'Subnautica' Game Review

This deep-diving survival game is one of the better early access titles on Steam.

Released: January 23rd 2018 (Version 1.0)

Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Price: £19.49

Formats: PC (With releases on Xbox One and PS4 planned)

Format Played: PC

Unknown Worlds Entertainment is a developer that sits somewhere between the heavy-hitters of the industry and the amateurs just getting to grips with game engines; their previous title, Natural Selection, drew a cult following while showcasing the developer’s talent in creating grotesque and repulsive monsters. After three years of development, Subnautica has found a full release, becoming one of the rare early access titles to blossom into a successful and worthwhile product.

Much like other contemporaries of the genre, the story of Subnautica is simplistic. Crash landing aboard the Aurora on the backwater planet 4546B, the game casts the player as a lone unnamed survivor who must scavenge what they can, explore the wreckages of other life pods, and hopefully escape, all the while being hunted by the gargantuan creatures of the deep. Accomplishing this will take a lot of free-roaming, hunting for supplies and braving the darker reaches of the planet. A helpful PDA opens the game with a few basic directions and from there the planet is open for full exploration. With a simple HUD measuring your oxygen, health, and sustenance levels, you’re free to wander at your own pace, gradually learning about the danger zones while acquiring those all-important blueprints to further expand your wayfaring prowess. What sets Subnautica apart from just about every other survival game on the market is the theme of discovery; you’ll be scanning and analysing many things throughout the game and as you explore further, more and more will be revealed about the backwater planet, including you ended up crash landing in the first place. Despite all the monsters patrolling the water, you’ll feel even more compelled to keep going to find that one item or resource you need, and this is where the game becomes incredibly addictive. As things go on, you’ll begin constructing awesome underwater bases with further components to add as more options become available; there are even vehicles from the lowly Seamoth to the hulking Cyclops submarine. The most rewarding moments of Subnautica come when you gather all the materials together, watch as your stainless-steel vehicle is built, and hop right in to explore further pastures. It only takes one upgrade part, or one elusive material and you’ll be hooked, hellbent on exploring further. With all that said though, the game does have its share of limitations; there’s an area known as the dead zone which serves as a boundary to the game’s otherwise fluid open world and this could be filled with further biomes as the game continues to develop. In addition, the game is also begging for multiplayer via a cooperative survival mode and we may be waiting a while for that.

A first-person perspective proves to be the best choice made by Subnautica in its efforts to fully immerse you in the strange water planet. Swimming around is a breeze with the keyboard moving the character and a few left or right clicks breaking open mineral stones, picking up items or interacting with objects. It’s all very intuitive and when paired with a clear and straightforward resource management display, you’ll be able to get into the game very quickly. The challenge comes through survival as a whole; aside from a measly survival knife, you really don’t have any defence against the larger creatures in the game, forcing you to exercise extreme caution when journeying to the more hostile reaches of the deep. The predators that lurk around the planet include burrowing sharks, ugly looking sea worms, and of course, the gargantuan leviathans which can devour the player in a single gulp. Dying sends you to the last spawn point, losing a few items, or if you’re mad enough to play on hardcore mode, spell a permanent end to your time on 4546B. For these reasons, Subnautica is a surprisingly effective horror title; you may be patrolling the depths in your Seamoth, only to be jumped from behind by a Reaper Leviathan which wraps its tentacles around the cockpit and starts biting into the hull. This sense of foreboding tension is only heightened the deeper you go towards the planet’s core and you’ll have to do so to eventually craft the many tools at your disposal. Some of the most important of these are the scanner (allowing you analyse creatures and resources), laser cutter, and fabricator (which allows for the creation of base pieces). With so many items to keep track of, resource management is key and while there’s plenty of options for storage, the five-item key bindings (accessed via the 1-5 keys) feels too low considering the massive number of items in the game world.

On the surface, Subnautica is a great looking game; given that at least 90% of it takes place in or under the water, the vast amounts of blue that permeate the game’s environments all look brilliant, with the rolling waves looking especially stunning. The variety of alien creatures and locales on the planet is also very strong, from giant reef forests on the surface to volcanic activities deep below the surface. The music is incredibly understated, delivering a technological and aquatic feel that is only interrupted by the other-worldly roars and shrieks that come from the larger monsters in the game. Despite coming out of early access however, there are still some bugs here and there; the front half of the Aurora (specifically the part left in pieces) looks especially jagged, with awkward textures jutting out of a sand hill. The game’s biggest issue that is directly linked to gameplay however is pop-in; often in-game items, particularly resources, won’t be visible until you’re close to them, meaning you’ll often miss them completely while swimming around. Other bugs I encountered included frame-rate drops in deeper biomes, occasional game crashes and points where pieces of the environment vanished when certain buildings were in play, leaving an empty void. You’ll have to stomach these technical hiccups to enjoy Subnautica’s addicting qualities for the time being.

Parts of it are still very rough-around-the-edges, but Subnautica is one of the better success stories in the often-crowded survival genre. If you’re brave enough to take the plunge, you’ll find a ferociously addictive survival game which is more than just Minecraft in an underwater setting.

Rating: 7.5/10 (Good)

Robert Cain
Robert Cain

I'm a well-travelled journalism graduate from the UK who is looking to spread his blogs and freelance writings further afield.

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'Subnautica' Game Review