It might seem silly to have waited this long to review Subnautica, given the PC release of the game launched way back in January. But while I played a lot of the PC build, my gaming rig is a 13” Alienware Gaming Laptop (at the moment). At the same time, I was also playing the game in Xbox Game Preview form from the comfort of my couch on a pretty big TV. It was a case of 13” versus 65” so, you know. I even finished the console build before finishing it on PC, and while the PC build was more stable and looked better, the incremental patches and updates to Xbox and Unknown Worlds’ own passion to get this gorgeous game up and running on console -- a platform they were largely unfamiliar with -- had me more interested in that release.
The game also lends itself to the TV platform, as opposed to the desktop in my opinion. Well, maybe not in the base-building aspect but more in movement through this world, because it’s slowed due to the majority of the game taking place underwater. I’ll even argue that it feels better to play with a controller over mouse and keyboard because there’s no twitch reaction required with little-to-no combat found throughout. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s kick things off with a mighty
In Unknown Worlds’ Subnautica, you play as a hapless survivor who has crash-landed on the water planet 4546B. Your mothership -- the Aurora -- is struck while in close proximity of the planet by some unknown force and you -- along with other crew members -- have hurried to the Aurora’s escape pods where you quickly jettison from the giant vessel and land rightside up, and on the planet’s water surface. Your only point of reference on the endless sea horizon is the Aurora itself which has crashed close to you. However, in your escape, your pod suffered significant damage, wiping out any chance of communication tasking you with finding ingredients found within the world to craft your first required item -- the Repair Tool.
As rudimentary as that sounds, the intro is handled incredibly well with your sarcastic automated PDA explaining to you what’s required here to survive, and she will also eventually help you learn to thrive. The gameplay loop here is pretty simple: you need to craft items in order to either reach other survivors, or set yourself up with enough technology and resources that you can leave the planet yourself. Doing so requires resource gathering, then resource transformation and, finally, construction. Tied within this, however, is a survival loop that requires you to manage health, food, water and oxygen while submerged (if you choose to play on either of the game’s better settings: Survival or Hardcore). But gathering food and maintaining supplies becomes challenging thanks to an inventory system that requires you to manage storage beyond what our player-character can carry.
Essentially, all the game’s systems need to be utilised on the whole, but more often than not they cross over. When you eventually build an underwater base, for example, it’s a good idea to create storage lockers for materials because you simply can’t keep them on your person all the time. In my main playthrough I had a room with lockers specifically for things like Silver ore, Gold, Lithium, Lead and more. Some materials are abundant in the game-world, such as Acid Mushrooms, which you combine with Copper ore (also abundant) to make batteries. Batteries are then used to power tools and vehicles, but are finite in energy. So you can either keep making them over and over, or you can learn how to make a battery charger and just have four charging at any given time, while using up the ones currently in your devices and vehicles.
It’s a remarkably deep and well thought-out dovetailing of myriad craftable and usable items, but the kicker here is you can kind of go about it however you see fit. You could actually just have an entire room full of battery chargers and just make enough batteries to fill them all. But, and here’s another system -- your base needs the energy to maintain your crafty machinations. You can use solar, but that requires building closer to the surface to actually catch the sun, but then you might not have the room to truly expand your base. And, honestly, you can build these submerged modular homesteads any way you see fit. The survival side of the game has rules, such as player-management and ingredients required, but you can then just work out what exactly it is you want from the building side of the game. And trust me, if you’re into this sort of thing, you’ll spend weeks creating your underwater home.
But, you don’t have the blueprints out of the gate. So after creating your Scanner, the game essentially forces you to explore the world, as parts of the Aurora that tore off during its fiery entry are now scattered throughout the playspace. And the deeper
you want to go on the crafting side of things, the deeper
you’ll literally need to go in the exploration side of the game.
On top of all of this is a story that takes the player through a number of unique biomes. And while I mentioned above there’s little-to-no combat, there are dangers. You also need to work incredibly hard to reach the deepest parts of the game. You’ll start with a Seaglide, then you’ll get your Seamoth and eventually you can build the Cyclops. For scale, the Cyclops is a submarine that can house
the Seamoth, which itself is a “one-person sea and space vehicle”. The Seaglide is like a little handheld propulsion vehicle. And you’ll need these. You’ll also need to reinforce them, and upgrade them. You can attach torpedoes to your Seamoth because some of the nasties down in the deep are just that: nasty.
Then there’s the P.R.A.W.N. suit -- a mech suit with a grappling hook that can be upgraded to withstand severe temperatures and pressure, and you’ll need to build this monstrosity to reach the most extreme area of the game, but I won’t spoil where that is, and why you need to get there.
With the help of Panic Button, the console update to final release for the game is incredibly smooth in relation to how it ran under only Unknown Worlds’ development. And that’s not a slight against that team -- they freely admit they’re a PC developer who was wrapping its head around console architecture. Add to that a heavily modified Unity game engine that is doing things it shouldn’t
be able to do, and one of the best soundtracks and ambient audio outlays I’ve ever experienced in a game (using Dolby Atmos with my Plantronic RIG 800 headphones late at night, deep in the planet’s depths is a thing that has
to be experienced), and I’m remiss not to tell you this is a must-own game. It isn’t without performance hiccups, especially the deeper you go. But the breadth of content here and the open-world nature both in terms of playspace and just pure choice in how you go about it is something rarely seen in games.
I honestly hope this becomes a longstanding series, it’s simply that good.