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Subnautica: Beautiful and Terrifying

Rich Clancey March 5, 2018 1


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A violent explosion, an adrenaline-fueled rush into an escape pod, an uncertain fall, and blackness…


Preface: This article was written by friend and first-time guest writer for Nerd Entertainment Hub, Jeremy Bird.


This is how Subnautica greets you. In an intro eerily reminiscent of the first Bioshock, you take the role of a nameless, faceless crew member of the Aurora spaceship who is escaping from it via an escape pod as the ship falls to pieces above you, only for a flying piece of metal to knock you out as you land planetside on 4546B. From there, you awaken in your Lifepod to find it on fire, and after putting it out, you discover that the Aurora took some serious damage in its crash onto the planet, and that you have landed, floating, in the middle of an enormous ocean with no land as far as the eye can see. Your PDA, an extremely advanced handheld computer, gives you your goal — survive. And so the stage is set: you have arrived alone on an alien world, surrounded by water hiding any number of dangers beneath the waves, with only your Lifepod and its equipment to aid in your survival. Will you find other survivors? Will you be rescued? Will you be forced to live the rest of your life here?

Not nearly as alone as you first seemed.

My experience with Subnautica thus far, a total of about 45 hours, has been nothing short of fantastic in the truest sense of the word. Unknown Worlds Entertainment have managed to strike a near-perfect balance of tutorialization, giving information as it becomes necessary but not railroading the player down any given path. The PDA that serves as your assistant only ever has something to say when needed, and I have not at any point felt that it was overbearing (in contrast to some of the more well-known advisor characters in other games, such as Navi in Ocarina of Time). It’s worth noting that other than ingame HUD prompts telling you which button to interface with the material/creature/structure in front of you, no elements of the game break the immersion and only serve to further envelop you in the world. Subnautica is designed to be played in VR if one desires, and though I have no VR headset of my own, the game still manages to feel as though I’m in the midst of this vast alien world. The two major results of this are as I referred to in my title — the beauty of the relatively unspoiled alien landscape can be truly mesmerizing at times, and the design of the ocean truly appears natural. The other result is an almost primal sense of terror upon seeing some of the more dangerous creatures that reside in the depths. There are aggressive alligator-sized creatures that are intimidating initially, up to gargantuan “Leviathan-class” creatures that gave me chills the first time I witnessed them in the murky distance. This is a game that manages to balance the wonder of exploration against the fear of the unknown and it does so marvelously.

Spotting a leviathan from a (hopefully) safe distance.

The only real issues this game suffers from are Skyrim-esque. That is to say, nigh-impossible to reproduce as they are almost always stumbled upon by accident, and anything ranging from mild graphical glitches to your character acting as though he is on land while underwater (which can be fatal as fall damage suddenly becomes an issue when you drop to the ocean floor). None however are game-breaking, as any problems that could have been in my experience were solvable by saving the game, quitting, and relaunching it. Far from ideal, but not unworkable. As with Skyrim, these bugs are forgivable with the scale of the game — and unlike Skyrim, they are even more forgivable as Unknown Worlds Entertainment are quite a bit smaller than Bethesda, and because Subnautica will conveniently remind you every time you load a savefile that you can press F8 to provide feedback or report bugs (on PC at least).

 

Spoiler warning. Details about gameplay progression in this section, but nothing further on the story than has already been said.

[su_accordion] [su_spoiler title=”Click to Reveal Spoiler” open=”no” style=”fancy”]

I personally went into this game almost completely blind, only hearing from someone on reddit (and I’ve since completely forgotten when and where, my apologies) that it was a good game after hearing about it a year or so ago and thinking the idea of a survival game set entirely underwater had a lot of potential to be great. That being said, I will reiterate my warning at the top of this paragraph: if you want to experience this game without knowing some deeper details (no story spoilers) then skip this section.

The experience in Subnautica starts with you having nothing more than your wetsuit and a lungful of air, forcing you to be extremely careful as you search for the materials you need to both survive day to day — sating your hunger and thirst — and to create tools to improve your odds of survival. I remember clearly the struggle I underwent to find the materials to create a Repair Tool, which you need early on repair some of the broken features of the Lifepod. You’ll also eventually find the materials to create a Scanner, which you will use extremely often throughout the game to find blueprints for more advanced tools, and to identify the local indigenous lifeforms. After some time you’ll find the blueprints for a Seaglide, vastly increasing your speed. Following this, you’ll find the blueprints for a one-person submersible called a Seamoth — and everything changes. You’re no longer bound to the surface of the ocean to get your fill of air, as the vehicle generates it for you while inside as long as it has power. After this, you’ll find the blueprints for underwater buildings in which you can put new storage, new tools, and utilities to charge your tools. No longer bound to the tiny space of your Lifepod, you don’t have to be as conservative with what items you keep and what you toss. Finally, you will find plans for the Cyclops, a submarine large enough to dock your Seamoth. You can put more storage and utilities into this, and so it becomes your home away from home, and the whole play area of Subnautica opens to you.

After much work and resource gathering, the creation of a Cyclops

With each of these new technologies described, the game changes significantly. Your fear of the world changes as your mastery of it grows, while at the same time you reveal more horrors in the depths of 4546B. Each transition feels like a new game, and it’s easy to forget the humble beginnings you come from. Never do these changes feel obtrusive, and it can be surprising to think back on how difficult it was to get a given resource once you’re able to find and gather it with futuristic efficiency deep within the bowels of the earth. Unknown Worlds expertly blends each of these major parts together and the result is something you really have to experience to understand.

[/su_spoiler] [/su_accordion]

From beginning to end, every part of Subnautica is handcrafted with care. From the plentiful edible fish in the starting zone to the rare materials in the later zones to the suddenly-important and easy-to-miss plants found everywhere you haven’t looked yet, the whole world feels natural and a wonder to explore. There is something new around every corner, and though you of course want to escape, you might find your journey so enjoyable that you won’t want to leave. What bugs there are don’t detract from the overall experience, and they occur so infrequently that immersion isn’t broken. The sound design is also excellent — everything from the soundtrack to the cries of wildlife serve the wondrous and haunting atmosphere. The graphics as well are beautiful, working as a gorgeous mix of cartoon and realism that strikes a perfect balance. The crafting system is very well done, though not perfectly balanced; the idea of a futuristic Fabricator that remakes your base materials into more complex ones works very well in the setting and allows for nearly boundless creations, but some materials only ever have one or two uses and feel like they could be more well utilized.

Use the technology fabricated to hone in on the materials you need.

Subnautica feels like the culmination of the Survival/Crafting genre as a whole, done to near-perfection. A friend of mine put it very well: it’s as though someone determined to make No Man’s Sky but on a single planet, and done to perfection. I haven’t been able to put Subnautica down for another PC game since I started it, and unless something truly better comes along it’s a shoe-in for my game of 2018.

All credit for this article, goes to Jeremy Bird, who can be contacted via his email, at jeremy.bird.237@gmail.com 

Subnautica is available on Steam for $24.99

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