While many modern titles conveniently fall into either big-budget or indie categories, Subnautica takes the best of both worlds. It merges beautiful, highly detailed aesthetics and an impressively sized world, along with the charm and mechanics of an indie game. Players on PC have been enjoying this game for nearly a whole year, and now, it has finally arrived on consoles. Let’s examine this beauty.
First of all, Subnautica is visually gorgeous, especially when it comes to water – and there’s a lot of it. Environments mostly consist of a vast ocean and a number of small islands. At its core, Subnautica is a first-person adventure/survival title, but it has all the necessary elements of a horror game. As beautiful and sunny as it often is, diving deep into the unknown waters and hearing a roar emanate from the depths is terrifying. Likewise, exploring ancient alien ruins has a certain amount of dreary mystery to it. Gameplay is mostly silent, further accentuating this loneliness and isolation, but when the music does play, it is beautifully ambient and relaxing.
Subnautica also features a dynamic day and night cycle. During the day, the ocean floor is brightly illuminated; during the night, even upper layers are too dark to see in without a flashlight. Because of this, exploration becomes limited and might be why the night cycle is much shorter, lasting only about 5 minutes of real time.
There are four modes to choose from; Survival: a regular story mode; Freedom, in which hunger and thirst are disabled; a Hardcore mode which introduces permadeath; and a Creative mode which focuses solely on creating habitats. Here we will focus on the Survival mode, as other modes are simply variations of it.
Subnautica begins with a huge spaceship crashing into the planet of 4546B and you take control of one of the surviving crew members. A small Lifepod, equipped with several useful utilities – including a medical unit, a storage box, a fabricator for creating new items, and a radio – is your sole refuge on a planet mostly covered by water. From there, assisted by a female AI, you’re pretty much free to go (swim) wherever you please. Your primary goal is to find sources of food and clean water in order to survive, as well as search for a potential way off the planet. In the meantime, you can also collect resources for improving equipment. The fabricator is not only used to manufacture materials but also create things like an oxygen tank, a repair tool and a scanner, among many others.
Shallow waters surrounding the pod are mostly home to peaceful herbivores and some plants. Along with those, you can find broken parts from the ship – the remains of which can be seen in the distance – as well as other wreckages, and explore small tunnels in the vicinity. Most objects within the environment, like local flora and fauna, and non-organic parts can be scanned to reveal detailed information about them or even unlock blueprints for creating new equipment. This information is then stored in a databank for easy access later. The AI itself will often scan the area to pinpoint procurement points for specific resources. Once you reach deeper points, some smaller predators begin to appear and, understandably, the field of view becomes limited. This is also where less common resources and objects can be discovered.
No matter where you decide to go, swimming feels absolutely amazing. The water has a pleasant amount of resistance to it and is simply astonishing during the day when rays of the sun break through its surface. There are several islands as well, and I was surprised to discover elaborate alien constructions within them. Unfortunately, exploring on land isn’t as engaging; it’s still fun but lacks the mystery of the underwater depths. Combat is present in both cases and certain weapons can be crafted, but it’s very simplistic and not pivotal in the context of exploration.
Two square kilometres around the pod can be explored, both in width and depth, beyond which lies the so-called Crater Edge. It acts as an artificial border in Subnautica and, aside from some intimidating predators, seems quite desolate. I was eager to explore it, but an enormous leviathan quickly changed my mind. Even with these limitations, there’s more than enough to see and discover, and there’s definitely no lack of content.
Occasionally, you will receive distress signals from other pods. These signals act as bite-sized quests to provide more context to the story. Sometimes they will provide specific coordinates of their whereabouts, but often only a few geographical clues will be available to approximate the location. Lifepods are frequently found in the depths and contain useful equipment and information, though I didn’t encounter any actual survivors.
Out of curiosity, I decided to dive at a depth of 500m before my oxygen reserves were depleted. Granted, I was nowhere near hitting the depth of Mariana Trench, or whatever the equivalent in Subnautica might be called. Nonetheless, deeper parts of the ocean are too dark to traverse without a flashlight or similar equipment and are home to some truly enormous predators. As if that wasn’t enough, oxygen efficiency decreases at greater depths, adding an additional layer of challenge to exploration.
After a certain time had passed, the female AI proceeded to inform me that swimming was my favourite physical activity. As if with 95% of my surroundings being water I had any other options. Naturally, it was intended to be humorous, and in a world where social interactivity is scarce, it fits quite well.
Death, whether from starvation or dehydration, suffocation and so on, is not punished heavily; you merely lose some of the collected resources and are returned back to the escape pod. This will happen often in the early stages of the game, as finding a steady source of food and water isn’t easy. When oxygen runs out, the screen gradually turns to black and during this window you only have a few seconds to reach the surface.
Once you unlock the ability to construct habitats and vehicles, a whole new dimension of options opens up. A permanent habitat can be built almost anywhere, both on land or at the bottom of the ocean. These are built from blueprints and raw materials collected during exploration and can range from simple steel compartments to observatories made out of glass. Oxygen to underwater compartments is delivered via pipes leading all the way to the surface. Additional utilities, like modification stations, vending machines and plant beds for growing produce can be implemented to create a whole ecosystem.
At this point, you’re no longer searching for a way off the planet, but rather to reside on it and explore its deepest recesses. Mobile vehicles exist for this very purpose, as not only do they make exploration more convenient, but are also not limited by the ever-depleting amounts of tasty oxygen.
My only real complaint is that it takes quite a while for Subnautica to reveal its full spectrum of core mechanics. I spent the first few hours trying to keep my character fed and hydrated, and then another few to find procurement points for certain resources. After roughly 10 hours I finally managed to build my first humble habitat. Subnautica can easily take over a hundred hours to explore and it’s one of those games in which the passage of time is not noticeable, because everything is so exciting.
Subnautica runs smoothly most of the time. There is an occasional stuttering when surfacing from below the water and the draw distance can be poor. Islands often pop into the picture piece by piece as you approach them, which slightly diminishes the overall experience. One particular bug resulted in water not being rendered at all, which left me swimming through the air. Nothing a reload couldn’t fix, but it was a bizarre journey.
Among slightly less impactful flaws is the sprint button – at least on the Xbox One – which is assigned to the left thumbstick by default. There’s no way to set it to toggle and that makes running uncomfortable. It’s possible to alter button assignment, but most buttons are already being used, which doesn’t leave too many options.
It’s rare for a game to provide such an amazing and deeply rewarding sense of discovery, yet Subnautica does it successfully. It’s a joy to look at its lush and colourful visuals, explore its cryptic environ and utilize the extensive range of tools to do so. While it’s by no means a perfect game, the sheer aspect of exploration more than makes up for it and potentially offers hours upon hours of pure fun. Unless you run into leviathans, that is.