Undersea survival in deep space: You should be playing Subnautica

What is it?

A first-person survival game set in the vast ocean of an alien planet.

Play it if you like...

Exploring in sheer wonder, interspersed with tense moments of sheer panic as you fight for your life.

  • Format: Xbox One, PC
  • Price: $19.99 / £15.99
  • Release date: Out now (Xbox One Game Preview / Steam Early Access)

You know how survival games go: you make an axe out of sticks and then use it to make a better axe. Then maybe a house, probably more than a few holes in the ground, but the main thrust is usually hitting all the things and making stuff out of the bits that drop off. 

Subnautica doesn’t do that. It’s a survival game set on a water planet that somehow manages to feel completely different and familiar at the same time. It’s the lost at sea setting that does it: water is an alien environment at the best of times. Alien water doubly so. And don’t get me started on space fish that seem to be made mainly of teeth and ill will. I’ll get to those later. 

The intro creates a clean and simple narrative: ‘Oh look, I’m in an escape pod watching my ship crash and burn over an alien planet. I do hope this pod doesn't catch fire as well’.

Once you’ve put out the pod fire you emerge from a hatch to find water as far as the eye can see. The only thing poking above the waves is the wreck of your old ship in the distance, spewing out so much radiation you can’t get near it. Which is where the fun starts. The only thing you have to begin with is a tiny fabricator, a little magic machine that can make basic supplies from raw materials. Things like salvaged scrap, minerals and even fish. 

And thus begins Subnautica’s cautious scuba diving adventures in not dying. To progress you need to build and that means leaving the safety of your little floating home. At first it’s exciting and beautiful. Any time you rise to the surface to recharge your air it’s like emerging into a tropical paradise full of blue water and sun. It’s easy to imagine a beautiful palm tree covered island just behind you instead of just more sea, while the shallows around you teem with colourful corals and fish.

These early moments are more like actual survival than anything more block-based - you need to find a supply of food (fish), water (also fish) and materials to repair essential systems (scrap, and also fish - the fabricator can make anything out of anything). There’s a logical prioritisation to ease you into everything as you gather resources and recipes. It also teaches you a very important lesson - space fish are bastards. They bite, they emit toxic clouds, they explode. Thanks, Space Darwin, for that particular evolutionary adaptation. And all this is in the relative safety of the few feet of water around your pod.

The real fun comes when you get all the basics sorted and have to start pushing out into the depths. Suddenly the sea bed falls away into darkness full of strange noises and shadowy shapes. Exploring is fraught, especially when you also have limited air. The more complicated things you need to build mean diving deeper for rarer resources. There are wrecked chunks of ship to explore (and potentially get trapped in) as well as strange new fish to learn about - how close can I get before they bite me? How badly will they bite me? All at once you’re simultaneously afraid of drowning, being eaten and getting lost.

But there’s also wonder. For ages, as I made trips back and forth between my pod and some salvage rich wreckage, I kept hearing a strange deep rumbling noise coming from the black depths. I avoided it for a long time. I didn’t need to go down there and it sounded big. Which, from everything Subnautica had taught me so far, meant big teeth. Eventually, though, I located some more resources that warranted a deep dive and the shadows parted to reveal... a sort of giant cross between a barnacle and a squid, tens of meters across. An enormous, hard shelled creature, dragging along plants and coral as part of its own eco system. Most importantly it was completely placid and harmless, drifting with the currents and making rumbling calls to its friends.

After all the biting and drowning it was a moment of wonder to see these these things drift peacefully past, framed against sun beams piercing the water’s surface above. The kind of moment that makes you want to push on and see what else there is to see in Subnautica’s strange and alien world.

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