I've just completed my third play through of Unknown Worlds' Subnautica and this game continues to amaze. These are my afterthoughts.
Subnautica is an open world first person adventure game. Unlike the vast majority of games out there, this game takes place on and under the oceans of an unexplored alien planet. Land is few and far between and danger is rife.
General gameplay flow
You start the game by ejecting from your doomed ship and crash landing in the oceans of planet 4546B. The goal of the game is simple enough - get off it.
Not only do you need to escape, but you also need to manage your health - and this includes both hunger and thirst. And, of course, oxygen, given you're going to spend most of the game under the waves. When creating a new game you can opt to have an easier experience by disabling hunger and thirst, I did this for my first play through. For the second onwards, I went full on survival and I have to say, this was a better experience. However, I'm not in a hurry to try the final difficult level which involves perma-death.
The game doesn't really hold your hand; there are no objectives or quest log. No guidance. At the start of the game, after you repair your life pod, you'll start receiving transmissions to the location of other pods or places or interest. These cunningly introduce new areas or new resources, but that is pretty much it (and they peter out after a while). You're on your own, figure it out. There is the occasional in-game tutorial bubble to point out things not obvious (smashing rocks, cutting vines and showing you the entry hatch of your personal submarine) but otherwise, as I said... you're on your own.
But as you travel around collecting resources, you'll also find parts of the wrecked Aurora containing fragments of damaged equipment that you can scan to build a blueprint, data boxes that contain complete blueprints and even miscellaneous items such as tables and chairs you can scan to construct a blueprint from. You'll be using your crafted scanner tool a lot, as many of the blueprints will be required in order for you to progress, and this is also your way of learning about the world you currently inhabit. You will also find PDA's left behind by other members of the Aurora crew and other survivors which flesh out the story.
Eventually you'll be able to build a number of vehicles which can be used to access the deepest parts of the ocean. I don't really want to spoil it by writing about what you'll find, but despite the lack of hand holding, it is a journey worth taking.
And, you can build your own underwater base. Or bases. You can build pretty much anywhere, as long as you can power it and handle the structural integrity. It is almost a shame that base building isn't a bigger part of the game. You could get by with the bare minimum in order to place required equipment, but aside from a moon pool there's not much really required. Of course, a good base (or several mini bases) does help as you can build scanner rooms to hunt down elusive resources.
Plus, once you have discovered interior and exterior planting containers, and collected environmental samples, you're able to grow your own food which is much more convenient than having to constantly hunt and process fish. Or plant decorative plants instead - almost all the flora you encounter can be harvest and grown. You can even hatch creature eggs in giant tanks (or capture fish for smaller aquarium’s).
Subnautica isn't an FPS. You can damage creatures, but for the most part your hazards are environmental - radiation, heat, hunger, thirst and drowning. There are some aggressive species but generally, unless you're in a vehicle that will absorb attacks the wisdom is to simply run. This is one game where you won't be going on a murderous rampage (hi Tomb Raider). With that said, even when within a vehicle it isn't safe. Leviathan class predators will rip small vehicles to shreds and even the largest will be taken down if you don't flee. It makes for an exhilarating experience!
As I've noted, it is hard to write about as pretty much anything I say is a spoiler and it is a game well worth playing spoiler free.
Graphically, the game is amazing. The different biomes are unique, fantastic to look at and appropriately menacing. At night, or in deep lightless biomes, the flora and fauna exhibits bioluminescence which looks splendid.
Audio is also excellent. Listening to the gushing sounds of geysers, the bubbles from your exertions, the deep groaning sounds of reefback leviathans... it allows for a delightful level of immersion. Music is muted and just in the background for the most part, but is also situational depending on the location.
One thing about the game which is really impressive is the hud. There is a 5 item hot bar, and indicators for health, hunger, thirst and oxygen. A depth meter. A heading, if you manufactured a compass. And that is mostly it - if you have a new radio transmission there'll be an icon displayed, but for the most part if you want to know something, you need to look in the game world. For example, at the start your life pod has a display informing you of issues, when you build a Cyclops it has various status displays, you use consoles and equipment in the game which helps with the sense of immersion - no immersion breaking menus (apart from the main one for saving or quitting). This is really quite ingenious for making you feel a part of the world and is a step up from most other games.
There are a few aspects about the game that I think could be improved. It sometimes feels slightly aimless - you know you have to do something, but you've no idea how to do it.
The limit of 5 items on a hot bar is annoying as there are far more than 5 tools, although I usually stick with a core set of 6.
I definitely don’t understand why mapping functionality wasn’t included. The playing field of Subnautica is big and complex, with multiple layers and a fair number of wrecks that must be explored for required blueprints. And yet the game doesn't provide a map so you can see where you have been or where you are. You can craft beacons which are exceptionally helpful for marking points of interest but a map would have been really useful (and clearly the human civilisation of the future has impressive technology). Next time I might just drop a beacon at every single wreck, assuming there isn't a limit on how many beacons you can have.
The first time I played Subnautica, when I reached the end-game biomes I didn't have much trouble with them. For my last play through, I had built my primary base in a different location having discovered a different route to the depths. This route offered an insanely quick trip right to the deepest point - I remember that it was a long and winding road on my first play through, and this new route was an incredibly direct route that cut all that out (although that is not altogether a great thing as there is another fine example of a biome down here that I didn't see on this play through).
And, there was one other massive drawback... I couldn't see. I was fine in the upper levels, but once I got to the penultimate biome I couldn't see a bloody thing. I spent considerable time searching in darkness trying to find something I knew was there, and by the time I realised it was in front of my face the whole time I died of thirst and rage quit.
On reloading, I checked the graphical options to see if there was a gamma option (which there was not), but I did find a colour grading option which was set to Filmic. On changing that to Neutral, I could see again and it didn't take me long to finish the game.
Another slightly jarring issue is the wrecks. There is lots of wreckage scattered around (and a giant debris field in orbit), yet the wrecked ship on the surface looks relatively unscathed, even before the front of it explodes in a fiery cloud. It also matches the ship in the loading screen so it is passing odd how all these wrecks purport to be from the Aurora - perhaps she was similar to the Nostromo? Not a game breaking issue, but a slight immersion breaking one, wondering where these huge chunks of ship come from.
An actual issue is scenery pop, the draw distance is quite far, but there is large amounts of pop and shifting of terrain as you swim around.
During my first play through in 2018 I remember falling through the world a time or two when using the Prawn suit. This time around I didn't fall through, but the Prawn had a habit of getting stuck in the floor of <censored> bases and if I didn't have the grappling arm I don't know how I'd have gotten free. This happened so many times I stopped taking the Prawn into these areas.
There was also a strange issue with this play through. As I had found this new direct route to the depths, after the first trip where I ran out of supplies and died, I decided to take my Cyclops down there as this route is comprised of vertical shafts which are a pain even with an upgraded Prawn. Naturally, the leviathans which inhabit the depths took big chunks out of my slow moving sub as I passed by - but then they vanished. Even the ultimate big bad located in the deepest depths just disappeared. Again, on the previous play through I was constantly hassled by leviathans as I travelled back and forth but this time they vanished into thin air after the first encounter.
A sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero is currently in early access. I purchased this at the start of 2019 when it became available on the Epic Store, but have only dipped my toes in occasionally as I'd prefer a complete game before I start a true play through.
I received Subnautica for free when the Epic Games store first launched in December 2018. I've received many more free games since but this remains the absolute best, the cream of the crop. Hmm, GTA5 is on that list too so perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but believe you me, this is an excellent game. If the day comes when the series becomes available on a DRM free platform such as GoG, it will be an insta-buy.
If you haven't already played this game, play it. You won't regret it. Well, probably not anyway. You may feel a twinge or two if a reaper leviathan gets hold of you.
This is a game I'd very much like to play in VR.
This post was first published Friday 1st of January 2021 and was last modified Friday 1st of January 2021 at 22:21:04.