Available On: PC
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Genre: Indie Adventure Survival
Official Site: https://unknownworlds.com/subnautica/
Release Date: December 17th, 2014
Where to Buy: Steam
It is a brave developer that decides to create a title that is entirely based around that most-hated of environments: underwater. Poor visibility, slow movement, oxygen management – it’s often not that much better, down where it’s wetter, under the sea.
So when a game like Subnautica comes along, you might forgive people for looking at it slightly askance. We have plenty of other survival titles that use the ocean as some kind of major barriers, such as The Forest or Stranded Deep, but very few that use it as the entire basis for the game world. It’s an ambitious idea, and would certainly take a great deal of skill to properly work.
Fortunately, however, this level of expertise and polish is exactly what the team behind Subnautica have demonstrated they have – and the game isn’t even finished yet.
Subnautica: Under the Sea
In the distant future of Subnautica, Mankind has taken to the stars, and space travel has become the norm. No longer is it merely the pursuit of scientific discovery that fuels the exploration of the galaxy: it is the scrabble for resources, the exploitation of untouched worlds beyond our own. Among the many ships that have been sent out in the wider universe is the Aurora, an enormous vessel of which the player is a crew member.
Upon arriving at the potentially valuable but poorly-named Planet 4546B; the Aurora suffers from a catastrophic failure of enormous proportions, causing the spacecraft to crash into the planet-wide waters of the world below. The player character manages to barely escape in a life pod, finding themselves floating on an unknown sea with no rescue and no other survivors in sight. The oceans below hold valuable resources as well as myriad dangers – and if you want to survive, you’re going to have to plumb the depths of this deep, dark and mysterious world.
There are no zombies, no mutants, no other true antagonists other than the ocean and its denizens. In this way, Subnautica could be described as a wilderness survival game with a science-fiction twist, though the wilderness in this case is a little more wet than usual. You have to catch fish to eat, sterilize water to drink, craft equipment to make your time on the planet a little easier. An advanced, underwater sea base becomes your home rather than a hut made from logs, and your tools are high-tech stasis weapons and submarines rather than flint axes and firestarters, but the basic goals remain the same. Eat, drink, breath, stay alive, explore.
The exploration aspect is one of the most important parts of the gameplay of Subnautica. In order to be able to craft more advanced equipment such as submersibles, new habitat types, and even decorations, you have to get out into the world and scan blueprints. The more dangerous zones of the world (of which there are many) contain the more valuable blueprints. The deeper you want to go, the better equipment you have to have. It’s all quite nicely gated – near the start, you won’t want or even be able to move very far from your initial life pod starting point. As you progress, you’ll get access to larger oxygen tanks, faster vehicles, etc. You can then go further, deeper and for longer. There’s always a goal to work towards in Subnautica, and in such an enormous world, this helps keep you focused on what’s next.
The Deep Places of the World
However, even without this progression, you would likely find yourself wanting to find what’s lurking in the deep dark anyway. Each of the environments that you will find yourself gliding through are gorgeous, interesting and distinctly alien in their design. One moment you could be swimming peacefully through a green kelp forest, and the next you’ll find yourself deep underwater, marvelling at the bio-luminescent plants and animals that make this environment their home. And hoping that the latter isn’t aggressive and decide to make you their lunch.
The graphics of Subnautica could certainly be described as bright, colourful and even cartoonish to a point. But in reality, this title is a horror game in disguise. If you’ve ever looked out into space or found yourself in a large, dark body of water, you will know how terrifying the unknown can be. Subnautica is full of these kinds of places, and then very kindly fills them with huge, horrifying creatures, many of them hundreds of times larger than the player. The environments are gorgeous and wondrous, but there will be more than a few times you find yourself spotting an enormous fin, a tail or a glinting tooth in the deep places of the world – and scurrying back to the safety of the shallows.
Still in the Works
However, as fantastic as this mix of horror and curiosity is, Subnautica in its current form does present some issues. Optimization hasn’t completely been brought up to standard yet, and you will frequently find models and textures popping in and out, particularly when you are in the faster vessels and traveling a significant distance. There are also, at this point in time, very little explanation of how a number of mechanics work. While I am an advocate for the elimination of tutorials altogether, the team behind Subnautica haven’t made it quite possible to get away without one at this point. You do get started off in the basics, and thankfully there is a well-maintained wiki, but a bit more attention here for future developments would be appreciated.
One other thing to note is that there is a slight lack of end-game content. Once you have built a solid base, built a submarine, explored the deepest parts of the ocean, there is really very little challenge left. Subnautica in general is not a hard game – you will die if you stay underwater for too long, obviously, but even then the game can be quite forgiving. You can progress very rapidly without much effort after learning the tricks of doing so, and then you are left with little to do other than maintaining your character’s needs and your submarine’s power levels. There is certainly a lot to explore and a lot to build, but most of that takes place in the early- to mid-game.
Thankfully, this is more a trait of the fact that Subnautica is currently in early access than a failure on the developers part. There are plans (big plans) currently in development which will apparently conclude the story and create an ultimate end goal, but for the time-being, Subnautica has very little to do by the time you reach near the end of the game.
Overall, however, Subnautica is a very impressive game from an indie studio. Gorgeous graphics combine with occasional absolute terror, along with a unique take on underwater exploration that isn’t utterly terrible. While it still has to develop a solid endgame, the journey through the world so far is a wonderful combination of satisfying curiosity and battling (and winning) against the elements on an alien world. It’s no wonder why this is considered a game that does early access right.
- Gameplay: Hunt, gather and explore an entirely underwater realm.
- Graphics: Bright and colourful, but still capable of instilling fear.
- Sound: Whale calls, chirps, and splashes.
- Presentation: Underwater levels have never been so fun.
- Plenty of diverse environments.
- Always something to work towards.
- Already very polished for an early access title.
- Occasionally buggy and underoptimized.
- Lacking in an endgame currently.
- A little slow to get started.