Subnautica Review: A Water Wonderland

Decades after Jaws cemented our cultural fear of the deep ocean, Subnautica emerges from Steam Early Access to fuel a new breed of underwater nightmares. This first-person survival epic by Unknown Worlds Entertainment dumps you into the water with not a great white shark to watch out for, but an entire alien world full of monstrosities ready and able to swallow you whole. Subnautica expands into an intense and challenging game that maintains considerable beauty and mystique across its massive environments. It’s so magical and otherworldly that it practically pains you to stop playing, even when you’re filled with dread.

Despite its scale and demanding ecosystem, Subnautica is one of the most approachable open-world survival games around. Where most of this sort have a steep difficulty curve to climb, this underwater alien world is easy to get into. The solo-only campaign begins when your ship crashes onto a flooded planet. You awaken, floating in your pod with only the fiery ruin of your former starship to break up the monotony of the ocean that rolls on endlessly to all points of the horizon.

From here, your goal is a simple one–survive, discover what else is on this world, and do your best to find a way off of it. Thankfully, you come from a Star Trek-style federation. Your lifepod is tricked out with a fabricator, a nifty wall-mounted device that can make pretty much anything, provided you feed it the necessary raw materials. Bladderfish are needed right away to provide potable water, while smaller finned creatures are best for fast frying and eating.

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Compared to other survival games, gathering up items is easy. Want to see what mineral is hiding in that rock? Punch it or whack it once or twice with whatever you have in your hand. Need to cut plants or coral? Right-click to slash with your knife. Considering other survival games force you to do things like bash your fists bloody against trees to collect wood, you get by pretty easy here, and the entire game is better for it.

Because the crash has corrupted a lot of your databank, you also have to find and scan fragments and crack open data boxes scattered across the ocean floor before you can build bits of technology. You can even fabricate additional fabricators that make components for vehicles like the zippy Seaglide or Seamoth mini-sub, and even seabases straight out of Octopussy. These are not only cool to look at, but useful in the long run, with ’70s-style observation bubbles, solar panels, and high-tech hardware to refine and manage your supplies.

Of course, there are still some significant challenges here. While you start off in the appropriately named Safe Shallows, home to mostly friendly fish and readily available materials required to craft basic items like swim fins and oxygen tanks, you soon need to venture farther afield. The world consists of many biomes, distinct geographical regions with their own flora and fauna. Most of the better goodies in the game come from more extreme and far away places, which forces you to steadily upgrade your equipment to handle greater depths and highly aggressive sea life that look more like monsters of myth than fish at your local aquarium.

…there is a real push-pull dynamic at large that makes you feel like you’re constantly achieving one new goal after another.

Aggressive creatures are a continual presence. You have to respect them and keep your distance, knowing what they can do. With that said, creatures are not unduly punishing. Running into something aggressive doesn’t result in instant death. You’ll likely die far more often as the result of drowning during an exploration dive, or starving to death because you took too long during an expedition.

Diving into wrecks makes for the most intense moments in the game, especially when you’re at significant depths. Bigger wrecks almost always seem to be in the neighborhood of the nastiest monsters on the planet, which means you need to sneak in and out. Caves are almost as nerve-wracking and contain an even stronger likelihood of drowning due to their labyrinthine nature. Further investigation rewards you with rarer natural resources like diamonds, nickel ore, and Blood Oil. Caves aren’t as enjoyable to explore as wrecks, though, because the sheer danger makes them too risky to have much fun in. At least the game eventually allows you to craft things like a compass and the pathfinder tool that lets you lay down a trail of electronic breadcrumbs.

While routine scavenger hunts for more basic survival needs can grow routine (though you can turn off the need to eat and drink at the start of a game–or go in the other direction and turn on a hardcore permadeath mode), there is a real push-pull dynamic at large that makes you feel like you’re constantly achieving one new goal after another. Even something as simple as grabbing a dozen or so bladderfish and peepers and turning them into bottles of water and salted fish snacks can be rewarding, because you know those supplies are essential for extended exploration missions.

Your development as a scavenger is nudged along by a story that loosely guides your exploration. Getting the lifepod radio repaired reveals a number of distress calls from other lifepods that went down along with you, along with coordinates of their current or approximate locations. This even opens up a possible rescue attempt, which leads to another interesting part of the planet. Venturing to these locales uncovers an unexpectedly deep story, but it also moves you to various locations where you find vital resources at just the right time. Progress moves quickly if you follow the story, though this is still a huge game that requires a lot of time, patience, and exploration.

Some patience is also required when you bump into the game’s rare technical issues. Loading save files takes a very long time, there are regular sound glitches where audio vanishes while leaving the water, and crashes can occur when loading your save. Given that you’re only allowed a single save slot per campaign, these moments are stressful, though thankfully no saves were lost during our time with the game.

Subnautica’s story, scares, and beautifully rendered underwater setting make it one of the most fascinating survival games around. You will always have to grind away to a certain extent to gather necessary resources, but the overall experience is both accessible and refined. Subnautica may not make you eager to get back to the beach this summer, but right now there is no better virtual way to experience the beauty, and the terror, of the deep blue sea.

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