Welcome to the underwater world of Subnautica, a beautiful early access game with a lot to offer to the survival crafting genre. But how does it feel when you put on your Oculus Rift or HTC Vive? Does it add anything to the experience, the immersion, or would it feel the same playing it on a regular monitor?
Well, before I jump into how the game works in VR, I want to talk a bit about what the gameplay of Subnautica is all about. It’s a survival crafting experience, and while those may be a dime a dozen nowadays, Subnautica does a lot to stand out from the competition. Your ship has crashed on an uncharted planet completely covered in water, and the large majority of time is spent swimming around in this underwater world. You explore the depths, catching food, scavenging for materials, and scanning the wildlife, all while keeping an eye on your oxygen tank. When you’re done exploring, you head back to your escape pod, the only thing keeping you dry and safe from the world around you, and build new tools and equipment that allow you to dive deeper, for longer. It’s the classic survival loop, but the best part of Subnautica is that it doesn’t ever give you the tools to feel godlike in the environment around you.
In stark contrast with games like Minecraft, where the only really tense survival moments are your first few nights, Subnautica constantly reminds you that you are NOT the top of the food chain, making each dive an exciting treat. With only a scanner, a flashlight, and a tiny knife, the game makes you think twice if you want to explore that deep dark trench, and, thanks to the incredible sound design, makes every second you’re in there heart-pounding and tense. It constantly gives you that “first night of Minecraft” feeling throughout the entire game, which keeps its fresh and interesting time after time.
So the game is great, but does VR make it better? The simple answer is absolutely, and the reason it works so well is thanks to a few things; The first of which is the incredible visuals on display. The art style this game has makes it an absolute delight to swim around and explore. The visuals are at an all-time high when night rolls around, and the florescent schools of fish light up the ocean around you. It’s a game that’s bursting with color, and as someone from Florida who scuba dives, it truly does huge underwater reefs justice. Another reason that VR is amazing is due to the games manipulation of what us scuba divers call “visibility”. Visibility is how far in front of your face you can see underwater, and the way this game plays with that concept is my favorite part of the whole experience. One minute, you’re in crystal clear surface water and can see for hundreds of feet in every direction, the next minute you’re in murky green water and have only a couple of feet of visibility. This adds so much to the atmosphere and realism of the experience, and makes those deep dives into murky trenches and caves so tense and exciting. When swimming in low visibility the adrenaline really kicks in, because you hear so much around you yet you see so little. With Stalkers and Bonesharks roaring in your ears with only 10 feet of visibility, spending time scavenging around for materials is seriously unnerving, and makes the relief of breaking the surface feel so good.
That brings me to the next reason it works so well in VR, which is thanks to the fantastic sound design. Exploration wouldn’t be half as exciting without the underwater ambiance the audio brings. My favorite touch is the music, which plays when you’re close to your escape pod and gets quieter and quieter as you explore further and further. Soon, there’s complete silence, only the sounds of the creatures around you, and you start to wish that music would play all the time as you dive deeper into the ocean. It’s a small touch, but it does SO MUCH, and I have to tip my hat to the Unknown Worlds, the developers, for such attention to detail.
A few more specifics about the VR aspects of the game that are worth mentioning. It’s definitely best experienced with a controller, and is a moderately intense experience from what I played of it. One complaint I did have is that the precision required to grab moving things in the environment (such as fish, who actively try to avoid you for obvious reasons) can be a bit frustrating, and whipping your head around as a fish takes a last-second turn can be an annoyance. It feels fine when working with the precision of a mouse, but I feel as though the reticle could be padded a bit more to ease the players neck when using a VR headset. There’s the occasional odd bug you can expect from any early access game, but they are few and far between, and none are game breaking or immersion ruining. Other than those VERY minor annoyances, Subnautica feels fantastic and is a more robust VR experience than even some standalone titles for the Oculus Rift.
Being such a solid game alone makes it worth the money, and the fact that the VR components enhance it so much make Subnautica something that shouldn’t be missed. And although it wasn’t created from the ground up with VR in mind, it’s far from tacked on, even for a game that’s still in early access. I usually shy away from recommending early access titles, but Subnautica is so good it gets my stamp of approval, and I can’t wait for the full game to be released to see what’s in store.