I’ve crashlanded in an alien ocean, the sole survivor of a terraforming mission. My life pod floats, luckily, and comes equipped with a high-tech 3D printer and a storage locker. For me to survive, I’ve got to pillage the bounties of the ocean floor while trying not to starve to death or get eaten myself.
Subnautica is… well. I could dance around a bit, but it’s underwater Minecraft. Reductivity is frequently not a virtue, and describing one game in terms of a recent mega-success always feels a little icky. Like when every startup company describes themselves as “Uber for [other thing].” Even so, Subnautica, developed by Natural Selection 2 devs Unknown Worlds, features crafting, digging, monsters, hunger and thirst, exploration, procedurally generated vistas, and dangerous creatures that come out at night. It’s Minecraft, except underwater.
That’s not a bad thing, though. Minecraft’s oceans were always a little sparse, populated by doofy octopi and sand. As massive and uncharted as real oceans are, they deserve the attentions of an entire game. Subnautica is on its way to being a lovely sandbox of underwater exploration.
In its current state, Subnautica features two modes: survival and freedom. They are basically the same, but the freedom mode removes the game’s hunger and thirst mechanics, and doesn’t empty your inventory when you die. I found that, as in Minecraft, once I no longer struggled to survive, I quickly lost interest in the game. Subnautica is a game that begs to be explored, so I appreciate the option to simply turn off the survival mechanics.
In survival mode, a lot is riding on a successful first day. From the moment I wake up in Subnautica, I have a few minutes before I starve to death, and few more before I die of thirst. The immediate business of the day is outfitting myself with salt, freshly caught alien fish, and some gear.
All of the crafting in Subnautica takes place on a 3D printer inside my floating lifepod base, and the progression of raw materials to finished gear is immediately familiar: Organic matter gets printed into raw carbon. Carbon and zinc get printed into a basic battery. A battery and some glass become a flashlight, and now I can see what’s going on at night.
It’s predictable, sure, but it’s still incredibly satisfying. Building a self-propelled, armored, deep-sea capable submarine feels so good because I put it together, piece by piece, while swimming in a sea of predators.
Though it is fun already, Subnautica does suffer from some technical problems. Terrain has a habit of popping in, especially when I got my souped-up submarine to full speed. On one occasion, I drove straight off the edge of the world because the next cluster failed to load. This locked up the game and, because saving and loading isn’t implemented yet, I had to start a new game without that badass sub.
In addition to subs, Subnautica has a few interesting toys to play with. Flashlights and seascooters and location beacons are all available to help navigate the alien waters. My favorite gadget is the gravsphere, a plantable trap that captures fish. Deploy it, go hunting for scrap metal and minerals, then come back to a fresh fish dinner. It’s that kind of high-tech creativity that draws me away from Minecraft comparisons and makes me hopeful that Subnautica will bring new ideas to the survival sandbox genre.
Surviving can be a struggle in the early days, but a little luck meant I had extra supplies after a half hour. Once a surplus was safe, that was my cue to start pushing myself, diving deeper, swimming farther from the safety of my lifepod. Discrete biomes like mushroom forests, coral reefs, and cave complexes feature local resources and creatures, and they’re all amazing to look at.
The designs and art of the alien sea creatures also deserve some praise. I found exploration to be a simple joy, but pulling a double-take when I spot a new animal is more rewarding than locating a new type of terrain. There are fish shaped like boomerangs, trout with one giant eye, razor-toothed predators, and blowfish that explode. My favorite part is that I never know which animals are dangerous. I’ll spot a giant, slow-moving whale and watch it, circling, trying to suss out if it’s the type to swallow me whole or ignore me completely. The feeling of being an alien interloper, that I am swimming on a world that is not my own, is complete and unlike anything else in the genre.
Eventually, though, my well-stocked inventory started sapping the tension from the situation. Without a clock ticking down to a starvation death, I began having much less fun. My hope is that an end-game goal—be rescued, find land, build an underwater city and proclaim myself king, etc.—will add direction to the parts of the game that follow immediately after “don’t starve to death.”
Another limitation of the current build is that you’re effectively tethered to the life pod. You can take your sub miles and miles in any direction, but if you want to cook food ever again, you’re going to have to turn around and drive back to the fabricator. I’m hopeful that the devs’ plans for larger submarines will include one with an on-board fabricator to really set you free. Unknown Worlds also has plans for more animals, more crafting recipes, deeper biomes (accessible only with deep-diving subs), and more raw materials. The team is taking the idea of open development seriously, managing its to-do list on a public task board. Players can scroll through and see that the missing inventory icon for the Hoopfish is already fixed, and will be updated in the new build scheduled for January 15.
With an experienced developer at the helm and a limitless variety of the oceans to play with, it’s going to take a lot for Subnautica to go badly wrong. As the toolbox gets deeper and the shape of the end-game gets set, Subnautica will be a unique example of the ways survival can be tense, rewarding, and fun.