Gamers are spoiled for choice in the Survival genre, although many of the games are quite similar in a lot of ways. If you like crafting guns from raw metal and shooting zombies in the face, you could pick from any one of a dozen different titles and not find much difference between them. Despite the somewhat uniform design of its early days, the genre has begun to mature and developers have been keen to try out new takes on the same formula. In Subnautica (developed & published by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, the people behind Natural Selection 2), the gimmick is that you'll be spending the majority of your time underwater in an alien environment. What makes this particular title even more of a unicorn in the sea of survival games is the fact that it's finished and has an actual story.
It's important to note that Subnautica is a game that is very much about uncovering a mystery. Those with a fear of walking simulators (or rather, swimming simulators) need not worry - there's plenty of robust gameplay in the title. While an effort will be made to keep the story details light, I think it makes for a better experience going in blind. That said, if you don't mind some mild spoilers you should check out the game's cinematic trailer to get an idea of what's in store for you.
The game begins with a panicked situation that's quite familiar to many survival players. Disaster is imminent, and you must get the heck out of the area right now. In the case of Subnautica, you're aboard the Alterra Corporation ship Aurora, and it's in all kinds of trouble. You quickly board an escape pod and safely eject away from the burning ship that's rapidly making a planetfall.
After splashing down and putting out a few fires in your immediate vicinity, you're greeted by an AI assistant in your PDA that runs you through the basics of staying alive. You have rations for a few days at most on board the pod, and you'll have to resort to hunting down alien flora & fauna in order to survive. Diving into the water for the first time is a lovely scripted experience, and the ocean is rife with different kinds of life. In the beginning, you live practically hand-to-mouth on small fishes. As time goes on, you move up to better quality food & water (even going as far as to grow native plants in your habitat) and eventually automated production.
Since Subnautica takes place mostly underwater, the oxygen meter is slightly more important than it might be in other games. At first, you have a paltry handful of seconds before you have to head back to the surface for air. You can build oxygen tanks to extend that time to a few minutes, and buildable vehicles will provide an infinite supply of breathable air. Some of the areas in the game stretch several hundred meters under sea level; navigating these challenges depends on the use of vehicles or temporary bases. Heck, you can even plant a certain type of coral that spits out oxygen as a byproduct and use those to stay underwater for as long as you'd like.
Outside of the bare necessities, there are environmental dangers and hostile fauna to deal with. Gigantic leviathans - easily dozens of meters long in some cases - can tear you to shreds and batter even the hardiest vehicles. Most survival games would allow for some kind of combat system to deal with this, but Subnautica shies away from armaments being made available. There are tools that can push enemies away or stun them, and vehicles can be equipped with stun or gas torpedoes. If you're looking for a harpoon gun or some kind of high-powered explosives that you can shoot out of your submarine, then Subnautica will leave you sorely disappointed. Sure, it's explained in the story with how the schematics for weapons were disabled after an incident that led to a massacre, but all it did for me was demonstrate the utility of said weapons for survival in a dangerous situation. They are sorely missed.
Thankfully, you're not completely helpless. Most of the time, you can evade or outrun whatever happens to be chasing you. An optional sonar upgrade for some vehicles can let you see the threat before it sees you in many cases. And if it really comes down to the wire, the Prawn suit is essentially the power loader from Aliens 2 with an airtight construction. I took a great amount of satisfaction in shoving a diamond-tipped drill into the face of creatures that had tormented me endlessly earlier in the game.
You can build a static base anywhere you like in the game. Heck, you can plop buildings of varying sizes pretty much anywhere on the map you'd like (including on land, if the mood strikes you). I went with a decently-sized base, and I was sad to see that my framerate had dropped quite badly once it got up to size. I had noticed that my framerate dropped like a stone after placing an abundance of windows throughout my base. Still, it would be nice to have had this particular area smoothed out a bit so I could better enjoy the ocean view outside of my home.
The bases themselves have a few issues in terms of design. Power generators (like solar panels or nuclear reactors) pull double-duty as batteries for your habitat's power system. A single solar panel will store 75 units of power. If you install a reactor that has hundreds or thousands of units of storage, it doesn't matter to the solar panel. That storage is only reserved for that particular reactor. I think it's poor design to not have an option for power storage that's separate from the individual generators. There's absolutely no reason that you shouldn't be able to build a few solar panels and a massive bank of batteries to keep the lights on.
I also encountered a particularly nasty bug. I had (stupidly, in retrospect) planted a particular bit of underwater flora that shoots needles at anything that strays by. My upgraded survival suit protected me, but the plant apparently saw my entire base as a threat and absolutely shredded it. I managed to repair every single hull breach, but the base's lights remained in the dimmed state characteristic of a hull breach somewhere in your habitat for the remainder of my time with the game. It put a damper on my enjoyment, to say the least.
The story for Subnautica initially unfolds through a series of radio broadcasts from other survivors of the Aurora crash. As you make your way to their individual lifepods, you're sure to find some new useful technology or a biome you haven't seen before. Eventually, a combination of the radio broadcasts and data dumps from abandoned PDAs leads you to a greater mystery that you will spend the remainder of the game unfolding.
One particular criticism I have of the story is a certain point nearing the end. I had run out of radio broadcasts and PDA entries to find, and a particular discovery led the AI to suggest that I head even deeper towards a particular area. At the time, I was in the middle of acquiring resources sorely needed for building some important equipment for my home base, so I put further exploration on hold for the moment in order to haul my goodies home. After I had everything sorted, finding that critical bit of information was a chore. It came down to one line of text buried in one of the dozens of PDA entries. After I had reoriented myself, I managed to head in the proper direction and complete the game.
There's also the issue of the path that you take. The playable world is a fairly decent size and features a few unique biomes, each with their own kinds of creatures and plants. Which of these actually factors into the game's plot is another matter. If you know where to head from the beginning, the path to the game's end is a rather straightforward affair. A minor fetch quest towards the end of the story reduces some of these biomes to "the place where I can find that one plant I need for this story-critical item".
Graphically, Subnautica is gorgeous more often than not. The water surface is quite pretty, and the underwater areas are filled with all sorts of nice little details that really make it feel like a living world. The few graphical hiccups I did encounter were relatively minor. The design of the vehicles and tech are clean and crisp with a consistent aesthetic, although some of the base modules probably should stand out a bit more than they currently do. (It's sometimes difficult to find the exact white box with a colored line on the wall that you need.)
The sounds of Subnautica are positively sublime. Underwater sound and creating an alien environment are two unique challenges that were expertly conquered in this game. When a leviathan is near, you'll know by sound alone. Sometimes, that's the only warning you'll get. The sheer terror that some of their roars can inspire is exactly what was needed and the game's sound designer delivered. The music was excellent as well - each area had its own distinct musical feel that fit it perfectly.
I did my best to avoid any kind of story spoilers while playing. Normally I'd play this kind of game with a wiki open in my browser, but I had elected to rely on the in-game systems wherever I could. I eventually had to track down the locations of two particular pieces of tech which I had just barely managed to overlook. You can find technology in any order - there's no set defined "path" - and it's entirely possible that you'll miss something critical. In retrospect, I could have (and should have) set up some scanning bases and searched for more unexplored underwater wrecks, but I think some of the more critical techs like beacons and multipurpose rooms could do with a few more spawn points in the game world.
After spending just under 60 hours with Subnautica, it's still a bit strange to say that I've actually completed a survival game. Overall, I enjoyed my time under the sea in spite of the flaws. If you're remotely a fan of survival games, this should definitely be something that you check out. Just bear in mind that there are still a few kinks to be worked out and you'll have a grand ol' time.
Our Subnautica review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developers. It is also available on Xbox One and a PlayStation 4 version is currently in development.
What did you think of Subnautica? Do you think the game was ready for release or should the developers have waited a little while longer to iron out some more bugs? Let us know in the comments below!
Subnautica is an underwater survival game with a compelling narrative, although some design choices, oversights, and bugs hampered my enjoyment of the title.
- Excellent Worldbuilding
- Beautiful Sound Design & Music
- Serviceable Building & Crafting Mechanics
- Poor Design Decisions With Some Base Mechanics
- Lack Of Weapons Felt Frustrating
- Occasional Small Bugs Bring Down An Otherwise Great Game