Subnautica Review

By Andrew Ogley, 25 days ago
In all openness, I've never been a fan of crafting in games. The gathering of resources to build basic materials, just to build bigger components, leading to even bigger objects, frankly all seemed like too much hard work and a little too much like real life. With Subnautica, developer Unknown Worlds Entertainment has taken this idea, placed it in an underwater environment and woven a survival story around it. I shouldn't like it, but with the vivid and diverse biomes, this is quite a stunning aquatic experience unlike any other. No pun intended, but this is a title you can really immerse yourself in.

Subnautica

The story, as it is initially presented, is relatively straightforward. After the spaceship, Aurora, crashes on planet 4546B, the player finds themselves marooned in the middle of an ocean with only their escape pod providing a means of shelter and rudimentary supplies. The task is simple, survive whilst attempting to put together what exactly happened, and within that framework, there are some unexpected turns, which we're not going to spoil here.

The storyline gradually unfolds with messages being received on the radio from other crashed survival pods, which the player can visit, and even the main ship itself. However, receiving a message is not always enough. In the beginning, the player may be given exact coordinates or areas to search, but some messages are corrupted and may only contain a rough location, or an image from the last known location. Additionally, there are times when you'll be presented with clues, but won't always be equipped to deal with them, encouraging players to progress until they have the right resources or tools. Fortunately, none of the messages are time-dependent, so the player can take all of the time that they want and progress at their own pace. It's a smart design decision, exploration and discovery are so well done that you wouldn't want to rush through it. In fact, the developer included an additional game mode for those not wanting to bother with the story or survival aspects at all. This Creative mode has all of the blueprints unlocked from the start, and simply enables the player to explore, gather, craft and build ad infinitum.

Generally, the survival aspects make the game more challenging and in some ways more rewarding. Having to scavenge for food and purified water may mean some early and unexpected deaths, but once the player becomes more aware of the possibilities and the environment around them, it becomes more manageable. Fortunately, death in itself is not too much of a problem, with the player respawning in the safety of the escape pod, with just a few random crafting items from the inventory missing. None of the key equipment is lost and there's no further damage to health. It's just a little inconvenient. Of course, for some that won't be challenging enough. For those, there is a survival mode with permadeath, die and you'll be restarting all over again. However, if survival seems like too much trouble or a distraction, it is possible to play through the story mode with all of the survival elements switched off.

I bring giftsI bring gifts

By a stroke of luck, the players escape pod has landed in an area known as the "Friendly Shallows." The visibility is good and there are enough resources to get you started. Mineral deposits can be gathered from the seabed and fed into the fabricator to build useful components and tools. Catch any of the local fish and the fabricator will cook it, providing the player with sustenance. There's also a vegetarian option for those wanting to play in a more animal-friendly way.

Eventually, the food supply runs out and the player is forced to start scavaging further afield. Additionally, specific mineral resources can only be found in certain areas, so if you want to build more elaborate tools, you have to venture out into the depths, and for the rarer crafting materials such as diamonds and rubies, you're going to have to take some risks.

It's here that the game really shines and becomes something exceptional. Beneath the surface of the waves, there is a massive open world, and with so many nooks and crannies and various underwater landscapes it is compelling to simply explore. From the shallows to unfathomable depths, hundreds of meters deep, underwater volcanoes and geysers, there is just so much to discover. You'll even be able to explore the crashed spaceship wreckage, once you can get close enough.

Throughout the sea, there are various biomes supporting different fauna and populated by diverse alien lifeforms of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It's a dynamic world, with the day-night cycle having an effect on the behavior of aquatic wildlife and plunging the seabeds into darkness, reducing visibility and leaving the player feeling extremely vulnerable in the open waters, especially when you realize that you are not quite as high on the food chain as you might have thought.

Exploring underwater is a joy and the team has created an immensely believable underwater experience, not only visually but with a soundscape to match. You'll hear sand grinding in the shallows, the melancholic sounds of the large whale-like creatures, and audio cues warning you that you might soon become a toothpick for one of the giant leviathans roaming the area.

The latest in luxury underwater travelThe latest in luxury underwater travel

As much fun as it is, the exploration is not always straightforward. There's no map, and there's no compass unless you decide to create one with the fabricator. There's wreckage and debris from the crashed spaceship, some of which is large enough to wreckdive, but you may need to build a laser cutter to get through some of the sealed off areas. Additionally, some of the larger equipment needs several blueprints before they can be fabricated, and it can be a matter of luck when trying to discover them all.

In one session, I was searching for the last part of a blueprint and one particular mineral. After a couple of hours, I had found neither, technically not advancing my game. But, I had found an undiscovered area, several new lifeforms, additional new resources, and a large piece of wreckage trapped in part of the underwater landscape. It's the simple joy of discovering something new each time that keeps the game going. It becomes compelling, and you'll find yourself promising that this will be one last recce of the evening, but usually, you'll end up wanting to do just one more. Incidentally, you'll also want to fabricate a few marker buoys so you can find your way back to specific locations.

Preparing for these reconnoitering expeditions is a mini-challenge in itself. Inventory slots are limited from the start, and carrying tools and supplies restricts this further. You'll also need to stock up on water and food, plus the odd medkit is always handy. Exploration can be both perilous and time-consuming, but discovering something new or useful always feels rewarding.

It's not quite Rapture but it's homeIt's not quite Rapture but it's home

Eventually, you'll have enough tools, blueprints, and resources to start building habitats. These can be built on land, but they always seem more spectacular when built underwater. Find the right blueprints and you can equip them with storage cabinets, workbenches, desks, and even a coffee machine and vending machine that will supply unending amounts of caffeine and potato chips, not the healthiest of diets but it will keep you going. As long you have the resources, these habitats can be as large as you like to build them. Alternatively, you can start creating outposts by deeper waters to support further exploration in those regions. To help you reach those deeper trenches, some of which can run as deep as 600 meters or more, you'll also be able to build powered submersibles and a specialist diving suit named the Pressure Reactive Armored Waterproof Nano Suit — get it?

However, there are a few issues with the game. Whilst the underwater visuals are impressive, there are moments when the Unity Engine seems to struggle. Certain locations seem to suffer by quite severe frame rate drops. There's also an issue with draw distances, especially above the surface, when islands seem to appear from nowhere. The crashed spaceship hull also seems to clip in and out of view occasionally when panning, and one time, it was possible to clip through the underwater terrain. Ironically, breaking through the surface of the water, something that you have to do repeatedly to replenish your oxygen, also causes a slight frame rate stutter. Additionally, at the start, the game can take a fairly long time to load, and it can also take some time to save games. None of the issues broke the game or rendered it unplayable, but they did break the wonderful sense of immersion that the title can create. It's worth mentioning that the team has been busy and there have been regular updates to the title.

Is it friendly?Is it friendly?

Achievement hunters should be warned in advance that despite only having 17 achievements, it will take considerable time to complete. The fastest time in the community seems to be around 50 hours. During the review only four were unlocked, however, at the time all of the achievements were marked as secret and there were no guides available. Fortunately, our community has provided guides for nearly all of the achievements as of today.

Check out our Best Xbox Survival Games to Play in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

If you're into resource gathering, crafting and exploring, then Subnautica is simply a title that you have to play. The wonderfully colorful and diverse environments invite exploration. Using all of the technology available and being able to create your own habitats and vehicles just encourage you to voyage further. The various biomes in the title are all brought stunningly to life with their colors, materials, landscapes, and perils. The audio enhances the whole experience, giving the alien creatures and the planet a distinct soundscape. For anyone venturing underneath the waves, this is a truly memorable experience unlike any other. For those with the right mindset and patience, there are many hours of exploration and discovery hidden away in this game. It's well worth taking the dive.
4 / 5
Subnautica
Positives
  • Vibrant underwater environments
  • So much to explore
  • Many possibilities for crafting and building
  • Balanced gameplay with risks and rewards
  • Intriguing storyline that unfolds slowly
Negatives
  • A few performance issues
  • Long load times at the start
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent about 25 hours submersed in the wonderful underwater environment, dying lots of times, but it was a small price to pay. Only four of the 17 achievements were unlocked. The review code was provided by the publisher. The review was done on a standard Xbox One.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Andrew Ogley
Written by Andrew Ogley
Andrew has been writing for TA since 2011 covering news, reviews and the occasional editorials and features. One of the grumpy old men of the team, his mid-life crisis has currently manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sim-racing - not being able to afford the real life car of his dreams. When not spending hours burning simulated rubber, he still likes to run around, shoot stuff and blow things up - in the virtual world only of course.