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Second Look: Subnautica

Subnautica, the hit underwater survival game developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, has brought fear and joy to the many players who have braved its ocean depths since it launched into early access in 2014. The developers captured lightning in a bottle, providing a uniquely terrifying experience, so much so, that it has been affectionately nicknamed by some fans as “one of the best horror games ever made.” Throughout its four years in early access, players discovered the concept of Thalassophobia, the fear of the ocean, while the developers took feedback from the community to help shape the game for its 1.0 full release.

Upon leaving early access in January 2018, most people would have assumed that Subnautica would not get any major updates, bug fixes, and a rumored arctic expansion notwithstanding. To the surprise of many, including myself, the developers at Unknown Worlds introduced the 2.0 “Living Large Update” in December 2022. From including more base pieces, to adding quality of life features to the game, the developers poured their hearts into trying to improve the game for both new and returning players, four years after its full release.

For those who have yet to dive into the world of Subnautica, or those looking to return to it, allow me to explain what this update brought to the game, what the state of the game is now, and whether you should play this game too, in this second look at this underwater adventure.

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Scenic views from the idyllic Safe Shallows.

What’s New

In our current gaming landscape, many single player games receive a few updates to fix bugs and improve performance, before being abandoned as the devs move on to their next project. For the developers at Unknown Worlds, bug fixes and optimizations were not enough for Subnautica. On December 13, 2022, the game released its 2.0 “Living Large Update.” As part of the 2.0 update, the title now runs on the same updated version of Unity as its sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero, allowing the devs to bring over a plethora of bug fixes and features to the original. Some of the largest brought over were several base building pieces, which include the Large Room and its associated pieces, a glass dome for the Multipurpose Room, and updating the appearance of entrance hatches when used above water.

Enjoying the sights through the newly added Multipurpose Room Glass Dome.

Base building was not the only part of the game to get some love from the developers in their 2.0 update. Several quality of life features available in the sequel were brought over to the original Subnautica, as well. One such feature was the addition of a resource bar on applicable items. If you have just crafted a battery, for example, you will now see a green bar on the right hand side of the item’s icon. This bar will go down and start turning red as the battery is drained in whatever tool it is in, allowing you to better keep track of what needs to be recharged.

An easy to understand resource bar, showing how much charge the batteries in my tools have.
After a long day of swimming with the Seaglide, the battery is mostly drained, indicated by the red bar next to it.

Perishable foods also contain a bar, this one showing how long they have until they become rotten. There is even a bar for how much use of a fire extinguisher you have left, too! Another feature brought over from Below Zero allows you to choose whether you want to have the game pause whenever you enter your PDA, the tool that allows you to manage your inventory or look up crafting recipes, rather than having things keep going on around you, which does include oxygen depletion if you are underwater. For those sensitive to flashing lights, an option to disable such lights has been added as well.

One final quality of life feature in the update I will mention is the ability to pin up to six crafting recipes on your HUD at a time. This is such a welcome feature, not only because it shows you how many of each item you have versus how many you need to craft an item, but it can also help you remember what you were planning on making next, if you take an extended break from the game.

In the top right of the HUD, three pinned recipes show the ingredients I have and what I need to craft a flashlight.

At the time of writing this, Subnautica’s most recent — important — update, released on March 7, 2023, bringing the game to Valve’s Steam Deck, earning it the ‘Verified’ status, meaning it should perform without any major flaws or issues while being played on the handheld computer. I cannot provide feedback on how the game plays on a Steam Deck, since I currently do not own one, but I can speak about how the game performs on PC.

State of the Game

I am currently in the middle of yet another playthrough of Subnautica, having sunk eight hours into this one, and I’ve been enjoying my time beneath the waves again. The game still looks fantastic all these years later, thanks to its wonderful art direction, and the quality of life features are a welcome addition to this classic of a game. The additional base components are a nice touch as well, particularly the glass dome for the Multipurpose Room, which allows you to take in even more of the beauty of the game, from the safety of your home away from home. The upgrade and progression system is still rewarding, and provides a nice feedback loop of unlocking and upgrading equipment and vehicles, allowing you to explore further, leading to harvesting resources used to expand your exploration capabilities even more. The addition of recipe pinning has been very helpful as well, as it has helped me to better plan out what I want to focus on making next, without having to constantly open up the PDA to check the recipes.

As for overall performance, the game runs smoothly on my PC, and I have not encountered any stuttering. I have experienced mild pop in on some larger objects, but nothing too egregious to me. I did experience a piece of titanium clipping through the floor on my first limestone chunk I harvested, but I have not encountered that issue since. On extended play sessions, you may encounter some memory leak, which may lower your fps. One complaint I do have is that out of all the bugs fixed in the 2.0 update, a bug that causes music from different biomes to overlap each other has still not been fixed.

I don’t know how long this issue has been present, but it is unfortunate to have my enjoyment of the amazing soundtrack be hampered at times by this persistent bug. A mod that aims to fix the issue does exist, but it should not be necessary to mod a game in order to fix these sorts of things, (I’m looking at you, Bethesda). It hasn’t ruined the game for me, but it could be a deal breaker for some, particularly those on consoles who are unable to mod the problem away.

Second Look

Subnautica is approaching its 10th birthday this year, (if you count its early access release date as its birthday) and since then, thousands of players have experienced the sights and frights of Planet 4546B. Unlike many developers, Unknown Worlds Entertainment took the time, money, and effort needed to help shape Subnautica into the underwater survival game people love to fear to this day. They could have easily taken the money and ran without ever finishing the game like other developers have done in the past. Instead, they not only finished the game and released it out of early access to widespread success and praise, they released a sequel and then updated the original to improve the quality of life for players of a soon to be decade-old game.

The developers also understood that some people would not want to update the game, which would break any mods they had installed, so they informed players on Steam that if they did not wish to update the game, for whatever reason, they could go to the Betas tab in Steam and download a legacy version of the game. None of this was necessary by Unknown Worlds, but it just goes to show how much both this game and the experience of the players mean to them.

This is not a perfect game, but if you have yet to test the waters of Planet 4546B, there aren’t many other games that nail the survival genre quite like it. Whether it’s the unique setting, amazing soundtrack, or engaging gameplay loop, Subnautica is a wonderfully terrifying experience more people should play.

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