STAFF REVIEW of Subnautica (Xbox One)

Thursday, January 10, 2019.
by Josh Morgan

Subnautica Box art Subnautica is a diving exploration game that’s heavy on atmosphere and survival, and as you dive deeper, you’ll find a story filled with mystery and suspense. I have to admit one thing right off the bat here, this game scared me so bad I nearly punched my 6 year old son. I don’t have many fears. I’m not saying things don’t scare me, but I don’t have any of your typical fears like heights, clowns, the dark or spiders. Now that I’ve spent some serious time with Subnautica, I can say that deep dark oceans, and the huge creatures that inhabit them, are a serious issue for me... I looked it up, it’s real, and it’s called Thalassophobia. I just wish it was easier to pronounce. Don’t worry, I’ll explain the story about my 6 year old below, and please discard the email to child services, I did not hit him. Let's dive in!

Subnautica starts as most games and movies based survival do; You are traveling along, minding your own business, and your FedEx plane (yes, that’s a Cast Away reference) is going down and your character is forced to escape to a strange and unknown place. From there you are mostly on your own to survive. What sets Subnautica apart from other survival games is that it actually has a story to follow, where others are more focused on the gathering of materials and crafting upgrades and tools. While those systems are featured heavily in the game, it’s nice to have a story that ties it all together and progresses while you are focusing on upgrading your tools, suits, base and vehicles. The story beats come in data logs found among other crash sites, radio transmissions from other emergency pods and potential rescue ships that are nearby. I won’t go into the story at all passed 'the crash', because even the smallest of details could spoil where it is going, and with a game like this that is so heavily focused on exploring, I don’t want to take any of those surprises away from you. Just know it is very much worth playing through the story.

I played though Subnautica on an Xbox One X and a 4K TV and using 7.1 headphones for sound. states that it is “X Enhanced”, but under 4K graphics and HDR it has the dreaded N/A. My TV did not receive a HDR signal, and while it did show 2160p displaying on my screen, that was most likely upconverting, so I don’t think this is a true 4K game either. That said, some of the visuals are absolutely stunning. As you emerge from your escape pod, you are greeted immediately with an intense scene of destruction as the Aurora (your FedEx ship) has crashed onto an ocean planet. Flames are high as parts of the ship fall into the water, and creaks and groans from the ship really drive home the reality that the Aurora isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The visuals underwater are not as pretty, and since this game takes place 99% underwater, you start to see where this falls apart. The rocks and plants all lack detail, and as you get close, they never tighten up, showing muddy colors and textures that should be a lot crisper given the hardware they are running on.

Subnautica also suffers from serious pop-in and framerate drops. These issues show immediately, but in the beginning it’s just a small nuisance. Swimming around your starter area, you’ll notice some pop-in here and there. Some plants or fish will appear late, within 10 feet of your virtual self, and it’s a tad frustrating, especially when you are looking for the small limestone deposits that house the valuable materials you need to craft. You really need to get up close and personal with the floor and cave walls in order to see the possible materials scattered about. I spent a good hour just diving around the immediate vicinity of the pod, and I thought I cleared out a lot of the salvage, only to find more on the ocean floor that had not popped onto my screen the last time I passed.

Also, you will notice a huge framerate drop when emerging from a dive. As the sound swooshes and water trickles down your mask, the game literally stops for a second or two. It’s very noticeable and takes you out of the atmosphere that the game does so well to hold under the water surface. As you progress in the game and start to discover bigger plants, bigger fish and bigger caves, the pop-in and framerate troubles start to really become a game breaking issue rather than a small nuisance. There were times when I was deep into a cave only to have another cave entrance pop off of my screen, and then back in about 20 feet down the reef in a completely different location. When deep in a cave like that, it is hard enough to keep your bearings and know where your air source is, and you’ll soon find yourself lost and out of air.

Sound on the other hand is top notch in Subnautica. The “clack clack” sounds of the predator fish, and the deep groans that some of the bigger fish and predators make in the deep open waters, really increase that fear I was talking about before. It’s terrifying that one minute you think you are alone swimming in a dark open ocean looking for limestone deposits, hoping one of them breaks open and that last piece of silver pops out, and then the deepest groan ever fills your ears. You swing around with your flashlight expecting to see something right in your face, but you see nothing, just a black open ocean, and then the groan continues. Then, you see something a bit darker in the distance kind of move.

Oh sh** is that... is that a Reaper Leviathan? Or is that a... *TAP TAP* “DADDY I CAN’T SLEEP”, then you realize that your 6 year old son snuck downstairs at midnight like a goddamned cat and is right up in your face wanting a glass of water. He’s screaming because you have your headphones on and you couldn’t hear him when he was coming down the stairs. But knowing that doesn’t help the tension built up inside you, so you instinctively swing your arms up, and for the first time ever, you call your son a swear word. Moments like that are what makes this game so enjoyable. It does such a great job of setting a tense atmosphere that you almost forget that you are playing a game, that is until the framerate or pop-in issues hit. Another highlight of the sound is the voice acting on the audio logs that you find scattered about. They do a great job of advancing the story, but what really stood out to me was the quality of the voice acting itself. Their stories and emotions are very easy to believe, and this really helps set the atmosphere of the game.

The gameplay loop in Subnautica is very similar to other survival games. At the start you have nothing except some emergency rations and water that is stored in your escape pod. This forces you to jump into the water to begin your journey by collecting materials that will help you survive. The starter escape pod has some sort of Star Trek replicator in it, and once you get that up and running, you can craft anything that you find recipes for. After some time, the rations that your escape pod launched with will run out and you will be on your own for food, water and air as well. So your best bet is to get your scanner and just spend some time exploring the starter area, scanning everything that you can. This gets you an idea of what materials can be harvested from the close plants, rocks and fish, but also adds the recipes that you need to survive.

For instance, after scanning some coral you learn that if you put both seabed salt and coral into the fabricator, you will make bleach. With bleach you can make yourself two bottles of fresh filtered water. Sure it’s not the brand that all the celebrities drink, but it hits the spot and will keep you from dying. Food is another resource that you need to worry about, and that’s not as easy to get as picking up some coral and salt. You need to physically catch the fish, which using the standard Xbox controls can be maddening. To pick things up from the sea floor or catch fish you have to use the 'A' button, the problem is, your right thumb needs to be on the Right Thumbstick to control where your diver is going. Having to chase a fast moving fish and then quickly take your thumb off the stick to hit 'A' will be frustrating at first, but after the 50th time, that the little f'ing fish gets away, you’re going to want a better solution. Luckily I have an elite controller and I mapped the 'A' button to one of the paddles, and suddenly I was Bear Grylls catching fish with my bare hands LIKE A MAN. Standard Xbox controllers also have the ability to map the buttons as you see fit, so I highly suggest mapping the 'A' button to one of the triggers. Another suggestion I have is to jot down notes as you go, specifically of the items you’ll need at first to make water and some of the other survival items.

Opening up the PDA is easy, and you can spend a ton of time flipping through the pages reading the data logs and learning recipes. But the problem is, opening the PDA doesn’t pause the game, and if you’re dumb like me and opened it up on the sea floor, then you’ll run out of air because you spent too much time looking up that one mushroom that looks like a bright pink butthole. Having a quick reference list right next to you really helps out when looking for materials. As you gather more materials, scan more objects and upgrade your suits, you’ll be able to dive deeper and explore more of the secrets that this game has to offer. I was able to make a fully functioning base at the bottom of the sea, complete with fabricator, storage lockers, material scanners, camera drones and planters where I could grow my own food. It’s pretty neat how much you can build, and it’s essential to exploring the deeper areas. The pressure of the deep water is too much for your regular suit and prawn suit, so you’ll have to make some watercraft like the Seamoth and Cyclops. Once you build a cyclops (single man sub) and upgrade it, then the real deep areas start to open up and you can explore the areas that I am too afraid to go.

Subnautica is a fantastic exploring and survival game that I cannot wait to dive deeper into, but it is in desperate need of a patch that fixes the pop-in and framerate. I’ve completed a lot of what the game has to offer, but I know there is so much more of this ocean planet to explore. I learned of a fear I have that I didn’t know existed, and learning about that fear makes me respect guys like Jacques Cousteau and the guy in search of the blue diamond in Titanic so much more.

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 6.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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