A squadron of small spaceships leaves the hangar, jetting out into the asteroid belt that surrounds Achaia. They dodge the flying rocks and approach the huge planet, dropping through the atmosphere toward the icy mountains below. One ship – our ship – lands at a docking base. After trading some supplies, the pilot pulls up the galactic map and warps to Utwarzers XI, an unexplored system on the other edge of the galaxy. Within seconds, the ship lands on Vesta Prime, a desert planet populated by gigantic dinosaurlike creatures.
Not only does this whole experience only take a couple of minutes, but it happens in a single continuous shot. Hello Games developer Sean Murray promises that, other than the background music, the video hasn’t been edited in any way; this is footage taken directly from a PlayStation 4.
This is only a brief glimpse of the game, but it gets the point across: on a technical level, the No Man’s Sky exploration system is just as impressive as its universe is massive. While it’s literally impossible to see everything that the game can offer in a single lifetime, travelling between planets and systems looks like a seamless, hassle-free experience.
No Man’s Sky debuted in December 2013, at Spike’s VGX event, and over the past year the Hello Games team has been pushing the title’s size and technical prowess. The game uses a series of algorithms and a 64-bit seeding key to procedurally generate over 16 quintillion planets. According to Murray, who’s both a programmer and a co-director of No Man’s Sky, “If a new planet was to be discovered every second, it’d take 584 billion years to discover them all.”
And because each planet is generated on the fly, the game can immediately transition between worlds. That’s right: no loading screens. This also implies that there’s no in-world persistence – changes made by the player probably won’t be permanent – but that’s OK. With so much content to explore, it’s unlikely that players will be going back to the same planets over and over anyway.
It’s incredibly impressive to see all this in action, and every planet featured in No Man’s Sky looks both hauntingly alien and surprisingly beautiful. The 3D environment features lots of bright colors, but very few textures, which probably helps things run more smoothly. At Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards, Murray announced that 65daysofstatic, an “instrumental electronic post/math rock band,” would provide the game’s soundtrack. Aesthetically, the band’s a great fit for the game, providing a soundscape that combines rock and electronica into something futuristic and suitably epic.
While Hello Games isn’t exactly shy about showing off how No Man’s Sky looks, the company is still fairly coy about how the game plays. Gamers got their best look at the title at the “A Night under No Man’s Sky” concert at the PlayStation Experience. During the event, 65daysofstatic performed an hour-long set while game footage played in the background, showing exploration, trading and gathering resources, and even briefly teasing some ship-on-ship dogfights.
In an interview with Game Informer, Murray hinted at a basic structure for No Man’s Sky: players start on the edge of the galaxy and gather resources to buy new ships, which they can use to get closer and closer to a mystery at the center of the universe. At The Game Awards, Murray introduced some footage tied to the game’s “lore,” hinting at a backstory, but the video dealt mostly in geometric shapes and abstract ideas. There’s a story there, but it’ll take some work to uncover.
It looks like No Man’s Sky is really about the journey, not the destination, and Murray treats the idea of an end goal like an afterthought. In the past, he’s compared the game to something like Minecraft, where the fictional world is more of a sandbox and less of a guided experience. Minecraft has robust customization tools, however, and a large part of its appeal lies in using the in-game interface to make something new and unique. In No Man’s Sky, players don’t create, they just discover.
That’s a big distinction. If players don’t feel a sense of personal involvement in the world, No Man’s Sky is going to feel more like a digital sightseeing tour than a truly interactive experience. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine the game holding a player’s attention for too long, and after all the buildup, that’d be a shame. The game’s tech is impressive, thanks to Murray and fellow programmers Ryan Doyle, Hazel McKendrick, and David Ream. And its art style – developed by artists Aaron Andrews, Beau Lamb, Grant Duncan, and Jake Golding – is refreshing and unique. Producer Suzy Wallace and designer Gareth Bourn also helped craft the game’s expansive universe. There’s a reason why No Man’s Sky is one of the most anticipated games of 2015; let’s hope the game lives up to its seemingly limitless potential.