20,000 intrigues under the sea
Subnautica is another survival game in a genre that is now as wide as an ocean. It's a game with all the usual mechanics: resource gathering, crafting, base building, eating harmless wildlife, and exploration. Unknown Worlds Entertainment, the developers who previously created Natural Selection 2, set out to make a different type of survival game by exploiting an underwater setting. After three years in Steam’s early access program, the single player adventure has finally been released. Subnautica is about surviving alone on a planet covered in water. As you progress, you'll dive deeper into the abyss and explore places where the sunlight cannot reach. Subnautica utilizes its setting perfectly and maintains a fishy allure for dozens of hours.
Players begin on an uncharted ocean planet after evacuating a spaceship destined to crash into the surface. Your lifeboat lands in the shallows, not far from the massive spaceship that is still on fire and partially submerged. From here, the journey is your own.
But it is not a directionless journey—there are four narrative points that drive the player forward. The inside of the half-destroyed spaceship can be explored for back-story and technology, once you build the right tools to navigate the interiors. Lifeboats are scattered around, some quite deep underwater, and although the survivors are nowhere to be found, the vessels contain supplies and crafting blueprints. There are weird alien structures too, preventing rescue and tempting investigation. And, finally, there are remnants of survivors that were trapped on the planet long before your arrival. This final part is the strongest because it drops hints about how to survive within its tale of woe. There is an end goal for players to achieve and these tantalizing narrative pieces form the backbone of the adventure.
While these simple narrative elements guide players, the ocean is rewarding enough to explore on its own. The world is handcrafted and you will come to know the layout quite well despite the limited visibility. There are places with vines straining towards the surface, glowing caves, fields of red seaweed swaying with the currents, floating underwater islands, volcanic chambers, bioluminescent spheres, and sheer cliffs that extend into the darkness. Although there are some bland areas, there is generally a good amount of variety and density to the colourful world.
The sea can be navigated in four different modes. Both the Survival and Hardcore modes have four vitals to maintain: thirst, hunger, health, and oxygen. If any of these gets to zero, you will perish and lose some equipment (or die permanently in Hardcore). The first three are simple enough. Finding food and water might take a little bit of time but they are just a minor, albeit persistent, inconvenience. Health is an infrequent concern, but various creatures can harm you intentionally or accidentally. Lack of oxygen is an unrelenting threat, especially at the start when there are fewer aids to make deeper trips. Being aware of your closest source of air is vital when exploring a wreckage or collecting alien life. And disorientation can be deadly when there is no source of light.
For players who prefer a more relaxed experience, Freedom mode saves inventory contents frequently and it only has health and oxygen to worry about. The final way to play is Creative mode and it forgoes all survival aspects, and lets players just explore and make their own sea bases.
Unless you play in Creative mode, resource collection is crucial and the main way to build or upgrade equipment. Many of the crafting blueprints are hidden at first, but the options expand impressively and almost always usefully. Crafting small components (like first aid kits or water) is done with a Fabricator that needs power. You will be able to forge some tools that help with exploration and interaction, but there are only five quick-use slots which are nowhere near enough to juggle between a torch, scanner, laser-cutter, repair tool, stasis gun, beacon, motorized glider, knife, and more.
Many items and upgrades are related to diving deeper or swimming longer. The oxygen tank can be improved. Metal tubes will bring air from the surface. Fins can be upgraded to swim faster. And there is a radiation suit to help explore the spaceship wreckage. Once you go deeper, you'll gain access to better materials, from copper to diamonds, which allows for even deeper dives. Tying the progression to depth is simple and smart design.
While you are able to swim deep underwater, the depths beyond around 400m become untenable (and filled with deadly creatures) without a submersible. The earliest vehicle you’re likely to acquire is a mini-sub called a Seamoth; it’s nimble and ideal for pottering around near the surface for quick resource gathering trips. The Prawn suit is an exoskeleton that lets you walk to lowest points and mine resources. Bouncing along the ocean floor with the suit’s jetpack can make for some relaxing walks but it is somewhat unwieldy and can get stuck on tiny obstacles.
The Cyclops is the biggest and best of the vehicles—a genuine submarine and an impressive technical achievement. It becomes a home away from home thanks to its huge storage space and the ability to dock one of the smaller vessels. It is quite spacious inside and can be improved with the Habitat tool which allows for more storage or upgrade stations. The submarine requires care when piloting because of its larger size and limited manoeuvrability. Descending through narrow caverns will test even the best mariners. It is also a big and slow target for the most hazardous sea monsters so direct routes are sometimes ill-advised. While the Cyclops is the most complex vessel, all three vehicles have appropriate strengths and weaknesses.
The Habitat tool is not just used for enhancing the Cyclops’ interior; it’s far more useful for making sturdy pressurized bases under the ocean. The tool will take resources and build tunnels, rooms, hatches, generators, windows, storage lockers, solar panels, scanning rooms, charge stations, grow-beds, and much more. The large modules snap to a grid but getting them to align is a bit clumsy. It's also nearly impossible to extend a base from within the safety of the base itself, so you'll need to hold your breath and hope the nearby electrified sea creatures don’t swim too close. While nuanced, it is fairly easy to make some nice looking and highly functional bases with the tool.
Functionality is the main reason these bases exist in the early to mid stage of the 40 hour adventure. They become way stations for oxygen resupply, places to store materials, and crafting zones. It's just a good spot to organize and plan without ascending all the way to the surface. All objects made with the Habitat tool can be deconstructed, so moving a base elsewhere (probably deeper) is only a matter breaking it down and building it again. Moving like this is tedious with the limited inventory space—tracking, collecting, and transferring all the resources becomes suffocating and trips can take longer to prepare for than it takes to complete them. While the Cyclops makes aspects of bases redundant, the underwater structures still have unique benefits due to their size and permanence, and making bases on ocean cliffs is fun enough anyway.
Whether its submersibles, ocean bases, or equipment, the options available in Subnautica are excellent. There is minimal redundancy, and the range feels complete. The overall experience tempts you to push out further, so if you don't go out of your comfort zone, you won't advance and improve. But going too far is risky, either because of a giant horned squid-worm or because you forgot to bring drinking water. The game encourages shorter trips, so you can grow incrementally and become a true master of the deep.
Subnautica makes excellent use of its underwater setting, creating a world of wonder and danger. It shrewdly provides basic goals that involve exploring wrecks, caves, and alien structures. You'll be able to craft an extensive range of tools that will help you survive. And then you can build bases and submersibles that allow for enticing deep-sea exploration. Many of the improvements and tools relate directly to how far under the surface you can travel and this progression ensures that the ocean setting is not just window dressing. Subnautica may be another fish in a vast sea of survival games, but it also has quantifiable depth and that makes it worth diving into.