Subnautica is a game that challenges the player with the vast emptiness of an ocean, with a healthy helping of terrible beasts that wish to cause you bodily harm, and a few mysteries that are begging to be uncovered. Set in a world full of water, the only way is down, which quickly causes some fears to surface, as you're not alone. And while the smaller aquatic creatures are beautiful to look at, it's what creeps around in the shadows that keep you in the shallows.
Launched on Steam Early Access in 2014, Unknown Worlds has spent three years working on adding more content and optimizing the game ahead of release. Now that the game is officially available, I dove back into the ocean to see how it has all come together.
So is this game full of H2O any fun or is it completely washed out?
Subnautica design: An underwater adventure
Subnautica is all about the exploration of the unknown. On first arriving at a planet that has yet to be explored by mankind, the player is immediately thrust into a tricky situation. You're in a lifeboat and are low on food and water — and, yes, there are meters that keep track of both parameters, as well as the all-important oxygen. Not only will you have to be watchful of your needs before venturing out, you'll need to ensure you have enough resources to not perish.
As well as surviving by catching fish and salvaging resources from the seabed, there's also the fact that you're on an unknown world, in the middle of nowhere with the burning remains of your ship in the backdrop. And where's your crew? These are some questions that need answering alongside other mysteries you'll uncover as you venture further in the depths. And boy can you go deep.
What developer Unknown Worlds has achieved with Subnautica is truly special. Even in Early Access, it was a stable experience with only a handful of performance hiccups. The hand-crafted world comes to life with a seeming abundance of life, but it never feels too compact, nor does it feel puddle deep. The lighting, colors, and use of water make you feel unease in a game that isn't technically a horror title, and that is a feat of solid game design.
And it all looks stunning. The water effects are great, not to mention the visuals of all the wildlife and various other elements you'll come across. Flora look at home and nothing really feels out of place, even when you come across strange structures. When it turns to night and you're relying on nothing but a flashlight, that's when the aquatic life really shines — quite literally. Both flora and marine creatures each sport light-emitting properties that create wonderful treats for the eyes.
The user interface is well laid out and clean, though I encountered a few issues, like having to hit the escape key to leave the fabricator interface, the use tab to leave containers, and the PDA. It would have been nice to have a little more consistency.
Subnautica gameplay: Living alongside leviathans
Starting off with only the basics in terms of survival supplies, you're immediately tasked with catching fish, collecting metals, and surveying your surroundings. Luckily, the lifeboat has a fabricator onboard that allows one to not only cook food but craft useful components and objects, even vehicles. There's an obvious progression path one should take, which allows you to get lost swimming around and then carry on where you left off without issue.
The end goal is to eventually make it off this strange world, but like many open-world games you will no doubt get lost on countless expeditions and come across objects that require further investigation. It's also why the game urges you numerous times to be adequately prepped with food, power supplies and drink before leaving the base — you will sometimes be gone for hours on end.
As well as working to survive, there's some form of narrative that plays out in audio logs, visual clues and events — the latter which can see the player thrust into a rather challenging situation. Picking up the mobile scanner as soon as possible is recommended to fill up the index with as much data as you can. There's a lot out there to discover, so it only makes sense for you to properly catalog everything, right?
But not only do you have exploration, survival elements and adventures to tackle, there's also the whole deal of base-building. You won't be able to rely on the claustrophobic lifeboat, so an underwater base (or a few) is required to really make the most of available equipment and make progress. It's a system that reminds me of Fallout 4, in that I can spend hours perfecting the base only to start all over again.
There's a gratifying feeling when leaping into your seamoth from an underwater base for a little exploring. Subnautica allows you to do many things. and you'll need to adjust to juggling various tasks accordingly.
The verdict on Subnautica: Fetch your diving suit
Subnautica is an exceptional game of exploration, crash-landing the player on an unknown planet with unfamiliar terrain, unexplored depths, and strange wildlife. While some smaller creatures will appear more afraid of you, it's the larger predators that will make your oxygen levels quickly drop with the increased heart rate. It's a game that captivates you as soon as you step out of the lifeboat with the gorgeous water effects and stunning environment.
- Gorgeous visuals.
- Solid performance.
- A real sense of survival.
- Can be a little clunky at times.
A game full of liquid is a difficult selling point on its own, but throw in base building, meaningful progression and a feeling of being way out of one's depth, and it all makes for quite the experience. At $24.99, you're getting a game that will offer hundreds of hours — whether you're exploring, building bases, playing with wildlife or simply struggling to survive.
This review was conducted on a PC with an overclocked Intel Core i5-6600K, GTX 1070 GPU, and 16GB of RAM running Windows 10. The copy was purchased by the author.
Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.