No Man's Sky is a game unlike any we've seen before: As a starship pilot, you'll explore a universe so vast, its developers think explorers won't set foot on 99 percent of its planets. That seems ridiculous, but Hello Games estimates No Man's Sky has 18 quintillion planets. It has to estimate, because of course it didn't craft them by hand -- they're all the result of algorithms, procedurally generating each one as it's discovered.
The idea that any one player could be the first -- and last -- to ever set foot on an alien world? It's incredibly exciting stuff. And on June 21, 2016, you'll be able to jump into No Man's Sky on PlayStation 4 and PC, and start exploring. (It'll cost $60 or £50, with Australian prices yet to be announced. An "Explorer's Edition" version that includes a scale model of your ship is available for preorder for $150.)
Hello Games, a tiny British company which until now has been reticent to share much about its hotly anticipated game, is ready to give us more of an idea of what to expect. There are alien civilizations in this universe, and we don't mean simple animals, minerals or vegetables. We're talking worlds occupied by intelligent beings. And they might want to meet you -- that is, if you can find them.
A procedurally generated, living universe is a fascinating prospect for gamers. But since its official announcement almost two years ago, we've had to survive on tidbits revealed in developer demos. We haven't seen what a regular player might experience as they explore and discover planets in the No Man's Sky universe.
Earlier this week, I had the chance to play the game for about 30 minutes in a solar system with a more advanced ecosystem -- planets farther from the sun might be less developed, but have elements players might want for crafting. As I zipped around in my spacecraft, taking off and setting down on various planets in the system, the transition between space, atmosphere and land were impressively seamless. No loading screens here.
While on one planet, I discovered various animal species (shout-outs to Bailey and Jenkins, small lizard-like creatures now officially named after my dogs), gathered resources from the planet, protected myself from the elements, and died to a large nocturnal predator; all mechanics we're familiar with in video games. But then, I arrived at a large monolith covered in unintelligible inscriptions.
In my own personal "2001: A Space Odyssey" moment, it turns out these monoliths are relics left by alien races, and you can interact with them. Hello Games' Sean Murray says there are "thousands" of potential options -- watch our interview with him below. I told the slab I was a pitiful, lower intelligence being and asked for mystical learning, which it then bestowed upon me via an alien word. Learning a particular alien race's words help you decipher what a member of that race has to say to you, which could be the difference between life, death and sweet loot.
I found an occupied station with a strange parrot-like being inside, and after trading niceties with him, I was gifted an upgraded gun, and went on my way. Murray explained that each race has its own lore, and some are focused on a particular pursuit, like military strength or science.
The addition of these alien characters made the game feel much more immersive than previous demos I've seen. After hearing previously that you might never run into another player in No Man's Sky because of the vastness of the universe, I had concerns the game would be a terrifyingly lonely experience. The addition of alien races made me feel like I was truly exploring living planets, almost like an astro-archaeologist. Yes, I just called myself the Indiana Jones of outer space.
There's still that nagging question though, the one that's been out there since we learned about No Man's Sky: What's the balance between lush, advanced worlds like the ones we explored earlier this week, and barren planets devoid of life? The inherent problem with demoing the game is that there isn't really a way to figure that out -- because the universe is so large, and its developers don't even know what's on most planets (they had to spend days playing around in this particular system before we sat down for our demo, so they could help show us around if we needed help), it's almost impossible to gauge how interesting most planets might be.
After playing the game for a half hour, all I wanted was more time. No matter if you want to catalog one single planet's life, see as much of the universe as you can, or something in between, No Man's Sky seems to welcome you with open arms. If Hello Games can pull off a launch relatively free of bugs and glitches, gamers who love open sandboxes will be in for a treat that's well worth the price of admission.