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    No Man’s Sky: Mysteries of the Universe

    No Man’s Sky debuted on Spike’s VGX award show a year ago, and since that time it has generated mountains of buzz among the press and public. Fans pick through every new interview or article for the smallest details. People want to know what the game feels like and how it unfolds, but full knowledge of those elements won’t be available until it releases in 2015 (no longer “coming soon-ish” or “when it’s done”). However, on a recent visit to Hello Games’ Guildford studio, we received information on elements that have long been held back, including the map of the entire galaxy, the first look at the enemies, a detailed talk on upgrades and the galactic economy, and plenty of answers to the random questions bouncing around in your mind that you won’t get anywhere else.

    The first time you start up No Man’s Sky, there is no story or narration. There’s no tutorial. Instead, there’s a wildly abstract sequence inspired by the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The very first time, we just want the feeling like you warp in and see trippy visuals as the galaxy forms around you,” says Hello Games’ managing director and co-founder Sean Murray. “We’ll have the planet just kind of start with [polygons] and form and come up. It’s not going to be like the start of Battlefield or anything like that. You’re not going to get your nickname at the start, or have to cut your way out of a ship.”

    You begin at a random spot on one of the millions of planets on the edge of No Man’s Sky’s procedurally generated galaxy. You will almost certainly be the first player to see this planet, and, if no one else ventures over to check it out, you will be the only person to ever see it. Just because they are beginner planets doesn’t mean they start players on an equal footing. “Some players will start on a planet that is incredibly harsh and have that start to their life in the game, and some players will start on the planet where resources are incredibly rare,” Murray says. “I like that we won’t be able to balance this game to within an inch of its life, and that we won’t be able to guarantee you will all have the exact same experience. I think that’s cool and interesting and we should embrace that.”

    A minimap at the bottom of your screen guides you to a point of interest. If you don’t get distracted along the way by the world around you, it takes a couple minutes to walk to this beacon. Your first ship waits for you there, beckoning you into space travel. You’re free to stay on the planet as long as you like, but most players will hop in and blast out of the atmosphere. The groundbreaking game engine allows players to seamlessly leave a planet, cruise around space, and land on another world. But now that you’re off-planet it might be a good time to check where you are in the wider scope of things.

    The tap of a button brings up a map of the complete galaxy. The most zoomed-out view of the galaxy looks like a sphere that’s been crushed down slightly by invisible hands on the top and bottom. Your location is shown as a tiny dot on the edge, and an imposing black hole rests in the center. Venturing here is the unstated goal of the game, offering more challenge and better rewards the closer you get. Hello Games is hesitant to push players into any kind of structured path, and would be perfectly content if you disregard the black hole and explore where you want.

    The next zoom level on the map allows you to freely swoop through the stars. The enormity of the experience sets in here; talking about the concept of billions of stars is one thing, but seeing them all for the first time is breathtaking. Countless points of light fill the screen, hovering in blackness or brightly colored nebula. As the stars whoosh by, it’s easy to understand how even millions of players working to visit as many worlds as possible could barely make a dent in this enormous universe. Players can upload any new discoveries for everyone to see, but Hello Games is purposely not including a galaxy-completion percentage, because it would remain hopelessly small.

    The hue of space clouds and rare colored stars hint at what resources and activities are contained within. If you scan an individual star, you are shown the name, how many planets are in the solar system, and whether the sun has any special properties (like extra resources). If you’re online, you learn additional things, like if any of its planets have already been discovered, or what class of space station is in the solar system. Zooming in on the galactic map further lets you examine the planets individually. If other players have already explored the planet, you get a detailed rundown of its points of interest. If this is an untouched frontier (or if you’re playing offline), it’s up to you to see what all of those markers mean. You can’t simply warp anywhere, since the starter ship isn’t equipped with a hyperdrive. You have to earn some currency to buy a new ship, not to mention the fuel required to reach whatever is in range of your current solar system.

    To progress in any way, players need to earn money, called units. Fortunately, almost everything you do results in a deposit into your bank account. Blowing up ships, gathering resources and selling them, and discovering anything new (planets, points of interest, and creatures) are just a few examples. Players mine resources by using their gun and grenades to blast clusters of valuable cubes shown only in scanning mode. Hauling products to the next system to sell at a higher price can be lucrative, but pricey hyperdrive fuel and cargo space share the same storage, so you have to do some calculating to determine if it’s worth it.

    Trading posts are dotted around planets, and offer a way to get business done without flying up to space stations all of the time. We visited one that buys up resources that you’ve harvested. It was busy, with all manner of ships coming and going. You can use this as a way to scout cool procedurally designed ships as well; you can’t customize your ship, so you have to follow any that catch your eye back to the space station and buy it there.

    If you’re feeling bold, you can stake out the trading post and attack the ships as they arrive. This pays off for a while, but eventually the space station in that system is going to release the galactic police force on you. Even if you manage to survive and get away, the police remember you, and are more likely to attack unprovoked. Various factions throughout the galaxy also keep tabs on your actions, and respond with warmth or aggression depending on how you treat them.

    Other trading posts are specialized for specific upgrades to your space suit and weapons.

    Not every store stocks the same inventory; in addition to specific items, shops also have ratings that determine the general quality of goods they can sell. If you’re looking to enhance your shield or laser, you have to find that exact type of store and hope that it’s rated high enough to sell the caliber of upgrade you need. Utilizing data from systems previously explored by other players helps with this task immensely. Otherwise, you have to visit unidentified point-of-interest markers across various planets to find what you’re looking for.

    A space station populates every solar system, and the general shape indicates the quality of items within. Multiple docking bays across the outer surface mean there’s always an open parking spot. You hop out and can browse tradable cargo goods or stroll down the line of ships checking out their stats and prices. Generally, the available stock consists of who ever happens to be currently visiting. “You actually see ships coming in and out and you might see a ship that you really want to buy and then it will just take off and be gone,” Murray says. “You’ll have to wait and see if it comes back or go out after it.”

    When some of these space stations look like a spherical death star from Star Wars or a Star Trek Borg cube, you may be curious as to what happens if you shoot it. “Pretty much everyone within a short space of time of playing the game will turn around and start attacking space stations, from what we’ve seen,” Murray says. While you can’t blow them up completely (a space station needs to remain in every solar system so players can buy a ship if they need one), you can damage them enough that their quality ranking drops. Hello doesn’t reward you for damaging these structures, but you earn units and resources for destroying any police ships that emerge from it to attack you. “It’s not something that we’re encouraging, but we want this place to feel real,” Murray says. “We want people to feel this is a real working  universe.”

    No Man’s Sky’s planets are populated with procedurally generated creatures and plant life to discover. The massively varied animals can all be scanned and uploaded to the common player database. You get worldwide credit and a unit payout for being the first to see that particular purple jungle cat with large shoulders and red eyes, for example. However, you get no additional units if you pull out your weapon and kill it. The team doesn’t want to provide an incentive to wipe out every living thing that passes before your eyes, but won’t stop you if that’s what you’re into. Animal lovers can live in harmony with nature, but they might have to sacrifice their principles to survive an unprovoked attack from particularly aggressive creatures. So do you always have to feel guilty whenever you shoot something?

    This is where the Malevolent Force comes in. This robotic enemy army isn’t all that malevolent as far as motivations go. They are simply trying to maintain the balance of the universe. On some planets they patrol, keeping an eye out for anyone who kills creatures, carves out resources, or generally changes the environment. If you’re just strolling around scanning things in, they leave you alone. If you draw their attention, they attack like traditional first-person shooter enemies, shooting lasers, strafing, and taking cover.

    “These are the ancient machines to try to keep you in line,” art director and co-founder Grant Duncan says. “These guys are like the low-level A.I. that have been left behind by who ever created them.” We saw both the bipedal version seen below in concept art and a quadruped, dog-like robot. Cold and unfeeling, these machines are programmed to eliminate anomalies quickly and get back to patrols. “They’re not going to be procedural in the same way,” Duncan explains. “They will be a constant in the universe.  It’s that small gameplay loop of combat in the same way that Halo has its group of five archetypes. You know how they behave and you know how to deal with them. You gradually learn. We discovered that we needed something like that in the game. We’re still experimenting with this quite a bit.”

    Space combat is made with an arcadey, pick-up-and-play feeling in mind, and also takes some inspiration from the Bungie’s legendary sci-fi shooter. “If you play Halo, the choices that you make are who to take on first, whether you just go, ‘I’m going to get rid of all the grunts because even though they’re little they are causing me a lot of trouble,’” Murray says. “You’re choosing smaller ships to take out first potentially, if that’s what you go for. Or you might take out the one bigger more powerful ship.”

    These smaller ships normally don’t have shields, so they’re faster to destroy. If you drain the shields of a bigger ship, it flees like one of Halo’s elites to let its shields recharge. Some ships can heal others like the drones in Halo 4, so you want to go after them first. Choosing the right weapon for the job is crucial as well. Lasers specialize in melting shields, while plasma projectiles do heavy damage to ship hulls. Torpedos pack a punch, but they’re not quite as fast as the others. Another incentive for changing up weapons is to manage the cooldowns. Thankfully, you don’t have to pop in to space stations to buy ammo, nor worry about running out in the middle of a firefight.

    So what happens if you get taken out on one of these adventures? People have speculated about punishing roguelike-style permadeath, but the reality isn’t quite as harsh. If your ship is destroyed, you still can use a barebones lifepod to get to a nearby planet or space station. Your ship and whatever cargo it was carrying is lost. Your bank account remains intact, as do all of your suit and weapon upgrades, though you have to build up the funds to buy a new ship before you can leave the solar system again. If you die on foot, you simply teleport back to wherever your ship is parked and lose anything you collected since you last checked in with it.

    The risk of death and frustration increases the closer you get to the center of the galaxy.

    “Losing your ship and having no money in the center of the galaxy is a tough story. But it is totally possible to bounce back from that. It’s just going to take you some time,” Murray says. “You are sitting there going, ‘Right, my next few hours are just to get back on the ladder to where I was.’ But that makes it meaningful. I know that’s tough, but when you’ve been surviving in DayZ for a week and then you get killed, it hurts.  But it leads to a really cool story.  As long as it feels like it was your fault, that there are things that you could’ve done, then I think that it’s fair.”

    If you decide that the journey to the center of the galaxy is for you, you can expect it to last quite a while, even if you’re trying to move quickly. The current estimate is 40 to 100 hours, with the lower end accounting for players who min-max and only go toward the center in the most efficient way possible. Hello Games has full control over the size and spacing of the galaxy, and can tweak it to shorten or lengthen that journey. Any of that tinkering will be long over by the time the game actually comes out. “We’re not going to sit there saying, ‘People are getting to the center too early. Stop them!’”  Murray says.

    Along the journey, players can get a taste of planets up ahead if they come upon rare alien temples. The one we saw had a central spire surrounded by a ring of portals to different places with two giant flying snakes circling above. Each portal requires a different weapon or combination of weapons to open, almost like a door in Metroid. These teleport you to a random planet closer to the center of the galaxy. You have no idea what mysteries, riches, or dangers await on the other side. You also don’t have your ship with you, so there’s no way to leave the atmosphere. The idea is that you explore and fill your pockets as much as you dare before running back to the safety of the portal.

     As to what’s in the center of the galaxy, Hello plans to keep it a secret and let players discover it themselves. “In my ideal world, they will make the journey and see what’s there and they will realize the game doesn’t end at that point,” Murray says. “In some ways it’s like a beginning. I’m hoping that it’s a nice moment for them that they actually feel like not sharing…Just to be clear, it’s not going to run a video of me saying, ‘Hi, welcome to the center of the galaxy.’”

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