Subnautica is one of the original Early Access triumphs, and in my view, the best of them all.
I’ve been dipping into Subnautica ever since its Early Access inception towards the end of 2014. It’s one of those titles that looked destined to stay in Early Access, but Unknown Worlds Entertainment continued to work on Subnautica, and it’s now the most professional Early Access title ever to come out of the other end. I've spent three years in and out of the game, but even now it still continues to frighten, amaze, and surprise me - in some cases, all at the same time.
Giant interstellar ship Aurora has crashed on an alien planet. Your escape to an on-board life pod saved your life, but now you’re alone on a submerged alien planet and must survive. You don’t know why you crashed, but radio messages, out of place structures in the ocean, and general bizarre goings-on allow you to slowly piece things together. Those radio messages often send you coordinates to other escape pods to investigate whether or not those aboard are OK, but mainly to see if they have anything useful you can use.
When Subnautica first appeared on Steam, it seemed to grab onto the survival fad that was going on at the time. That fad having died down makes Subnautica’s full release feel fresh, but it’s the amount of thought put into its survival mechanics - and the amount of love too - that really makes it fresh. The base-building tied into survival gives players a sense of home even on an alien planet such as this. Following story elements, extending your base, adding docks for your vehicles, upgrading those vehicles, and gardening means you’re never at a loss for what to do in Subnautica - you’re always working towards something.
The variety and work put into the flora and fauna of the game is astounding. Almost everything can be scanned, giving an insight on said life as well as an indication of what, if anything, it can be used for. And scanning isn’t just helpful to gain information on the life of the ocean, either; scannable fragments of equipment, rooms, and vehicles are scattered across all depths of the sea bed. Unlocking blueprints by scanning fragments is one of the ways Subnautica subtly nudges the player to dive a bit deeper next time.
There’s an interesting absence of any real kind of combat. Apart from knifing smaller fish for food, there’s no reason to engage in any kind of conflict. But that's fine; you’re not here to kill the marine life of this planet, you’re here to investigate, and maybe eventually escape. Slicing little Peepers for food is just a necessary act of survival, while eliminating Stalkers that keep stealing my scanner room's cameras is just a necessary evil. Fauna is there to be scanned, investigated, and give a sense of life to the sea; Subnautica does that brilliantly - no matter where you go it always feels populated and alive.
Helping sell the life of the sea is some excellent sound design. Bigger fauna tend to have their own unique voices in the sea and at first they may all scare you, but they quickly become good indicators of whether the area you're in is safe or not. Biomes themselves are usually primarily populated by a certain life-form, so hearing that fauna swell into audio range also helps determine which biome you might be approaching. Subnautica is refreshingly at its quietest when above sea level - it’s almost eerily quiet. Once you dive in and the sound of water washes out the silence, this planet instantly teems with life.
For a game with as much crafting as Subnautica has, it needs to constantly steer the player towards materials they’ve not seen before. Excellently, Subnautica delivers here too. A player may start to feel comfortable crafting this-and-that with materials they’ve hoarded, and then suddenly they're struck with the question: "where do I get that from?". Subnautica sits back peering over its broadsheet newspaper: “looks like you’re going to have to go deeper than you’ve ever gone before”. That’s where the game continually surprises you with new places, biomes and fauna – and death-wielding multi-rowed teeth marine life.
You build yourself up with new vehicles and a bigger base; you get confident, nothing can scare you now. You venture to get new materials you’ve not found before. Then you hear something you haven’t heard before, look to your left and something twice the size of you comes out of the blurry deep, and those are the moments Subnautica frightens, amazes, and surprises all at the same time. Spread across the three years this game has been playable I’ve put in 44 hours, and those moments still happen - consistently.