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No Man’s Sky: everything you need to know before playing

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No Man’s Sky is a game that lets you live out your wildest science fiction exploration fantasies, and it does so without falling into traditional gaming categories. It doesn’t have realistic guns, scripted action set pieces, or a Super Bowl-ready marketing campaign. This game, created by a comparably small team of artists and coders, has captured the interest of large swaths of gamers and non-gamers alike based almost solely on its unprecedented premise: there are 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky, and we’re all invited to explore them.

The experience you have in No Man’s Sky will be unique to you. The game is so big, so largely free of direction, that the adventure can feel frustrating at first. Before you can fix your ship and leave one of the quintillions of planets, you’re asked to quickly learn the essential rules of the universe.

Here’s everything I wish I knew before starting the game.

Download the day one patch — immediately

Most modern games have day one patches, a series of fixes that a developer implements after the game gets printed for retail. The day one patch for No Man’s Sky is exceptionally important: among many other changes, it increases the biodiversity of planets, expands your inventory slots, and rewrites big parts of the main quest. (Here’s a full list of changes, for those who are curious, and a great essay by developer Rami Ismail on why this happens.) The pre-patch experience is pretty different, and more importantly, save files from before the patch won’t necessarily work. I know 842MB can be a cumbersome download on some internet connections (not sarcasm), but it’s really essential here.

The game is first and foremost about exploration

While No Man’s Sky does have an ultimate goal, wherein you make it to the center of the universe, the game’s main thrust is exploring the vast, unknown universe at your leisure and building your own narratives out of whatever weirdness you find.

The first planet will ask of you a good bit of walking, but once you fix your ship and take off the game expands in infinite directions. Often you’ll have a suggested path: check out this beacon, go find what’s up with that distress signal, etc. — but there’s no penalty for taking your time or ignoring the quest altogether. Until you get the hyper drive, however, it is worth focusing on finishing the tutorial.

In these early moments, don’t forget to regularly to use your scanner (press in the left joystick), which flags every uncommon element (i.e., not carbon, not iron), and point of interest in the nearby vicinity. Whether a planet looks sparse or busy, the scanner will serve as your divining rod for adventure.

... wait, no, it’s really about resource management

For better and for worse, much of your introduction to No Man’s Sky will be spent managing inventory — literally moving boxes around. Early on, the game provides very little info about resources, and limits the variety and number of things you can carry.

To get in the weeds a bit: your exosuit has 12 slots at the start (which you can later upgrade), three of which always go to essentials like life support. Up to 250 pieces of an element can take up a slot as can one item. So for example, if you have 302 pieces of Plutonium, 250 pieces would fill up one of your slots, and 52 pieces would fill up another. (Your ship has a similar system, although it can hold 500 pieces per slot.)

There are also upgrades you can craft that will make your everyday experience simpler, but also take up more precious inventory. Do you want to run faster? Not a problem — just sacrifice a precious inventory slot and craft yourself an upgrade.

There are 2–3 elements worth carrying on you at all times (i.e., don’t immediately transfer these back to your ship) — carbon, iron, and zinc — and you should always have one spot open for crafting or random encounters where someone wants to give you an item. These elements are useful for crafting key items, as well as maintaining your life support and mining tool, and you’ll want them in a pinch.

You won’t fit every resource into your inventory at first, so here are the most important things to collect in the first couple hours:

  • Carbon. It is the most essential element in No Man’s Sky, able to recharge your mining tool and your life support — both of which can take any red-clad isotope, but seriously, only use carbon. Carbon’s also used when interacting with random alien encounters. So far, every planet we’ve gone to has had an abundance of carbon. When in doubt, shoot all the plants and trees. Keep some on you at all times.
  • The other isotopes (red elements): Plutonium and Thamium9. Both are essential for specific tasks — Plutonium recharges your ship’s launch thrusters, while Thamium9 recharges your pulse engine. Both are considered “rare” although it’s easy to spot plutonium (red crystals, same on every planet) and Thamium9 is ridiculously common once you’re in outer space (shoot any asteroid). Whenever you find these, it’s best to transfer most / all back to your ship immediately (hold down triangle when in your menu) to keep your exosuit’s inventory clean.
  • The oxides (yellow): Iron, Zinc, and Titanium. Iron is in every rock, and though it’s essential for early-game repair and crafting, its usefulness lessens after you leave the first planet. Zinc and Titanium, the rarer oxides, can also be used to recharge your hazard protection (although a cheaper solution is to run indoors or hop in your ship, if those are options). It’s always good to have a bit of zinc on you, if nothing else, and trust that there’ll be a nearby rock if you really need Iron.
  • Heridium and other silicates (blue). Heridium is crucial when you’re preparing your hyper drive. It’s also perhaps the most annoying part of the tutorial, which asks you to walk far away from your ship in search of the element. Feel free to transfer additional Heridium to your ship as soon as you get it — you won’t often need it on hand.
  • Green elements. Okay so... this is a very long game, and maybe later on this will mean something else, but at this point all green-tinted elements and items only seem to exist for selling in the galactic market. And while sometimes the market favors one element over the other, given the sparseness of inventory slots, it may not be a bad idea to sell these often. Same as with the silicates, feel free to transfer to your ship as soon as you get it, to keep your exosuit inventory clean.

Analyze and upload everything

There’s good money to be made on the galactic market. Every system’s space station (and a few random terrestrial spots) provides a place to buy and sell items and upgrades. Prices vary based on each store (a helpful prompt tells you whether or not it’s in your favor). That’s one of the best ways to make money. But here’s an even better way: hold L2 to look at and analyze every creature you see. The galactic library is trying to chronicle everything in the universe, and it seems to have unlimited funds. Press option to open up your library, which lets you rename and upload everything you’ve found. Systems and planets give you the most credit, but you also get paid for discovering creatures and plants. Random opportunities to buy new ships, multitools, and suit upgrades pop up from time to time, so having credit on hand — the one thing that doesn’t take up inventory space — is vital.

Gotta go fast

There are four “speeds” of ship travel in No Man’s Sky: basic acceleration, basic turbo (holding circle), using the pulse engine (hold L1 / L2 in space), and hyperspeed for traveling between planets. Use this simple checklist:

  • If something is more than 2 minutes away, use the pulse drive.
  • If you’re on a planet and something is more than 5 minutes away, leave the atmosphere, use pulse drive, fly back down.
  • If for whatever reason you can’t use the pulse drive, ask yourself if it’s really worth doing the objective at this moment. Maybe find something interesting in the general direction and do that first.

The difference between each method is quite big — a one-hour journey using thrusters may only be 30 seconds by pulse drive. Don’t slow down until it says there’s only 1 or 2 seconds left in the journey. And don’t worry about resourcing the pulse drive: while Thamium9 can be annoyingly sparse planetside, it’s found in practically every asteroid in space. Be sure to spend a few seconds stocking up before you land.

Come in peace

Don't pick fights. Seriously — not at first, at least. There’s little benefit and the galactic police seem to be everywhere.

Don’t worry about missed opportunities

There are 18 quintillion planets in the game, each one full of random encounters, many of which simply won’t be accessible at first.

At the very beginning of No Man’s Sky you’ll find locked cargo that requires an “Atlas Pass V1.” Most space stations will have locked doors requiring an Atlas Pass. A number of space creatures will ask things of you, and if you don’t immediately have the item or resource, or if you make the wrong decision, that choice is lost forever.

It’s okay. Really. There’s too much out there to see to retrace your steps. There’s no missed opportunity worth returning for. Anything that’s essential will be very clearly marked for you in the game, and it’s worth heeding those notes, but otherwise, you’re gonna have to accept that a game this vast will include some points where you just can’t do the cool thing. Be humbled.

Bring your own podcasts, audiobooks, and jams

For better and for worse, No Man’s Sky can be a sometimes monotonous adventure. The planets can be rich, but you’re still largely spending your time wandering around planets, finding resources, and enjoying the occasional dialogue. I’ll give NMS plenty of credit for its gorgeous audio and music, but after a few hours, you might want something different.

This is a great game for catching up on your podcasts, getting through a large audiobook, or if nothing else, putting on some Redbone and recreating the intro to Guardians of the Galaxy.