In this era of gaming, Early Access games are incredibly common, meaning that before a title has even fully launched it may have already had years of developing an active community, showing its hand before getting everything to a level of polish and quality that the developers are happy to release to the world as a final product. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Hello Neighbor are two very recent example of this, and now we have Unknown Worlds' Subnautica as well, a game that was released in early access at the back end of 2014 but has only just now surfaced as a finished product for us to quite literally dive into.
Unlike a lot of the game's community, we went into Subnautica totally blind and without any idea of what we had to do, and it seems to us as if Unknown Worlds may have forgotten the fact that a lot of players might be in the same boat as us (pun intended). The first half an hour or so will probably see newbies floundering and scratching their heads as they around, while those who have played from the start of early access process will probably take to it like a duck to water.
The setting is that you're part of the crew of a giant spaceship, Aurora, which is crashing towards an alien planet, and the opening of the game doesn't waste any time, as you're knocked unconscious while fleeing in your escape pod. You wake up, put out the fires with an extinguisher, and open the pod to reveal that you've landed next to the burning wreckage of the ship and that the whole planet is seemingly one giant ocean.
As mentioned though, this opening throws you in the deep end and without much in the way of tuition other than how to use things you're holding, it's pretty much a case of fumbling your way around. However, within the first hour or so it becomes clear what the basic principles are; forage for resources, use your fabricator (a kind of workbench) to create equipment, explore further using this new equipment, and so on and so forth.
Of course like with sandbox games of this ilk you'll start off with shoddy options for everything, made out of common materials and requiring little legwork to achieve, like your piddly standard O2 tank and some measly fins, but the options grow and grow as you find more schematics, more resources, and explore further afield. It's important to note that not everything is available to build from the start either, as you need to discover schematics to create new items, which is done by scanning fragments of the Aurora you come across on the ocean floor, like sections of vehicles or equipment.
We won't run through everything that you unlock, but your meagre fins soon make way for a motorised Seaglide, before being replaced by the submarine called Seamoth, and so on and so forth. What we most appreciated about this is that you're rarely left without a clue as to what to build next, because there's always something you could be aiming towards, and once you unlock the schematics it's just a case of finding all the ingredients and making your next investment.
This progression is also helped along by the little slivers of story you're fed throughout. As with other sandbox games like Minecraft, there is an end of sorts (like the Ender Dragon), but the emphasis is very much on survival and exploration instead, with the story elements serving merely as pointers to distant places to discover more cool and intriguing things. If you haven't gathered by now, your goal is to escape this new and strange planet, and soon after landing and repairing your radio you receive messages from other escape pods and potential rescuers feeding you information, leading you to uncover more of the story.
Perhaps the Minecraft comparison is unfair, though. While we would maintain that the story very much takes a back seat to the exploration and the gradual opening up of the world, the mystery it entices is very interesting and we enjoyed experiencing the surprises it threw at us, especially in the later stages of the game. We won't spoil the details, but we will say that it's not as simple as just escaping this watery wonderland you've found yourself in.
At the beginning of the game there are a variety of difficulty settings depending on your preference, so it can be as taxing a survival mission as you want it to be. Hardcore, for instance, sees you manage hunger, thirst, health, and doesn't give you O2 alerts... oh, and you have only one life. Survival, on the other hand, only had hunger, thirst, and health, while Freedom only sees you manage health, and Creative lets you do as you please and with no constraints. These stop the game becoming a chore for those who don't fancy foraging for food at the same time as trying to stay alive, and it's welcoming for all potential incoming players.
Of course, it's not just you alone in this wet and wild planet, as there are plenty of animals and plants sharing your new home. A lot of these are docile, such as the giant Reefback creatures and the small fish darting around your vision, but some, like the Stalkers, will react aggressively to your presence. Even some plants will harm you if you get too close, so you'd best make sure to check around you at all times before scavenging for copper or gold or what have you.
Subnautica seems to have benefited from the years it spent in Early Access, as the game looks great right now. Sure, there are graphical slips like pixelated textures and an awful lot of pop-in, but for the most part, the underwater exploration was a joy to behold, whether that be the dim glow in cave systems or the sunlight breaking through the water in the daytime. That said, however, it's not perfect in the performance department, as some dodgy animations seemed to slip through and we often noticed the frame-rate dropping at odd moments, which was a bit of a shame to see.
As far as a sandbox game goes, Subnautica balances everything very nicely. You're never left too long with one element before you're given something new to see or build, and before long you'll find yourself knee deep in an enticing narrative while hundreds of meters below sea level. It's a bit daunting at first, but it's a rewarding exploration to unknown depths, one that's sure to make a splash with players.