The second-best thing about Subnautica is how finely balanced it is. Even at this Early Access stage, it both looks and feels wonderful to play. In most games, swimming is a chore; in Subnautica, it’s a joy, your movements lithe, responsive, and natural. Your basic needs are perfectly tuned for satisfying play, allowing you sufficient room to explore and take in the sights and sounds of the ocean but never quite allowing you to forget about them. What’s more, if you want to explore further, or deeper, then you need to build or find the right items to do so, like more air-tanks or a sequence of breathing pipes that stretch out from your base like the threads of a spider’s web.
But the best thing about Subnautica, the thing I enjoy the most, is its structure. See, many survival games start excitingly but tail off once you’ve acquired a certain amount of resources. They struggle to add much purpose beyond fulfilling your basic needs, which in a way accurately represents a survival situation but isn’t much fun in a game context.
Yet Subnautica does a fantastic job of keeping you interested beyond staying alive. Right from the off, it sets you a tantalising goal in the form of your massive, wrecked spaceship looming over the horizon. It teases you with thoughts of what resources might lay inside if only you can get there. Incidentally, I’ve no idea whether you can get there (the area is blocked off by radiation due to a reactor core meltdown) but I sure hope so.
In addition, once you’ve got your communications relay repaired, Subnautica begins laying a trail of breadcrumbs away from your immediate surroundings, encouraging you to explore farther and deeper with messages from other life-pods that ejected from the ship, each a little mystery that offers a small reward for heading out there and solving it. It’s the most purposeful survival game I’ve played, and yet it achieves this without compromising on the player’s freedom to approach the game how they please.
The life-pods scattered about the ocean also fill out the backstory of the ship’s crash and hint at what may await you farther out into the ocean. All of this is exceptionally written too. Unknown Worlds has hired Tom Jubert, who wrote The Swapper and co-wrote The Talos Principle, as lead writer on the project, and this shows in the game’s intelligent and gently humorous prose. An early example of this is a text log which recounts the last moments of a survivor who succumbed to radiation poisoning, despite wearing a radiation suit. Her last words to her other surviving crewmates are: 'Please don’t tell people I died because I couldn’t dress myself.
As you can probably tell, I’m greatly enamoured by Subnautica. It’s inventive, beautiful, consistently engaging, and although it's still in Early Access, there’s absolutely loads to do. That said, while Subnautica’s oceans are largely clear of problems, there are a couple of oil slicks and old boots that could do with clearing up. I find that predatory fish are either too numerous or too aggressive, and their constant attacks quickly shift from threatening to annoying. Fewer, more dramatic encounters, or having an effective means of dealing with the more basic enemies early on, would help this.
In addition, while in general performance was fine, when venturing into a new area for the first time, the terrain generation absolutely murdered the frame rate, and continued to do so until you cease moving forward. This isn’t a problem early on when you mostly stick to the same area, but as you go on longer and longer journeys into the unknown, it becomes much more of an issue. This needs resolving as soon as possible, otherwise players are likely to be put off the later game.
Still, I think that Subnautica is one of the best up-and-coming survival games I’ve played, along with The Long Dark and The Forest. It executes its premise superbly, and the few complaints I do have are easily resolved. It may still be in Early Access, but it’s probably worth picking up right now. The developers are constantly adding to and updating it as well, so there will be plenty more of the game for you to explore by the time it finally releases.