Life is hard. Pure and simple. I’ve always been baffled as to why so many people were willing to invest countless hours into a game about staying alive. Isn’t surviving day-to-day life hard enough as it is? Then I got my hands on the newly released Subnautica for PS4 and my perception completely shifted. Suddenly all of the tumblers lined up, and I could understand what was so damn compelling about the genre. Call me crazy, but I would even go as far as to call it personally transformative.
It doesn’t take long for the world of Subnautica to take a healthy shit in the player’s lap. During some sort of catastrophic event, the player is jettisoned from a massive vessel as it plunges from the sky into the endless expanse of ocean. The escape pod also crash lands in the middle of the sea, a sizable distance from the original ship. No, this isn’t a sci-fi reboot of Castaway. It’s your new life. Hopefully you’re not averse to swimming, because that is very quickly going to become the sole method of survival. Armed with grit, curiosity, and microscopic lung capacity, it’s time to figure out how to make the most of a terrible situation.
When I say players have to “figure out how to survive,” I mean that in the most literal sense. The game drops you into the middle of nowhere, with damn near zero guidance. Early on, this proves to be rather frustrating, simply due to the game’s seemingly limited direction. Though it takes quite some time, players will find their sea legs, at which point the core objectives begin to present themselves.
Left to your own devices, the entirety of the ocean is a massive playground. The only true limit to the explorative potential is lung capacity. It doesn’t take long for you to take a first dive, at which point it’s apparent that you have lungs that are approximately the size of a fruit fly. This results in a constant cycle of swimming up and diving down, where surfacing refreshes the continually depleting oxygen supply.
The gasping for air eventually dissipates thanks to the addition of advanced technology that can be crafted using the game’s fairly straightforward fabricator tools. Resources are scattered all over the environment, which are used to build new pieces of gear like increasingly larger oxygen tanks, radiation suits, and later on, far more advanced machinery and vehicles. The more intricate the equipment, the deeper you’ll need to dive in order to gather the necessary fabrication materials.
What Lies Beneath
Plumbing the depths of the ocean can be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. Unless you’re equipped with a powerful light source, there are many times where you can have genuine difficulty seeing things until they’re directly in front of you. Considering that death involves you losing everything that you’ve gathered since the last returned to your home base, it’s critical to tightrope walk the increasingly sharp blade between curiosity and recklessness.
While breathing becomes more of an afterthought the more your technology advances, there’s still one key adversary to never underestimate: Predators. The world of Subnautica is initially very inviting, but it doesn’t take long to realize it’s like being introduced to your girlfriend’s father for the first time. Sure, he smiles while he shakes your hand, but deep down you know that he can’t wait to take you on a tour of his exotic knife and firearm collection. The underlying hostility is impossible to ignore.
A safe rule of thumb is that if the critter is of comparable size to your own character model, watch your back. Hell, even if the creature is small enough to fit in your pocket, it can still pack enough punch to fend for itself. It seems like the lower the depth, the more nightmarish the creatures become.
Further adding to the tension is the stellar sound design, which is a key giveaway to the location of these beasts of the deep. It was very reminiscent of the hulking steps of BioShock’s Big Daddy, that would constant inspire dread, the closer it sounded to the protagonist. You may not necessarily know where the unseen nemesis is, but you’ll hear them approach and ultimately know when they’re close enough to instantly end your life. That feeling of helpless terror is unsettling, yet is ultimately where the game also achieves its greatest triumphs.
Easily my favorite aspect of Subnautica is the constant reward of exploration. It felt like no matter where I was or what I was doing, there was an unending flow of new and exciting discoveries hiding just below the surface. At the risk of spoiling too much of the story, it’s suffice to say that you’re not going to be spending the entirety of the campaign submerged. Even after spending upwards of a dozen hours uncovering numerous unexpected twists, I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what was waiting to be revealed.
After coming across one especially unexpected landmark I thought to myself, “What the fuck IS this game?” The mechanics and design could have literally went in any direction from there. That is how immersive this sandbox ultimately feels. There’s always some new resource to gather, a freaky newfangled creature to scan, or artifact to cover. The best part is that with each breakthrough, numerous new doors and gameplay opportunities present themselves. Honestly, I can’t wait to finish writing this review, so that I can return to plumbing the game’s murky depths.
As much as I adored the gameplay, this isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain its fair share of shortcomings. For one, there is a significant issue with graphical pop-in/fade-in. We are not just talking about textures, either. Whole environmental objects would materialize from nowhere and be within an arm’s length of the camera. The hue of ocean almost acts as haze behind which textures are constantly phasing in, the closer they get. While this is nowhere near as bad as the “loading fog” of the N64 era, especially when diving using fast vehicles, it’s certainly reminiscent of the phenomena.
The key aspect that I feel holds the game back is the design of the initial couple of hours. With the limited amount of direction that the player is provided and the constant need to surface in order to breathe, it’s hard to grasp what the actual game mechanics are. I could easily see this being off-putting to those with short attention spans. Sure, there’s eventually a gratifying “skies-parting and light shining down,” moment of revelation once you figure out how to actually play and progress, but it takes too damn long to get to the thesis. I understand that there’s something to be said for environmental storytelling, but if they’d accelerate the process slightly, it could ultimately get its hooks into more of the audience.
If you couldn’t tell, I was blown away by Subnautica. What initially appeared to be a knee-high kiddie pool worth of depth, suddenly gives way to a literal ocean of gameplay opportunities. And while it has certain technical limitations, these are certainly not going to discourage the non-critic audience from at least dipping a toe in. It’s easily one of the coolest, engaging, and most gratifying experiences I’ve had with a game in 2018. Come on in! The water’s fine.
Subnautica review code provided by publisher. Version 1.03 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.