I don’t do Game of the Year, but I can do the games I enjoyed the most this year. This is the second of three.
In Miasmata (IonFX, 2012) your primary adversary is the landscape. It is easy to become lost unless you approach the world with care. Nothing else has quite scratched that same itch but Subnautica (Unknown Worlds, 2018) came close. The underwater world of Subnautica is beguiling yet terrifying. Open yet inaccessible.
If the exploration component was packaged in a crate it would bear the legend: “Handle With Care”.
Subnautica is an open-world game with crafting threaded together with quests and sidequests. That’s the bare bones explanation. It’s not just bigger than the sum of its parts, but the parts are bigger than you think. The job they did on Subnautica is nothing short of astonishing.
Naturally, it is gorgeous to look at; the flora and fauna are neon-flecked but not overly so. The choppy waves on the surface are convincing. And depth is truly frightening in Subnautica. It gets dark and murky and shadows of things haunt you from the gloom. At times you need nerves of steel to press on and that’s even after you assemble faster modes of transport. Naturally, experience wears away at the terror but it never truly fades. Even today, if I stare into the blue-black gloom I still get a twinge of that why-on-earth-am-I-entering-the-haunted-cathedral-just-go-home-garrett vibe.
Crafting is quite extensive but unless you’re into creating huge bases everywhere, you don’t necessarily need to do a lot of grinding. You’re always collecting rocks on your travels so most of the time you have what you need. Yes, you will need to grind from time to time and it is frustrating as usual. The blueprints are much more of a problem. You need to recover blueprints to advance crafting and while you don’t need every blueprint, you do need certain ones. It can be maddening when you’re short of a key blueprint.
The story is rich but simple, fascinating yet understated. Don’t expect any trolley problems or having to shoot your sea-cat to escape the planet. It’s woven pretty well into the fabric of the game. There was one amazing setpiece which is MAJOR SPOILERS even though I figured out what was going to happen.
Subnautica also puts its riches front and centre for you to admire and you can’t believe its generosity. And when you finally assemble the Cyclops you’re like, Oh My God, this game really gets it. Everybody has that Cyclops moment, right?
No Man’s Sky has recently patched in a lot more undersea stuff and I haven’t really played enough to explore that side of things. The schtick of NMS is to do every game under one roof but not as well as its many inspirations so I’m not expecting NMS to outdo Subnautica.
It was a given that I had to write about Subnautica. I’ve written two pieces this year: one on exploration, another on its hands-off approach. There are two more to come next year, a piece on base-building and the final one is on the hardest thing I had to do in the game.
The funny thing is I haven’t finished Subnautica. I know I’m near the end and the last thing I received was a big fetch quest. I guess I’ve got everything I needed from it. I’ll finish it one of these days. But it was always the journey that was more important.
Subnautica is available for Windows and Mac from Steam and is currently free on the Epic Games store until Dec 27. Also available on XBOX One and PS4. An expansion called Subnautica: Below Zero is in development.