I did not punch Sean Murray in the face when I played No Man’s Sky in PlayStation 4 virtual reality last week at a demo event in New York. I almost did, as I reached out to open the canopy of the spaceship I was virtually sitting in, but from the sound he made, I think the game’s lead developer scooted away.
“That’s okay, I’ve been punched a few times today,” he said, gathering himself. “The best one today is I asked someone to punch a rock and they punched me square in the jaw. And they didn’t say anything. So I think they just thought: ‘Oh, that’s where that rock was.’”
Murray showed no signs of injury once I took off the PlayStation VR’s headset at the end of the demo and saw him squatting next to me. The whole experience of playing No Man’s Sky in VR was appropriately otherworldly, though slightly more feature-rich than what players will be able to experience when the VR mode comes to PS4 and PC as part of this summer’s free Beyond update.
Players will get a VR mode that Murray said is entirely compatible with existing saves.
Players will get the ability to interact with the world from the first-person perspective of their character in the game.
Players will be able to do cool things like walk through the bases they’ve made and pilot their spaceship using virtual throttles and joysticks.
They won’t, sadly, be able to do as I did and have Hello Games’ Sean Murray standing next to them offering help. I started playing No Man’s Sky VR all on my own, got a little lost in the world, and then heard the voice of the main visionary behind the game.
“Hi, it’s Sean,” is what I heard after I was playing for a couple of minutes. I suddenly realised Sean Murray had walked over to chat. How convenient! You just play this game in VR and suddenly Sean Murray is next to you.
I kept the VR headset on at first. I had a virtual reality planet to explore and I needed someone to tell me what to do, since the demo had skipped the tutorials for the new mode’s special controls. Murray could explain, but it was weird and also great to have Murray chatting with me as a disembodied voice.
“It’s the weirdest thing to demo VR to people,” he said as I observed my virtual hands. In reality I was sitting in a chair, wearing the PSVR headset and holding two Move motion controllers in my hands. In the game I was seeing through the eyes of the character you’d normally control from afar. The movement of my in-game hands matched the movement of the controllers I held.
“I’ve skipped the tutorial because we want to show you that anything you can do in No Man’s Sky you can do in No Man’s Sky VR,” Murray said. “You can boot up a 100-hour save and just launch straight into the game.”
At Murray’s direction I extended my left hand to observe the side of my glove. I then pointed at a sphere near my left wrist with my right hand and a menu popped up over it. I was able to tap through some options and get a flashlight to appear in my hand.
Alternately, I could point my left hand at the in-game gun in my right and switch it to terrain manipulation mode to destroy or add to the scenery. I’d found myself down in a cave and Murray suggested I use the gun’s destruction ability to tunnel my way up and out. Later, he encouraged me to switch functions and build.
“Fire at the world and you can add terrain,” Murray said. “People use this for base-building, sculptures, that kind of thing, drawing phalluses, all of that.”
You holster your gun by reaching your right hand to your right shoulder as if you were placing it into a backpack.
No Man’s Sky VR is meant to be a magnificent option for the game’s players. It doesn’t technically add anything to what you can do in the game, just changes how you do it and how it appears. From the 20 or so minutes I played of the game in VR, I was struck by the sense of presence I had in the world and my appreciation of its scale. Now you’re deep in a cave looking up as you try to tunnel out. Now you’re standing inside the base someone made. Now you’re talking to an alien who appears to be in front of you.
“Exploration is what the game’s about, and exploration is more interesting in VR,” Murray said. “You can get vertigo. You can stand at the top of a mountain and just feel like you’ve got a real view. You can be in that cave and feel claustrophobic. That lifts the whole game experience.”
There are some hazards and pitfalls. The game looks more grainy in PSVR than it would in a standard view. Murray said it looks sharper when played in VR on PC, since that hardware is more powerful, but it’s never going to look as sleek as the game looks like on a monitor, a downgrade in visuals that will compete with the grandeur of having No Man’s Sky’s worlds wrap around you.
It also poses some nausea risks. The developers at Hello Games are offering a range of movement options, including a teleport-and-turn system for moving through the world and stuttered rotational turning, which tends to diminish the risk of feeling sick in a VR game’s 3D world. Murray still cautioned that some moments during a spaceship flight might be hard for some players to take in and that the game will offer a range of comfort settings there, too.
I did not feel queasy when I played, not even during my brief moments flying a spaceship. You can summon your ship from a wrist menu and then climb into a cockpit to see controls that are represented as objects you can interact with. In the ship I entered I could grab a horizontal throttle with my left hand. With my right, I could hold a joystick. Pushing the throttle up and pulling the stick back made me take off. I flew briefly. As I took off, Murray warily suggested I look around out of my cockpit, noting that I should only do that if I felt well enough. I did.
It was wonderful to be able to fly, in first-person VR, in a virtual spaceship up out of the atmosphere into space, to look back on the planet I left behind and then to activate warp speed to go to a space station. I’d play No Man’s Sky this way again.
It’s smart to offer VR as an option for the game and to let players use their existing saves. Long-term players, Murray mused, will see their in-game creations and familiar planets in a whole amazing new way. It seems worth trying if players have a VR headset. Players should just be sure it’s comfortable for them and that, when it’s time to punch a rock or open a cockpit, that no one, not even Sean Murray, is within striking distance.