What I already knew about No Man's Sky, before playing it for a half-hour or so last week, was enough to make me interested in it, if not 100% convinced. My impression was that it was basically Elite Dangerous, except it's colourful, you can land on the planets, it's got alien life, and the complexity of the controls does not make me want to claw my own face off. All of these things are true, but as developer Hello Games has been insisting for the past couple of years, there really is more to it than that.
Beyond flying around the universe in a stylish spaceship and exploring planets, observing their wildlife and odd terrain, there are other things that fill out the minute-to-minute experience of No Man's Sky and also lend it a sense of purpose, for those for whom exploring is not enough of a goal in itself. Having actually played a near-finished version of the game – which will be out on 24th June in the UK – I am clearer about what it's like. It is an extraordinary feat of mathematics, a universe somehow generated by a series of algorithms, but for those of us who aren't mathematically intelligent enough to appreciate it on that level, it's also a fun space adventure.
Every planet in No Man's Sky has its own environmental weirdnesses. Of the four I landed on, one had toxic rain, one was freezing cold, one was super hot, and the last was relatively temperate. Your equipment – your space-suit – can only withstand a short amount of time in inclement places, so you have to find shelter soon after you step out of your ship. Or, you can make it.
Your weapon in No Man's Sky can be modified to blast away terrain. You can create a hovel in the ground to shelter in, or dig through the surface of a planet to find beautiful caves below. Your modifications to the surface of planets are permanent – but bear in mind that the planets really are planet-sized, so a huge area that took you an hour to explore on foot is barely a pixel once you're back in orbit. I cannot understand how the game calculates this.
Mining and Crafting
Blasting planets and asteroids gains you materials used for fuel, to modify your equipment, and to trade. You need these minerals to fix your suit, modify your weapons and equipment, and generally progress. This is another reason to terraform: more valuable things might be found underground.
If you plunder a planet too aggressively, though, little robotic drones will show up and start keeping an eye on you. Go crazy and they'll start attacking you, so you'd better hope you have a weapon good enough to fend them off. This also applies when you are flying through space, mining asteroids: try to attack other ships and you will likely not survive very long.
The crafting system that puts these materials to use is actually much more robust than I'd thought it would be. Exploring in No Man's Sky is all about your equipment. When you first set out, you don't have much of anything, and won't really be able to survive anywhere for long. As it turns out, this is a survival sandbox game, like Minecraft's survival mode in space: you need to find materials to create things that better enable you to survive.
For instance: you craft specific protection from the elements, like cold-resistant suits. You can modify your weapons for better mining, more effective damage, greater range. You can upgrade your ship. I spent enough time exploring these crafting menus to get the impression that there is a LOT to it, enough to reward players who choose to spend tens or hundreds of hours with No Man's Sky. You're more than a tourist in this universe; you gradually become more able to conquer it.
Talking to Aliens
You've already seen the dinosaurs and cool birds and weird fish-things that pop up all over No Man's Sky's planets, but it also has intelligent life. There are several different intelligent alien races in the game, who have colonised a great many of the planets, building structures and flying their own fleets. You can gradually learn how to communicate with aliens by studying their language, examining artefacts and buildings and so forth, but at the beginning you have no idea what anyone's saying. I walked into a building about five minutes after landing on my first planet and a very dangerous-looking alien said things that were probably not very nice. I made explosion noises and waved my arms about (one of three options the game gave me) and... he handed me a new gun. Lucky save.
You can also steal things from, or attack, these alien races, rather than trying to learn from and trade with them. This can all get rather dramatic. If you attack, say, an alien mining station, you'll be able to steal excellent materials but the full force of their protective systems will also descend upon you: drones, guards, wailing alarms and flashing red lights. Piracy has consequences.
My favourite thing to do is still crash-land on planets and check out the wildlife. I'm not exactly skilled at flying, at least not yet, so the first time I landed on a planet I crashed right into a giant T-rex like creature with feathers. It was not happy. Most of the wildlife in No Man's Sky is ambivalent to your presence, but some of it is aggressive – especially if you're aggressive towards it first. I shot a giant herbivore to see what would happen, and nothing did (well, I felt really bad about it). But later on, I took a pot-shot at something that looked like Dr Mordin from Mass Effect's head attached to some tentacles, and a group of them chased me for ages.
I do love the look of the game: every planet is different, from pale green places with big cyan moons to frozen planets where you can't see a foot in front of you through the storm, orange flatlands punctuated by weird alien buildings, and toxic places wreathed in unfriendly caustic mist. The idea of an almost-infinite universe full of these places still blows my mind.