Subnautica has actually been around since December 2014, available to the masses via Steam Early Access. For the uninitiated, early access means exactly what you would expect it to mean – i.e. you get to play it before everyone else, but with the small caveat that it’s not finished yet. I plan to talk about this a bit more in a future article, but suffice to say that you obviously take a bit of a risk when you follow this particular road. The game might be great – but it could also be impossible to play, plain awful or, god forbid, it might never get properly released. Subnautica, however, made its full debut on 23rd January in all its oceanic glory. The 3-year development featured integrated community bug reporting and feedback, which in turn resulted in ongoing developer bug fixing and tweaking. It’s paid off.
I’ve been playing since March 2017, the game having been hurled into my field of vision by Steam’s handy ‘recommendations’ feature. At its core, it’s a survival game, and seeing as I have a thing for the survival genre, this was a welcome plug indeed. The setting is thus: your nameless protagonist just about makes it into an escape pod before the starship you were traveling on explodes in the upper atmosphere of an uncharted ocean world. During a rocky descent, you are knocked unconscious by a violently flailing metal door panel and wake up, however long later, with your life pod completely in flames. You get up, grab the fire extinguisher and with a pull of the trigger to snuff out the blaze, you’ve started the game. A few hints and tips from the handy PDA tablet later and you’re ready to get on with your primary mission: survive.
You go about this task by collecting a wide variety of resources throughout the game world, which is no mean feat as it’s a fair old size. In turn, you convert these resources into any number of useful, and downright essential, pieces of equipment using your pod’s emergency fabricator and, later on, other devices. In the Safe Shallows, where you initially find yourself, this mostly involves scavaging some titanium wreckage to get yourself a scuba tank, which you need to be able to stay under the surface for more than 30 seconds. Later, you begin to acquire copper and lead, gold and silver, lithium and diamonds and a load of other bits to make more and more sophisticated items, which are more and more essential for your survival. So far, so standard survival schtick. However, seeing as you’re smack bang in the middle of an ocean, you find that you need to go deeper and further into the depths to get your supplies, which in turn enable you to go deeper and further still. But why go into the scary abyss, you may ask, when you can scamper and paddle in the sun with the fishies? It’s to follow the story, which is fairly light touch, serving more as a means to get you from place to place on the map in order to discover new materials and bits of wrecked technology. Using your trusty scanner – one of the first things you should build – you catalogue these until, after you have enough fragments, you are rewarded with a blueprint for the complete piece. Building it will inevitably need something that you don’t yet have/haven’t discovered, so the narrative points you to the right path. It’s nice; direction and purpose, without anything screaming in your ear or flashing in your face, or relentlessly signposting you by taking up every piece of NCP dialogue. A couple of nice little features have also recently appeared, such as the Time Capsule. Buildable by end-game players just before they complete, the Time Capsule can be filled with game goodies, like nutrient blocks or first aid kits, along with player created note, and submitted online for review. If they receive enough votes, and the notes pass a screening process, they are seeded into the game world for other players to find. So far, I’ve had one filled with the basics and a lovely message telling me ‘Good luck out there’, and another full of alien creature eggs with a note that simply read ‘FREE RANGE’. Takes all sorts.
The whole thing is beautiful. Jules Verne clearly wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after he’d had some prescient dream about the visuals in Subnautica. It always looked pretty, but one of the last major updates – the Eye Candy Update no less – replaced almost all the skins and all of the graphics options, delighting even those who had played since very early versions. The shallows have coral and brightly coloured fish, the sandy shelves have thick red grass and gleaming salt deposits, and the rocky trenches have deep shadows and cold hard rocks. However, while it is truly a playground, it’s not exactly nursery school. Beyond the aforementioned starting area, things get real. And deep. And dark. And full of things, so many terrible, terrible things. Being horribly afraid of the sea, it logically follows that a game where you are plunged straight into the middle of it gets my pulse up a bit. My phobic biases aside, however, it’s not a reaction unique to me. Subnaurica is very popular with the Let’s Play folk of Youtube and Twitch, and you’ll find a wide selection of players gingerly piloting around a recently discovered nest of Sand Sharks, or jumping completely out of their skin the first time they encounter a Reaper Leviathan. These authentic reactions occur so readily simply because the world design is first class, and highly atmospheric to boot. The realisation that you actually have to head down into that ominous crack in the seabed is deeply uncomfortable to say the least, and the ambiance is made even more intense by the excellent sound design. Aside from things creeping up on you from behind or roaring off in the distance, there are nice little touches, like the sound of your submarine’s propeller coming from behind you, or the echoes you experience when walking across the metal floor of your base. With headphones on it’s even more encompassing, and don’t get me started on what it must be like to play in VR.
Aesthetics aside, the whole thing is remarkably glitch and error free. I’ve seen some clipping issues here and there, and some sudden patches of low resolution, but I’m pretty sure this is down to my PC showing its age, and even if it’s not then I am more than ready to overlook such trifles. This surprising level of polish can be easily attributed to the Early Access process and the excellent relationship that the developers have built up with the player community. From the get-go, an official feedback menu has been a core part of the game’s interface, and accessing this provides a simple and intuitive interface to report bugs and, noticeably, provide suggestions. While Early Access might not be for everyone, there is a goodly amount of satisfaction to be had from reporting a bug, and then discovering in a later version it’s been fixed. Major game breaks: gone. Strange visual effects: gone. Weird AI and logic events: gone. FPS drops upon enlarging the map: gone (mostly). Along with everything else in the world – Ocarina of Time exempted – it’s not PERFECT. However, it comes very very close, to a point that many AAA releases look downright shoddy in comparison. I’m more than a little envious of those who get to play it for the first time in its completed state.
I’ve had a lot of fun with Subnautica throughout the months I’ve been a player, and I am certain there is a lot more to come. There are hints that the game might have more surprises in store for future updates – we are technically on v1.0 – and the aforementioned feedback menu remains open to suggestions and notes. For one thing, I’d like to see some co-operative play, something I think would really deepen the experience, even if it would take away from the feeling of peaceful solitude. So, if you are looking for something engrossing and enjoyable to while away the hours, then I highly recommend it. It best suits those who enjoy exploration, worldbuilding and an easy pace, and don’t mind getting chased down by giant sea beasts.
Subnautica was fully released for PC on 23 January 2018 and is available on Steam and Arc. Early Access is available on Xbox One via the Microsoft Store, with a full release scheduled for early/mid-2018. PS4 news remains elusive.
Played and enjoyed on PC, via Steam with an Xbox 360 wired control ‘cos I like to mix it up.