The elevator pitch for Subnautica doesn’t exactly sound like Game of the Year material. A survival horror crafting game set almost entirely underwater? Colour me sceptical. But Unknown Worlds’ PC sensation, which hit Steam earlier this year and is now available on PS4 and Xbox One, makes a memorable impression from its very first moments, in which your character straps himself into an escape pod of a plummeting spaceship, only to emerge stranded upon a strange and unforgiving oceanic planet.
It’s a brilliant setup, executed with precision and zeal, but Subnautica’s sea legs extend well beyond its opening introduction. Following the crash, players are free to dive into the depths beneath their floating, busted escape pod, which acts as an official base of operations in the game’s early hours. You’ll need to explore your surroundings, gather resources, upgrade and craft new gear, and ultimately try to learn what happened to your crew, while figuring out if there’s any way of escaping this subaquatic nightmare.
And, to be clear, Subnautica is very much a nightmare. While Unknown Worlds has done a fabulous job capturing the bioluminescent beauty of life under the sea, that sense of marvel and curiosity will eventually devolve into abject fear as you begin to discover the monsters and cryptids that roam these very same waters. All of us have a touch of thalassophobia ingrained into our psyche, and Unknown Worlds heartily plays into that universal fear of not knowing what lurks beneath our feet when swimming in the great big blue.
Subnautica’s sound design, in particular, is phenomenal at toying with your paranoia. You’ll often hear the distant (or worryingly not so distant) roars and wails of unknown creatures from across the murky expanse of its several ecologically distinct biomes, while the game’s smart deployment of haunting choral and futurist techno tracks powerfully evokes the alien, operatic scale of your briny surroundings.
It’s true that you can craft a handful of weapons to defend yourself, but you’re very much on the lower rungs of the food chain in this extraterrestrial ecosystem, and that vulnerability feeds into the game’s scariest moments with Subnautica’s bestiary of predators large and small. I’d be criminal to spoil any of said moments here, but let’s just say that my emergent encounters with some of the Leviathans, Subnautica’s awe-inspiring sea giants, hasn’t left me this panicked and petrified in a video game since Resident Evil 7.
Unlike many other survival games, which tend to expunge narrative in favour of more freeform sandbox gameplay, Subnautica’s story is a well written, surprisingly well acted sci-fi mystery that adds further impetus to continuing your playthrough well into the 30 hour mark. Your escape pod’s radio is a constant source of side-quests that piece together a narrative throughline, maintaining the game’s forward momentum by drip feeding contextual information and dramatic revelations that enrich your understanding of the world and its many secrets.
Just when you might be lost for things to do, it’ll start pinging off with another message from a potential survivor of the crash, and you’ll jet off towards uncharted waters with renewed purpose. Trying to piece together Subnautica’s unfolding mystery (which, if you’ll pardon the pun, goes far deeper than you might think) has been a highlight of my time with the game so far, and only adds to its already rich atmosphere of intrigue and threat.
Down where it's wetter
The ‘bad underwater level’ is an infamous cliche in video games, but the irony with Subnautica is that it does precisely the opposite. Swimming, aside from the fiddliness of trying to catch smaller fish, is a smooth and breezy joy, but things immediately regress above water, which controls more like a sluggish and substandard first-person exploration game.
Subnautica’s terra firma looks a lot worse than its pelagic counterpart, too, where the flat, ungainly textures suddenly bring the game’s production values down almost to Steam shovelware quality. Luckily, you won’t be spending too much time on land in Subnautica, and their story focused purpose helps to make the excursions a little more palatable, especially as a breather from all the terrors beneath the sea.
But Subnautica’s indie budget has also come at the cost to its performance, at least on console. Playing on PS4, I encountered repeated framerate hitches during a number of specific moments, and while they only lasted seconds at time, their predictability did undo some of Unknown Worlds’ excellent work in creating such an immersive and enchanting milieu. If you’re making a game where coming up for air is one of the most important and recurrent activities for the player, maybe it shouldn’t freeze almost every time they reach the ocean’s surface.
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Similarly, Subnautica’s late game experience is frequented by garish texture pop ins, when your character’s own mobility is faster than the game’s ability to load in its assets. I’m hoping Unknown Worlds can and will fix these issues in a future patch, as it was one of my only real persistent problems during my time under the sea.Arriving on PC at the very beginning of the year, and now hitting console at the tail end of it, Subnautica is a must play for 2018. Survival crafting diehards will lap it up like a shark to chum bait, but the game succeeds precisely because of its efforts to push the genre outside of its tired, recursive parameters.
Collecting food and water, building an underwater habitat, and surviving the elements are all satisfying aspects of the experience, but that’s only because Subnautica’s palpable ambience, cerebral story, and powerful fear factor compliment that familiar routine with some of the most memorable moments I’ve played in a game of its kind. It’s very likely that you’ll never want to go near a beach again after playing Subnautica, but soak up its array of nautical sights and sounds, and I promise you won’t regret the dive.