I remember I first experienced Subnautica in what must have been early 2015. It had recently made the plunge into early access and was still relatively barebones. Not much more than a survival-crafting game underwater at that point, with none of the base-building and story that makes it so exceptional now.
OOPS gave my review away early again… Bugger…
Either way, at the time I was definitely unimpressed with Subnautica, even after seeing Tim give it a go. You have to remember that this was back when survival crafting was the overdone horse corpse being beaten by just about every indie game company out there. There was Rust, H1Z1, 7 Days to Die, The Forest, The Long Dark, Ark: Survival Evolved, DayZ and the list just goes on and on (and continues to do so today). So, you might understand that in the midst of all this, I discounted Subnautica as being just yet another early access game which would spend forever in development and remain forever uninspiring.
Admittedly the underwater theme of the game was fairly unique and cool, I’ll admit that briefly caught my eye. Although I actually think there may have even been other underwater survival games around the same period and there have definitely been since. My point being that it just struck me as a gimmick and nothing more.
All of this is to say that I very briefly made a noise of interest around Subnautica’s early access release, I may have said “oh underwater survival, that’s neat” and then never ever thought of it again because I (perhaps unfairly) dismissed it as being like just about every other game being released at the time.
Cue Subnautica’s exit from early access 3 years later in 2018 and it was only then that it re-emerged onto my consciousness. I heard from a couple of sources that the game was actually pretty good and that my first impressions were most definitely judging a book by its cover.
In Subnautica you are thrown in at the deep end (pun intended) when your space-ship crash-lands onto an ocean planet, all of the crew rushing to escape pods which have scattered far and wide over a moderately large area around the crashed ship itself. The game then walks you through repairing a Star Trek-style replicator on your escape pod, followed by a signalling-antennae and then starts to gently nudge you towards trying to find your lost crewmates.
Right from the start Subnautica has some truly glorious first visual impressions. The early game is spent splashing around shallow shoals and coral beds, warm sun shining down around you as you examine and coo at the bright and colourful fish. You gradually discover that you can use the fish to get everything you need, from food to water, and slowly start to improve your gear letting you swim faster, dive deeper and longer. As you get deeper and deeper you get access to more resources, allowing you to expand further, but also revealing the hostile and dangerous monsters which lurk in the deeper waters of the seas.
Your first tasks are to loot the crashed ship along with finding the remnants of your crew, and part of what makes Subnautica great here is in the way it is so obviously structured. The map is not procedurally generated, there are defined biomes and regions, specific discoveries reveal the next steps of the very defined story. While I do understand the appeal of procedural generation in these games, I have to say the fact that this feels like it was designed to be experienced in a certain way just makes it that much better to actually play through. It makes it feel more curated, smoother and overall polished and enjoyable (although we’ll come back to “polished”).
As a side note, I will also mention that I have a bit of a THING about deep water (particularly that I cannot see the bottom of). I think possibly because of having seen Jaws at a relatively young age (or that James Bond film where the sharks are allowed into a swimming pool) sharks specifically and the ocean in general just give me the fear. And in Subnautica, boy OH BOY, did that come to the fore. Even when the world was truly gorgeous and colourful and wonderful, I was regularly on edge and nervous and easily startled, the bright colours belying that there could be sea monsters hiding anywhere just waiting to ambush you. Aside from in the shallowest coral reefs, the ocean is a dangerous place and even the early monsters have enough of a threatening aura to make one keep one’s distance.
And that just got a billion times worse when I had to start going down into the deeps of the ocean… Initially it’s actually a very exciting moment, the fact that you have expanded your survive abilities enough that you can create a small and zippy submarine. It feels not only like an achievement on its own, but it’s just overall a very cool moment. And then you are on your way, the bright, sunlit waters are replaced by murky darkness extending as far as the eye can see in every direction. Even the surface seems miles away as you descend in the submarine which now is starting to feel a bit more like a tin-can death trap. And then, wait, what’s that in the distance?
An enormous shadow…?
What was that noise underneath me!?!?!
In short, the atmosphere is absolutely perfect. It’s at times wonderful and gorgeous and has all the splendour of scuba-diving in aquamarine seas, and then other times it’s just absolutely bloody terrifying.
That same feeling of structure is a constant presence in the game. Admittedly once or twice I did alt-tab and have to check a Wiki to find out what I ought to be doing next, but for the most part the way it was designed made everything just click so nicely. You want to re-unite with your shipmates and build a rocket so that you can escape the planet, that’s your motivation. Having said that, there’s actually a bit more to it than that, which makes the story that much more interesting and also means that there is a few defined moments throughout the game where there are actual story beats which everyone needs to experience to progress. For the most part though you’ll be exploring and searching at your own pace, so despite the structure present, it still has that same feeling of the survival crafting genre that you are relying on your own wits.
Naturally, doing this means that you need be able to swim a little deeper and faster so you improve your diving gear. But that can only deal with so-much pressure, so you create a one-man sub. Even that can only reach so far, and that distress beacon is pretty far down. So, time to get a bigger sub, but farming all those resources is fairly time consuming. Maybe it’s best to get a scanning room to make it easier to find said resources. While doing that might as well add some storage, of course some power too, maybe a water reclaimer. Heck, even some geothermal power so the lights don’t go out when it’s not bright enough for the solar panels. And you know what, having a glass viewing deck would be cool. And tell you what, let me spend about 4 solid hours building an absolutely fuck-off gigantic 4-story aquarium and put tonnes of fish in it just because of how cool it is that the aquariums actually cover multiple floors…
Wait, what was that? Escape the planet? But I’m building a moon pool for my base! That’s WAY MORE IMPORTANT.
It has this lovely jubbly feeling of every advancement leading to the next logical one. Every time you get a little deeper it opens up the pathway to get deeper still, and you learn about your world and its inhabitants at an equal speed. Equally then the base building is just super tightly designed and presented. You don’t have the billions of options available as in something like Minecraft, but there’s enough purpose to the building so that the hardcore players who only want to build the necessities and progress will have something to do while the base-building architects also should have enough to whet their appetite. The real success there is the way it all just ties together so that building, largely, feels like it influences gameplay.
There’s no way the aquarium affected my gameplay though, I have to admit… It sure was cool though… Well-worth the bajillion glass it required.
The end-game stuff is also, quite simply very cool, descending several kilometres down into the depths, monsters lurking in every corner (which never failed to make me tense), seeing rivers of lava snaking across the floor as you reach that final zone, your fully armoured mega-sub carrying your prawn/depth suit for you to reach your final objective. It feels earned and awesome.
It’s here that I’ll return to my early foreboding words about polish. While the game looks great, plays well and has that all important mix of structure and narrative but also freedom, it’s also not just a little bit buggy.
I had two massively game-breaking bugs which, to my constant consternation, both occurred within the final act of the game. First of all, after descending down to the depths in my prawn suit, yes, yes it was all very awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking and immersive, but shall I tell you what isn’t immersive? The moment when you go through a natural tunnel and come out the other side and then your prawn suit plummets 40 feet to the ocean floor because the game no longer believes you are underwater. With my extremely expensive suit trapped in that cave because without water the suit couldn’t swim back up to the exit, and because reloading didn’t fix the problem, I ended up being forced to use console commands to teleport me and the suit back to the starting area. Similarly, when I later on got somehow stuck inside a set of walls for the game with no way out I again had to debug my way out.
Let me tell you right now, after 20+ hours of having a truly exceptional time, it is somewhat disappointing to have the final hours of the game coloured in this negative light. Worst of all though is that these are bugs which, judging by Reddit, were present back on release of the game in early 2018 and then were still VERY present by the end of 2019 when I was playing the game (yes, I’ve been sitting on this review for 4 years, leave me alone). So, it seems rather like these are things which one just has to live with if you play the game, rather than hoping they will have been patched out in the time since.
Something that I personally don’t consider a downside is that when you finally have everything ready, your escape ship constructed from coral and fish scales, you blast off from the planet’s surface, never to return again. For some, the purpose of a survival-crafting game might be to focus on the longevity of it, putting you into an endless loop of survival, looting and pitting you against the game itself. In which case Subnautica might not be quite deep enough for you given that there is no perpetual survival here, once you blast off from the planet, that’s the end of the game and the story, and realistically given that you will always be in the same map with the same objectives and resources, there isn’t a huge amount of replay value.
For my part though, I approved entirely. The mentalists can always reload an older save if they wanted to build a tunnel from one end of the map to the other, but for me I rather appreciated having an official “ending” to the game, a sense of closure and finality.
Subnautica is one of those games I cannot recommend enough. In spite of the bugs and the occasionally silly crafting I still found it just incredibly immersive and engaging to play and I had an absolute blast doing so.