Review – Subnautica
The survival genre must be one of the most common genres on Steam nowadays. Minecraft paved the way for an immense amount of titles with the same premise: randomly generated maps, no storyline, building mechanics, not a lot to do in terms of objectives besides surviving, and a lot of them being Early Access titles. Rust, Ark, the goliath-sized disappointment that was No Man’s Sky. This must have been the reason I paid little attention to Subnautica when it first came out a month ago, but boy do I regret doing so. This is one of the best games of the year so far, and one of the biggest gaming surprises I’ve had in years.
Subnautica does things differently when it comes to survival gaming clichés. The map isn’t randomly generated with each new gameplay, it’s just one set location. The map isn’t immense, it’s actually just a few square miles in size, and not infinite. Most importantly, Subnautica gives you a story, and one worth caring about. You’re not just some random person stranded in the middle of the ocean like a cyberpunk version of that one Tom Hanks role where he befriended a volleyball. You’re a spaceship crash survivor, and you have a set objective to figure out not only how to survive in this aquatic environment, but also how get the heck off of the planet you’re stranded on. You’ll also have to figure out a complex and detailed subplot about ancient precursor species who once lived on said planet.
The beginning of the game is a bit slow-paced and very objective-focused, reminding me a bit of the first moments of No Man’s Sky (also known as the only good moments in No Man’s Sky). Your escape pod is in shambles, your survival kit is very limited, and you need to quickly grab a few resources in order to build a repair kit, a radiation-proof suit and a “seaglider”. After you’re no longer running the risk of becoming yet another corpse floating around, you can start planning on building your own seabase, and that’s when the fun really begins.
I’m a sucker for building mechanics in video games (therefore I actually like Minecraft a lot), but I wasn’t expecting much from Subnautica‘s sea base system. There’s just so much you can do under the sea, or so I thought. I was wrong. I started off by doing a simple base with a resource fabricator, a radio station (you pretty much need one of those in order to proceed with the plot) and a window.
However, it didn’t take long until I had built a humongous underwater fortress with a hangar, defense systems, my own personal room, and a kitchen for all the zero employees stationed at Sealab McAwesome (yes, I actually named it that). I even started colonizing a nearby island at a point, but quickly gave up after not being able to cope with my main character’s unbearably slow walking speed (weirdly enough, the swimming mechanics are actually pretty fast). Suffice it to say, I cancelled my dry land expansion projects and proceeded to add yet another hangar to Sealab McAwesome, because why not?
Not long after that I started paying more attention to the story, and I have to give the developers credit for crafting a decent plot to a survival game. Most developers would just summarise their entire game’s objective as “you need to survive and animals want to kill you.” I wanted to explore to find more hidden artifacts and derelict ships, not only to grab new crafting blueprints, but also to grab voice logs.
In terms of gameplay, that’s all that needs to be said about Subnautica. Even though you need to constantly go back to surface in order to grab some oxygen, the game’s extremely dense map and my sheer curiosity were more than enough to keep me hooked for hours.
Visually speaking, you’d expect Subnautica to be a boring sea of blue with everything else being splattered onscreen with a different shade of blue, but I was surprised to see how colorful and gorgeous the game is. I’m pretty sure half of the planet’s flora and fauna feeds on neon, as most animals and algae are extremely colorful and shine during nighttime. The game’s lighting effects are also pretty good. The ripples on the water’s surface were especially impressive.
The best thing about it is the fact the game runs very well even on less powerful computers, as the recommended specs ask for cheap and simple graphic cards. You know the developers are great when a game looks this good without the need of a GPU that costs four figures. The only problem I had with the game’s visuals was that some in-game assets have poor-quality textures even when on high graphical settings. This is most noticeable when you’re exploring the huge sunken spaceship located at the center of the game’s map.
Finally, the sound. It’s better than I expected! Subnautica features two things you don’t see very often in survival games: a soundtrack (a good one at that) and decent voice acting. The soundtrack is very synth-heavy and reminded me of something you would hear in a Blade Runner movie. It makes little sense, but it still works. The voice acting is strong all around, even if nearly all of the dialogue is slightly muffled to resemble radio broadcasting conversations.
Subnautica turned out much better than anyone expected. In an era bloated with so many survival games, with more freedom and procedurally generated maps, a game set in a vast ocean with only one map available turned out to be a lot more engaging, rewarding, and entertaining than all of its peers. This is one of the biggest surprises of 2018 so far, a must-own in anyone’s Steam library. It’s an indie game that features three times the amount of content than most AAA games that cost three times its price. I can safely say Subnautica is the best survival game I have ever played.
The deep sea environments are gorgeous and very colorful, the lighting effects are great, and the quality of the water is impressive. Some textures are, surprisingly, of very low quality, even in high graphical settings.
Easy and intuitive controls, with great underwater movement. The building mechanics are easy to learn and allow for a ton of creativity. The main problem is how slow your character moves while on land, ironically.
The synth-heavy soundtrack is pretty good, the sound effects do their job, and the sparse voice acting is also decent. No complaints here, the game does its job pretty well.
Fun Factor: 9.5
After a slow introduction, the game becomes very open and surprisingly engaging. Considering it’s a survival game set under the sea, it’s a lot more entertaining than its elevator pitch could ever make it sound.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Subnautica is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PC.