In my early teens I had a fascination with survival games. Something about them was inherently enamoring. I don’t know if it was the lack of direction, the continuous progression, or the flexible role playing that the genre offered, but I would gobble up any survival game I could. I would spend hours rifling through the Garry’s Mod server list just looking for a survival-based server to hop into in order to get my fix. I have since had a falling-out with the genre and haven’t really touched it since then. After playing Subnautica all these years later, I am reminded of the intrinsically satisfying, terrifying, and exhilarating experiences that only the survival game genre can elicit.
Subnautica is an aquatic survival game that feels like one of the extremely few early access projects done right.
Early access survival games seem to run rampant on the Steam platform. Very few ever feel like they achieve a satisfying level of quality, polish, or finality. Subnautica achieves all three.
I was immediately impressed with Subnautica’s visuals and how well it complements those visuals with its sound and music design. The music pairs well with what’s on screen whether you’re basking in a stunning locale, exploring for materials, or frantically trying to escape the roars encroaching from behind. The art direction here is similarly impressive. There is a good variety of aquatic life on display that all looks just as beautiful during the transparent days as it does during the incandescent nights. While Subnautica’s visual style tends to look less than flattering in screenshots, it feels and looks great in motion. Subtle complexities and an overall level of polish like this end up getting swept under the rug in other early access projects. Everything feels like it fits well into a singular cohesive whole.
Subnautica feels like a project that took its early access period to legitimately perfect many aspects before it reached its final release state. There are different underwater biomes to explore rife with their own useful resources and curious creatures. There is a lot of crafting to do, but the variety of materials to collect is limited just enough to keep things from feeling overwhelming. I never had to consult a guide here which is something I can say for very few survival games if any. There is plenty to explore, but things are gated in clever ways that allow you time to feel comfortable in your current space while also feeling accomplished when you are able to push beyond those boundaries into the unknown. Spending countless hours in an open ocean can be disorienting, but a clever use of landmarks prevents you from feeling completely lost. Maintaining hunger and thirst can be needlessly tedious for some, but there’s an option to play without those mechanics. There’s a lot of base building, but it all feels good to interact with and integrates itself well into the gameplay. It’s handled so surprisingly well here that it makes Fallout 4 feel like the game that just came out of early access. Subnautica doesn’t necessarily do anything new with the genre outside of the setting, but it nails all of the essential components.
The impressive lack of flaws in Subnautica is a testament to how much work was continuously put into this game. But, there are still certainly some flaws here. Whenever you’re not submerged in water, things feel a little clunky and stiff. Your inventory is not on display while crafting which can cause needless inventory checks. Some of the UI elements such as the interface for swapping batteries lack parity with the rest and feel like remnants from an older build. Some lack of polish still persists with some weird clipping and strange animations occurring sporadically. The limited draw distances and pop-in also pose a major issue and cause difficulty and frustration that should not be present. The story being told is very intriguing, but it may lose some when answers begin emerging. All of these are legitimate flaws, but what causes Subnautica to remain resolute in spite of them is that they are all nitpicks. The majority of them could easily be fixed in a future patch and none of them prevented me from enjoying the dozens of hours I spent with Subnautica.
Subnautica is an excellent survival game, but it’s still a survival game. Without my dormant love for the genre, I cannot say I would have enjoyed my experience. However, I can say that Subnautica has reinvigorated a genre that I was ready to dismiss. It is the best survival game I have played in years and I have a feeling it will continue to stand out in the years to come.
Subnautica is a non-perfect video game based on a perfect concept. In the game, you narrowly escape the destruction of your big corporate spaceship by crash landing on a strange alien planet covered almost entirely in water. From there, you spend your time exploring, building, and surviving. The ocean teems with bizarre yet familiar fishies. Half of them you want to eat, the other half want to eat you. It is a fascinating setup for an engaging and terrifying survival experience that never occurs.
The problems with Subnautica are numerous and, for me, crippling. This is a game that has just recently emerged out of early access, but that emergence feels premature. Even the highlights feel tarnished and unrefined.
Subnautica’s story is one of those theoretical highlights. Most survival games seem to purvey the idea of the player creating their own story through their actions and interactions with the environment. Subnautica certainly does as well, but it also adds multiple layers of pre-designed narrative to the recipe. There are audio logs for you to gather, characters to listen to, and dark secrets to uncover. Unfortunately, none of this story content is engaging or novel. The game’s main plot steadily becomes more fleshed-out, but it never becomes more interesting. It is the same sci fi story that has been told thousands of times, featuring the same basic building blocks as, say, Halo or Mass Effect. Get ready to pull out your sci-fi cliche bingo card, as phrases like “ancient forerunners” and “alien genocide” feature heavily.
This would normally be excusable. After all, the plot usually plays second fiddle to the core gameplay loop in survival games like this. Here though, so much of the basic gameplay is tied into the story that it starts to feel like you’re being led along on a leash rather than staking your claim.
For example: this is not a game where you discover crafting recipes through experimentation. Instead, you gain blueprints for items by scanning existing structures, flora, and fauna. This means that your progress is gated in a very constructed way. Really, your progress is designed to coincide 1:1 with the story progress. Radio beacons guide you towards the wrecks of other supposed survivors, and these wrecks often contain items you can scan to gain blueprints.
I brushed up against this system a lot. I desperately, desperately wanted the blueprint for a “Multipurpose Room” for my base. I had scanned something at some point that had given me progress towards this blueprint, meaning I only had to find 1 more piece to scan to complete the crafting recipe. My options were to either wait for the story to steer me towards this piece (which it eventually did hours later) or wander around with no direction and hope I came across something. The odds of this happening are astronomically low, but I really wanted me some multipurpose room action so exploring I went.
Cue me getting lost in the same 3 areas over and over again for an hour. Meanwhile, my hunger and thirst meters slowly ticked down, constantly reminding me of my own mortality as I spent waking breaths I would never get back staring at virtual sand. Cue also me experiencing some of the magic that Subnautica’s premise wants so hard to deliver to me. I was scooting around in my little submarine when I heard a deep, unsettling roar from behind me. Suddenly, a gigantic shadow soared across the ground in front of me.
For a brief, ecstatic moment, I was in that submarine staring alien death in the face.
It was exhilarating and felt spontaneous and real. In that moment, I loved Subnautica.
But sub love is fleeting, and mine ended almost immediately afterwards when I turned to face the vile beast head on. This is where I think Subnautica trips the hardest. The alien fishes on display here are no good. In some sense this is inevitable. After all, the deep sea is scary not because of what we know it contains but because it might contain what we don’t know. The dream game I had in my head before I played Subnautica involved creeping along ancient sea beds as unknowable monstrosities swam just out of sight, their massive bodies eclipsing anything possible or practical.
In actuality, the sea monsters in Subnautica look kinda dumb. The worst of the worst are the worst because they can do a lot of damage to your precious submarine, not because they themselves are frightening by design. The biggest and baddest look like Invizimals or something, whereas the teeniest and weeniest look like someone’s rough sketch of what a dumb looking alien fish might look like. Once I realized that what waited out there for me in the depths was both a known quantity and not that scary to begin with, I felt like the aquatic rug was being pulled out from under me. I saw my dream game vanishing before my very eyes, replaced by something doofy and frustrating. I returned home to turn more bladderfish into water.
I eventually felt like I was playing the role of an idiot. I felt like I had no control over anything. I was building pre-designed vehicles to go look at pre-designed bases to get blueprints to build pre-designed base parts so that I could have a dumb looking base that kinda looks like everybody else’s base. The game pushed me towards new biomes, but each one just contained more crafting materials and slightly meaner fishies that I had no recourse to fight. The gameplay loop started to dissolve for me. Occasionally I would go ashore and wrestle with first person controls straight out of a Half-Life mod from 15 years ago. The battery on my scanner ran out a kilometer from my base despite it not having a battery meter like everything else you use that utilizes batteries. A cave spider skittered across the air upside down and gnawed at my feet. Everything looked bad. I felt ill. I returned home to turn more bladderfish into water.
I dreamt of a better Subnautica.