When you think about having to survive after crash landing in the ocean your mind tends to conjure the image of some poor sunburned schmuck wearing rags, floating on a busted yellow life raft and surviving off of raw fish until a cargo ship almost runs him over. Well Subnautica takes a much more “glamping” approach to survival with more tech and gadgets than a fully stocked, futuristic Radio Shack.
In our playthrough of Subnautica we blew through the equivalent of one trillion credits worth of materials and still managed to taste the bitter bladder fish flavored drink of suffering. With spite filled gusto, we beached our Seamoth on the landing platform and blasted off back into space with smiles on our faces. However, after everything was said and done, did we find ourselves relieved to be wrapping up our waterlogged space adventure or were we screaming Wiiiiilllllllsssooooooonnn as our beloved alien planet shrank into the cosmos?
I’m all about those survival games and Patrick very much is not. So, when he started playing this a few years ago (WITHOUT ME!!) of his own volition, I was surprised to say the least. If I recall, he got pretty far too and I was shocked at how much he was enjoying himself despite his usual distaste for such games. For whatever reason, I never really got around to playing it myself and with the recent release of the sequel coinciding with us having a vastly upgraded computer at our disposal, we figured why not give the first game a go together and then eventually move on to the fancy new one!? Also, when Patrick originally played Subnautica all those years ago it was still heavily in early access and a lot of things had changed or have been streamlined since then. It would be a fun affair all around for the both of us to experience/reexperience Subnautica in its fully released glory.
Now, typically I’m not one to play management or survival games. I just find them overwhelming, what with having to find resources, food, and water to survive. It has me on edge every moment I’m playing the game. You know, as I watch my hunger and/or thirst meter slowly decay away as I refuse to look for sustenance because I’m trying to find just one more f’n piece of copper!
True to my style, when I first heard of Subnautica, I wanted nothing to do with it. I mean, having to swim around to find those resources sounded like a Zelda water level from hell! However, my little brother just wouldn’t stop going on about it. So, as a caring big brother (we’re in our 30’s at this point), I caved and decided to give it a shot, and let me tell ya, it hooked me hard for a plethora of reasons. My computer at the time may have had to give up its first born child to get it to run, but that wasn’t stopping me!
Fast forward a year or two later, and since I lived with a survival/management sim aficionado (my wife), I thought it was about time she experienced it too.
Absolutely yes, Subnautica holds up! Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not usually into playing these types of games, but what makes Subnautica different, is pretty much everything! Firstly, and the thing that you would think would be the biggest barrier at first, the fact that you’re playing it almost exclusively in the water, is actually the most alluring part! The devs did a fantastic job of making the swimming mechanics intuitive and fun! Compounded with them drip feeding you upgrades and vehicles that’ll eventually allow you to dive deeper, travel farther, and swim faster really reinforces the biggest focus of the game, exploration! What seemed dangerous or scary before, is still scary, but at least you can reach it relatively safely now!
That brings me to the atmosphere of Subnautica, which can be summarized with two words – gorgeous and horrifying! Every biome you explore is filled with a diverse set of alien flora and often threatening fauna that never fails to wow you even when you’re rushing back to the surface for air. What impressed me the most though was how oppressive the game could feel, especially as you dive deeper and deeper into the depths of this endless ocean planet. You are genuinely hesitant to leave the safety of your vehicle, let alone enter the dark scary looking cave to find resources. You just don’t know what you’re going to encounter! The musical swells and atmospheric sounds coming from the surrounding creatures doesn’t help either! Truly something that leaves an impression that lasts!
Subnautica really subverted a lot of the traditional survival game mechanics or at least changed them up to the point that they became totally different beasts of burden. You have to manage nutrition and hydration gauges, but everything needs to be “cooked” or sanitized before consumption. Some cooked fish won’t conversely affect your hydration gauge and some will. Food will rot in your inventory fairly quickly unless it is salted, but that will make you mad thirsty and then there goes your water reserves. It can be a hard balance to strike especially at first.
Luckily, you crash land with a handy fabricator that can make anything your heart desires provided you supply the materials. You also won the luck lottery when you landed on a planet with plenty of recognizable materials to make everything from a giant clumsy submarine to a fancy wetsuit that will recycle your own “bodily fluids” into drinking water. Subnautica is definitely a unique entry in the survival genre for the sheer amount of quality of life contraptions alone that you can discover and make.
At first you won’t really encounter many dangerous fauna. Maybe the occasional screeching, exploding cave fish or an agitated pack of stalkers upset from the fact that you keep stealing their precious metal salvage. However, the deeper into the ocean you travel the more apparent it becomes that all the creepiest and most menacing creatures live where the sun doesn’t shine, so to speak. That, and you can fight off exactly none of them. Sure you can get a few punches in with your Prawn arms or maybe distract them with a void torpedo, but they will 100% kill your soggy bottom if you stick around any longer than that. Luck and distraction are your best weapons in Subnautica, trust me on this. Nonetheless, that’s what I loved about this game the most. The absolutely daunting and panic inducing atmosphere you encounter every time you muster the courage to go a little further into the depths.
The graphics are about as amazing as I’ve ever seen when it comes to a game of this genre. We tested it out on the Xbox One, Steam, and even a little in VR, and while in the end the PC was far and above a superior experience, the glitches also seemed to hit a lot more frequently. We fully lost a Prawn suit because it got stuck on nothing. Other Prawn suits had similar problems but we were able to get them moving again after saving and restarting thankfully. We fell completely through the world on more than one occasion and also lost dropped items the same way (RIP Seamoth MK1 Depth Module!). Glitches aside though, my biggest complaint would be the Cyclops (big submarine). It’s so giant and an absolute nightmare to drive. It’s also expensive to make but you barely have any use for it. If it were easier to drive I think there would be some amazing potential for interesting ways to use that behemoth, otherwise I don’t think I’d ever build another one should I ever play again.
Honestly, there are a lot of things that I absolutely love about Subnautica, its atmosphere and setting being high on that list, but at the end of the day it is still a survival game, and with that comes annoyances that come with most games of its type. Including the whole resource management portion. Sure, there are a lot of upgrades that’ll make some parts of it easier, and mitigate some of the effort of collecting resources, like a scanner room that’ll pinpoint your desired material within a given radius, or a water filtration system that’ll automatically make purified water for you to drink, but I still have some nitpicks.
Like still having to travel long distances just to pick up a few materials for that one thing you need! Especially when you’re nearing the end of the game. A great way to help with this would have been some sort of way to automatically gather materials while you’re on a long trek, or even some way to quickly travel between your bases. It doesn’t truly need these things to enjoy it of course, and if you’re one who enjoys that kind of thing, then it probably wouldn’t even be a problem, but added efficiency or automation would free you up to do so many more things and make it so you don’t have to worry about the more tedious aspects.
What doesn’t need to change, and would only make the game that much more amazing if there was more of it, are the fascinating environments. I loved discovering what mysteries lurked around each corner of the Subnautica world, and I’d be excited to see that universe expanded!
This is actually tough to summarize because Subnautica was an absolute blast to play together. Sharing the experiences of exploring its world, running into deadly creatures that made us jump out of our skin, and putting our heads together to figure out the best way to reach the next area was truly memorable. On the other hand however, it’s nearly impossible to share with a friend, in a pass the controller kind of way. One because it’s so dang addicting you don’t want to give up your turn, but also because there are no definitive break points that make it easy to split. Which is probably true for many games like it. We managed though and pried the controller out of the other’s hand whenever we felt they’d played for too long. Now, if this thing had co-op in some capacity, then I don’t think you’d ever pry us from the TV!
Subnautica wasn’t always the easiest game to play pass the controller with, I’ll say that. There aren’t any real definable aspects of the game like chapters or levels to easily break up our turns. There were new areas but it could take us hours if not days to reach new areas, so really we just relied on each other to gauge when we felt we’d had a long enough turn. Usually we would set a few goals and once those goals were met we’d pass over the controller.
Also, I’m the kind of person who can get overwhelmed easily if I have to navigate massive areas so it was nice to be able to just hand the controller over to Patrick and let him seamlessly go from point A to B instead of me struggling for an hour or more trying to figure out where the hell I am now. On the other hand, he definitely traded places with me when it came to big material collecting missions or preparing for a big venture into a new area. I could grind out that titanium for days! It’s a great game to put your head together with someone else for sure. You just need to trust them not to Bogart the controller!
I think it’s safe to say that we both thoroughly enjoyed our time with Subnautica and though it may take some time for us to feel ready to touch down on that frosty sequel, it certainly will be calling our name in the very near future. This game really was a full package when it came to engaging gameplay, gorgeous graphics, and a stellar atmosphere. Despite the few bumps we experienced, whether glitch related or of our own creation, it comes with a solid all around recommendation.