Subnautica is a little early access game from Unknown Worlds, the folks that made Natural Selection 1 & 2, that was released to steam quite some time ago but has made very consistent strides forward since it has become open to pre-purchase. It is a game centered around survival/crafting in a vein similar to games such as Rust or Ark but focusing on a single player experience with a story tied to it making it much more like ‘The Forest.’ Subnautica also offers VR support however I have no personal experience with it.
For reference purposes, I’ll be looking at the state of the game as of the “Castles & Coffee” update on 01/26/2017.
Overview: Subnautica takes place on an alien planet that the crew of the ship Aurora were traveling to for scientific research but unfortunately upon entry of the planet’s atmosphere something attacks the massive vessel and causes it to crash-land and this is where the story begins. As you launch out of the ship in an escape pod you look up through the tiny porthole to see the ship explode as you fall down to the alien planet landing in a vast ocean with no land in site, from here the story is yours. Should you find out why your ship has crashed or do you just try your best to survive?
Story: The story of Subnautica will be entirely up to the player to discover with little pushes here and there in the form of radio communication just to make sure you don’t get lost in the vast ocean. At current the story is fully planned out by the developers but only half implemented into the game so from what we know so far you will discover the mystery of the planet and an ancient race that once existed there as well as discovering signs of another group who once crashed onto the planet. The goal as is currently understood is to build a machine to help you escape the planet but what you’ll discover along the way is completely up for you to decide. Unfortunately there is not much more to say on story for now until it has been fully released however it appears to be well on its way in development which is a very good sign.
Gameplay: The gameplay is fairly standard for a survival/crafting game but being underwater completely changes the dynamic. Being able to navigate along every axis available to you means many more options for traversing the world and finding materials but also many more vantage points for your enemies. There are no shooter elements to Subnautica so your survival is completely dependent on your wits and the different technology you build to help you survive and escape the many creatures that would love to take a bite out of you. Largely you’ll simply be out gather items trying to make better technology or building up your base trying to make the best underwater fortress you can. Many of the better upgrades will require you to discover their parts first which will require you to cut open doors of crashed ships, repair damaged control panels of half-functioning ship parts to open doorways and just find scattered parts dropped into the ocean from the Auroras destruction all while exploring new environments and avoiding the many creatures that are out to get you.
Enemies & Environment: I feel it necessary to put enemies and environment into the same point because in many ways they are one in the same. As is the case with many real world ecosystems, the entire environment is out to get you in many ways from plant life that’s hostile to kelp fields that provide cover for aggressive smaller fish. The world itself offers plenty of variation for the player from the vibrant colors of the Safe Shallows and its wildly varied plant life to the dark and oppressive atmosphere of the Lost River and the scattered bones of gigantic fish who couldn’t survive the toxic environment. Perhaps the most important thing to mention is just how well the environments are crafted as each one is entirely different with completely new plant life, fish, and even different rocks and such all bringing each environment together to feel more realistic and less jarring to the player’s suspension of disbelief. I also cannot leave out the fact that we are in the ocean and for those of us interested in sea life we know the deeper you go the bigger creatures get the darker the oceans get and that is true of Subnautica with many creatures being able to swallow the player whole and being wholly invisible to the player until after they’ve already grabbed you forcing you pay close attention to what you hear.
Sound: Sound design is quite often an overlooked part of a game’s development in the eyes of the player but often one of the most important and Subnautica seems to have nailed it perfectly. Something key to remember when jumping into the game is that you are underwater and all the creatures you see are underwater so sound doesn’t travel the same way as it would on land. There is a certain reverberation sounds make underwater, a sort of muffled sound that actually feels like it has pressure associated to it and there are no better examples of it than the Reefbacks and Sea Treaders. These are massive non-hostile creatures with some of the loudest cries in the game and many times you’ll hear them from miles off before you even see them and you can almost feel the shaking through your speakers or headphones. Of course the game also does a good job of scaring you with the higher pitched roars of things like the Leviathans shooting through the water as very quiet ambient music plays in the background. The music is also another great area to mention with very futuristic sounds but also given a very ambient tone to them to make the different environments really come together in your mind and evoke those certain emotions of what that environment is really like; but of course as with the rest of the game some aspects of this are still being worked on and may be subject to change.
Development: When it comes to early access development is probably the most important thing to cover. Many early access games never see a full release or simply never receive substantial or timely updates but Subnautica has found a simple way to circumvent that problem that I feel may become a key feature for the consumer in early access titles. The developers Unknown Worlds use a service called Trello which allows them to basically post a timeline of their plans as well as directly update how far along those plans are and what aspects they plan to work on next. This way of doing things appears to have built up quite a bit of good faith between the players and the developers by giving players complete information on how far their dollar is carrying the game and how close they are to getting new and exciting content. Usage of this service has also given the developers a sort of “theory crafting” beta testing in a sense where players have been able to give input on brand new ideas before those ideas have even made it into the game as well as given the developers new ideas on creatures they can add or features the players may want. Overall, Subnautica gets a pretty big gold star seal of approval when it comes to their development cycle but that doesn’t mean it’s completely without issue.
Bugs, Glitches & Optimization: As with any unfinished game, issues like bugs, glitches and poor optimization are going to be far more common as those are generally ironed out when a game is going to full release to prevent new additions from ruining any previous fixes that have been done. Luckily, Subnautica seems mostly glitch free though it’s not completely without issue. Largely no glitch will actually ruin your experience with the worst requiring you to kill yourself to fix; however, the game secures inventories when passing through doors and this glitch is caused by exiting a door too quickly after entering it so its relatively harmless. Perhaps the only major issue of concern is extremely large and hostile creatures spawning far outside of their environment and seeing as the game lacks any real weapons this can ruin a new save file early on. Fortunately Subnautica includes a glitch reporter in-game and the developers are aware of almost every possible glitch so they should hopefully be patched up as soon as they game is ready for version 1.0.
Conclusion: In its current state, Subnautica is well worth the buy at only 19.99 usd and will give you well over 20-30 hours just going through basic crafting and discovering all the interesting biomes and this time will most likely be extended further as new technology and story elements are added to the game. It is important to remember though that at the end of the day, Subnautica is still a survival/crafting game and if you dislike the “run around, collect item, build thing to collect more items, repeat” style of things then this game most certainly won’t be changing your mind and you should remain very cautious on making a purchase. That said if you are open to trying the genre or you enjoy that style then Subnautica should definitely be on your radar.