Freedom. Solitude. The splashing of crashing waves above you. The unknown beneath you. Subnautica is a game that evokes a veritable diver’s paradise- if it weren’t for the fact that your character has crash landed on an alien planet covered in fauna that simply doesn’t seem to like you. As a survival exploration game, Subnautica thrives by forcing players to experience both awe and fear in the face of the unknown. Expanding your reach past your comfort zone, collecting items and crafting the tools you need to stave off aggressive creatures, all while managing your own needs like hunger and thirst. So, is Subnautica 20,000 Leagues of awesome, or does this game go belly up? Let’s find out.
Survival is a very familiar, very common genre on the Steam storefront, and Subnautica presents many of the common mechanics but with a strong, cohesive theme: Surviving underwater. The player has crash landed on an unfamiliar planet, and it is up to the player to discover the lore behind the planet. To avoid spoiling anything: Alien lifeforms, flora and fauna alike, are present on the planet and can be either a boon or troublemaker for the player. Notwithstanding, alien artifacts exist all over the planet, alluding to a variety of extraterrestrial experiments that drastically changed the indigenous life and ecosystem. A significant portion of Subnautica is exploring and learning, as anything can be surmounted with the right information, so playing this game blind is easily one of the best things you can do.
At the beginning of Subnatica, you’re left without much context. You have a broken radio, a life pod, and the space barge that crashed you on this planet is currently on fire and leaking radiation into the surrounding waters. So, you need to repair your damaged life pod, fix your radio, receive strange messages from a fish, and eventually build your own underwater base that you can turn into some kind of crazy sea castle, complete with all of the amenities you may want. Exploring around the ocean depths will reveal bits and pieces of the story to you- not unlike how players would learn the story details in Metroid Prime by scanning objects in the environment, players in Subnautica also have a handheld scanner that reveals loads of information about your surroundings. And as GI Joe taught us, knowing is half the battle since survival gets way easier the more you know about the environment and indigenous life.
Of course, Subnautica wouldn’t be a survival game if you didn’t have to, you know, survive. There are multiple game modes, Survival requires players manage their health, oxygen, hunger and thirst in order to survive, while the Freedom mode foregoes the hunger/thirst meters. Hardcore is similar to Survival in that you only have one life to live, and you receive no alerts while low on oxygen underwater. Creative mode is similar to Minecraft in that you can build whatever and however you want with no limits, with the story, ocean depth, and even death itself disabled. In each of these modes save creative, though, you’ll be scavenging for anything and everything you can carry, which should be familiar to those who have played survival games before. This flexibility is actually quite nice to see, as those who are less inclined with survival games can access Subnautica more easily with Freedom mode, though the real meat and potatoes of the game is definitely in Survival mode.
Crafting is one of the largest parts of the game, and goes hand-in-hand with exploration. While exploring, you will find a wide variety of blueprints throughout the world, and gathering enough of them will allow you to fabricate the item from the blueprint should you have the right materials. Everything from battery chargers to submersible vehicles are discovered then created through the blueprints found all across the world. Many things you create can also be upgraded in a variety of ways, such as attaching a drill to your underwater mech suit for mining or defense, or a grappling hook for quick and fluid underwater movement (no pun intended). Almost everything is modular and customizable, giving you loads of options as you progress your way through talking to fish or curing crazy alien infections.
While Subnautica is a first person game, it isn’t a shooter. You can go through the game, attempting to kill every indigenous lifeform you see, or you can probably play without killing a single creature (I cooked a lot of fish once I got the heated knife). Many creatures will harass and attempt to kill you throughout your time on the deserted alien planet, with the most pesky of them being tiny, pouncing crabs, to the more frightening being a giant tentacled leviathan creature that can destroy your submarine with the greatest of ease if unprepared. Of course, everything can be handled with proper preparation and knowledge, and it’s the organic manner in which information is delivered to the player where Subnatica excels. There’s nothing in Subnautica that you can’t get by when you first come across it, though you may want to wear your brown pants when you first counter the Reaper.
There is a variety of locales that players will explore during their time in Subnautica. Reaching deeper into the ocean will require specific upgrades to the player’s wet suit and equipment, in order to avoid getting crushed by ocean pressure. Monstrosities found in locations like the lava lakes can damage or potentially destroy vehicles the players use (notwithstanding the heat causing damage to the player if outside of a vehicle), and areas like the grassy plateaus offer a very interesting visual presentation of alien marine life while players explore damaged life pods, and scavenge supplies, blueprints, or just eat everything that moves.
The graphics of Subnautica are extremely well done. The game’s visuals don’t seem to be incredibly taxing on the hardware, but different biomes all have their own distinct visual appeal. The area in which there are glowing mushrooms underwater are a particular favorite. The polygonal renderings are fairly simplistic, but it’s the lighting effects that really shine in Subnautica and make everything pop- even hanging out in the shallows of the starting area, gorgeous rippling light can be seen, refracted through the waves above the player, and it all works extremely well. The music is also extremely well done, with a soundtrack that perfectly matches the atmosphere of the game. Sound design of Subnautica is also quite well done, as there’s nothing quite like mucking about in the Seamoth and hearing a deafening roar, only to turn around and see a giant creature with white mandibles chewing on your beloved submersible vehicle, destroying it, and then following up with you for dessert.
One small graphics-related issue: Draw distance is a pretty significant issue even on high end rigs: Some areas, such as the underwater mushroom forest, have texture pop-ins as close as five feet in front of the player when they could have been rendered further out in the distance and be less visually jarring. There doesn’t seem to be an option to change this in the menu, though there is apparently already a mod for it (which apparently impacts frame rate significantly if not using a 1070 equivalent or above).
Overall, Subnautica is among the best survival games to come out on Steam, and this is not said lightly. It is a game more about gathering than hunting, and it just so happens to strike every single chord in the survival spectrum extremely well, being among the top of its class. Entwining the need for exploration into the crafting system beyond just collecting specific components was a great idea, and allowing players the ability to completely avoid danger rather than constantly engage in combat was a very smart choice (as there are self defense weapons in the game, including torpedoes, I never really used them. That heated knife is super convenient for cooking fish though).
There’s plenty more than could be extrapolated upon- such as specifics on base-building, specific biomes, etc., but Subnautica is one of those games that should be experienced blind, if possible, because some of the locales and pieces of what happen in the story are downright impressive at times. If you’re a type of player who isn’t big into survival games, then perhaps Subnautica’s Freedom mode might be an option for you, or if that sounds unappealing still it may be best to save your cash for another title. However, if you’re even remotely open to survival games, Subnautica is one of the best complete packages you can get.