Down where it’s wetter

Over the last few days, I’ve been completely obsessed with Subnautica. This is a video game that released in 2018 and completely missed my radar. I’m playing it now because I got it for free thanks to Sony’s “Play at Home” initiative, when they just gave out a bunch of free games back in March.

The plot of Subnautica is simple: your spaceship crashed on an uncharted planet and you now have three objectives. One: survive. Two: find other survivors. Three: find a way off this rock. Nothing too unique here.

The twist here is that the world of Subnautica, if you hadn’t guessed by the title, is (almost) completely underwater. Given that most people loathe the underwater levels in video games, this may seem like an odd choice, but it absolutely works here. The massive world beneath the waves is pure joy to explore, and taking the action underwater provides a much appreciated change from the usual landlubbin’ action of open-world games.

Subnautica’s gameplay loop is very simple: dive down and collect a bunch of materials, then go back up to your escape pod and see what you can make with them in your 3D printer. Create items and upgrades that allow you to dive deeper and longer, then rinse and repeat. Eventually you’ll make a scanner which you can use to not only scan everything in the ocean for datalogs, but also to learn how to make more advanced items by scanning detritus from the crash. Eventually you’ll make a handheld “habitat builder” that allows to you create an expansive underwater base that will expand your options out even more.

Odd as it may sound, I think the most compelling thing about Subnautica is that you never get an actual map. Sure, certain craftable things can produce holographic readouts of the nearby surroundings, but by and large, you’re on your own to orientate yourself. It feels great to finally start learning the lay of the land, figuring out where you’re going and where you’ve been by landmarks, your compass, and distance markers on important objects. Add in various degrees of limited underwater visibility, and it’s almost a whole game in and of itself just to figure out where you’re going. Somewhere in the world is a blueprint to teach you how to make your own beacons, but I still haven’t found it after 20+ hours of gameplay. Which is both a blessing and a curse, because I desperately want to mark places, but I know I’d end up flooding the world with like a billion of them.

One of the most satisfying moments in the game is when I made a microchip that plugged into my helmet and let me stream data from my base’s scanning room. This allowed me to choose a resource to scan for, and then every instance of that item within range was marked and became visible on my HUD, making searching for materials infinitely easier. While there are plenty of very rewarding milestones to achieve in Subnautica, that was the one that made me cackle with mad glee at the power I’d finally gained.

The normal mode of the game has that “fun” survival element of making you constantly monitor hunger and thirst gauges, and the thirst gauge in particular is not at all generous. The damn thing ticks down like nobody’s business. I’m a little bit torn on this feature, though. On one hand, having it there has added a great deal of tension to my excursions, making sure that I either pack enough supplies to last, or start heading back home before I expire from dehydration. On the other hand, I spend a lot of time at my base, squeezing bladderfish for numerous bottles of clean water that clog up my inventory and only replenish 20% of the gauge. If I could turn back time, would I opt to play on the “casual” mode that simply removes hunger and thirst? Nah, probably not. But I would suggest that any new players take some time to consider the option.

Of course, nothing is without its faults, and Subnautica has an unfortunately long list of them. This is a very, very buggy game. And while some games are brought low or outright destroyed by poor programming, I enjoyed exploring Subnautica’s world so much that it completely overshadowed all the immersion-breaking glitches and frustrating technical problems. Some less important issues include: pop-in like you wouldn’t believe, fish that clip through base walls, and a ridiculous amount of lag anytime you exit a menu.

The worst thing that’s happened so far? I was on a mission down a very deep cave system to find some spoilery stuff, and after grabbing the loot and narrowly escaping from some very large, hungry critters, I was on my way out. It had been a very long excursion, my hunger and thirst meters were getting dangerously low, and I was completely out of supplies. I had to get out of there and back to base as fast as possible. So I found an exit to the cave system, still about 500m below the surface, pointed my sea-buggy straight up, and hit the throttle. At about the 350m mark, a loud crash echoed out, as if something had collided with me, and everything went dark. Did I get hit so hard that I died? No, the HUD was still up. I was disoriented and panicked, and then… the textures began to load in. What had happened is that a giant section of wreckage had actually loaded in around me, presumably because I was travelling too fast and the game was unable to keep up. So my sea-buggy was trapped inside, and I wasn’t able to find a way out until it was much too late. I was still over 300m down with only 50 seconds worth of air left. I swam and swam, but drowning was inevitable at that point.

It’s also important to note that Subnautica takes forever to load. There’s only the one load when you start up the game, but it literally takes long enough for you to go make a sandwich while you wait. This, coupled with the fact that every time I’ve quit to menu to load a save, the game has crashed, make for a very compelling set of reasons to just live with any mistakes I make. Yeah, I could reload to avoid that death and not lose all those materials at the bottom of a cave where I don’t know where it is, but is it really worth it? No. No it’s not.

Also, it takes probably about a full minute to save the game. Which is bonkers.

So Subnautica is like, crazy broken (at least on PS4). But I do need to reiterate that I’ve been having so much fun playing the game, that the problems haven’t really been bothering me all that much. I just think about which things I want to build next, or which areas I want to spend time exploring, and my heart is filled with a sense of excitement and wonder. There honestly aren’t that many video games these days that hook me quite the same way, so I’m going to be milking it for all it’s worth. It would be hard to recommend buying it, but I would say that if you happen to be able to play it for free? Take the plunge.

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