I’ve always had a fascination with the ocean. As a child on holiday, I would spend all my free time beach combing , looking for fossils and generally milling about the water’s edge of the freezing and foreboding Irish sea. This was compounded by the exotic adventures of Jacque Cousteau on TV. His escapades on the high seas and exploration of the dark deep used to bedazzle and inspire me. This sense of wonder has never left me.
I’ve had Subnautica on my radar for some time. There seems to be a plethora of open world/crafting / building/survival games on Steam’s early access list. I love these kind of games, but have always been a bit leery of alpha builds with bare bone feature sets and stability issues.
Subnautica has been in development for going on 2 years and has numerous updates in that time. In fact, a new “silent running” patch has just been released. Adding a myriad of bug fixes and enhancements to the Cyclops submarine. When the game went on sale a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to try out this promising title.
The game has four modes: Freedom: Where by oxygen and health are the only resources you need to manage. Survival: Same as Freedom mode with the addition of needing to maintain your food and hydration levels. Hardcore: Which is much like Fallout 4’s survival mode, where, if you die the game ends. One life, one chance. The last mode is Creative. This disables all the real life concerns and allows to build whatever you want. All the blueprints are unlocked from the get-go.
On playing the game for the first time in freedom mode, you appear to be the lone survivor of a crashed space ship, called the Aurora. You splash down on an aquatic planet in one of the ship’s life pods.The main objective is to explore the open world environment and survive the dangers of the planet, which on first inspection, feels like a pristine oceanic wonderland, full of benign life forms and beautiful waterbased flora.
Subnautica is very much an open world sandbox game. Many reviewers have compared it to an underwater “Minecraft”. The thing that stuck me from the off and which moves this game above that comparison, is the story. Unlike Minecraft’s narrative arc, which felt awkward and tacked on. Subnautica’s story is immediately engaging and interesting. The opening set up and given the genre’s implicit impulse for the gamer to explore the environment, slowly reveals, that all it not what it seems to be, on planet 4546b. This is skillfully woven into the actual gameplay, using distress beacons and audio logs. This not only drives the story but also unlocks new blueprints. These allow you to add items to your ever growing inventory of tools, equipment, and building materials.
Subnautica is yet another game that uses the Unity engine. I’ve not played any other game that pushes this tech to the limit. Given the open world nature of the game, I would have thought that UE4 might have been a better option. Once all the streaming assets have been loaded, the gameplay is pretty and fluid. As you further explore the habitat, the joints begin to show, especially if you are travelling at high speed. On my potato PC, the engine struggles to load in the new geometry and LOD. I’ve found that the more you progress in the game, the more bloated your save data becomes. My user data folder stands at almost 1.2 gigs. This shows that every alteration you make, is stored in what appears to be some kind of node system (I’m no programmer).
The devs are no doubt aware of this. Their trello board openly shows that optimising the engine is in the roadmap, along with an outreach to the actual unity engine folks to look at the codebase. I understand that in early access, the usual polish is absent, given that the game isn’t even feature complete. I’ve grown up on poor frame rates and have a good tolerance for them. As long as the game is stable, I can live with the odd paging/texture pop in issues. This is to be expected with a title pushing technology to the edge of its capabilities.
The easiest comparison I have to the overall feeling of playing Subnautica, is like an aquatic, interactive version of The Martian. You have to “science the s***” out of the environment in order to survive. The devs have managed to strikes a sweet spot between exploration and narrative drive. The four modes offer the player a good deal of choice, between simply enjoying the world, creating bases, to making every move count in a hostile and forbidding watery planet. Any fan of open world sandbox games will be captivated if they choose to take a deep dive into Subnautica.