October 3, 2019 at 10:59 AM #580
Rating: 4.0 – Great
A unique and wonderful exploration of the depths only hindered by technical limitation
Let’s Dive in:
When I first booted up Subnautica, I had no idea what to expect. A friend, who’s opinion on gaming I greatly appreciate and value, had gifted it to me for my 30th birthday. All I knew is that it was a game about exploring the ocean, and he swore by it. I had no idea that this game would literally consume my free time for the next couple of weeks until I had logged 60 hours and explored the deepest depths. Subnautica is unique, beautiful, charming, horrifying, and magical. Subnautica is the total package. Let’s break it down.
The gameplay loop in Subnautica is addicting and wonderful, with its main flaw being that it’s overly tedious at times. I cannot express enough how well the game forces you to learn without hand-holding, and how it doesn’t take long to realize that you will absolutely need to go deeper at every turn, putting yourself in danger is ironically the only way to survive. The constant exploration of the incredibly detail rich biomes is, at its core, the main point of the game. If you don’t like exploring, Subnautica is not for you. If your favorite part of a game like Zelda: BOTW is roaming the fields and uncovering new secrets, then strap on your goggles and oxygen tank, you’re diving in.
There is a story, and that story is actually much more compelling than I expected. The story acts as a bit of a guide that will point you in the general direction you need to go without simply giving you a destination which would deter from the natural explorative nature. While that story is enjoyable, it isn’t anything that makes or breaks the game, but does add a positive surprise to it.
One (mostly optional) big aspect to the gameplay is building your base(s). You can build basically anywhere and make a home-away-from-home with a hell of a view. At some point in my nearly 60-hour file, base building actually became my main motivation. I wanted to a nice cozy bedroom with a fish tank, a view, a water purifier, a greenhouse, etcetera and I made it. There is something insanely rewarding about becoming self-sufficient on this big blue sphere, and by the time I completed my adventure I had created 2 bases I was quite proud of.
The biggest ISSUE with the gameplay loop, is easily without question inventory management. You will burn through hundreds, if not thousands of resources throughout your adventure and only being able to carry a couple dozen at a time causes for a lot of juggling. There is a solution to this that comes fairly late game where you will obtain a means of moving thousands of resources all at once, but that isn’t a freebie as the method of doing so can be challenging if you’re moving to or from small places with tight navigation. Funny enough, I enjoyed that challenge.
In regards to the above issue, I will also say that the end of the game requires a fairly resource intensive structure to be built, and a lot of back tracking. While the absolute END of the story is wonderful, that final construction Â¨C to me at least Â¨C was the most tedious of the game.
Now let me note I played on the PS4 and while I do not regret doing so, I will acknowledge that this is a game that is likely holistically better experienced being run off a decent PC. I make this note because it’s easily the game’s biggest weakness.
Let me explain, the game is gorgeous. It takes all of 20 seconds to realize this, as you climb from your escape pod and look at the calm waters surrounding you, the calm splashes rocking your pod ever so slightly. You take your first dive and in an instant, you are teleported to a world of beautiful and vibrant reefs, dancing fish, peach sands, and teal waters. It’s wonderful in every way.
The game only becomes more impressive as you discover nearby biomes and begin your self-discovering process to dive deeper. Glowing creep vines are probably the perfect visual metaphor for the game, where though they are harmless and oddly beautiful, they also give a sense of Lovecraftian horror when you realize you’re 50meters under the surface and these massive plants are home to predators that will startle the rookie player dozens of times. I could go on and on about how well-crafted and beautiful the world is, and what I’ve briefly described here is only the first 2 biomes of many. So where is the weakness that I prepared you for? Well, mostly it comes from the technical aspect. There are some non-technical issues, such as the textures present when on land, or of the crashed ship (the Aurora) itself, and when you happen to get someplace high you’ll notice the waves flow in the same repeated pattern, but none of that is SO bad. The technical aspect however, is the killer. The pop-ins were not only noticeable and jarring, but at times they will be so bad that you will literally stop and WAIT for the game to load the world around you or risk being stuck, phased into some bedrock that loaded around you, or end up falling through the floor of the world. At its best, it’s immersion ruining, and it’s worst, it’s game breaking. And it’s FREQUENT. I can overlook this stuff in most games, but in a game like Subnautica where the literal point of the game is for the world around (and most importantly, BELOW) you is meant to be explored, that world NEEDS to load. When I inevitably summarize this write up and give this game a simple 1-digit number to somehow describe the quality of the sum of its parts, you can refer to this paragraph as to the reason the number isn’t higher.
In my opinion, the atmosphere of a game is one of the BIG (often overlooked) aspects of what makes or breaks a game. A game can have sub-par gameplay, but if the atmosphere is excellent, it may still draw you back. Take a game like the original Nier for example, the gameplay left a lot to be desired, but the ATMOSPHERE of the game (along with excellent story and characters) made it a cult classic. Sound design is CRITICAL to making a great a atmosphere. Subnautica absolutely nails this. The OST can be exciting at times, thrilling at others, and absolutely terrifying in some instances. It’s excellent.
Maybe even more importantly than the OST itself is the sound design. The muffled effects of the ocean pounding on your ears as you dive under, the breaths you gasp as you surface at the last instance, the various different clinks and clanks of mining resources, and most impressively the wailing and moaning of the nearby unknown. Predators screech, or sometimes growl or even just give off a clicking sound like some sort of mute demon, all add to the suspense and tension you’ll feel as you experience the world through audio senses. Sometimes the deep depths will be so black that these sounds are your only sure warning that you are undoubtedly in danger.
Pair all of this with the visuals I previously described and the gameplay loop of needing to go deeper and deeper for resources, and you have an atmosphere that is a superb and rare quality in gaming.
I’ll be blunt. I loved Subnautica. It was by and large my biggest Â¡Â°surpriseÂ¡Â± of 2018. It’s also maybe the only true Â¡Â°survivalÂ¡Â± game I’ve ever felt this way about. However, it can be quite a difficult game to recommend. When looking at the trophy list, I see that only about 5% of players on the PS4 actually completed the game Â¨C and that’s not surprising to me. It’s not necessarily a Â¡Â°hardÂ¡Â± game, but it is hard to find where you need to go. You need to be observant, you need to experiment, and the start of the game leaves you totally to your own devices without any sort of tutorial. It can be intimidating to a more casual gamer, which is an interesting dilemma because the (mostly) relaxing and explorative nature of the game can also be very appealing to a casual gamer. It’s aspects like this that reinforce my statement of how unique the game is. If exploration, survival, base-building, and the ocean are things that interest you, this may be your perfect game. If a steep learning curve puts you off, or if you want a story driven adventure, this is best avoided without at least a little more research. But really, I think it’s a game that everyone should experience at some point, even if it’s only for an hour or two to explore the depths. Personally, my love for this game as is deep as the ocean it threw me into. Due entirely to technical constraints (hopefully mitigated on a good PC), I’m reluctant to give this game Â¡Â®only’ 8.5/10.
About the Author:
(Burdicus is an avid gamer and has been his entire life. Starting with games like Mario, Faxanadu, and Megaman at the ripe age of 4, the culture of gaming is one that has grown alongside him over the decades. He obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Game Design at age 21 and has been writing reviews as a hobby using the knowledge he obtained as a reference point.)
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