Crafting and exploration are two mechanics that are quickly growing in popularity in gaming today. Ever since Minecraft began dominating the scene in the late 2000’s, more and more games are adopting a similar open-world survival concept. Now players can take their survival skills to the depths of the ocean with Subnautica for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Platform: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment, Gearbox
Genre: Adventure, survival, open world
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)
20,000 leagues under the sea
In Subnautica you will take control of the lone survivor of an interstellar crash. The catch is what you will see upon emerging from your life capsule. There is no dry land in sight—just ocean stretching as far as the eye can see.
Thus Subnautica opens with a scenario familiar to many games in the survival genre of late. All alone and with few supplies, you now face the challenge of finding a way to stay alive. Get your flippers and oxygen tank ready though. There’s only one direction to go in, and that’s down.
You’ll need to begin combing the depths of water that make up this alien world. By retrieving a combination of native resources along with wreckage from your own ship, you may just be able to synthesize food, water, and other resources necessary to keep yourself alive. That said, you’ll also need to find ways to travel further and deeper to unravel the biggest mysteries hidden within Subnautica.
Coming up for air
Since you have to take a dive in order to find anything useful in Subnautica, oxygen quickly becomes your most valuable resource. You can only travel as far as your O2 supply will take you. You’ll risk slipping into unconsciousness and death without regular trips to the surface (at least to start).
Eventually you’ll be able to craft larger oxygen tanks and other projects that will let you explore more easily without worrying about air. Nonetheless it makes the early stages of the game feel like a bit of an exercise in patience.
When you are first embarking from your pod, resources are scarce. Couple that with a lack of a HUD or method of tracking where your previous explorations, and starting out becomes a bit of a grind. What really compounds the potential for frustration is having to return to the surface every minute for fresh air.
Swimming on a leash
Again, all issues are ultimately soothed by progress, but it still presents an unwelcoming feeling at the onset. Imagine playing a similar game such as Minecraft or No Man’s Sky—but having to waylay your progress constantly to “tag” your home base.
On one side of the coin, it certainly adds a sense of reality and urgency to Subnautica’s survival roots. However on the other hand, it’s odd to embark on a journey of exploration while feeling hefty restrictions on your freedom to actually explore. One of the best features of similar games is the ability—for better or for worse—to choose a direction and simply wander.
The unknown abyss
Regardless of its early restrictions, Subnautica still offers a unique exploration experience. It takes a familiar scenario and adds an extra element of mystery. Instead of roaming plains, forests and caves, Subnautica has you poking into the darkest corners of the unknown depths.
There’s something to be said for the thrill of diving deeper and further from your capsule. Probing new distances that were previously unreachable adds to the tension as well as the sense of discovery in Subnautica. You are always facing the enigma of just what might be waiting a few leagues lower than where you previously were.
Somewhere in the puzzle of your surroundings is an endgame as well. Even as you struggle to survive, there is an unfolding story to accompany your progress. No spoilers here, but the narrative does give players a bit more motivation to upgrade and explore beyond continuing existence.
Flora, fauna, and a few bugs
Subnautica originally released in a state of early access. While its official release on consoles came in January of 2018, in my experience it still has a bit of an unfinished feel.
For starters, a message still pops up upon launching the game suggesting that users “report bugs and issues”. While to a degree I certainly applaud the developers for for continuing to actively take feedback and improve their game, it is still a bit odd to see a message like this on a “finished” game. Intentionally or not, it gives players a feeling right out of the gate that their new game could (and probably will) have issues.
Unfortunately the reporting feature can definitely be put to good use. My experience with Subnautica was not without its share of glitches. From massive frame rate drops to overlapping textures and objects, playing Subnautica still gives off a “game in progress” feel on consoles.
If you can get past issues like occasional screen freeze when emerging from water, or unreadable text buried in objects, then the core gameplay of Subnautica still offers a lot of joy. It’s just one of those games where it’s difficult to pinpoint at what point it really ceases to be “in development”. The gameplay is solid, just don’t expect a AAA level of polish from Subnautica in its current state.
Subnautica is a unique take on survival exploration with a few bugs under the surface
Subnautica leans into the mysteries of the deep to create an exciting atmosphere for exploration and survival. Although some of the limitations of underwater survival translate directly into the gameplay, a bit of patience will pay off once the ball really gets rolling. There is plenty to discover beneath the currents of this massive alien ocean.
Sadly Subnautica still has its fair share of bugs on console. Most of its issues relate to polish and aesthetic however. If you can see past its blemishes then there is a lot of fun to be had under the sea.
+ Challenging exploration
+ Intriguing narrative mystery to unravel
+ Unique environment
– Still plays like an early access game, bugs and all
– Exploration can feel constricted, especially early on
OVERALL ASSESSMENT OF SUBNAUTICA
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 4/5