With my hands finally on the most anticipated title of 2016, No Man’s Sky, I’ve been tooling around my own small patch of its for-practical-purposes-infinite universe in an attempt to get a handle on proceedings. So how’s the indie game writ-mega large playing so far – what does the play loop actually involve? Here’s what I’ve been up to in the first dozen or so hours.

Initial signs were not encouraging when, after firing it up for a quick look after installation and spawning at the site of the crash landing that is the start of the game, I was almost immediately set upon by Sentinels on my start planet. These hovering robots show up on every planet (with 18 quintillion planets, whoever is building them must have a biiiiiiiiiig robot factory somewhere) and object to you mining things too much; they’re almost kind of like a militant mechanical Green Party. Killing one via the somewhat janky FPS only brought more – they hounded me into a cave, and killed me dead within sight of my crashed spaceship. Then the game hung, eventually crashing to the PS4 dashboard. This was not an auspicious start.

Back in action later, I decided the start planet was obviously cursed, and resolved to escape it as soon as possible. This was largely a matter of using the mining beam in my omnitool to blast various bits of planet – plants, rocks, crystals – to break them down into resources of various rarity levels that can be used to fuel or build personal equipment (like the environmental protection and life support of your exosuit) or spaceship parts. You will be doing a lot of mining for resources like this in No Man’s Sky. A *lot*. But I managed to collect the necessary parts to repair crucial ship parts in fairly short order, also having my first encounters with the game’s randomly generated aliens, who you can scan to scientifically “discover” – like this guy, who I modestly named the Bengolin (because he looks like a Pangolin, and uh, my name is Ben.)

No Man's Sky review diary
Can’t wait to present my research paper.

Despite the cursed nature of the cursed planet, the Bengolin and his buddies were all small benign, timorous creatures (which lulled me into a false sense of security that would later cost me).

Fuelling up my now fixed spaceship, it was off to the nearest new planet – or in this case, a moon, which I named after my cat. Behold the moon of Lulu:

No Man's Sky review diary
One day, son, all this will be yours.

Don’t let anyone tell you No Man’s Sky is a bad-looking game. On one hand yes, some of the textures aren’t the most detailed, but the overall art direction and colour palettes are gorgeous. It *does* have some fairly horrendous pop-in, but that seems forgivable given what the tech has to do, and zooming (almost seamlessly) from space into high orbit and then low orbit and onto a surface flyover is pretty darned awesome. And the views are pretty great. Here’s Lulu at night, looking back towards the cursed planet:

No Man's Sky review diary
I will never go back to you, cursed planet.

On Lulu, I was able to spend a few hours focusing on improving my prospects beyond mere survival a bit to progress and prosperity. It seems there are essentially a couple of ways to do this planetside; grinding for resources to use or sell on the galactic market, and exploring planets to find waypoints that contain alien shelters, bases, and ancient artifacts. Thumbing L3 scans the surrounding area, pinging points of interest as HUD waypoints waiting to be discovered. These act as save points and may provide opportunities to score more resources, trade, or improve either your suit and omnitool tech. These locations also start to drop mysterious hints about the different paths you can choose to follow through the game, which are intriguing, but very vague.

I also discovered my undiscovered moon was thoroughly discovered. Many of Lulu’s waypoints were populated by the robotic alien Korvax. Here’s one chilling out where I found him in a base with a small landing pad attached:

No Man's Sky review diary
Inserts it into its slot, eh? Right.

These guys will give you sort of little conversation puzzles that might end in a reward or improved standing with their faction. At ancient alien monoliths you can learn alien language words which theoretically makes alien interactions easier, although even with no language knowledge at, all, a bit of common sense and logic steers you right in these. Monoliths also sometimes seem to hand out rewards – one led me to this crashed ship that I could have claimed for my own, had I so desired:

No Man's Sky review diary
Oh, I see your problem here – the power coupling on the negative access has been polarised.

Waypoints seem to sort of chain across the planet in ways that lead to a lot of “I’ll just go over this next hill” exploring - often leading you miles away from your ship. You can hop between waypoints in your ship to make things a lot faster, but at a fuel cost each time you launch, and while slogging between them on foot (with a jetpack to aid navigating varying terrain) can take a while, an ETA counter on each gives you a good sense of distance. Making your way between them gives you a chance to poke around and make new scientific discoveries (which are also rewarded with market credits) – which is how I first came across Lulu’s apex predator, the magnificent Crested Derpasaur, who … eats insects, apparently? Clearly not threatening, right?

No Man's Sky review diary
Nature, in all her glory.

In between wanderings, I spent a lot of time mining for resources. Lulu had a low Sentinel presence, but also it turns out that you can often escape conflicts with the robotic annoyances by quickly departing from the scene of your mining crimes when they head over to investigate, walking away whistling with your hands stuffed in your Carbon-filled pockets. Valuable minerals seem to be found in giant surface lumps. Lulu had plenty in particular of a valuable resource called Emeril, which is conveniently easy to spot when surveying from the air in your ship or from high ground with its stand-out shiny green.

Hosing these giant lumps of stuff down to nothing with the mining beam for 5 minutes at a time is pretty monotonous stuff. It’s made worse by having to micro-manage your tiny starting inventory - your suit holds very few resources, with crucial equipment taking up slots and devices and trade goods/treasures not stacking, and although materials can be transferred back to your ship from anywhere, it too has a similarly small hold. Stockpiling is hard work, and throwing stuff away that might well be handy later just to immediately free up space is common. You then have to lug everything back to a trade terminal to actually sell, which leaves you longing for space-internet. The grind is real. Needless to say, it’s teeth-grindingly annoying when you’ve been on a long mining expedition and the game then crashes before you get to a save point, which has happened to me a couple of times.

No Man's Sky review diary
The science-fiction future is all about bricks and mortar retail, apparently.

Nevertheless Emeril seems to be worth a small fortune in-game, and with the relative lack of Sentinels on the planet I built up a sizable stack of credits, and was feeling pretty cocky when in the middle of another lengthy Emeril-hosing session, I was suddenly fired upon by Sentinels. I was still cocky even as I turned confidently to deal with them – too cocky to notice a charging Crested Derpasaur, who smashed me so hard that I sailed off the bluff I was standing on and clear across a valley to smash into the other side and land in a crumpled heap at the bottom, at which point the Sentinels promptly swooped down and finished me off. I am not making that up.

No Man's Sky review diary
“DEEEEEEEEEEEERP!!!”

A hilarious, awesome death is still a death. Respawn is at your last save point, with your grave marked on the HUD - get there and you can reclaim your inventory, but die again first and it’s all gone. Fortunately the Derpasaur had cleared off (looking for insects to eat, I guess), and my most recent haul of Emeril was safely sold at this trading post:

No Man's Sky review diary
Lulu Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany.

This was a busy hub of alien ships coming and going. If you like the look of one, you can make the owner an offer they can’t refuse for it, trading up to a larger carrying capacity (which means not only more cargo) space. At this stage I was positively gagging for a larger ship and checked several out, but the thought of all those hours of Emeril mining made me a very reluctant buyer, scared by the thought that I would buy something with those painfully hard-earned credits and then immediately see something better.

No Man's Sky review diary
It’s nice I guess, but do you have it in British Racing Green?

I decided that kind as it had been to me, it was time to leave Lulu behind – spurred on by the fact that try as I might, I couldn’t find the eighth and last animal species on the moon the log told me existed that would have netted me a 200,000 credit discovery bonus. Was it a flying thing? Something in a cave somewhere? I’ll probably never know. I looked everywhere, but I never found it. Frustrating.

No Man's Sky review diary
Are you back there somewhere, eighth species?

It was time to leave the initial system, with a quick stop over at a space station to buy crucial hyperdrive fuel parts from the market. I subsequently learned I could have made the part myself much much cheaper with bog-standard resources, so DIY seems like it is the best option in most cases. Space stations seem to be another virtual used ship sales yard, with new models jetting in and out all the time.

No Man's Sky review diary
It made perfect sense to buy this one, but I didn’t because it looked too much like a truck.

With the nearest star selected on the mind-boggling galactic map – which provides a best path laid out to the galactic centre (some 170,000 light years distant!) on it, I punched the hyperdrive and was off to interstellar exploration for the first time.

No Man's Sky review diary
That you, Space Baby from 2001?

It’s been a fun, fascinating and at times super-grindy experience with No Man’s Sky so far. The game has a lot of obvious shortcomings – a current lack of stability being a major one – and amazing features at the same time, and I vacillate between really liking it and finding it a major slog. I’ll report back again soon more fully, hopefully with a few more worlds and perhaps some space combat under my belt and a better sense of the mid-game.