born.

    Never mind then. ;(

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Congratu-miserations!

    • Frosty says:

      You know when my son was first born I was pleasantly surprised by how much free time I actually had. I mean odds are you’ll be tired from the birthing and then night feeding and slightly dazzled by the sudden change but I don’t actually remember it being a time of little personal time. Of course, different for different situations, but I honestly have found it actually gets tiring more as they get older. When they can sprint and disagree about bedtime and shout and laugh they’re very much more of a drain.

      But overall, I think, having a child tends to have a stereotype attached that scares people. It’s often perpetuated by parents too, a kind of rite of passage thing. Honestly, you’ll be alright. You may find a relaxing hour or two here and there will be quite possible and No Man’s Sky looks quite nice.

      Final bit of unrequested advice: Don’t be afraid to say no to visitors. Odds are that there’ll be loads after little one is born but they’re more tiring after a while than wailey wailey. Any visitors who are parents themselves will totally understand if you say, “Please, not today.”

      • melnificent says:

        Yup, I agree. Both my kids slept through the night from about 10 weeks on. Days were punctuated by lots of long naps and “free time”. Even when they were toddlers it was nothing like what everyone says.

        I do know parents where their kids won’t sleep through 4 hours nevermind a night… getting the routine established was my lifesaver.

      • Maritz says:

        Really? I have a four week old and I haven’t played anything in that whole time. Any spare time has been spent trying to feed/amuse the baby so my wife can have some time off. Babies apparently do not sleep as much as I expected. Imaginations of gaming with a sleeping baby on my lap have not materialised.

        +1 on the visitors comment though.

  22. LennyLeonardo says:

    Sean Murray seems like a really nice guy. Also this game is looking delightful.

  23. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    This is the most useful article I’ve read on this game so far. I had preemptively written this off as empty fluff (I know, shouldn’t be so hasty) but now I’m intrigued. Looking forward to see WIT’s once people have their hands on the whole game.

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      particlese says:

      I’m somewhere in between your “intrigued” and cqdemal’s “[more] unreasonably excited [than I’ve been in years]” as a result of this article. I was looking forward to playing the game at some point, but I love everything that Pip & Murray mentioned/discussed, and this article’s bumped the game up to just under my pre-order threshold. (Which sits at infinity for games with funding enough to be made.)

  24. fco says:

    “You can’t build because that encourages you to set down roots”

    so much this. i can’t understand the late fad of giving you a huge open world, and then urge you to build and ornate your home.

    this and that thing about language learning,
    and that metoridvanian thing of ‘upgrade to keep on exploring’

    this game keeps on speaking to me.

  25. kud13 says:

    This article made me slightly interested in looking into this, eventually.

    If they can replicate that feeling of just “being totally lost somewhere immersive” I had from S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but with space, that’d be amazing

  26. popej says:

    Thanks :(

  27. Weed says:

    Amazing concepts and systems implemented into this game. I just wish there were a way to play it with friends. It would be very cool to be able to meet up and accomplish game goals in a co-op or team fashion. PVE combat too. Those are fun parts of Starbound and similar games. Helping friends accomplish goals and sharing resources and experiences and vice versa. At least for me anyway.

  28. thekelvingreen says:

    Oooh, it reminds me a bit of the Mercenary series — no, not that one, the earlier one — and that can only be a good thing.

  29. Jeremy says:

    I did some peeking around, but couldn’t find anything conclusive on the subject of mods. Are they going to be looking into modding at all? Obviously that always opens up a huge cluster of weirdness, but it seems that there are always mods in games that end up being incredible, and end up as part of the definitive experience.

  30. Shiloh says:

    I’m quite interested in this – not as head over heels as some, but I’ll read some reviews and watch some Let’s Plays when it comes out and go from there.

    PS How come Pip got to go? Not saying she shouldn’t have, she’s as capable as anyone obviously, I’m just picturing the scene at RPS Towers when John opens the golden envelope and announces “And the person going to play NMS is…” Alec: “ME! ME! ME!” Graham: “NO, NOT MEER!!!! ME ME ME!!!” Adam: “ME-E-E-E-E!!!!” Pip (looking up from phone): “Er, huh?”

  31. geldonyetich says:

    I knew of the seamless planet:space transitions, but not of attention paid to fauna ecosystems and crafting. Sounds like it may be interesting, alright.

  32. Somerled says:

    time-to-crate = 4 paragraphs

    I’ll just keep smiling while the dread creeps up my spine.

  33. fco says:

    here’s an interesting article about factions, and more on that language system:

    link to blog.us.playstation.com

  34. Premium User Badge

    zigguratvertigo says:

    That Sean Murray does say ‘whatever’ a lot.


  35. percyfrazier says:

    My only question about this game is about the flying mechanics and the true “no load screen.”

    When flying into the atmosphere of a planet do you have total control of your ship? Meaning, when the planets name comes across the screen do you have full control or does it take control, level you out and then give you back control. Noone has ever made this clear so I’m curious. Every video shown flying onto a planet looks as if when the name of the planet comes up your ship automatically levels off for you, which I hope isn’t the case. I’d like full control at all times when going on and off planets.

  36. racccoon says:

    What happened to the movies?? :+~”.

  37. CaidKean says:

    I must say I am really bummed out by the fact that they’re going for one planet – one biome.

    I can totally understand not doing seasons but doing one biome only per planet will really kill the immersion for me.

    I know it’s not supposed to be a simulation but being able to fly across the entire planet in every direction and everything just being, for example, lush jungles would/will really pull me out of the game.

    • DrZhark says:

      Indeed, it does also bug me

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        Captain Narol says:

        Come on, a single biome by planet doesn’t mean there won’t be variety on it : different landscapes, different species, different plants, different minerals…

        And with quintillions of planets to explore, if you get tired of a particular biome, you can easily find another one to explore just a few hyperjumps away !

  38. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    One day, somebody will manage to offer developers a world framework where they can develop games pretty much as engines are used until now.

    Seeing all these universes being created may they be in 2 or 3d is quite interesting.