After playing, at length, a few of the game’s early access builds over the years, I can say that Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s Subnautica probably is the best survival game ever made. It’s certainly the best one I’ve ever played, and I’ve spent many hours in countless survival games mining and farming, building self-sustaining bases, and being incredibly frustrated with losing all of my hard-earned raw materials when I stupidly die somewhere far away from home base. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild recently released to glowing praise (and with the excitement of a new console, no less), Blizzard finally seems to be trying to fix Hearthstone, and a brand new installment in the Mass Effect franchise just dropped, but I’d trade it all for Subnautica to magically leave early access right now instead of in the fall.
Unknown Worlds’ first game, Natural Selection, released way back in 2002 — a free Half-Life mod that was something the gaming world hadn’t really seen before, a hybrid of a first-person shooter and real-time strategy game. Two teams, aliens and humans, battle it out in an FPS team deathmatch while one player from each team assumes the role of their team’s commander, building bases and researching upgrades from a traditional top-down RTS view. (Natural Selection only really spawned one other popular game in that hybrid FPS-RTS style, 2003’s Savage: The Battle for Newerth, a personal favorite.) A decade later, Unknown Worlds followed up with Natural Selection 2, which still has an active player base today. With only two non-survival games under its belt, it’s a wonder that Subnautica, the studio’s third game — something far different than an FPS-RTS hybrid — is the cream of the survival genre crop.
Two design decisions have pushed Subnautica far beyond, for instance, the limited environment of farming sims like Stardew Valley, the vast exploration of games like No Man’s Sky, and the intricate base-building of games like Starbound and Terraria. First, Subnautica has created one of the best atmospheres and detailed worlds in the history of gaming, and second, it has dispensed with or perfected many of the tedious and uninspired tropes of the genre.
Rare for a survival game, Unknown Worlds chose to focus on atmosphere and narrative, deciding to go with a brilliantly hand-crafted landscape instead of the genre’s usual, tired procedural generation. The result: the level of immersion in Subnautica is unreal, from the dazzling art direction to the often terrifying soundscape. You can check out some of the more terrifying sounds below. Pop in some headphones, press play, close your eyes, and imagine yourself swimming alone through a dark abyss. (Disclaimer: the creatures in the video are spawned in via console commands, and that’s why they don’t match their surroundings. Don’t worry, they look great in their natural biomes.)
Choosing to craft the landscape by hand was a genius move. Survival games tend to go with procedural generation in order to (lazily) create “new” content, but you can’t teach an algorithm art direction. Subnautica’s atmosphere is right up there with Silent Hill 2 and BioShock, its environment the most (and far more) alien and fantastical since something like Oblivion’s Shivering Isles. There hasn’t been a game that leverages and plays with draw distance better than Subnautica. It’s not even a horror game in the slightest, but you’ll have a tingle in your spine for the majority of the time you play, even when you know you’re safe. You might not suffer from thalassophobia or submechanophobia, but you’ll certainly experience what that’s like while exploring Subnautica’s alien depths.
Along with the hand-crafted, painstakingly detailed landscape and geometry, Subnautica nearly perfects survival game mechanics that are almost always far more tedious than fun. You’ll never dread having to collect food and water to sustain your character, but you also won’t feel it’s so easy that the mechanic itself is pointless. The same goes for collecting construction resources. Even if you build an unnecessarily extravagant base or two and need a planet’s worth of resources, those resources are spread throughout the map at just the right amount. You can even create autonomous farms and machines for wide variety of them, which also produce them at just the right frequency. Exploration and travel, another usually tedious mechanic in the genre, is a blast. The biomes are exactly the right size, and your methods of transportation — from different scuba suits to submarines — upgrade and travel at just the right pace. It certainly helps that you’re traveling through an incredible atmosphere and environment no matter what you’re up to.
There is a plot that factors heavily into all aspects of the game as well, with tons of story spread throughout — written in logs, shown-not-told throughout the environment, and detailed in both visual and audio scenes. It’s far more detailed than, for instance, Starbound’s “collect a number of MacGuffins” or No Man’s Sky’s “get to the center of the galaxy for some reason.” Without spoiling much: your ship was mysteriously shot down, you find traces of human and alien colonization on the seemingly uninhabited ocean planet, and there’s even a pronounced plot thread about a virulent outbreak. There’s legitimate, detailed narrative here, and most of it is even withheld from early access builds to avoid spoilers, so there’s more to come.
Unknown Worlds recently delayed Subnautica’s May release date (which itself was already delayed a few times) back to September of this year. While the many hours I’ve clocked in the early access builds have left me jonesing to do it “for real” with a complete release, the delay is a good move. Due to the (again, beautiful) hand-crafted landscape and items spread throughout, the game experiences performance issues. If you construct too many buildings or a giant farm, the game will start to lag when you approach. Pop-in has always been an issue as well to varying degrees — especially considering an apt alternate title for Subnautica would be Creepy Draw Distance: The Game — though at its worst, it’s nowhere near as bad as something like No Man’s Sky’s pop-in. Considering the progress made in each new build and the very open, public communication Unknown Worlds has had (its very active roadmap Trello board is public), it’s unlikely that the mild-to-middling performance stutters won’t be taken care of by the time of the official release. Not to pick on the poor thing, but if you’re used to No Man’s Sky’s performance, you might not even notice the hiccups in Subnautica’s early access builds.
There’s also more Subnautica to come after the official 1.0 release, as the team plans to begin work on an expansion in December.
You could check out the early access build now and get a feel for the game — the current build has a ton of stuff to do, and most of the map, flora and fauna, and mechanics are in place. The game is so good, though, that considering I’ve basically been experiencing delirium tremens after I “did everything” in early access so far, it might be safer for your mental state to just wait for the 1.0 release.