There are few words which dull a gamer’s attention quicker than “Early Access Survival Game”. In the hunt for an elusive perfect experience, the system has become oversaturated with half-finished games and abandoned projects promising the world and delivering nothing. Yet among them there are a small handful of success stories, and few are greater than Subnautica.
The game sets you up as the survivor of a starship. After crashing on an oceanic alien planet, your job is to survive, recover and somehow make it offworld. Yet, as you brave the depths, it becomes clear you are not the first person to land here. Someone else came before you, and something is terribly wrong with the local wildlife…
The game’s greatest strength is easily its environment, which constantly inspires both terror and wonder in equal measure. What could have easily served as a one-shot gimmick instead has been used to construct a completely alien world, filled with micro-ecosystems and individual territories. The vast world is divided into a multitude of smaller reefs, open dunes and cavern networks, each completely distinct from one another and often populated by ever strange lifeforms. Through this, the game manages to sidestep the old sin of making such a world seem as if it is a single featureless world of dunes dotted with coral reefs. Yet, as diverse as it is, each blends almost seamlessly with the other, and no single one ever seems at odds with the rest of the planet.
In addition to the varied environments, developer Unknown Worlds opted to approach Subnautica as a world rather than a series of challenges. The AI governing many creatures is both varied and distinct, with their own behavioural habits and modifiers. Some predators can be briefly befriended, while others will be drawn to powerful energy generators. You even witness the full life cycle of one as you traverse the world in search of answers.
The game manages to sidestep the usual survival problems thanks to several creative decisions. The biggest among them is the streamlined nature of the crafting system. While you still need to procure the correct resources and blueprints from crashed vessels, the upgrade system is a simple network of decisions over a complex spider diagram. The actual resources themselves require less mining than they do a general awareness of the various locales, meaning you spend less time hunting about for the one missing iron bar needed to finish your new submarine. The addition of submarines as mobile bases also allows you to more easily progress through the game, and to have a wide arsenal of resources on hand at anytime.
The actual objectives within Subnautica are both easy to follow while still serving as guidelines. While that might sound simplistic, the genius of this is that it prevents you from ever feeling lost, while still capturing that sense of true exploration into the unknown.
These elements alone would be enough to make it a great experience, but what elevates it further is the sense of mystery and a strong story to the game. While only told through environmental visuals and brief log excerpts, you learn of a multitude of tales behind the game’s setting. From previous explorers to crewmen and even long-gone figure who once resided upon the world, it’s enough to add a great deal of depth to a world which could have seemed thematically shallow despite its visual and mechanical strengths.
Unfortunately, Subnautica’s one great failing is born from its best qualities. The sheer scale of the sea and the unforgiving nature of the monsters can easily drag out your experience. While a skilled player can easily pick out where and what resources he needs from the seabed, all too often hunting for a missing schematic can leave you searching about the game for hours at a time. Equally, a few key sections forcing you into narrow confines populated by vast predators can make you die over and over again. While this will admittedly vary from one player to the next, it can easily reduce the game to simply repeating the same action until you somehow emerge victorious.
Even in an era overpopulated with survival simulators, Subnautica nevertheless stands head and shoulder above the competition. Its unique environments, creatures and strong story makes Subnautica a modern day classic. It’s one of a rare few that everyone owes it to themselves to play, so long as you don’t have an intense fear of alien sharks, anyway.
SUBNAUTICA / DEVELOPER & PUBLISHER: UNKNOWN WORLDS ENTERTAINMENT / PLATFORM: PC, PLAYSTATION 4, XBOX ONE / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 23RD