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A few weeks ago I decided to check out the early access of Subnautica the open world, underwater, survival game from Unknown Worlds Entertainment. The game has been available in early access for over a year, but I didn’t learn about it until stumbling on to some YouTube let’s plays by IGP and Markiplier. I thought the game looked cool and the Steam Sale dropped the regular $19.99 to $13.99, which seemed like an acceptable risk to me.

Subnautica takes place on an ocean planet and so far there aren’t really any story elements driving the game besides setting up the initial premise. You are, ostensibly, the only survivor of a colony ship on an alien world. The game starts with a computerized voice explaining that a strange energy was detected before the Aurora colony ship you were on was damaged. Why you’re the only one who made it to an escape pod and how you knew to get off in the first place is not revealed. From there you begin the game inside your escape pod floating on the alien ocean with the burning wreckage of the Aurora off in the distance.

In short, there isn’t much starting direction but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because the resource mechanics are what drive the starting game play. The environment is almost exclusively aquatic and you have to manage your oxygen, food, water, and health. Your food and water are constantly being depleted requiring you to hunt fish to cook for food and from which to extract drinkable water. The amount of time you can spend below the surface of the water is limited by lung capacity. This effectively prevents you from diving below certain depths and makes cave exploration incredibly risky.

The escape pod that you start in has a small but self-replenishing supply of energy that drives a fabricator that allows you to create basic materials, equipment, deployables, and sustenance. With the fabricator, and materials that can be gathered from the surrounding area, you can begin to upgrade your gear. Upgrades to your gear allow you swim faster, dive deeper, and defend yourself allowing you to explore more and more of the map. This is where I felt like the game switched from being just survival to including exploration.

From the very beginning of the game the large wreck of the Aurora looms in the distance and the steep drop-offs from the shallows tease you. If you try to dive too deep, you’ll suffocate. If you try to reach the Aurora, you’ll die from radiation poisoning. Of course, your fabricator can build additional air tanks and even a lead-lined wet suit if you have the right materials. Searching for the materials to build these upgrade items gets you out into the world seeing the flora and fauna, seeing other areas to explore later.
The need to find food and water quickly gives way to a sense of exploration as your upgrades make satisfying the basic needs easier.

Perhaps even cooler than personal upgrades is the ability to build underwater bases. A tool that can be fabricated called a “builder” allows access to a variety of structures. You can build rooms, corridors, platforms, structural reinforcements, and observatories. Inside the base you can build windows, storage cabinets to hold extra materials, fish tanks for food, etc. Bases can be built anywhere on the map and presumably at any depth (provided you can reinforce the structure) allowing for a great deal of strategic game play in where you place bases and how many bases you choose to build.

Exploring the various biomes in the open world will lead you to discover another of Subnautica’s resources, technology fragments. Fragments can unlock, among other things, additional base structures like a desalination machine to automatically produce pure water or a moon pool to dock the Seamoth submersible.
That’s right, you can build submersibles and even your very own submarine increasing the speed in which you can travel the map or even just acting as a nearby oxygen source when deep diving. The submarine is effectively a mobile base allowing you to build storage cabinets and even a fabricator inside of it.

Even though the new technology and upgrades make acquiring food and water easier, the survival aspect of the game never goes away entirely. Most technologies, including vehicles, run on finite power sources requiring you to harvest materials to produce additional batteries and power cells to recharge them. Equipment can slow the loss of water and preserve excess food for later use, but you still have to forage occasionally and you absolutely have to plan ahead when going out exploring.

I have absolutely loved playing Subnautica and it really is a gorgeous game. It has some beautiful landscape and creature design which I couldn’t hope to capture in the screenshots below. If Subnautica intrigues you, I recommend checking out the Subnautica site for some much better game images and watching some YouTube videos especially IGP’s Subnautica Let’s Play. Subnautica is in early access which means the game goes through regular and sometimes dramatic updates. So, if you’re not ready to risk losing everything you’ve worked on in an update, put Subnautica on your watch list and grab it when it officially releases (or goes on sale again).