As someone who spends a lot of time reviewing games, reading about games, talking about games, and keeping up with game news, it was more than a little surprising to get a hot tip from… my eight-year-old.

I’m not exactly sure how the pre-teen grapevine works, but apparently someone watched some YouTube somewhere, and that led to them telling someone else about an early access game. That person told friend A, who told friend B, who told friend C, which eventually culminated in me hearing about Subnautica. It’s not my normal method of getting the scoop on something to watch for, but hey, I’ll take it.

Created by Unknown Worlds, this survival adventure begins with the player on a damaged spaceship in the process of making a crash landing. They then hop into an escape pod and land on the closest planet, which turns out to be (apparently) 99% ocean.

Once things quiet down and the player finds themselves bobbing on the surface of this alien waterworld, Subnautica gets things rolling in a smart way. As in most survival/crafting games, a large portion of time spent will be collecting materials in order to make things, which in turn leads to collecting more materials needed to make more things. However, what’s neat is how this is all set up.

Supporting the ‘escape pod’ premise, the player’s PDA goes into “emergency” mode and explains that the pod is stocked with all the equipment needed to sustain life, so long as the player is able to feed it raw materials.  There’s a futuristic 3D printer on board, and the databanks come pre-loaded with blueprints for things needed in such a situation. Players are still going to collect and craft, but I appreciated that the devs made an effort to give some narrative justification to what’s going on. It may be a small thing, but it goes a long way.

Once I had a grasp on my situation, I climbed out of my pod and saw the ship that went down, burning in the distance. My first instinct was to swim out to see if I could salvage anything usable, but apparently the engine room was giving off too much radiation to approach, forcing me to engage with my immediate surroundings.

Although the game is still in early access on Xbox One, it’s looking fairly polished already. The graphics are quite nice, and although there’s some visual pop-in and glitching, it still manages to be serene and beautiful. Swimming beneath the waves and collecting bits of seaweed and rock was even sort of relaxing… when I wasn’t being attacked by aggressive fish. Of course, most of them are harmless but some can cause problems. One complication? As far as I can tell, there are no weapons in the game — the PDA informed me that the blueprints were removed from survival kits after a previous survivor massacred some native fauna. In any case, the danger was fairly minimal in the areas I was exploring, although that may not be the case later.

After swimming around for a while and grabbing anything that caught my attention, I came back to the pod to make what I could. With just a little bit of effort I had a flashlight, some diving fins, a couple of health packs, a knife, and a few other odds and ends. It was also a minor victory when I crafted a portable storage unit that maintains its position in the ocean wherever it’s left, assisting in further resource collection. I was proud.

After this satisfactory level of progress, I hopped over to the other modes to investigate the remaining content. When beginning a new game, players can pick from four options — traditional survival, a “freedom” mode where oxygen and health are still factors, but managing food and water is unnecessary. There’s also a hardcore mode in which players have exactly one life and will have to start over from scratch if they die, and then there’s a Minecraft-style creative mode for people (like my son) who love this game but don’t love the grunt work of gathering materials.

After taking a quick peek at the options that were unlocked in creative mode, it was revealed that there are several vehicles that can eventually be crafted. There were also a number of tools and pieces of gear, and a surprising number of housing structures that can be built underwater. It’s all looking promising, although I will say that one area in need of improvement is that it’s a pain to require materials to be in the player’s personal inventory before crafting. The player can only hold so much, and shuffling things around from storage box to storage box is going to be a real drag. I hope the developers skip this undesirable element and let items be crafted no matter which storage area a resource is in. .

One other thing to mention is that while I didn’t see them firsthand, I was watching over my son’s shoulder and it was revealed that there are story elements to be found in Subnautica. Logically, the main goal is to get off of the planet by making enough stuff to either call for help or to repair the downed spaceship. Also, other escape pods (and survivors?) are eventually discovered, and there just might be an island or two out there somewhere. Straight-up survival in a mechanical sense might be enough for some, I’m the kind of player that needs an end goal. I was glad to see that there’s enough of a story here to work with.

While I don’t usually enjoy survival games or early access (and I’m generally of the opinion that crafting can go die in a fire) my sessions with Subnautica were far more entertaining than I would have expected. I liked how well all the pieces fit together, the concept was a solid match for the material, and the undersea setting added something quite appealing to the formula. I’m going back to dry land for the moment, but when the game’s done, I’ll be excited to (yep!) dive back in.

Subnautica is currently available on both Steam and Xbox One as an early access release, and will be receiving a full release on Steam this January 23rd. No date is currently announced for the final version to be released on Xbox One. For more information, go to Subnautica‘s website, and tell them I sent you!

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
Brad Gallaway

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