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Subnautica – Imperfect Beauty

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In early 2018, I read about the PC release of Subnautica. I normally do not play survival games, but this one seemed different. I dug the idea of a hand-crafted underwater world, with an actual story, and good atmosphere. As I haven't had a gaming PC since the 90's, I put it in the back of my mind, hoping a console release was in the future.

Now that Subnautica has been released on the PS4, I picked it up, couldn't put it down, and "finished it" this weekend. Overall, a highly recommendable experience. But wow, did I run into my share of issues. I'm not good with write-ups, so here's a list of my highs and lows:


1. Nearly perfect atmosphere

-Excellent use of lighting (With realistic light shafts, a gorgeous bioluminescence exposition at night, and the darkness that comes with plunging into the depths.)

-Top notch sound design (With headphones, 2-channel stereo, and surround sound, this game truly makes you feel like you're underwater. The sounds of bubbles, flowing through water at speed, the sounds of creatures in the distance. I could go on for paragraphs about this, but the sound design is just great.)

2. Strong feeling of exploration

-Unique biomes (Finding each new biome is exciting, giving a sense of wonder, and pushing you to seek out the biome's new features, creatures, resources, and secrets.)

-Sense of danger/risk (There were many times where I felt like I probably shouldn't be in an area yet, but still pressed on to find crafting materials, audio logs, creatures, and paths to other, deeper biomes.)

3. Fleshed-out world

-Mixture of audio logs, journal entries, and environmental descriptions (I don't want to spoil anything, but the devs did a solid job of giving you a huge amount of explicit details about the world, creatures, plants, biomes, etc.)

4. Fun gameplay loop

-I never felt bored (There was always a new area, new resource, or new item that I was on a "mission" to find. The only time I felt close to bored, was with some tedium in resource collection…see "Lows".)

-Crafting a new items, machine or chemical/substance seemed to always lead to new discoveries or abilities. I have not played many survival games, but this feels like what a survival gameplay loop should be.

5. Completion

-From what I gather, with many survival games there is rarely any closure or "game completion". Subnautica actually has an end-game goal, which seems so lofty when you first realize what you need to do. Once I finished the game, I felt like I truly completed an adventure.

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1. Technical issues (These have been brought up by so many reviewers, that I would just be repeating what's already been said. But I hit so many huge technical bumps.)

-Pop in (This was a huge issue with 3D polygonal games in the 90's and early 00's. But most of these times, the pop-in pertained to objects/items at a distance. In Subnautica, items/objects/boundaries can pop-in within mere feet from your character. Now this is an issue by itself, but it is drastically compounded by the fact that the pop-in doesn't just pertain to the object texture, but the object itself. So the actual object collision doesn't load until you're very close, or even past the object, causing several issues. This happened in two main areas that basically broke my game. Minor area-based spoilers in the two paragraphs below:

–>While exploring a cave, I came to an area where it seemed like the cave was really opening up. I moved forward and noticed that certain environmental edges were sharp/flat, which indicated that I was likely looking at the edge of a polygon. As I knew that the area ahead did not load, and I turned around. It was then that I realized that the cave wall had loaded behind me, and I was stuck out-of-bounds, with no way to return to the cave interior. I tried to reach the ocean surface, but the sea flood geometry kept me bounded within the out-of-bounds.

–>As I was climbing an island mountain, part of mountain did not load in. Now, in other games, you might able to climb the invisible geometry, but in Subnautica, that part of the mountain simply did not exist. So I was stuck, unable to climb further. I saved, reloaded, which did not help. But I left the area, saved, and reloaded again, which fixed the issue.

-Crashes (I counted a total of 27 crashes during my 36 hours of gameplay. Being on console, I've experience maybe 3-4 gameplay crashes throughout my other games, across years of playing. This had sometimes lead to 30-70 minutes of lost gameplay because I forgot to save.)

2. Inventory management

-I don't even know what to say since I have not played too many other survival games, but there has to be an easier way to go through your stored items. This game does not make it easy at all.

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3. Resource collection

-While the actual gameplay loop is fun, there WILL BE times where you need just a few additional resources to make that next technological leap. And while you will figure out that certain rocks will contain specific types of materials, it is still a nearly random crapshoot of seeking all over the place for an additional silver ore, or whatever you're looking for. This happened dozens of times.

4. Silly, unrealistic design choices

-I understand that it's a game. But given several realistic design choices (requiring you to structurally reinforce your base to prevent collapse), some other design choices stand out. Such as: jumping out of your heavily-reinforced submarine at 1000 meters, with the same diving suit you can wear at the beginning of the game…just no. I'm sure the devs thought of this, and maybe decided it would be too cumbersome to constantly change your diving suits. But there could have been a more interesting way to handle this.

TL;DR – Excellent atmosphere, sound design and gameplay loop. Terrible technical issues and minor grinding throughout.

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