One of the years most imaginative survival games is finally available on consoles, and itll make you scared to go back in the water.
Mankind may never get to explore outside our own solar system, but for anyone thats watched Blue Planet – or listened to James Cameron bang on about his super expensive submarines – the deepest parts of the oceans are filled with such strangeness they might as well be an alien planet. Although perhaps not quite as alien as the one portrayed in Subnautica. Being stranded on an alien water world is an unusual premise, that makes it hard to guess what kind of game it might be, but the answer is one of the best survival games of the generation.
Subnautica has been in early access on the PC since 2014, and on Xbox One since last year, so this is a game that has been in development for a long time. The PC version made it to full release in January, but this is the first time its ever appeared on PlayStation 4. Therell still be a lot of people that have never heard of it before, but hopefully that will change now its out on all formats.
While it is accurate to describe Subnautica as an open world survival game, its actually a pleasingly difficult game to pigeonhole. The basic structure is reminiscent of a cross between No Mans Sky and Minecraft, but the horror element is emphasised to the point where it can go toe-to-toe with dedicated survival horrors. Youll soon learn that while all those grotesque-looking fish are fascinating when David Attenborough is narrating them, when youre swimming along in the murky depths, and about to be eviscerated by them, its a very different story.
Unlike most of its peers Subnautica features some impressively involved storytelling, as you crash land on a mysterious ocean planet thats hiding many a secret in its watery depths. Your crewmates are in a similar position, and the game manages to gently guide you towards rescuing them and thereby opening up new areas to explore. But the actual plot itself is interesting, and while there are a lot of familiar sci-fi clichés the central themes are explored intelligently and via some surprisingly good voiceovers.
All of that comes later though, and since this is a survival game your first priority is ensuring a steady supply of food and water. Although that turns out to be reassuringly easy because you just have to catch the right fish. And if theres one thing your new ocean home has its a lot of fish.
Luckily, most of the gadgets in your escape pod still work, most importantly a device that is essentially the replicator out of Star Trek. Give it the right raw materials and it can make almost anything for you, and so the backbone of the game becomes trawling the ocean depths to find animals, vegetables, and minerals to transmute into something more useful.
Creating anything technological requires you to search out salvage, but eventually youre able to start churning out various kinds of submarines and even whole underwater sea-bases. Getting to the good stuff though requires exploring ever more dangerous areas, which demands specialist diving equipment and not getting eaten by the horrible great sea monsters that lurk outside the shallows.
The problem with most games set underwater is that the movement always tends to be very syrupy and unsatisfying, in an awkward attempt to simulate moving through water, and the graphics are usually very repetitive and dull. Subnautica suffers from neither problem though, with an impressive range of very different looking environments and a nice line in 70s style sci-fi designs. And while the handling of the vehicles does depend on the model its generally a pleasure to move around such a strange and unique landscape.
There is one other problem with underwater games though, and thats the fact that drowning is a really boring and frustrating way to die. And unfortunately that happens a lot in Subnautica. It comes with the territory, but its much more exciting to get eaten by a sea monster and chased around a shipwreck then it is to run out of air or get crushed by the pressure while mining for ore in a cave.
You cant have a game with a setting like this and not struggle with these issues, but theres also the problem common to all survival games, in that theres often a lot of repetition involved in unlocking the most useful abilities and tools. The constant mining and scavenging can begin to feel worryingly like real work at times, although the pacing is still better than most similar games.
The graphics are good in theory, but there are a lot of problems with pop-in and draw distances, as well as long load times. That was the case even on the PC but its worse still on the PlayStation 4 and joined by some frequent, but usually brief, frame rate problems. Hopefully that can be fixed with a quick patch, because itd be a shame if put anyone off the rest of the game.
Were still not sure Subnautica is quite as finished as it pretends to be, but either way itss an original and consistently surprising survival game, with an appropriate amount of depth for a game set so far under the waves.
In Short: A survival game that isnt out just to punish its players, but to entertain; with an impressive mix of exploration, crafting, and survival horror.
Pros: Great premise, with plenty of variety in terms of locations, gadgets, and vehicles. Surprisingly good story and some very effective horror and stealth moments.
Cons: There is a grind to the constant scavenging, that can get dull – especially if you keep drowning. Quite a few graphical bugs, long load times, and frame rate problems.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Release Date: 4th December 2018
Age Rating: 7