Spoilers ahead – ed.
Subnautica is one of the best games I’ve ever played, which is a funny sentence to write. It’s like a fish saying, “you know, this is the nicest water I’ve ever swum in” – it just wouldn’t occur to them, probably. Also, fish can’t talk.
They growl, and grumble and titter, their voices echoing strangely through the deep, and I should know, because I recently spent about 26 hours of my life in close proximity to a whole lot of them. My life pod crashed onto an ocean world after my spaceship, the Aurora, was shot down for reasons that were not clear to me at the time. My objective was to survive and to figure out exactly what the hell happened.
I’m not much of a survival game player, most of the time, but a couple different streamers and YouTubers I like were playing it, and it was cheap at around $20 on Steam, so I yielded to the impulse, based largely on the pretty visuals and intuitive futuristic tech.
I’m largely guessing at this, but I would imagine that balancing the level of resource-gathering grind is a key facet of survival game design, and Subnautica does a splendid job of making resources feel valuable without making them too difficult to find, particularly in the early part of the game. Finding food and clean water is simple enough, and most of the early exploration is a feast for the senses, as you explore a colorful reef environment with tons of unique wildlife. The idea, largely, is to use the escape pod’s fabricator module to turn raw materials into useful stuff like batteries, bigger airtanks and so on.
The first hint I had that it was going to be trickier than playing my way through a sort of seagoing Minecraft was a growly little bastard of a fish that swims up next to you in undersea caves and detonates. I named them “dickfish,” because they are dicks, despite the fact that the game called them “crashfish” instead. It took me approximately forever to realize that a resource I needed to craft a critical repair tool module was found primarily in the remails of dickfish nests, after they have taken a big slice of your health off. They’re hard to avoid in the early game, when you’re considerably less mobile than later on.
I thought I had lost the game when the wreck of the Aurora exploded, but things continued to progress – I found titanium, copper, silver, salt, coral, acid mushrooms, and soon had progressed from new batteries and air pumps and beacons to a handy little personal submarine, called the Seamoth. I was in a groove at that point, taking in raw materials and turning them into useful stuff that made the basic processes of survival easier.
The story progresses largely through a series of PDAs you find abandoned at other life pods, scattered across the ocean floor through a series of different alien biomes, and will eventually send you to the wreck of the Aurora and to several alien facilities in the area, as you discover more about the mysterious bacteria that infects largely everything on the planet and discover a way out.
But there’s a lot of crafting, and a lot of exploration, and a lot of mining to do between the Aurora and freedom – so much so that you’ll likely wind up building yourself a fully functioning underwater habitat before the game is over. I did this what I feel must have been later than most, having largely ignored the “habitat builder” tool until well into the mid-game. I wound up with three bases, one quite near dear old Lifepod 5, just beneath the random cans of resources I had lying around, one slightly farther out into open water, and one deep, deep into the Lost River, nearly a kilometer underwater. There’s something about dwellings in inaccessible locations that has always fascinated me, and Subnautica’s building system – which is, like the resource and crafting system, superbly balanced between intuitive ease of use and realistic constraint – made it a joy to build my underwater citadel, hidden in a vast underground cave system. Such was my pride in my ability to thrive on a hostile alien world, that I hesitated to finish the game, improving my base and hunting crafting materials long after the majority of the plot was taken care of.
Glowing Core Alert: The nuclear reactor module for your base, arguably the best power source in the game, has this going on. Core sighting confirmed.
The plot is exactly the sort of thing you hope for in a game like this, complicated enough to be satisfying but simple enough not to detract from the gameplay proper. In essence, you have to figure out a way to cure yourself of the alien bacteria before the quarantine enforcement platform left by the precursor aliens will let you launch your escape rocket unmolested. To do this, you have to, yes, explore a lengthy series of increasingly hostile alien biomes, crafting the vehicles and equipment needed to survive within.
This leads to the only real quibble I had with the game – past a certain point, the core exploration/gathering part of the gameplay gets a little bit repetitive. You’re going to need what scientists refer to as “a fucking lot” of titanium, for example, and while simply wandering around gathering (or, later, mining with the PRAWN suit drill arm) is a generally pleasant experience, there’s an awful lot of different stuff required to craft the better vehicle upgrades and endgame rocket pieces.
Consequently, and without the slightest compunction, given that this is a completely single-player, non-competitive experience, I cheated by using console commands to gift myself low-level resources. Sometimes, I’d rather just build the habitat module I want and not have to trek around for another fifteen minutes getting another titanium ingot.
But this quibble is a minor one. Nearly everything else about Subnautica is sublime, from the haunting sound and music design to the bleak deadpan humor of your PDA dispensing advice, to the strange alien creatures and the environments you share with them. I loved it. Go play it, and don’t worry if you feel like cheating a couple extra titanium in there.
LAZY NERD SAYS: Ever watch Psych? Remember how Shawn and Gus scream when they’re scared? That’s basically the noise I made when I first met a ghost leviathan.