I really want No Man’s Sky to be good. Everything about it punches the right buttons - all that open world exploration? So hot for that. I’m the kind of person who plays games like Skyrim or Fallout and immediately ignores all missions in favour of wandering. What can I find? What will I see?
In terms of the exploration in No Man’s Sky, this is what Hello Games founder Sean Murray had to say to me: “That’s what we want from the game: for you to travel between cool, vibrant environments but actually have real challenge. To feel vulnerable and that you’re fighting against it. It makes your discoveries more significant, more meaningful. You’re not endlessly, ambiently bouncing from planet to planet. Actually to see what’s over the other side of that hill you have to really fight for it, and when you get there you might be freezing to death, run out of energy, have nothing in your weapon. And then it makes that sunset a bit more special.”
Which sounds amazing. I want that. But having finally played the game I honestly can’t tell you if it delivers any of it. Even with some hands-on time it still feels like all I have to go on is the promise. The limited (and strictly enforced) half hour I got to play gave me little more to add to what you may have seen. I can tell you the guns gun and the planets planet but that’s about it. For a game offering near limitless potential, such a restricted playthrough reveals nothing.
In my brief time exploring I managed three planets in a rushed attempt to see as much as I could. It easily takes 5-10 minutes to fly between neighbouring planets (although upgrades speed this up, as well as allow travel to other systems). I saw a watery, rocky vista, a frozen planet and a world shrouded in toxic fog. Among the creatures I met were giant pink dinosaurs, building-sized gorilla-lizard things with fish-finned elbows, and blue bird trolls.
I also got the briefest glimpse of how the game’s resources work - harvesting elements by blasting rocks and plants to create tech upgrades and fuel. I was attacked by sentinel robots that protect each planet after I got into a fight with bouncing mushroom-shaped animal (he started it). There are alien races to meet and talk to, monoliths to decipher and factions to court or fight. It all looks incredible but what depths or texture it offers is impossible to read in the minutes I had with it. Sean talks about a fight to survive and the value it adds to your experiences but without more time to sample this longer game all I can really say right now is, mechanically, it works. The grander dream and scale promised is hard to taste without more time - time to get lost, time to struggle, time to die.
It’s clear Hello is presenting a very idealised representation here, full of amazing planets and incredible creatures. That’s obvious - no game is ever shown off by its creators in a less than perfect setting - but as we approach No Man’s Sky’s June 24 release date I really want to see the thing let its hair down a bit. This is a universe to explore after all, and in half an hour all I can really tell you is that it’s definitely there, and the bits I was allowed to see are pretty.
There’s been talk, some of it from Hello itself, about how not every planet will be as amazing as the examples we’ve seen, and it’s worried about managing people's expectations. I do wonder, however, if there’s a fear to letting people see the less spectacular places and more mundane life that might fill up a large part the universe.
It sounds like the game’s imperfections are seen as a failing by the studio but are a highlight to players: “To give that sense of exploration people love finding the weird creature that can never walk,” says Sean. “I had some people playing the other day and they found some weird zombie-like creature who could barely move himself. And that made his playthrough. He was so happy,” he explains, but adds, “I was there with my head in my hands, thinking ‘make it stop, I wish I could just go and fix this bug.’”
However, that’s not to say Hello are totally against some weirder potential: “we want that weirdness and actually, as you make your journey, the further you go towards the centre of the universe, the more weird and crazy things get.” However weird it gets, the fact that they’ve created an entire universe to explore is an amazing, enticing prospect. Now they just need to let us really see it. Space warts and all.