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Subnautica Review – Surviving A Whole New World Of Aquatic Wonder

by David Jagneaux • January 26th, 2018
Platforms: Rift (reviewed) and Vive
Positives

- Incredible sense of immersion
- Beautifully detailed underwater world
- Deep, rewarding survival and crafting systems
- Massive amount of content to do and see

Negatives

- Head tracking only, no motion controllers
- Menus and some mechanics not optimized for VR well
- Feels a bit scattered and aimless at times

Survival games feel like the perfect genre for VR to take over next. I’ve written about this before, but the sense of sheer immersion in a strange, new world accompanied with the isolation and loneliness that often pervades the atmosphere would couple so well with a VR HMD that it feels like a no-brainer. A handful of games have adapted their content for headsets, such as The Solus Project, but not many.

Subnautica by Unknown Worlds is a game that first started experimenting with VR support about two years ago and has been in Early Access for a very, very long time on Steam. Throughout all of those years it has slowly incorporated more and more updates, expanded its scope, introduced new features, and ironed out issues on a consistent and reliable basis. For the most part, Subnautica is a prime example of how a developer should treat an Early Access game — even if the VR support could be a bit better.

If you’ve played any modern “survival” games then you’ll understand the core premise in Subnautica. You’ve crash-landed on a strange, alien ocean world with nowhere to go but underwater. Between managing your oxygen supply, gathering resources, and slowly crafting the gear you need to venture deeper and deeper. You’ll even build out entire sea floor bases complete with dwellings and sea pods for vehicle-based exploration.

Subnautica is the type of game that takes over mind and won’t let go. It’s addictive in the kind of way Minecraft was when it first hit the scene and offers so much to do and so much to see that you’ll want to keep going “for just a little longer” in the hopes that you’ll find something new and exciting around the next crop of coral reefs. It’s a beautiful game full of fantastical sea creatures and grand, aquatic vistas. Why we don’t have more games in this vein that take place beneath the surface is a great mystery.

One of Subnautica’s greatest surprises is just how interesting the world around you is. While other survival games, such as Rust, seem content with letting the world serve as nothing more than a blank canvas, the team at Unknown Worlds took their studio’s title literally and crafted a bizarre, strange planet worth exploring.

Which then leaves us with the issue of the actual VR support itself. As of the time of this writing it’s only head tracking. This means that the camera follows your head’s movement instead of being tied to the mouse like usual. That means you have to play with either a keyboard and mouse or gamepad, no motion controllers.

That isn’t a huge issue — lots of great VR games don’t use motion controllers — but it’s a larger problem because of the lack of attention paid to other elements in the game.  For example, many of the menus and HUD items are distorted, too close to your face, or just stretched out and cut off due to poor VR placement. Some items even block your view entirely. A lot of these issues were present in the Early Access version for several months and now even after the game is officially “released” they remain unfixed.

Since the VR market is still so tiny headset users probably make up a very small fraction of this game’s player base so I doubt the VR issues are at the top of their list of things to keep working on, but hopefully they get ironed out over time because the game itself, the quality of the visuals, and the sense of foreboding isolation is so potent that it’s a tragedy to see it mired by minor compatibility issues.

Final Score: 7.5/10 – Very Good

Subnautica is a very, very, very good game for fans of the survival genre. There is a near endless deluge of things to do and see and a vast, dangerous ocean to explore. It’s not uncommon to alternate between sheer dread and speechless wonder as you make your through this underwater wonderland. However, lackluster VR support and an overall density problem in terms of complexity and lack of direction at times hold Subnautica back from true greatness.

Subnautica is now available for download on Steam for Rift and Vive at the price of $24.99, with a 10% launch discount bringing it down to $22.49 until 01/30/18. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.

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