My reviews here on the XP4T blog put me in something of a Catch-22. Whenever I find a game that really grabs me, I eventually think ‘I must write about this one, it’s so good everyone needs to know about it.’ But that’s also when the Hellerian trap is sprung, because once I’ve written about a game it creates a sort of mental book-end, and I know I won’t be playing it again for the foreseeable future. Today though, I’d like to acquaint you with one game that I think has broken the mould – a game that I know I’m going to dive back into, review or not. Ladies and germs, I give you… Subnautica.
In Early Access on Steam since December 2014, with a full release planned for this August (so, very soon then), Subnautica is also being co-developed for the Xbox One. Certain advances in the code for the console version have already been ported back to improve the PC version. Not only that, but the game comes with Oculus Rift support and has already been fully localised into 7 languages. The developers, Unknown Worlds Entertainment, are no amateurs, having previous form with the fan-favourite Half-Life mod Natural Selection and its popular standalone sequel. Valve fans and those of you familiar with the Half-Life modding scene might remember that Natural Selection 2 began life in the Source engine before switching to UWE’s own proprietary engine, Spark. But for Subnautica, the team have gone with Unity, which according to the game’s producer, Hugh Jeremy, “…offers more flexibility for what [we’re] doing.”
What they’re doing, then, is “…open world, underwater exploration and adventure.” In terms of pigeonholes you could also easily call it a Survival game, as the main play mode features health, hunger, thirst and oxygen requirements. But like Grandpa Minecraft, it also features a worry-free ‘Creative’ mode, as well as a one-life, one death ‘Hardcore’ mode, and an only slightly less worrying ‘Freedom’ mode. Whichever way you play it though, Subnautica is fun. Its first, most apparent success is that it looks absolutely stunning. You’re stranded on a beautifully crafted, meticulously detailed ocean planet composed of vast, distinctive biomes, each with its own colour palette, inherent, believable light sources and fascinating marine topography. These include vast under-sea mountain ranges scarred by terrifyingly deep trenches and caves, huge coral-studded outcroppings filled with labyrinthine caverns and tunnel systems, sprawling kelp forests full of lush, mossy life, and weird alien jellyfish-filled caverns beneath the sea floor. There are some occasional draw-in issues and slight tearing on large, distant objects, but on my Windows 7 x64 rig with 16 Gb RAM and a slightly doddering GTX 750, they were unobtrusive and didn’t affect the actual gameplay.
Binding the thirty-plus biomes together is, of course, the sea. Frankly, it’s a remarkable achievement, and easily the best sea water I’ve seen in a game since the superb Stranded Deep. But there are three things that earn Subnautica the title belt. The first is the way it changes colour and grows brighter or darker depending on the quality of the light penetrating it. Just looking up and down, in one head movement you can tell what time of day it is and whether you’re swimming over a trench, a canyon or even a really deep void. The day/night cycle plays a big part here, not only in appearances but also fish behaviour. And at night time, the ocean comes alive with bioluminescence — even in the inky blackness of night, 100 metres beneath the waves, Subnautica still looks really good.
Secondly, the transition from water to air – when you stick your head above the waves or enter a vehicle or base module – has been really nicely done. It’s a small thing, but like nearly everything else in the game, it’s been implemented with great care and consideration. (Although a minor gripe arises here – the game is viewed through your diving mask all the time, and I do sometimes long to pull it off and give my hair a shake, L’Oreal style). The third piece of this delicious seafood pie is the noise it makes. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t sound to me like there’s one looped ‘ambience’. Rather, the background noise consists of a throbbing and pulsing of currents that seems to change with your general location and the swish and swirl of your own movement through the water (also very good). On top of that, there’s the sound of the air bubbles from your breathing equipment, and the various small electronic noises made by your other kit and the various bases and vehicles you can build. Of course, there’s lots of life in the ocean too, and it usually won’t shut up. Strange, alien whale song, grunts and murmurs from fat seal-type things, and the vicious rush of teeth and water from the game’s assorted predators – plus your own muffled cries when something scores a hit on you. And as in all good games, sound placement plays a big part in your strategy. The general location of Subnautica’s player-eating monsters can be given away by their shrieks and screams, and used to plot a safer course through dodgy areas. (Apart from a rather poxy dagger, there are no lethal weapons in Subnautica, though the larger subs can be fitted with torpedoes).
And what of the actual creatures themselves? Well, if I’m brutally honest, I’d say that a lot of the medium to large creature models look a bit too angular and boxy, rather than organic and fleshy. And although they’re animated really well, there can probably never be enough frames to make them move totally fluidly. There are exceptions – the gigantic Reefbacks are incredibly well made and textured, and a delight to swim with. But perhaps most importantly, the vast array of small fish that you spend so much time looking at or chasing and eating, are superbly done. Perhaps their small size hides any technical sins, but they swim and dart about magnificently, and trying to catch them and bag them for later laser microwaving is both frustrating and fun. They’re interesting to just observe too; floating in the shallows watching them dart about among the colourful coral and naturally waving plants is another huge pleasure. Crucially in a game about the ocean, there’s no shortage of life. I’ve seen the larger, shark-like Stalkers tossing and butting metal wreckage with their heads, and armoured Sandsharks fighting over the carcasses of other fish. With the colourful, immersive graphics and strong, lively sound effects, Subnautica’s world-building ambience far exceeds any early-access glitches, draw-in lag or animation shortfalls. In this respect it reminds me most of Morrowind, which on release was a hot, buggy mess, but totally made up for it with one of the greatest feats of world-building that gaming has ever seen.
Like that other great misadventure at sea, Bioshock, the game begins with a disaster, great confusion, and you crashing into the water. After coming round and sorting yourself out (which also works as a handy controls tutorial), you emerge from the hatch of your escape pod to find yourself stranded on the set of Waterworld, with a gigantic spaceship off in the distance, slowly burning itself out. That was your ship, and there are thousands of pieces of it scattered across the ocean floor. These range from tiny scraps of metal that can be gathered up and turned into building materials, to whole explorable chunks which vary from single cabins and bits of wrenched-out corridor, to entire multi-deck sections complete with air-conditioning ducts to crawl through. Finding one of these is always a spectacular, breath-taking moment, and they’re stuffed with goodies to salvage, PDAs to download and read, and just general wall-to-wall exploration and excitement. Things spark or blow bubbles, certain doors are jammed and need lasering open, and everything’s canted at weird angles – if you’ve ever watched a Titanic documentary or any of The Poseidon Adventure films and though it would be cool to swim about exploring that shit, then you’re in for an epic treat.
The best prizes to be had from wreck-diving, as well as just generally skimming about the seabed, are Fragments. These look like small safes, and once scanned with your trusty Scanner yield a portion of a Blueprint. Find and scan 2, 3, 4 or more of the same Blueprint and you’ll be able to craft that thing back at your base. Crafting is a solid 50% of the game (with the other being exploring), and boy is there a ton of stuff to make. It works, as usual, on the principle of ingredients = components = finished products. There’s a wide variety of tools and hand-held gadgets to craft, more complex equipment that can be carried or worn, as well as really heavy stuff that services, improves or repairs other things. There are also items of furniture for your bases (both functional and aesthetic), and of course, vehicles… Apart from being essential or at least too useful not to have, most of the stuff you can craft is also just enormous fun to play with – the Terraformer lets you scoop up great dollops of Subnautica’s dynamic terrain in one go, depositing them elsewhere in order to build, say, crude forts or dig your own tunnels. Sadly though, the current plan is to remove this feature and make the landscape static, reportedly because of XBone cloud-save limitations, or possibly multiplayer considerations. And while a lot of fans have moaned and complained about this in the game’s official forums and in its subreddit, in truth I suspect the grumbles are mostly about the principle of not ‘dumbing things down’ for consoles — as fun and cool as it is, it doesn’t really strike me as an absolutely essential feature. But, seahorses for courses and all that.