Exploring the beautifully crafted underwater world of Subnautica is an experience that’s both awe-inspiring and absolutely terrifying. The vast expanse of the ocean planet you crash land on just begs you to explore its biomes and venture out further beyond safe shallows, but is quick to remind you that this world can also easily kill you. Subnautica is the most approachable game in its genre, and it doesn’t take much to survive, although deeper layers are woven into the experience and hide just underneath the surface. The mystery of the ocean will keep you coming back to explore its biggest depths, all the while crafting better survival gear to tackle its various challenges. The game never gets stale, and I kept coming back for more and more without burning out on its survival genre tropes.
Developer, Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Released: January 23, 2018; Reviewed on: PC
Testing specs: Core i5-6500 3.2GHz, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1070
Subnautica’s ocean planet is infinitely charming and expertly well crafted, and has everything you’d expect from a vast expanse of water. Diverse biomes fill up a fixed world map, but exploring all of it takes a considerable time, given you’re light-equipped for it at the start. Your character doesn’t magically breathe underwater, so one of the main elements to get used to is coming up for air once in a while. Herein lies one of the dangers with Subnautica’s beautiful landscapes, which mesmerize you to the point you forget all about the vital oxygen meter. More than once I found myself frantically dashing for surface as my vision darkens, either last-second breaching the surface to survive, or perishing in the deep. It’s just one of the many things that will kill you, but managing your oxygen supply becomes a crucial element.
With a fabricator straight out of Star Trek, you begin to expand your arsenal of tools as you collect various resources scattered on the ocean floor. The deeper you go, rarer elements become available and aid in technological progression, which is surprisingly fluid. Despite that, it’s still possible to hit obstacles in crafting, when a location of a certain element isn’t apparent without diving deep into the game’s Wiki page. Progression milestones are very satisfying though, as you unlock major objects to aid in your progression that allow you to venture further and deeper into the world. At the start, all you need is an oxygen tank and flippers to descend some ways beyond the shallow waters, but sooner or later you’ll have to to build a submarine.
Subnautica constantly encourages exploration, whether it’s the intriguing expanse of its ocean or the need for better crafting materials. It doesn’t hand you blueprints either, which you instead organically discover by scanning various fragments dropped by your shapeship’s wreck. In many instances, I made it a quest for myself to find some specific fragments, particularly when hunting for parts to build the large Cyclops submarine. That moment didn’t come until I’ve had a large base constructed on the ocean floor, or rather multiple ones to have access points to a fabricator throughout the world. I really prefer this approach to simply climbing a progress tree, as I could explore Subnautica’s world to my heart’s content
Building one of the three available vehicles really feels like a major accomplishment, as they require some pretty rare materials to become accessible. But once I’ve had them, I could explore the depths of Subnautica without worrying for my oxygen supply, always having a trusty vehicle to come back to. That said, you really do need to take care of them, as even the biggest feat – the Cyclops submarine, is prone to completely vaporizing if you aren’t careful enough. Despite its size, a large apex predator can fully destroy it, along with anything you build in it and all the upgrades, setting you far back. This becomes a careful play on survival, as while vehicles grant you safety in exploring the ocean depths, they also need to be carefully guided to avoid the game’s dangers.
Each biome you’ll explore is distinctly separated by visual design and accompanying soundtrack, along with unique flora and fauna contained within them. It quickly becomes possible to tell where you’re at once you’re a dozen hours into Subnautica, and the crash site of your ship is the principle point of navigation above sea level. A few environments are interjected in smaller portions between major locations, which can make exploration sometimes tricky, as you lose the sense of your position the further away you move from the crashed ship. Generally it’s easy to tell where you’re at, but tasked with figuring everything out through exploration, there’s no way to know where each biome is in relation to others. You can have a much easier time by looking at Subnautica’s Wiki page, but then it completely spoils the game to break immersion, and exploration is after all the central premise here.
Without procedural map generation, Subnautica loses some of its charm when you replay it, but to that end there are a few game modes to choose from. Survival mode is the way you’d want to play it, managing food and water supply to ensure your character’s survival. I never found thirst and hunger mechanics to be annoying here, which is a big plus above many survival games. While your character tends to go through water quick, hunger occurs only ever so often, generally giving me plenty of time to explore depths before coming back to shallower areas. Resources for food and water are abundant, and going after them doesn’t break up the game flow. If you still want to experience the story but in a laid-back way, Exploration mode turns off hunger and thirst mechanics, letting you explore Subnautica’s world unhampered. Even there, however, got to remember to come up for air once in a while. Hardcore mode exists if you really want to push yourself, with a single permanent death run that also won’t warn you about oxygen running low. Creative mode is of course there when you want to build the biggest or most intricate base possible without the need to gather resources, but you lose the whole story in return.
Subnautica is the first survival game I’ve seen that offers a cohesive plot beyond throwing you into its world with a task to survive. Revealed through written PDAs and superbly voiced audio logs, the story sheds light on why you were going to this planet to begin with, and the fate of other survivors among other things. It isn’t linear in line with traditional storytelling, and instead you learn more about your ship and the world the more you explore it. Reading up PDAs scattered in various crash wrecks on the map, you find out about the place you’re coming from and your crew’s mission. Most data logs are even fully voiced with stellar audio, and voice acting is exceptionally superb for an indie game. Build a radio, and you receive short audio transmissions from survivor pods and off-world, with former encouraging you to set out in locating their wrecks scattered along the ocean floor. It all ties together into a non-linear adventure that’s nonetheless engaging and that follows in the principle of “the more effort you put in the more you’d get out of it.”
The real strength of Subnautica is its superb atmosphere, dripping with sounds and visual flair. It almost brings the game into survival horror territory, and not the one full of jump scares or resource management. Exploring the ocean depths can actually be terrifying, especially if you’ve wandered into one of the areas apex predators occupy. Running my Cyclops silently through water as a dangerous leviathan creature swims in the vicinity is genuinely intense, knowing it can destroy my submarine within a few attacks. As I can only see the helm when piloting the Cyclops, warnings of a creature attack send shivers down my spine as I tried so hard to keep it from spotting me. Running away isn’t an option, as loud noise from the engine will attract the predator further, so I try to quietly sink to the sea bed and try to repair my sub. Moments like these can be genuinely terrifying, and show that no matter how beautiful Subnautica’s ocean is, I simply can’t get too relaxed in it.
Besides exploring, you can choose to settle down at the sea floor by constructing a personal base, and you’d want to do that sooner rather than later. The lifepod is perfectly functional, but you’d want way more space for your storage and crafting needs. Base building is intuitive and avoids steep structure requirements imposed by most survival games, with only a few materials needed for simple parts. Unlike in ARK or Conan Exiles, you don’t need 10 of something to build a single wall, so it removes a lot of the grind with gathering materials. On the downside, resources don’t stack in Subnautica, which I found to be far from ideal when trying to loot a diversity of crafting ingredients. Prior to building my Seamoth and Cyclops submarines, I’d have no way of offloading resources into mobile storage, and have to come back to my home base. It isn’t particularly annoying though because I’d do it anyways to replenish my oxygen supply.
Building a base isn’t just crucial for your survival, but also necessary for crafting upgrades to various diving gear at your player’s disposal. To descend deeper, you’ll need a larger oxygen tank and a suit able to withstand high pressure, and same goes for your vehicles. A moonpool is needed to dock the Seamoth and Prawn suit to recharge their energy supply as well as craft improvement modules via the upgrade console. While you really just need a base for functional reasons, building parts are nicely designed that you’d also enjoy the visual presence it provides. There is variety in base corridors and major rooms you’ll construct, and like in most survival crafting games, the only limit is your imagination.
Living at the bottom of the ocean, your base is exposed to pressure elements, requiring to watch out for structural integrity. Build a few too many corridors, and the entire structure can start leaking, and may even flood if left unchecked. It isn’t a very complicated system, and you just need to make sure to craft a few reinforcement panels, but a nice touch in showing a degree of realism. To provide oxygen and operate the fabricator, you also need a power generator of one form or another installed. Solar panels are a good starting point, but can only work during the day, so upgrading to a biomatter or thermal reactors soon becomes important. In general, building a base becomes quite absorbing after a while, even if your aim wasn’t to engage in it.
Subnautica is a strictly single player experience, which in an open-world survival game would normally be a drawback, but that isn’t a case here. Because of a story emphasis, Subnautica is best experienced alone, soaking up the atmosphere of its dangerous but consistently rewarding ocean. It is a lonely place, but you never run out of projects to do, whether that’s working up a meaningful progress tree or constructing a giant underwater fortress. My only complaints come from the technical perspective, as significant amount of texture pop-in is present virtually everywhere. Environmental detail has trouble loading up until you can see blurry textures, which suddenly change to a fully rendered environment. That tends to take away from an otherwise stellar experience, and persists even on rigs that are way above recommended system requirements. I’ve experienced some stutter in the game’s framerate along the way too, but there isn’t too much of it to be persistently annoying. Long loading times when starting the game, on the other hand, feel like an absolute drag when I’m dying to explore more of Subnautica’s ocean.
Subnautica is a rare treat in the survival genre that excels in everything its design sets out to do. Whether you intend to craft tools across a diverse tech tree, follow the surprisingly elaborate plot or simply explore the alluring depths of many ocean biomes, Subnautica is a deeply engaging experience that never fails to stand out. It’s one of those games that will keep you coming back for more just to experience its stellar atmosphere that’s both immensely relaxing and teeming with danger. It rewards you in meaningful ways throughout the journey and rarely halts to a complete stop, making its survival crafting gameplay far more engaging than its competitors. Subnautica isn’t completely perfect, and lacks some of the features we’ve come to expect from the genre, but the game is so well crafted you’d be hard pressed to dig for flaws while enjoying the beautiful underwater view.