Ever since the rise of Minecraft, the survival genre has been an ever-growing entity, relying on players scavenging for food and resources to build shelter, reach further into the world and, as the genre classification suggests, survive. Every game that comes out, makes the pool even larger while offering their own spin to try and differentiate itself enough to stand out as the essential game.
Subnautica has you descending in an escape pod, your spaceship exploding outside the window as you plummet towards the ground. After landing and using a fire extinguisher to make the pod safe you leave to find yourself adrift, floating in the middle of the ocean with nothing but the wreckage of your previous vessel in sight. To survive you must swim into the waters that surround you and scavenge in order to survive. Fish provide sustenance, while scraps of metal and other materials allow you to construct more equipment.
Subnautica follows the cyclical pattern of games like Minecraft or Don’t Starve as you head out gathering the things you need to survive and then use what you have to travel longer distances and discover new areas to acquire new materials that can be used to build more equipment. Anyone who has ever played this kind of game can understand how the game flows as you repeat the pattern of explore, build, explore, build. What makes Subnautica different is that, due to its underwater world, there is a much stronger correlation between the equipment you construct and how much of the world you can actually see as oxygen limits how long you can be underwater for, while radiation restricts your entrance into certain areas. While in Minecraft, in theory, you could go wherever you want right from the beginning, Subnautica has you spending your first few hours centred around your pod as you make very brief journeys below the surface. This allows for a rewarding experience as you can clearly see your progress in how far you have managed to travel.
The depths of the ocean provide an interesting and unique environment for this kind of game as unusual aquatic lifeforms swim around as you search for that one thing you need to finally build the equipment you need. The creatures you encounter are diverse from the smaller fish like the Boomerang or the much larger, and more aggressive, Sand Sharks. Subnautica offers great exploration as every little thing you discover feels interesting, offering an underwater playground like none we have ever really seen in games before.
“even the simplest of resources can be difficult to work out.”
Unfortunately, Subnautica is not without its issues. While games like Don’t Starve or Minecraft are immediately accessible, you spend a good amount of time within Subnautica feeling utterly clueless. Minecraft’s blocky style makes it immediately obvious what resources you can gain from what objects – you see a tree, you know its wood or you see ore in a wall, you know its iron – but in Subnautica, even the simplest of resources can be difficult to work out. This, too, carries over into the crafting mechanic. I would often look at a list of materials I need to construct an item and I wouldn’t have a clue where I should look to gain it. While there are extensive wikis online that can help you with this sort of thing, it does make portions of the game confusing or even frustrating as you search for ages in the hope that you stumble across the exact thing you are looking for.
The game is currently in Xbox Game Preview, and while that goes some way to explain why the game may have performance issues, it doesn’t give the game a get out of jail free card. The framerate is at an almost constant low. Exploring the depths becomes immediately frustrating and immersion-breaking when the game stutters considerably. Movement becomes stilted, making for annoying moments when trying to aim precisely at moving targets, ultimately affecting the enjoyment I had with the game. After only short play sessions, I would find myself having to give up with the game as the framerate drops became so significant as to hamper my experience, leaving me with a game that, while fun, was often unplayable.