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No Man's Sky - A Hands On Preview

Across the universe

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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.

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Philippa Warr

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