Like all of the best brainiacs, the friendly folks at Hello Games are utterly insane. There's a mad glimmer in studio co-founder Sean Murray's eye as he explains that he's no longer able to see textured terrain in No Man's Sky without the mathematics shaping it. The amiable programmer – appearing endearingly apprehensive at a special hands-on event in London last week – knows that his team of 19 are onto something special, but he remains as grounded and good humoured as ever, warning that the sparkling water that he's been sipping all evening may lead to some unexpected burps. "Those are under embargo, too," he quickly quips.
It's a valuable anecdote because we get the impression speaking to many of the affable faces from the Guildford-based outfit that they are merely everyday people embarking on the outrageous. And while we'd previously suspected that the weight of expectation may be bringing the team down as the title nears its 21st June release date, it seems instead that it's simply enjoying the ride. "There are so many planets in this game that 95 per cent of them will never even be found," Murray continues, that crazy glint back in his eye. "I'm not sure whether that's beautiful or sad," he giggles.
But it's true: No Man's Sky really is that big. The release consists of millions of solar systems, each comprising of different planets inhabited by its own unique ecosystem. While the specifics of the title's procedurally generated universe are infinitely more complex, it functions using a series of mind-melting algorithms. Imagine, for one second, that you are stood upon the surface of a planet. The formulae beneath the bonnet of the game uses the co-ordinates of your location to populate the world around you. It means that, if someone else were to stand on the exact same spot, they'd see the same surroundings as you do. Insane. Clever. Cool?
Well, it is impressive, because the mathematics means that the game doesn't really need to load as you segue between space and planet surfaces. But what do you actually do when you're on a landmass? To be honest, the release is shaping up to be a Twitch streamer's dream; exploration, crafting, survival, trading – all of the usual buzzwords are represented in ample supply here. But at its very essence, this is a game about exploring so that you can gather the resources that you need to explore some more – even if that's a reductive way of looking at things.
Your goal is to reach the centre of the universe, and to get there you'll need a pretty sick ship. You'll need to accrue money to upgrade your craft, then, which you'll earn by collecting materials and trading with the fleets that you'll encounter on your travels. Planets are flush with resources, with everything from elemental objects through to weapons and bits of kit. In our demo, we needed to create an EMP in order to override a docking station and call in our ship; a swift combination of two substances lifted straight from the Periodic Table got the job done.
"Spending under an hour with No Man's Sky and coming to firm conclusions is like eating a grain of rice and trying to evaluate an entire Chinese buffet"
You can ping out a beacon to see what's in your immediate vicinity if you're in need of a little direction, but it's clear that the real beauty of the game is simply going to be getting lost. Murray notes that the vastness of the release means that there are unlikely to be YouTube videos detailing loot hot-spots; just because someone's found a planet flush with resources, doesn't necessarily mean that you'll ever be able to reach it. And so even though the game is populated by non-playable characters all belonging to different races with different beliefs, there's a definite sense of isolation as you wander the world.
Speaking of the NPCs, the studio's really eager to stress that the game is packed with lore, though it's something that we're unable to really sample in our agonisingly short hands-on. One neat touch, however, is that they'll all speak different languages, and you'll gradually pick up on the meaning of words by exploring their planets; fail to take the time to pick up on the local lingo, however, and you'll find communication more difficult. This can be particularly problematic in trading scenarios, where picking the wrong option due to a misunderstanding may find you on the receiving end of a blaster to the rear.
It remains to be seen just how meaningful these interactions will turn out to be, but all of the user interface elements are beautifully implemented using a system that, honestly, has been straight-up lifted out of Destiny. That's no bad thing, though, as Bungie's cursor-driven mechanic remains as elegant as it's ever been, and it really works here. Similarly, the presentation across the board is just sublime; one planet that we visited tested our suit's anti-freeze capabilities due to its sub-zero temperatures, while another – positioned closer to a star – had a scorching surface that drained our energy if we failed to manage our cooling systems effectively.
And, if you're wondering, there are laser guns that you can shoot the local wildlife with if you choose. A Grand Theft Auto-esque wanted level system prevents you from upsetting a planet's ecology too much, and we get the impression that you're going to really struggle against this sort of resistance if you haven't upgraded your equipment all that much. It's difficult to say whether this will act as a kind of gate on your freedom early on, but it definitely seems that way.
All in all, though, we left our hands-on session feeling like we knew more about No Man's Sky, without necessarily being able to answer the most important question of all: will it be any good? After rumours that the developer was struggling to get the title to run on the PlayStation 4, we can confirm that it functions exactly as promised on Sony's box – we checked that it wasn't secretly running on a supercharged PC – though you may want to temper your hopes for PlayStation VR support, as the pre-release build wasn't, shall we say, silky smooth in the performance department.
However, spending under an hour with this game and coming to any firm conclusions is like eating a grain of rice and trying to evaluate an entire Chinese buffet – it's impossible. The art direction's staggering and the ambition is awe-inspiring. But with the developer proudly parading the game's free-flowing format, it remains to be seen whether it will have the structural hooks to make it worth its trans-galactic fare.
Are you hotly anticipating the release of No Man's Sky, or are you still concerned that the space-faring sim won't really appeal to you? Find your ship, set a course for the comments, and fly there as fast as you can.