"Look at that! Look at that!" I yelled, immediately feeling sheepish because I was at a press event crowded with other writers and I probably shouldn't have been shouting. Also, because I'd interrupted Sean Murray of Hello Games as he was in the midst of patiently explaining to me how to repair my space suit, which had been heavily damaged by acid rain on the previous planet I'd visited.
I couldn't help it, though. I'd been playing a demo of the PlayStation 4 version of No Man's Sky for fifteen minutes, and while it certainly looked beautiful, and I'd been to several planets and engaged in a dogfight with space pirates, nothing had really excited me about the game yet. Then I landed on this planet, where the sun had just set and night was creeping in, and I spotted something looming in the distance, slowly moving toward me.
I hadn't really been impressed by the procedurally-generated aliens I'd spotted so far. I'd seen some frog-like creatures, some slug-like monsters, and some fish-like fish. This was different. It was big: most of the creatures I'd seen so far were dog-sized or smaller. This was bipedal, stalking around on its thick hind legs, whereas everything else I'd seen on land had walked on four (or more) legs. It had huge broad shoulders and enormous rabbit-like ears. It looked like a yeti had evolved from a bunny, with a little turtle DNA thrown in for good measure, and while I watched it stopped walking and took a moment to rub its face with its large paws, as if it couldn't believe it was peering down at the tiny astronaut in front of it.
"Is it going to kill me?" I asked Sean Murray. "It's going to kill me, right?"
"I actually don't know," he said, then laughed. Of course he didn't know. It was a creature he'd never seen before, that no one had seen before, and that most likely no one would ever see again. It was mine, in other words, my yeti-rabbit. At least for that brief moment. That was exciting.
My No Man's Sky session began with me standing on the surface of a planet, which I immediately wanted to leave, mainly because I knew there were other players at the event currently standing on it with me. Finding things no one has seen before and standing on planets no one has ever set foot upon is the point of No Man's Sky, and I wanted to get right to it. So, I climbed into my ship and headed out.
Flying a ship is easy, arcade-like, with a single button-press to land and an automatic liftoff when hopping back in. Traveling quickly between planets requires a jump drive, which is fueled by minerals that can be collected while exploring a planet’s surface, either by shooting rocks or opening supply crates that seemed to be scattered around liberally—perhaps just to help us newcomers get stocked. At one point I ran out of jump juice while I was actually in space (probably because I hadn't bothered scrounging for resources before I left) but I discovered I was able to shoot nearby asteroids with my ship’s laser and automatically collect the minerals I needed to refuel.
Planets, at least the ones we saw during the demo, are liberally peppered with alien life, though we also learned you can sometimes find buildings and factories. In these buildings you can meet and interact with intelligent alien NPCs. Naturally, they speak in alien languages which you won’t understand, at least not at first. But you can slowly learn their language through your interactions and by examining carved monoliths you’ll find on the surface of some planets. Without knowing what they're saying, selecting a response to an alien query is guesswork until you've picked up a bit of the lingo.
While NPCs won’t give you traditional quests—Murray told me he wanted to avoid fetch-and-return missions to encourage players to keep exploring—learning their languages and interacting positively with them will raise your status with their faction, and may result in rewards like new weapons and technology. You can also acquire recipes, and put them to use in factories to create new items from the resources you gather.
Not every planet is warm and cuddly. During the presentation, Murray wandered around on a planet so cold it damaged his health until he sought refuge in a cave (which he entered by blasting a hole in the ground with an upgraded gun). One planet I visited had acid rain that ate through my suit. I thought submerging myself in a lake might protect me, but as you'd probably expect because you're smarter than me, it was an acid lake. And, some creatures, even if left alone, may be hostile. I was attacked by some sort tiny alien slug at one point, though a massive dinosaur I found on another planet, and my beloved yeti-rabbit, thankfully left me in peace.
I also got to visit a space station, though it wasn’t really by choice. While I was flying my spaceship near some AI-piloted freighters I was attacked by a handful of space pirates. I fired back, but they quickly destroyed my ship and I respawned inside a nearby station. Space stations, like planets, are randomly generated (though the one I visited was disappointingly nondescript) and some may contain alien NPCs you can interact and trade with. If you see another ship landing while you're there, you can stroll right over and offer to buy it, if you've got enough money. (I didn't.)
As the session wrapped up, I found I still didn't have answers to most of the big questions surrounding No Man’s Sky. There's endless exploration, but is it really fun? There's crafting and upgrading, but is it enough to make you want to keep playing day after day? The procedural generation guarantees you'll never see the exact same thing twice, but does that really mean the things you see will be interesting? I just didn't have time enough time to truly find out.
I did have a good time playing, though—a staff member had to physically remove the controller from my hand so I’d stop playing and leave the building—so that’s something. It's just impossible to know if I’ll find No Man's Sky engaging for weeks or months after release. Still, discovering my beautiful broad-shouldered yeti was a genuinely thrilling moment. While I'll never, ever see that creature again, in a galaxy with 18 quintillion planets I'm hoping I'll at least feel that same thrill.
No Man's Sky is priced at $60 and will be released on June 21, with pre-orders beginning today. You can also read my interview with Sean Murray, in which we talk about NPCs, post-release game updates, and players who won't leave their favorite planets.