Indie titles have evolved quite a lot, targeting a large variety of audiences with a large number of different mechanics. In 2014, the Early Access bubble burst out, with tons of indie developers offering their titles for the players to buy, test, and offer feedback as to what sort of changes are required to be implemented to make the game better. One of the most prominent themes for the Early Access titles became ‘survival’, as more and more developers started developing sandbox survival games with crafting (‘Early Access’, ‘Open World’, ‘Survival’, ‘Crafting’ became the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Despite that, certain games tried to strike a chord and successfully did it. One prime example of a game that delivered on its Early Access promises is Subnautica.
Subnautica’s story is gripping, yet it allows the player to approach the story at their own pace. It all starts with the Aurora, a gigantic vessel issued for colonizing and terraforming planets crashes down on a planet for reasons unknown. The player’s job is to investigate why the Aurora crashed into the planet surface. A story that takes a unique twist as you replay audio messages in the radio to trace the remaining survivors, as you uncover forces far beyond humanity’s comprehension, that threatens to wipe out all life in the galaxy. Progression through the story is gradual, which means that there can be points the player finds themselves lost thinking what to do. The in-game PDA always has helpful information from the voice logs and documentation about your current progress and pointers in the game world where you will find useful stuff to advance in your plan of discovering the real cause of the destruction of the Aurora.
Gameplay Modes and Mechanics
Subnautica is a singleplayer-only game, with no multiplayer or co-op modes. However, in singleplayer, there are several gameplay modes to offer the player a small amount of variety. You can go for the traditional mode of Survival, dealing with hunger, thirst, while collecting materials to build a base underwater while coming up occasionally to gulp in some oxygen, or, if you feel the survival challenges are too petty,crank up the difficulty to play in Hardcore mode, where any damage you take is amplified, and you become hungry or thirsty after a short while, and your lungs hold little oxygen. Like playing the game casually? Freedom mode disables hunger and thirst, leaving you to tackle survival challenges by crafting underwater bases and managing your oxygen levels, while Creative mode disables all sort of challenges and allows freeform building, but you won’t be able to play through the story.
The game’s mechanics shows clearly how a desperate, lonely stranded survivor on a planet (not even an island) behaves. Yup, the only way is either to wait it out in the life pod, and die slowly out of thirst and hunger, or struggle against all odds to survive till you find a way off the planet. Also, this is an underwater world, meaning that you will need to occasionally come up to the surface for air, or drown in it. (Drowning only results in you losing half of your inventory and eventually results in your respawn, but in the beginning of the game, when you’re strapped for materials, that can be a crucial loss).
There are a variety of resources to collect, and they have different uses (in other words, different items which require them to be crafted). Resources vary from basic ones like titanium, copper, salt to rarer ones like lithium, gold, silver, and lead. The flora and fauna itself can be used as resources – many of the smaller fishes can be eaten, while plants like creep vine and acid mushrooms can be harvested. However, bigger fishes cannot be harvested, though if you damage them with weapons, like the survival knife, the creature dies. These creatures are simply added to add to the difficulty, and they cannot be killed for harvesting any kind of resources from them. Ores are primarily found in outcrops, or in nodes (which occur rarely, but yield a lot of resources). Resource availability varies from biome to biome, which means that it can be tedious to search for certain resources in certain biomes (the starting biome has enough resources for you to craft your basic survival tools). However, it also means you get to explore more of the world, as you scrounge for resources to craft that one tool you need to progress.
Crafting is an essential part of progression through the story. You start by turning metal salvage from the Aurora into titanium and crafting some basic survival tools to start venturing into biomes far from the starting area. Later, when you get the Habitat Builder tool, you get to craft ‘habitats’ – artificial bases for you to survive in, and mobile bases far from the escape pod. This means that you don’t need to return to the escape pod for crafting resources. Also, if you are a guy with an aesthetic sense of humor, you can customize the rooms of your bases with a lot of add-ons like a living aquarium (an aquarium within an aquarium is a pretty cool idea!). You do need to keep an idea of hull strength though – more the structures, the weaker the hull becomes. When the hull becomes sufficiently weak, water can easily break in and flood the ‘habitats’.
The brilliant environment design is the prime attraction of the game, though the dark story of the game surpasses expectations. The underwater world is a living one, one which senses your presence. You can see fishes running away from you, or predators like stalkers and sharks coming for you. You can see the flora in its full glory (unless a carnivorous planet ruins the fun for you). At many points in the game, you would think about stopping, and actually looking around. This also raises an important question – why does the game lack a photo mode, where you can take photos of the environment and export it? Steam has a feature, but games with environment design like Subnautica should have an inbuilt photo mode.
The biomes are distinct, diverse, and have particular plant and animal life restricted to it. Each biome also has a distinct supply of particular types of resources. The kelp forest abounds in creep vine, which is necessary for collecting creep vine samples or creep vine clusters. The grassy plateaus yield some of the largest amount of salt in the game, which is necessary for improving the quality of food or water ingested. As you explore, you find many more biomes, including two islands, which might be the only land portion on the entire planet. There are many underwater caves, and spending time in these caves in remote corners of the game world gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment….err….progression.
Graphics and optimization
As already mentioned above, the environment design is one of the best features of the game. The biomes are gorgeous, and the teeming life inside it is captured brilliantly by developer Unknown Worlds. The game chooses to stray away from realism, and depict stuff in a more cartoonish fashion. But that inherently doesn’t take away the awe in your face when you set foot in the underwater world, because the challenges you face in the world are very realistic, and makes up the psychological gap left by the so-called ‘cartoonish’ art style.
The game runs like a dream even on an extremely old system. The game was tested on the following PC:-
CPU: FX 8320
GPU : GTX 660 2GB DDR5
Memory: 6GB RAM DDR3
There were a few frame drops occasionally in places where the density of fauna was more, but since fauna have some of the highest poly-densities in any game, that is expected, especially on an old system like this. The game runs smoothly elsewhere.
If you are into exploration games, then Subnautica would definitely already be on your wishlist. If you’re otherwise free of a backlog, then Subnautica is a game worth looking at. Even if your backlog is full, it’s worth taking some time from other titles and progressing in the game and filling up the screenshots folder for Subnautica on Steam.