The Surprise Goodness of Subnautica – A Review From Scroo

I love the ocean. In fact I once had an opportunity to work on an ocean research vessel that routed between California and Hawaii. I didn't take the job. I was too young and I wasn't ready to do something that big yet. But thinking back on it now I kick myself. I've swam with sharks and sting rays in Bora Bora. I've swam in the shallows in Tahiti. It was lovely to be there floating in that warm, crystal clear water. But deep -truly deep water, scares me. Earth's oceans are the least explored places on the planet. And for good reason. It's a beautiful place, romantic and mysterious. It piques our human curiosity and makes us wonder while also being a dark, hostile environment that would crush anything not meant for it's cold depths to dust without a moments hesitation. Subnautica is a story about an ocean. But also more. Stick with me and I'll tell you what I thought of my play through.

Right To it Then

So back a couple years now, I think, I started seeing early access notices for Subnautica. It always looked interesting to me, especially after playing Abzu, but I wasn't going to drop any money into an early access title. That almost never works out. Well as it turns out, it would have this time. The beginning of 2018 saw a full release come out of early access for PC but I still didn't jump on board. Fast forward to December 11th when I was told about Subnautica being free on the Epic Games Store, a platform I hadn't tried yet. But, free is free and I made an account and downloaded what turned out to be one of the best games I played in 2018.

You'll start the game in a space ship actually, but only for a moment since you'll notice out your escape pod window that there's a planet rushing toward you quite quickly just before you're knocked unconscious. Waking up safe and sound you find yourself stranded on an ocean with your life pod damaged and barely a way to survive at your fingertips. Now I'm not really a big fan of survival games. I don't much mind the idea of gathering materials from the environment to make equipment and shelter from. That's fine with me as long as it's reasonable. What I don't like is when a game thrusts hunger and thirst on players. This constantly draining bar that chips away at your play time and never quite feels right. It makes a game more like a job that an experience and removes the focus from the game play. That, to me, is something that lost it's charm way back with Don't Starve. Luckily for me, and others like me, Subnautica gives us a few game modes to go with. I chose the "Freedom" mode where it just happens to remove eating and drinking from the list of survival requirements.

Anyway, popping your head out of the life pod, you'll notice your crashed space ship slowly incinerating itself in the distance belching smoke and flames. But around you is a shallow coral reef, familiar in appearance and complete with fish and some so-ugly-they're-cute manatee type creatures. The water is warm and even kind of inviting. But soon you start to realize that you have literally nothing to help you survive except the fabricator and first aid kit in your life pod. Thank goodness you've got a tablet with some basic recipes for crafting. And off you go.

This whole article will contain some minor spoilers I suppose. Nothing that will lessen your game experience. Just trust me when I say you need to play it to understand that.

Diving and Surviving

Your survival suit, lucky for you, Just happens to be a wet suit. Thank goodness for this fortuitous turn of events. And your character has fists of steel since he can break mineral deposits apart for materials by merely punching them. Silly as that is, I'm actually really happy it wasn't necessary to find some mining tool or other.

As you find yourself needing to venture out further into the surrounding areas you'll start noticing that the water is getting deeper pretty darn fast. And you don't have an oxygen tank until you can gather the materials for your fabricator to make one for you. This is where the risk and reward aspect comes to play. Pushing your limits to the edge as you try and just get one more bit of titanium only to nearly black out swimming up for air. Not to mention the immersion that Subnautica brings to the table. You'd be hard pressed to find a more atmospheric title in recent times. Maybe Alien: Isolation but I'm not really thinking of anything else beyond that. When you dive the sound of water rushing into your ears fills your headphones and soon you'll start hearing the calls of wildlife around you, the ticks and groans of the ocean floor. Visually it's just as deep. The light coming from the surface is diffused as you dive further down and shadows from kelp forests will dance across the environment. This is where the game actually started making me nervous. You'll see caves and niches to swim in and out of, dark and certainly if those nooks are big enough for me they're big enough for some predator or another. But you've got to push past those basic human fears and just keep going. Remember this all takes place within the first hundred feet of water.

As you push forward and gather materials and start making equipment to get yourself in a more sustainable situation, your tablet will begin telling of information it has gathered from the areas around you. Once you've got a scanner built you'll be able to find more recipes for crafting yet more items and keep pushing forward, solving one problem at a time until a greater story starts to unfold. One that, though fairly simple, is told rather beautifully. Soon you'll be making personal submersibles to get around in deeper waters more quickly. And if you're a person that shares my fear of those unknown depths, the first time you come to an abyssal trench and your tablet shares a certain bit of wisdom: "This ecological biome matches 7 of the 9 preconditions for stimulating terror in humans", and the music for the "Blood Kelp Zone" starts, you'll find yourself wondering if you should just uninstall Subnautica and never go to sleep again. Ever.

Exploration leads to finding some really interesting stuff in this alien world. Including some familiar bits of space ship that happen to have made it to the waters all around you. Even here about a thousand feet down wedged precariously between imposing cliff sides. Water pressure doesn't affect the character, which is good because you'll have to leave the relative safety of your sub lots of times in this game. That's not always an easy decision to make but you've got to do it in order to progress. Meanwhile you just keep pushing forward, finding the sunken life pods of other crash survivors, listening to their messages, piecing together the events of their demise and trying to follow plans to uncover more. The story unfolds around you and everything just feels, pardon the pun, fluid. And as you go even deeper you begin to find even more fascinating, alien worlds around you. Some are quite hostile, others provide safe haven to make repairs after being damaged by some whale sized Ghost Leviathan that found your presence in it's home unacceptable. By now you'll be cruising about three quarters of a mile down and believe me when I tell you that makes the first 100 feet of water feel like home. But still you have to go even deeper, and you shall.

Graphics and Sounds

I mentioned the visuals a bit above and by now you can see for yourself that Subnautica looks pretty beautiful. The colors of the waters around the character change with the time of day and the biome the character is in. It's a breath of fresh water that this ocean is as colorful and vibrant as it seems it should be. It actually feels like the ocean. Sure the light penetrates much deeper than should be allowed, but this is an alien world, maybe the local star is closer or brighter than ours here on earth. You don't know! Lighting is wonderful filling your screen with rays of sunshine broken by the surface chop and soft glows of bioluminescence. It's a really cool visual to be jetting around the deep water of the Bulb Zone in your Seamoth submersible with the lights on and then switch them off. The light show presented is pretty spectacular. Schools of fish balling up and in constant motion, the plants that glow speckled blues and pinks. The large glowing eyes of the ever present Peeper fish. Turning the lights back on because that shit is scary. It's awesome. On a bit of a side note, Subnautica, surprisingly uses the Unity Engine and is really well optimised. So crank the settings up and enjoy it as it's meant to be.

Sounds are probably the most effective way that Subnautica keeps you on your toes. The musical soundtrack by itself is quite good. But the sounds of the ocean are the star. From the basic under water noise you'd hear swimming in your pool, to the calls of the enormous Reef Backs and wails of Jelly Rays, to the snipping sounds of your Seamoth's propeller churning the water as you cruise through the depths, or the whirr of the Cyclops engines as they spin up and carry you to the deepest places this world has to offer. The surrounding sounds of a fully populated ocean environment are a constant reminder that you're not at home. And though you have adapted well so far, you do not belong here. This coupled with the ambient music of a particular biome can make you hold your breath for fear of drowning in the very game you're playing.

Lacking Very Little

Alright so I've gone through what I really love about this game. Let's look at some of the very few things I'd still like to see added or fixed. First off the ocean on the surface is remarkably calm. I really wish there was more of a swell and some screen movement while your pod bobs around. I understand that folks might not appreciate the possible motion sickness that could bring about in a first person title. But maybe even just a slider or a check box option to have a more dynamic ocean surface and even some weather would be some icing on the cake. And I mean, it could be that the Unity Engine just doesn't handle those kinds of physics very well or something. I don't know I'm not a developer.

Though it's not really a problem in the big picture, it would also be nice to have a little better collision present. There's a lot of clipping though objects that happens. Kelp might show through your habitat or submersible hull. Sometimes as far as the water from the ocean clipping though to the Cyclops interior. Now it'll do that anyway if the hull is damaged. The Habitat will in fact flood completely if damaged enough, forcing you to make repairs before it drains, but the submarine never fully floods. And occasionally, rare though it is, the sub will be partially flooded forcing you to swim to the controls even though it's undamaged. I never had this happen without an air pocket and it never forced me to the surface or anything. But killing my character and losing the sub in a half mile of water would have been pretty frustrating, if it had. And I did once experience a tear in the map that dropped me out of the game area. Luckily the physics maintained during that escape and I was able to just pilot my Seamoth around until I found that tear again and made it back into the map. That in particular only happened once and I saved my game and reloaded thereby fixing the issue.

Conclusion

I love the ocean. Subnautica brought that alien world to me. It played on my fears and provided me one of the most immersive and satisfying experiences I've had to date. It's optimised well, it's got a great soundtrack, the ambience is incredible and as for a survival game, it's got what you need to play pretty endlessly. Not to mention it's narrative is quite nice to go through. So would I recommend it? Hell yes I would. It's inexpensive at $25.00 and well worth every bit of that and more. I think there's even an expansion coming along soon.

It's not perfect, but nothing is. You may see an issue or two but for the most part it's a smooth and balanced experience that will keep you on the edge of your seat for hours at a time. If you want a hard core survival game, you've got it. If you want an exploration title with some purpose, you've got that. And if you just want a straight forward adventure game where you can build your own world to your heart's content, you've got that too. Check it out for yourself. I wish I had done so earlier.

System Requirements For Subnautica Are As Follows

MINIMUM:

    • Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
    • OS: Windows Vista SP2 or newer, 64-bit
    • Processor: Intel Haswell 2 cores / 4 threads @ 2.5Ghz or equivalent
    • Memory: 4 GB RAM
    • Graphics: Intel HD 4600 or equivalent - This includes most GPUs scoring greater than 950 points in the 3DMark Fire Strike benchmark
    • DirectX: Version 11
    • Storage: 20 GB available space
RECOMMENDED:

    • Requires a 64-bit processor and operating system
    • OS: Windows Vista SP2 or newer, 64-bit
    • Processor: Intel Haswell 4 cores / 4 threads @ 3.2Ghz or equivalent
    • Memory: 8 GB RAM
    • Graphics: Nvidia GTX 550 Ti or equivalent, 2GB VRAM
    • DirectX: Version 11
    • Storage: 20 GB available space

 

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