Subnautica Early Access Impressions

Subnautica is an open world, underwater exploration and adventure game published/developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment. Unknown Worlds Entertainment have previously made titles such as: Natural Selection, Zen of Sudoku and Natural Selection 2. They have also worked on a piece of software called Decoda which is a free and open-sourced professional development environment for debugging Lua script which I think is worthy of a mention.

Subnautica is officially in alpha however it has an unstable (experimental) beta branch available. As such the story is not completely fleshed out it will however be similar to the following: a disaster on-board the “Aurora, a habitation spacecraft sent to the planet 4546B for a terraforming mission before the arrival of colony ships. Although, during its descent, the Aurora was struck by a mysterious energy pulse resulting in catastrophic hull failure, leading to its crash landing on the surface of the planet. A single escape pod was launched before impact”, you are the only survivor.


Subnautica : PC 
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Release Date: 16 December 2014
Price: £14.99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer]

The game currently has 3 play modes Freedom: (which is the mode I played) where you manage your air supply and health (by avoiding dangerous creatures). Survival: Is freedom but only with food and thirst management. Hardcore: as survival but with a singular life, the game is currently single player only. After waking up in your Life Pod, the clock is ticking to find water, food and to develop the equipment you need to explore. Collect resources from the ocean around you. Craft knives, diving gear and personal water craft. Venture deeper and further to find rarer resources, allowing you to craft more advanced items and build bases. Players will also experience a working living ecosystem (yes, even in the alpha), explore expansive (yet claustrophobic) cave systems as well as modify the terrain (which can also be done by certain creatures). Just be wary of your oxygen meter and the predators of the ocean.


One of the first things I noticed about the gameplay is that when submerged, the screen is restricted as though you’re wearing a proper diving mask, which adds to the immersion (and is also a nice touch of realism) it also comes with oculus rift support. If it feels this realistic on a monitor I can only imagine the spectacle that would be beheld from using oculus rift. The way the crafting system is used is quite scientific as in; not all recipes or indeed uses for items are necessarily immediately available, for example on occasion a new item or lifeform will have to be analysed in order for all of it secrets to be discovered. Before release the game should introduce that specific “methodology of research” mechanic as it’s not necessarily immediately clear (through a tutorial). However once discovered the desire to understand and discover new things is what will inevitably push the player to explore further and further into the alien ocean.

Speaking of the alien ocean, the numerous flora and fauna interact in a way that is highly realistic whilst the herbivore food chain isn’t implemented (it may not ever be but it’s a nice idea) the carnivore/predator is and it was a real treat to see my first predator actively hunt and kill local pray. That being said my awe was quickly tempered by an unseen predator hunting me. After some initial exploration the player will begin to craft the various upgrades/improvements to their character by way of oxygen tanks (which as the name suggest increase the amount of time the player can stay submerged). After that players will generally want to be more mobile and start construction on the various vehicles in the game with the use of the fabricator and constructor. The vehicles are: the SeaGlide (which is in the game version of a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV)), the Seamoth (an in-game representation of an acrylic sphere submarine) and Cyclops (which is an in-game representation of a deep-ocean research submersible such as the famous Alvin) additionally there is an exosuit which is yet to be implemented.


Aside from the vehicles, the player, with the use of the aptly named builder, can construct underwater (or indeed above water) bases which can range from the simple to the sublime. One of the newer updates introduces what’s known as ‘Moon pool” which allow the player to dock the Seamoth, meaning players can use their base as the main source of research until they build the Cycolops which can also house the Seamoth. Players building bases should be aware of hull integrity which will decrease with the addition of the various modules but can be mitigated with the use of reinforcement panels and bulkheads. Failure to use these reinforcement panels or bulkheads will result in damage to the structure eventually flooding.

The mechanics I found work really well, the only slight issue I have is where the pipe (used to pipe air from the surface for convenience in the early to mid-game) is a bit awkward as at the moment the way that the pipes work is they will orient themselves to face the player which makes a kind of sense, however they would benefit from using at least the current orientation (2D rotation) system however it is my observation that the game as a whole may benefit from a 3-D system, though this may be due to the current build state or indeed may be a limitation of the engine. The flood mechanics are also reasonably realistic whereby compartments within structures (after taking damage) can flood, the player is of course able to repair the damage with the appropriate tool. A minor exception to the realism is when the player opens a bulkhead door between a non-flooded section and a flooded section, the water doesn’t quite flow properly although that’s likely to do with the games current status.


Graphically speaking, Subnautica is truly wonderful, the ocean-scapes and vistas are a sight to behold both during the day and at night, some truly inspired lighting effects from organisms bio-luminescence used in cave systems for example is superb. The water effects are quite realistic as droplets can be seen splashing down screens and dripping off your facemask which is some nice attention to detail. It should be noted that these effects are not currently implemented on the Cyclops. There is also significant “pop in” from the terrain, especially when crossing the various chunks/regions which should be ironed out come full launch. The soundtrack is excellent and well implemented the various creatures all have different sounds that they make as they go about their business, the different craft and structures all make nice creaking sounds etc whenever under strain and also the underwater/water flow sounds are a nice addition to the immersion.

Overall, the game, despite its relative infancy of development is an incredibly solid and enjoyable adventure. The game does need to have an “end game” or overall objective for example “get rescued” but we are as mentioned in alpha. Those closest to me will know that I’ve always admired and wanted to be a marine biologist, I thought it would be nice to mention as part of this review that this game has given me a really nice insight to what that might be like. I felt the game could benefit from a “creative mode” which the freedom mode nearly covers but not quite, as the creatures would ignore you unless you attack them first and you have unlimited resources for example, whilst you can create your own “creative mode” thorough the use of console commands a fully featured creative mode would be a nice addition.


Another addition is that whilst in the vehicles the player is rather defenceless, so although I understand that the developers don’t want to turn it into a “shooter” they definitely in my view need something on vehicles to ward off predators. Finally, the game will add multiplayer which will take the form of co-op but frankly that’s something that can wait until at least the beta. This is a great game with amazing potential, come full launch it’s an easy 9 to 10/10 for now though 8 seems to fit quite well. (Oh yes I almost forgot… fear the reaper… if you play the game you will understand)



Overall Game Rating



    • Rich environment with working eco-system
    • A near fully fledged crafting system
    • Scientific research view of crafting
    • Lots more to come


    • Vehicles leave the player feeling defenceless/vulnerable
    • Pop-ins break immersion
    • Rotation system not yet fully realised
    • But we aren't there yet

    About Colin Lavery

    Profile photo of Colin Lavery
    Colin is a PC/Xbox gamer to whom gameplay outweighs graphics by a country mile. Colin is rather fond of pixel art games such as Pixel Piracy, to games such as Prison Architect, Rimworld and Project Zomboid. Space games such as X3 and Starpoint Gemini. Games with any mention of a “Reaper” or responsive Devs get double XP.

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