Survival games are ubiquitous at the moment and largely follow the same formula. Subnautica does things a little differently, with the clue being in the title. Indeed, the underwater nature of Subnautica is what makes it stand out from the crowd, and it’s all done so well it’s hard to put it down.
Having suffered a fatal malfunction with your spaceship, you launch an escape pod and splash down on an aquatic planet; you’re intact but severely damaged ship sticking out of the ocean a few hundred metres away. Here you quest for survival begins, encouraging you to search the ocean for materials to craft devices, supplies, submersibles, and habitats in order to keep you alive.
Playing through on survival mode subjects you to starvation and dehydration, making it imperative that you find sources of food and drinkable water amongst the usual building options and exploration. Here’s where Subnautica really shines, forcing you to explore further and further from your escape pod, and deeper and deeper into the ocean, in order to find what you need. This is a daunting and frightening endeavour. An ocean is a monumentally large place to forage within, full of fish and creatures, and not all of them friendly, but a planet sized alien ocean is a different matter altogether. Here the alien environment is so new that everything feels like a threat until you’ve investigated it, and venturing that little bit further from your escape pod taps into your fear of the unknown splendidly.
Bobbing up and down on the surface you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’re on Earth, but the moment you go beneath the waves the alien ecosystem is clear to see. Brightly coloured fauna and flora litter the alien ocean, drawing you in with their strangeness and tapping into that explorer within us all. Scraps of metal from you ship can be found on the shallow bed, amongst all manner of materials that can be collected, identified and then put to use within your pod’s matter converter. Caves and coral formations entice you in, creatures dart by and encourage you to chase, then you see the shallow bed give way to darkness and the fear of the unknown drowns out that spark of exploration. However, eventually you’ll have to go down there, there might be stuff down there you need, and frightening as it may be, a part of you wants to go down there. A few enhanced oxygen tanks or a submersible later, and you can venture into the darkness and discover what else lurks beneath the waves.
The ocean is superbly enticing and scary, and with hungry creatures looking to make a meal out of you it only gets scarier the deeper you go. But it’s also extremely rewarding. There’s a lot to see in the depths and building large habitats and slowly conquering this alien world alone is thoroughly entertaining. The day and night cycle brings with it visibility issues to challenge your engineering skills and fear tolerance, as well as stirring new sea life for you to witness, and the bioluminescent glow of the flora is especially attractive. The visual splendor does come at a cost, with the initial load taking several minutes, but fortunately death means an almost instantaneous respawn, and once the initial load is done Subnautica runs smooth and fast.
Indeed, Subnautica is shaping up to be one of the strongest survival games on the market, thanks largely to how spectacularly detailed, vast, rich and different its ocean environment is. Moreover, you can enjoy the alien ocean without the need to worry about food and drink thanks to a creation mode. And whilst the barrier for some will be the lack of handholding when it comes to figuring out how to construct things, this inherent aspect of the genre isn’t going to affect the enjoyment for survival game veteran at all.
Thanks to Xbox and Unknown Worlds and Grip Games for supporting TiX