Over my Thanksgiving holiday vacation, I walked into the living room and saw my wife exploring an underwater reef. Interesting and colorful creatures filled the screen and before I knew it, I was aiding her along in the adventure. Pointing out minerals and objectives for what seemed like minutes only to find out hours had passed!
I immediately became obsessed with it. I knew nothing about it, what I was doing, why I was there. But the intrigue of a seemingly infinite alien landscape made me want to keep exploring.
The thing is, Subnautica has been around for nearly 5 years now. So, how and why are me and my friends just hearing about it?
Subnautica was first released publicly on early access for Microsoft in 2014 and a year later for Mac. Early versions of the game included features, creatures, and mechanics that would ultimately be removed or saved for a later iteration. Fast-forward several years to December 2018, when the game hit all platforms, won a couple awards, and as of today has sold over 5.23 million copies.
I feel it’s super important to mention that by playing the game a year after launch, I’ve benefited greatly from bug improvements and features that were absent from earlier iterations. I’ll get into that more later.
On the surface, Subnautica is a survival game tasking you with the basics: Health, Hunger, and Thirst. Gameplay progression isn’t tied to the open world mechanics, so exploring not only adds to the isolated experience, but takes the game into the Survival Horror territory. That might sound like a bad thing – but its not.
You survive in an escape pod after your mother-ship “The Aurora” crashes on an uncharted planet named “4546B”. You realize quickly (And over hours of playing) that you are the only living intelligent life on this planet. Surviving not only includes mastering your human tech, but a previous but long-gone civilizations’ technology as well.
You’ll want to see more. You will want to dive deeper. Sometimes, you will just want to jump of a ledge, just to see where it goes. It’s terrifying, but fulfills the exploratory niche in all of us.
You spend roughly 80% of the game physically moving through water. Whether it be swimming, mini-sub, or mechanical suit. The underwater physics in this game are natural and often smooth. Unfortunately, this leads to one of Subnautica’s core weaknesses:
WALKING – The sins of humanity bear down upon your feet whenever you decide to step onto land or into your base. It feels even more tedious the farther you want to explore on land or larger you want to make your base. You will sorely miss the full freedom of water movement seconds after leaving it.
Moving slow is one thing, but you also have to worry about moving fast! Why? Because of Subnautica’s other core and sadly more costly game play weakness:
RENDERING – …Or lack-there-of . I can’t recall the amount of times I was blissfully cruising through the ocean floor in my prawn suit only to realize the seabed hadn’t rendered beneath me. Plummeting to – and beyond the center of “4546B” until you’re forced to restart the game and lose any unsaved progress.
Even on the highest PC settings, objects and creatures can spawn literally right in front of you after they’ve already inflicted impact damage. These types of rendering issues don’t just look bad, they disrupt the immersive experience the rest of the game works so hard to hold up.
It also seems like the above surface land development got the least love of all. As graphics and proportion take a dynamic drop from the ultra-realistic world below the surf.
I spent hours down there. Days.
2 Weeks to be exact.
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves, I found a game that kept me guessing at every turn. Thoughtful design creating a world that was in perfect balance and also complete chaos. The rendering and movement bugs were distressing at times. But the strengths of this game completely overwhelm the few weak points that are not exclusive to any one game.
I’m anxiously awaiting the sequel which is currently out on PC and slated for release on consoles later this year. If the development team can tidy up the shortfalls and expand on the background of their already growing lore, there’s no reason it can’t become a long time franchise in the gaming industry. I highly recommend this game!
I give Subnautica for XBox One 4 out 5 Bots!
I would love to know about your deep sea experiences with this game in the comments below!