Survival sandboxes have never really been my cup of tea. I get the appeal, crafting your own story however you see fit, but if I’m going to engage in the kind of repetitive activities that most of them make you do I’ll go back to my MMORPGs (at least I can get those SWEET SWEET PURPLES). However I’ve long had a large group of my friends pester me to play some of them and whilst I’ve inevitably left most of them behind one managed to get its hooks deep into me. As you’ve likely guess that game was Subnautica, one I had avoided for its entire life until it came up in conversation once again. With my dumpster diving in the Steam new release section wearing me down I figured it was time to try something that had a better chance of capturing my attention. Boy, did it ever.
Subnautica takes place in the far future, putting you in control of an unnamed protagonist (well I never figured out his name, but apparently it’s Ryley Robinson) aboard the spaceship Aurora. As you’re approach a planet your vessel is struck by an unknown energy pulse, sending it tumbling down to its surface. You manage to escape aboard one of the ships escape pods and upon landing find yourself stranded in a vast ocean. The aurora crashed close by, its reactor heavily damaged and spewing untold amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. Your life pod has all the basics to keep you alive but you’ll have to draw on the resources on the planet if you’re ever going to make it off. What follows is a tale of survival that you’ll largely define yourself although it’s clear that this planet is hiding a secret that you’ll need to understand if you’re ever to get off it.
For a Unity based game Subnautica sure is a pretty one, making full use of all the features available to the engine. The level of detail could be tuned a little better as quite often you’ll see a lot of asset and texture pop-in. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t so reliant on those details to navigate yourself around and locate the things you’re looking for. There’s also quite a lot of simulation going on, even for stuff that’s no on screen, which means as your time in game stretches on your performance is likely going to start taking a bit of a dive (pun…yeah intended). I definitely enjoyed the slightly simplified, stylized art direction that they took for this game though, especially with the huge variety of different environments you can find yourself in. That’s only made better by the great voice acting, sound track and substantial foley work that went into rounding out the rest of the experience. Overall, whilst Subnautica might still have a few Early Access rough edges to polish out, it’s definitely one of the better looking games I’ve played this year.
In the heavily oversaturated sandbox survival simulator genre Subnautica stands out as the one that went full in on the nautical theme. Sure you’ve got the standard things that you’ll need to take care of like food, water and health, but all the progression mechanics are based around diving to deeper depths in the ocean world you find yourself stranded on. All the things you craft will either help you stay underwater for longer, move faster so you can explore more or craft vehicles that will allow you to go on longer and longer journeys. You’ll also build yourself a base (or twenty) to generate and stockpile resources, build upgrade stations and serve as a place of respite between your expeditions. All of this is in aid of exploring as much of the map as you want and by golly there’s quite a lot of it. More impressive is that it’s all hand crafted too and often updated so things aren’t always where you (or people on the forums) expect them to be. Driving all of this is a kind of campaign story that also entices you to dive to deeper depths whilst revealing to you the fates of your fellow crew and the efforts that are being undertaken to rescue you. Suffice to say there’s quite a lot to do, so much so that I lost almost 30 hours to it without really trying.
Exploration is the main aim of the game and for the most part Subnautica does it well. The game does a good job of giving you a safe area to explore around in initially, one that isn’t too demanding and gives you a decent intro into the main mechanics. A more directed tutorial would’ve been nice as it’s not completely obvious where you’d go about to find certain materials, making those first few items a bit of a chore to get done. Once you’ve got a few basics completed and some form of vehicle built though things start to progress a little faster and the campaign missions start coming thick and fast. Things can get really non-linear though as somethings will likely be easier for you to find than others. For instance I had a Seamoth fully completed before I managed to get everything together for a Seaglide, including having the blueprints for the powercell charger before I had the respective ones for my batteries. Similarly it took me quite some time to track down the multi-purpose room (yeah I know, I know, I didn’t explore the island enough) which limited my capabilities somewhat for a good few hours.
The crafting system is deep and rewarding, giving you ample things to shoot for throughout the course of the game. It’s almost always worth picking up as many crafting materials as you can carry as you’ll never know when you’ll next need them to craft the next upgrade. Probably my biggest gripe with the whole system is that the various drop rates for different materials doesn’t seem to be inline with the amount you’ll need. For instance diamonds, lithium and gold all drop from shale outcrops but always ended up with more diamonds than I needed and little of the precious lithium which seemingly all the higher end upgrades crave. Things only get worse with higher end materials, especially if you’re like me and built your base in the safe shallows near the escape pod (since that’s where I had all my stuff). Of course I could’ve built another base further out if I so desired but honestly the amount of times I had to dive back out to get more titanium meant that I’d probably be doing just as much travel no matter where I decided to put down my roots. If they ever add something like a mining rig which produces some of the minerals from that depth I think that’d make the whole experience a little better, at least for people like me who don’t really want to grind a lot in a single player experience.
I didn’t spend too much time on building out my base, basically just fleshing out the bare necessities I needed and a few other things to make my life a little easier. It took me a while to understand the whole structural integrity thing and how other modules affected it. I think that’s part of the experience though as there’s a whole bunch of mechanics based around not doing it properly (those who’ve played that will know what I mean and yes, I did do that, multiple times). I did engage in a little mobile base building towards the end of my play time though, keeping enough resources with me to be able to build a single multi purpose room, a hatch, two power cell chargers and a nuclear reactor. I only ever ended up using it once (and discovered a limitation I didn’t know of, you can’t remove the reactor rods) so it was probably not completely needed. Still it was a nice little safety assurance to have.
I almost gave up on Subnautica after I finally built my cyclops as I wasn’t particularly interested in the effort required to kit it out and transfer all my stuff into it for the long journey into the deep. However I just went and did that for a couple hours one night, fully equipping it with everything I’d need to make the long journey down. Honestly I think the amount of effort I had to go through to do it suddenly made the whole thing feel a lot more worthwhile; this wasn’t something that you could just blast your way through. No if you wanted to see the story through to the end you’d have to equip yourself with all the things you’d need as coming back might not be possible. Whilst I didn’t go as crazy as some people did I had more than I ever needed for the long journey down and boy, that was some intense gaming.
Going from piloting the Seamoth and Seaglide the Cyclops is an exercise is slow, steady precision. Of course the first thing I did was to put it up to full speed to see what it was capable of and promptly caused massive cavitation, damaging my propeller and causing a fire. It was then I realised that this vessel wasn’t built for speed but endurance and I’d have to be very careful how I handled it going forward. Once you get a handle for it though the cyclops is very maneuverable and is nigh on invulnerable to you bashing it around. Creature attacks are a different story however and once you’re in the deepest depths it becomes a real balancing act of movement speed, damage from creatures and how much charge you’ll lose if you don’t find all those fscking Lava Larva that have attached themselves to the outside of your ship.
Given that Subnautica has been out for about 4 years now most of the egregious bugs have been fixed but a few still remain. Lockers and other interactable items can glitch out on you if hit a hotkey when you’re interacting them, preventing you from interacting with anything and hiding your HUD from you. This can usually be fixed by walking away or just spamming buttons but it is rather annoying when it happens. Hitboxes can also be a bit iffy, like when you’re trying to say interact with a part of the Seamoth and end up entering it instead. Base building too can be a little weird, like when you place 2 multi-purpose rooms on top of each other. The green indicator would make you think that everything is fine but no, there is actually a wrong way to do it which will prevent you from putting in a ladder between them. There’s also the performance and LOD detail issues I mentioned before, something which I would have expected to be fixed by now. None of these things are game breaking experiences and all of them are things I think will be fixed in due course.
Subnautica was sold to me as the kind of survival game I’d be able to get into because of the story and, by and large, I’d agree with that. To be sure the first 8 or so hours were quite engaging because there was always an objective for me to go to, one that would show me a bit more about the world. After that though things started to get a little thin on the ground. Sure there were a few tidbits here and there but for the next 14 hours or so I was in something of a narrative hole. That picked up swiftly towards the end of the game with the last 6 or so hours filled with a lot more excitement, especially towards the end. If I was playing more efficiently I’m sure the story would have felt a lot better paced but even for a min-maxer like myself, one who was routinely consulting with the wiki and forums, I don’t think a genuine first playthrough could be done much quicker. With that in mind I’d like to see another 4~5 hours worth of story content to help drive things along as I’ve heard a lot of people drop the game as they get their cyclops which usually coincides with the dearth of story elements. All that being said though I thoroughly enjoyed Subnautica’s story and would happily recommend it to people who’d traditionally shy away from games in this genre.
Subnautica was one of those games I went into thinking I wouldn’t like it and was gladly surprised to be proven wrong. There’s always this sense of just needing to go a little deeper to find that next thing, whether it be story related or that item you need to make your life that much easier. The story that plays along helps to keep you engaged as you scrape together the upgrades you need to get to the next chapter. There’s still a few rough edges from its Early Access days, including a glaring lack of story for a good half of my time spent in it, but these aren’t things I think are beyond fixing. So it seems my friends were right, this is the kind of game for people like me who’ve given the whole survival genre a miss because we do like a good story that we don’t craft ourselves. Subnautica seems to strike the right balance here, giving you ample room to craft your own tale whilst giving you a trail to follow if you so wish. Whilst the AAA drought is soon to be over it’s still probably worth giving Subnautica a look in as it really is worth the time, especially if you can get through to the end.
Subnautica is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours playtime and 82% of the achievements unlocked.