Subnautica Review

Substandard

21 March 2018
Played on Windows

Don't you just hate it when you're that guy? The entire world, apparently, is loving Subnautica right now. I'm left scratching my head, wondering how such a promising concept turned out, at least from this reviewer's perspective, to be such a total flop.

What is this game?

A first person survival game set almost entirely underwater, in which you play the role of the lone survivor of a spaceship crash, tasked with gathering enough resources to, at first, survive, and then to find a way to rescue.

Subnautica is the creation of Unknown Worlds Entertainment, the team who brought you the interesting but ultimately mediocre Natural Selection 2, amongst other titles of little repute.

Hasn't this been around for a while, though?

Indeed. Originally entering Steam Early Access in late 2014, it's worth reviewing now because it was only recently released, in January 2018. I picked up an early access copy back in 2015, based on word of mouth recommendations, and back then, it had promise.

The 2015 version had a nice visual appeal, some competent but unfinished gameplay elements, and a sense of polish that was notably lacking from many other early access titles of the time.

So what's new, almost three years later? I've been asking myself that very same question in mild disbelief.

My W key is broken

If you're the type of chap or lass who enjoys holding down one single key for the majority of your gameplay sessions, look no further. Subnautica has you covered. The early game revolves around the idea of heading out from your emergency escape pod, into the surrounding ocean, looking for things that might be useful for your survival.

Unfortunately, your character moves through the water like a sloth through molasses, and the basic gameplay cycle, early on, is: dive to the sea bed, do some stuff, come back to the surface for air.

The immediate problem here is that the diving and resurfacing is around 90% of all the things you'll be doing in the early game. You can equip yourself with an oxygen tank to get a little more time underwater, but as you find you require "rarer" materials to progress, they're located in areas of the map with a deeper sea floor.

I'm really not sure if this bothers other people as much as it bothers me, but there is far too much travelling about the place, holding W, watching your destination slowly appear, to actually present anything more than a faint sonar ping of fun.

Underwater scene from Subnautica

Pretty wet

There's no denying that Subnautica is quite a looker. The underwater world is convincing, with some nice touches like the bubbles from your character as you move around beneath the surface. When darkness arrives, the sea bed is lit with all kinds of glowing fauna, and although it's harder to navigate during the night, it's quite an experience to behold.

It's not all good news: the islands you will explore during a typical playthrough are lacking in a major way, looking distinctly out of place from the pretty underwater vistas, with a lack of convincing lighting and some seriously dodgy-looking textures.

These areas were a later addition, and it shows. The visuals here feel rough and rushed, as though someone at Unknown Worlds suddenly realised their world would be unknown unless they got it released, and piled on the pressure to "make do and mend" instead of putting in the required effort.

Performance hog

I tested the release version on a GTX 1080 Ti, with an i9-7900. This game chugs. Badly. Even on this powerful system, there is a far-too-frequent stuttering that happens in the graphical engine. With anti aliasing turned off, the game struggled to run at 60 frames per second, even when there was apparently very little to show on the screen.

There's also same weirdness to be found when transitioning between the surface and a submerged state. The moons (this is an alien world, after all) look great on the surface, but, seen from just underneath, look like 8-bit graphics better suited to a NES game.

These graphical problems are not new. They were consistently problematic back in 2015, but at the time, "don't worry, it's early access" was the prevailing message. Occasional stuttering or rendering lag is common in a lot of games, but in Subnautica, it is frequent enough to be a constant annoyance, and another indicator that the team at Unknown Worlds wanted to get this thing out of the door, rather than address problems.

Something fishy

Subnautica is absolutely riddled with bugs. Remember that we're not talking about an early access title any more. This is a full-blown release title with a price tag to match, and this is inexcusable.

When cracking open resources on a cliff in the sea floor, the resources are designed to fall according to gravity. Instead, what tends to happen is that they clip through the cliff and into the ether, your character unable to reach them, which is massively frustrating if you come across the one rare resource you need to complete your current gathering checklist.

Fish constantly clip through scenery, and are seen doing some ridiculous things. Sometimes it's not even apparent to these aquatic creatures that walls are solid, clipping into underwater rooms that are supposed to be sealed from the ocean outside.

So many items, so little space

One of my larger gripes with this title is the woeful inventory system. This is a gathering game: you need to go out and find a plethora of resources in order to be able to construct the things you'll need, whether that's a machine to enable you to swim faster, or an underwater habitat for your master plans.

Subnautica's inventory screen

Early on, you only have the emergency escape pod, with its single storage container, but the problem is that in order to break out of the pod and start constructing your underwater lair, you need more items than will fit in the emergency pod and your inventory combined.

There are a few options available, but none are very appealing. You can build more storage containers, but these are tiny at first. You will also need to be a qualified librarian, because you can only build new items if the ingredients are in your inventory, and when there's a few containers, most of your time will be occupied by foraging amongst them all trying to find that one bit of gold you stowed half an hour ago. But hey, at least you won't need to keep your finger on the W key for this bit!

Things only get worse as the game progresses, because you need a larger quantity of more diverse resources to continue your progression. The crime here is that there are so many elegant solutions to inventory management seen in other similar games (Terraria, anyone?) and this clumsy, fumbled attempt again indicates a minimum level of effort given by the developers towards player quality of life.

Spam the mouse and hope for the best

Almost as woefully terrible as the inventory dilemma is the way in which gathering and fighting living creatures is handled. How on earth (or whatever planet we're on in Subnautica) this never got fixed is a mystery I will never overcome.

Early on, it's necessary to "catch" certain smaller fish to provide food, and sometimes other benefits, such as water purification. The method by which you "catch" is to get very close to the fish and click the left mouse button. It sounds simple and logical in theory, but in practice, it's a world of frustration.

The fish move in unpredictable patterns, can move faster than your character (at least early on), and there's no indication of when you're close enough. You just either "are" or "are not" close enough, and the cursor will suddenly change to indicate the fish can be collected. But just as it can change immediately to show you it's possible to collect a fish, it can easily change when the fish darts out of the way, and you click a millisecond too late.

This leads to the most efficient tactic of swimming about like a rapidly deflating whoopee cushion, spamming the left mouse button in the hope you get it right, as the fish rapidly changes direction. Just hope your target doesn't swim near any other objects, because you will suddenly find your inventory full of a load of crap you didn't need, as the fish smugly makes its escape.

Again, such a simple problem to fix with a more elegant game design solution, and it's an indication to me that player quality of life just didn't feature in the minds of the developers here.

Cooking food in Subnautica

Thou shalt not kill

For whatever reason, Unknown Worlds decided that combat is not going to be a feature in Subnautica. This is somewhat refreshing in principle: a game doesn't need to feature guns or harpoons or other aggression in order to be a complete experience.

In reality, it seems like whoever made this design decision didn't really see it through with the rest of the development team. You will quickly gain a combat knife, and later on, a stun type tool, but there are no traditional "gun" type weapons in the game.

However, there are plenty of things that will try to kill you. As an example, you will need some cave sulfur to make certain things. This is found in the "nest" of a fish that acts a bit like a proximity mine. If you get too close, it will explode in your face. However, you have to get close because you need that particular resource.

No problem, just use the knife, right? This works in theory but you need the timing of an atomic clock. Knife swings have no impact and no sense of direction or distance. You're as likely to score a kill by spamming the attack button as you are by timing your blows, so collecting this particular resource becomes an exercise in frustration.

An exercise in frustration... are you seeing a pattern emerge here?

There are later-game ways to defend yourself better, including a sort of titan thing that walks on the sea bed and provides good protection. However, in order to acquire the means by which you can access these gee-whiz devices, you absolutely have to venture into areas of the map with creatures that can and will kill you, before you have the means to defend yourself.

This is as much luck as anything else. Sometimes there won't be a dangerous creature near the rare resource you're after, and sometimes you can grab it and flee before you get torn to shreds. Your expertise and skill has nothing to do with this whatsoever, so you just pray to Neptune and hope he's in a good mood today.

Game design 101: a player should die from lack of skill or practice, not from bad luck, unless you're making a luck-based game.

Belly flop

At times, Subnautica is compelling, there's no doubt. It inches you through a cycle of progression fast enough to keep you wondering and reaching for the next milestone, but slow enough that you will not be able to rush to completion. But really, that's where the good part ends, for this reviewer.

This game absolutely should not have been released in its current broken state. It needs more time on the graphics, to sort out the abysmal performance even on high-end machines. It needs more time in QA, fixing irritating and ridiculous bugs that have been in the game for years. It needs more time in design, ensuring that systems don't punish or frustrate the player just for attempting to have a good experience.

There are so many problems with Subnautica compared with so few things to like, I'm left bewildered. What looked to be an unfinished but promising and fun concept in 2015 has morphed into... pretty much exactly the same unfinished game in 2018.

It might appear that this review seems as salty as the ocean I've been floating about in for the many hours I've spent with this title. It certainly seems at odds with the general consensus out there: "overwhelmingly positive" on Steam, and most major review outlets spraying praise through their blowholes.

So take this review on board with those; it's never a good idea to rely on just one opinion, and I'm genuinely perplexed as to why others are so enamoured with Subnautica. I just wonder if Unknown Worlds might buy me a new W key.

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