The last release from Hello Games was an iOS sequel to their side-on stuntman adventure, Joe Danger. That arrived in January, roughly a month after the world’s first glimpse of their incredibly ambitious latest project, No Man’s Sky, at the VGX Awards. Since that initial reveal, details have been thin on the ground but the concept behind No Man’s Sky, and the diminutive size of the team working on it, have been attracting quite a lot of interest. It couldn’t be more different in scale and tone from the Joe Danger games they’re well known for.
No Man’s Sky is a procedurally generated infinite universe, full of possibility and bursting with promise. It wasn’t just the most exciting game I saw at E3 2014, it is the most exciting game I’ve seen in recent memory.
That’s not to say it’s ready to play. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done and the demo we got in a hotel room near the Los Angeles Convention Center was the same section of the game they showed on stage at the Sony press conference. What that proved, though, was that the stage demo wasn’t a tightly scripted set piece, packaged together for the spectacle that E3 provides. What they showed on stage was gameplay and even though they played the same part of the game for us privately, it played out a little differently.
Everything in No Man’s Sky works to a set of presumably very complex formulae. So when Sean Murray spent a little too long explaining the scope of the cave network they loaded up into, that meant he missed getting into space in time to see the fleet warping in. They’d be back, but not for a week or so. If you want, you can wait for them.
You probably won’t wait though; there’s too much else to do. While on that vibrant starting planet, alive with the noise of its flora and fauna, we were shown a brief scan that revealed some mineable resources that we could extract. Those might be useful for creating fuel that is otherwise an expensive resource or they might simply be good to trade and gather up some cash for the next round of upgrades to our ship. Or perhaps you’ll ignore them completely. Why bother getting your hands dirty when you can simply fight your way to fame and riches? It’s all up to you.
The debug build features a free-cam mode that allows Sean to zip around the surface of a planet at extreme velocity. Everything streams in, there’s no waiting for low-detail sections to load and there’s nowhere that’s off limits. When he pauses, thousands of miles from his starting point, the detail level fills in almost instantly around him. Virtually answering an old philosophical quandary, everything is generated around the player as you approach it and then the game flushes it when you’re no longer in the area. The formulae ensure that it’s all still in the same place when you return to it.
You can go anywhere and do anything in this universe that’s so vast, encounters with other players, although possible, will be rare. No Man’s Sky isn’t a multiplayer game but players will exist in the same universe so, in a similar way to Journey’s innovative multiplayer system, you might encounter another player but you won’t necessarily be able to communicate with them. Aside from the wingmen you can call in (the three ships seen in the demo), which are an upgrade to your abilities, you appear to be working alone.
There seems to be plenty of other activity in the universe though. Combat situations will obviously play a big part in the game, if you want them to. But playing purely as a combat pilot won’t be the smoothest, simplest way of progressing your career in this never-ending space opera. You would benefit from doing a little bit of trading, perhaps mining for your fuel as you fly through the galaxy, killing foes and stealing profit.
Combat will also get more difficult as you fly inward from the almost Arcadian outer rim to the more advanced central systems. In this way, No Man’s Sky should manage to encourage you to dabble in a more varied approach, to hasten your development. Combat is fine but you’ll want to upgrade your ship so you’re competitive in the more difficult regions and for that, you’ll need cash.
Likewise, the surface of planets can be a dangerous place. Fauna won’t be limited to just the dinosaur-like beasts we’ve seen so far but it will be as incredibly varied as everything else in this procedural expanse. That means you’ll probably want to upgrade your suit and your weaponry for when you’re outside of the spaceship.
The traditional approach to designing sci-fi weaponry in games – or most media, for that matter – is to create something very similar to modern day guns and rifles that shoot lasers instead of bullets. No Man’s Sky avoids this by giving you a tool, rather than a gun. It’s difficult to imagine how this translates to combat but it was explained as a kind of better version of Star Trek’s Tricorder in that it is a kind of multipurpose tool. It can be used to scan, mine or attack, depending on how you choose to upgrade it.
If you tire of playing the game in a mainly combat role, perhaps after hundreds of hours, you’re free to sell your heavily armed ship and buy one with a big cargo hold so you can switch careers and become a trader for a while. You’ll need to develop your abilities in that direction, so you’ll likely have a disadvantage if you’re career-hopping after a long time playing, but it’s all up to you.
No Man’s Sky is a project that’s almost limitless in its ambition but there’s no sense that the team at Hello Games is out of their depth with it. Despite being the most informal, unassuming presence at this year’s E3, the Hello Games crew are sitting on the game with the most exciting potential and their humility and openness about it is as refreshing as it is endearing.
This is a game that is clearly influenced by the ideas behind two revolutionary – and very different – games in the history of the medium: Elite and Minecraft. In taking its cue from the notions at play in those two titles, No Man’s Sky has the potential to eclipse them both and take its own place as a timeless criterion in the annals of video game history.