Still, even without the ability to distract yourself making sand castles, there’s the base-building. This is one of the central pillars of the gameplay, and is driven by that Minecraftian principle of finding new areas to explore then throwing together a safehouse to store your goodies and explore from. It’s not expensive in terms of ingredients to put up a basic room, an access hatch, and a couple of solar panels to power the whole thing. This is essential, because you’ll eventually end up with loads of bases, scattered all over the map. Base-building and crafting as a whole are very intelligently designed and directly woven into the fabric of the game: in order to survive, you need to make stuff; to make stuff, you need a place to make it in, and you need to explore to find the ingredients. And to explore safely and profitably, you need to constantly expand your range, pushing into the unknown in search of better ingredients to make better stuff. Subnautica’s crafting represents a restless energy, a constant impulse built into its alternately calming and terror-filled gameplay. In fact, it’s somewhere in the tension between your lush surroundings and the ceaseless need to move and do and think that the game finds its own, deeply compelling vibe. Perhaps this is the essential truth of all survival games, although being an underwater game in a genre packed with mountains and forests certainly gives Subnautica an edge.
Base modules, furniture and equipment are all constructed using another little hand tool that you’ll want to build early on, whereas your personal kit, food, water and all other crafting components come out of the wall-mounted Fabricator. To begin with, your escape pod is fitted with a Fabricator and a small, under-seat storage unit. This combination will last you about an hour until you start running out of space, which then provides you with your first compelling reason to start building – simply to have somewhere to put some more lockers and cabinets. This all brings us to the question of inventory space, the management of which is as much a part of the game as fish and water. You get a 6×8 grid for lugging your stuff around in, as well as a simple paper doll for your equipped gear, all of which is accessed through your swanky PDA. Most of the things you can scavenge from the sea take one slot, including edible fish (some plant and seaweed items take four). Basic tools and bottles of water also take one. Then, your craftable oxygen tanks take four (2×2), and your first ‘vehicle’, the hand-held Seaglide, takes six (3×3). One of the first things you’ll work out is that having loads of oxygen tanks is great, as each one adds another 30 seconds of dive time to your built-in 45 seconds. But once you’ve got a few tanks going, a Seaglide, plus all the basic handheld gear (torches, scanners, habitat builders, welders etc), that’s half your space gone.
This is where the obsessive compulsion begins – to build another cabinet, or cool gadget, you juuust need one or two more things. So off you go, hunting, hunting. Invariably, you’ll find the thing you want only after you’ve opportunistically swooped on a bunch of other stuff, and you might still need another one or two of the Main Thing. So you keep looking, hoovering stuff up like Diablo at bathtime until you’ve run out of space and have to start chucking things. As you’re floating about like a lonely starfish, debating whether to keep the piles of lead or take the copper nuggets (Pro Tip: always take the copper), your Hunger and Thirst meters are slowly dwindling. So then you need to head home, grabbing a fish or two on the way to cook and eat before you expire. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as stopping at a kebab shop and then slumping in the corner of a bus stop.
For around 15 hours, I swam about, building little bases in interesting spots, slowly accumulating cool toys and gadgets. At that point, I was quitting the game each time with the same thought in my head: ‘What am I really doing here?’ It seemed as though each session was, whilst hugely entertaining, ultimately just about scooting around relentlessly trying to build things in order to do other things. I’d discover some cool place to investigate, mark it with a beacon, then get distracted by another interesting thing. Sometimes I’d just stand in one of my bases struggling to remember which of the eight million things I was staring at in a cabinet that I needed. What did I need it for? To make a thing. But I still need to swim all the way over to the other base to get the other part of it. And now it’s getting dark and I’m hungry again. To hell with it, I’ll throw everything in an empty box and go explore that Weird Thing I found earlier. *Swims to the Weird Thing*. Ah! I needed that thing to make the other thing that will help me do a thing here. Bugger.
And so on, and so on. This is perhaps my biggest complaint about Subnautica, that there is perhaps a bit too much freedom, too many cool things to see and do, too much going on, all the time, everywhere, so that you eventually feel battered by its wealth of choices. Yes, there’s a story to piece together from the log files and PDAs you find, but no indicator in the UI to say which was the latest one. The communications relay occasionally blurts out some tantalising news from other survivors, and there are copious hints in the PDAs leading you to other interesting landmarks, but then you’re thirsty again, and you need one more piece of silver to make a thing, and you know there’s no silver in your current biome, and oh man, what’s that over there? How much inventory space do I have again? Argh.
That’s more or less where I was as I headed into Hour 16, and it was then that I started contemplating winding things down and writing about it for the blog here. But then something happened that completely changed my plans: I began discovering Fragments of the Seamoth. The Seamoth is the first proper submersible vehicle in the game, the first one you can climb inside and be safe in, with its own oxygen supply and a nice, cosy cockpit (you can end up building really huge submarines that put the Nautilus to shame). If you’ve ever seen videos of people diving in little submersibles, headlights piercing the swirling gloom as strange fish dart by, it’s exactly like that. And it’s a total game changer. Suddenly, the predators and vicious, hungry beasts of the sea that have been driving you bonkers the entire time are no longer as big a threat. Sure, they can still ram your Seamoth and erode its Integrity, but it takes a long time. It’ll run out of Power too, eventually, but the power drain is much slower than your trusty old Seaglide. In short, you’re now free to zoom around faster than ever before, with almost total impunity. (Although as a wise man once said, in one of Dig Bick’s favourite films, “There’s always a bigger fish.”). In practical terms, what this means is that you now have access to a whole world of more advanced Fragments to discover, more complex, interesting wrecks to investigate, weirder stuff to marvel at and a way of travelling from base to base in moments instead of minutes. It’s an epic unfolding of the game, a spreading-out of the picnic blanket and an invitation to feast on juicier treats. The stakes are higher, the risks greater, and the rewards incredible.
It’s an absolute head rush. In my first ten minutes with the Seamoth, I discovered so many cool things, it felt like a brand new game again. Of course, ten minutes later I was dead, re-spawning bloody miles and miles away from my Seamoth – a Stalker, long and slender, followed me into a wreck and cornered me in a dark room. I heard it screeching hungrily, then an ominous gonging noise as it flicked a metal wall with its tail. I turned on my flashlight and twisted around just in time for it to lunge right at my face. (Which, let me tell you, was proper brown trousers time). But perhaps the greatest danger in this alien ocean is yourself. Death doesn’t come too often, so when it does it’s memorable. And while death by sea beast is definitely a thing, it’s still only second place to death by your own curiosity, greed, and squealing excitement when you discover a Jelly Shroom cave with about 30 seconds of air left and a good 20-second ascent for more…
In the final view, Subnautica succeeds as a complex and satisfying crafting game that drives everything else forwards, as a hardcore survival game that challenges you not only to conquer the planet, but to conquer yourself, and as an endlessly fascinating game of exploration and discovery. It’s “… an open world, underwater exploration and adventure game” with the emphasis firmly on adventure. And it’s one adventure I’m happy to stay on for as long as possible.
- Visuals – 8
- Sound – 8
- Playability – 9
- Sushi – 9
Don’t hesitate, dive in!
Right now, at the end of its stated Early Access period on Steam, Subnautica is fully playable, and more importantly, fully enjoyable. There are some placeholder graphics for certain small items, but at 20+ hours in I’ve seen so few that I personally was really not bothered. I don’t know what they’re going to put in the final patch before full retail, although you’re welcome to check on their publicly-available Trello board. The long and the short of it is that Subnautica is stupidly good fun and well worth the money, especially with the prospect of post-retail patches and content updates looming just ahead.