My idea of camping is staying at a hotel where the HD TVs don’t have USB ports, so you may be surprised to learn that I find solace in games that throw you into the wilderness where all odds are against you. Even better, are when these games have a solid progression where you gradually go from starving in your underoos to becoming the lord of the domain that once tried to swallow you whole.
This is a great trope in games and can be found in a lot of unexpected places, like Minecraft, Breath of the Wild, and Fallout 4, but these games are massive and deep, and survival is only a small part. Subnautica is a simple game about survival, with a story wrapped around it. Taking place centuries in the future, you start out on a starship as it crashes and explodes above an alien ocean world. Crashing down in your lifepod, your only task is to survive the alien ocean until you can escape.
Fortunately, because it’s the future, you have a few devices that make your job relatively easy. It takes some scrounging around the reefs for the materials it takes to build the tools you need to survive, but before long you’ll be laser-grilling alien fish, zipping around on a seaglide, and turning coral and salt into bottled water.
The crafting interface is simple; you have a crafting station in your pod that lets you choose what you want to make. If you have the required materials in your inventory, it will laser them into existence. You can discover more crafting recipes by scanning rubble from the crashed ship that is strewn all over the ocean floor.
Before long, you start to learn that all of the other survivors of the crash perished pretty early on. Your only interaction with them are hearing their final radio broadcasts or retrieving audio logs from their dropped PDAs. As you progress and find their wreckages and discover new blueprints to construct, the game starts to build a narrative that you slowly uncover.
The game is creepy, especially as you start to travel deeper into unknown depths. The stakes seem very high, and it’s difficult to get a feel for just how much danger you are in at any given time. Large, carnivorous fish are lurking everywhere, making weird noises, and you are just a flailing exotic delicacy invading their territory. As you start to uncover more about the planet and it’s past, you’ll discover larger and more aggressive sea monsters.
Fortunately, you also get to build some slick equipment. Using a gun that shoots building parts, you can easily build an undersea base that you can store all the weird stuff you find under the waves.
The base-building mechanic is quite enjoyable and simple. If you have the right materials in your inventory, you can throw together a quick base in under a minute. Rooms and corridors snap together and other objects are placed wherever you fire them off. After a while of barely surviving, you can start to build luxuries and more advanced devices to help make your vacation more comfortable.
You can also build several vehicles, including a small, speedy sub, a mech suit to stomp around in, and a massive submarine that acts as a mobile base. I named my big sub The Homewrecker, while my smaller sub is Hustler and my mech was named Playboy. You can’t take me anywhere, but at least I was alone on this trip.
Subnautica is a game that lets you make your own story and situations. Despite the high stakes and eerie environment of some of the deeper, darker areas, Subnautica was a fulfilling, relaxing journey. There is minimal combat – you get a knife, but it’s almost worthless on anything bigger than your head. You get a few guns, but they either push/pull things or shoot building parts as mentioned above. Even equipping your submarine with torpedoes seems futile against the massive creatures I fired them at. This isn’t a complaint – I didn’t want combat to get me out of situations, instead I’d rather learn to avoid taking on sea monsters. There were many times where I was running out of air, starving, and dehydrated in a deep undersea cave, cowering from weird sounds and panicking because I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to my vehicle in time.
The game is beautiful, and the music and audio really set the mood, from the creaking of your undersea base to the howls and chirping of alien fish. Fantastic lighting and scenery really sets the mood, and if I ever get a VR headset, this will be the first game I spin back up to try.
I made it through the entire storyline (it takes a lot of exploring), and I was able to depart from the planet, but I’m sure I’ll be coming back to take a second dip someday.