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If you’ve been enjoying the sunken treasures of Subnautica, it’s likely because you prefer a more stress-free survival game, or games that are predominantly set underwater – or perhaps both. If so, then you may be happy to know that there are far more games like Subnautica than you may be aware of. Let’s dip a toe in the water and see what’s out there.
Sub Culture (1997)
We’ll start with a game that you’ve probably never heard of. Developed by Criterion (now an EA studio working on Battlefield 2042) and Released by Ubisoft way back in 1997, the game was a bit of a showcase for 3D acceleration, which was by no means ubiquitous at the time. With its bright, sharp graphics, and excellent sound design to accompany the then-impressive 3D water effects, Sub Culture played like a sea snail-paced Elite Dangerous, only set in a miniature underwater universe rather than a massive outer space one. To give you an idea of the scale, you were tasked with trading and fighting your way to rebuilding your aquatic home, which had been crushed by a discarded soup tin. Sadly, despite the fun premise and solid gameplay, the game floundered – which probably explains why it’s continually unavailable for digital download.
Endless Ocean 2: Adventures of the Deep (2010)
The original Endless Ocean was an instant cult classic when it appeared for the Wii in 2007. A blissed-out undersea adventure, the idea was to seek out marine life and catalogue it. There was an abundance of the stuff too, from friendly dolphins and disinterested sharks, to rays, penguins and four species of whale, with cave, trenches and wrecks to be explored.
The sequel went further, with 400 species (including sea lions and manatees) across 12 global diving spots, with some of the more dangerous varieties more likely to attack than in the first game. There was also a serviceable co-op multiplayer mode. Sadly, the series has now languished at the bottom of the ocean for a decade – although its developer has had better luck recently with Tetris 99.
Beyond Blue (2020)
Inspired by the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 nature series and made by the team behind the award-winning puzzle platformer Never Alone, Beyond Blue is essentially an attempt to bring Endless Ocean up to date with a little more seriousness and urgency. Sadly, whilst it looks more modern and more or less succeeds in what it set out to do, it lacks the depth of content to maintain any long-term interest. Best picked up in a sale.
Hydrophobia: Prophecy (2011)
Originally released for Xbox 360 in 2010 (back when Xbox Live Arcade was starting to impress with the quality of its games), Hydrophobia was hyped for it’s water physics. The good news is that in 2021, the lapping foam that floods the compartments and corridors you are forced to wade through is still very impressive. Sadly, in spite of this being the “ultimate edition” of the game, the action elements have not improved with age. It’s a short game you’re unlikely to play through more than once, so budget accordingly.
The Long Dark (2018)
It’s not that The Long Dark has just as much water as Subnautica – all of it in snow form, of course – that demands its inclusion here. it’s that both games pit you against the environment as much as anything else. Here it’s the lack of warmth that will often get to you, rather than the lack of oxygen. The point is that, like Subnautica, Long Dark’s isolating world is one of mystery as much as it is reality. There is a truth to the games that needs to be uncovered in the course of exploring it, rather than a succession of dreary days that need to be survived.
If you fancy being the predator rather than the prey, Maneater is the game to fulfill all your Jaws-inspired fantasies. It’s essentially Feeding Frenzy, but in 3D, with chum buckets of blood and thus likely inspired as much by GTA as PopCap’s old pre-Peggle puzzler. In it, you start out as a young bull shark, with the aim to grow and enact revenge on the humans that consistently try to hunt you down. In the course of becoming the terror of the seas, snatching drunks swaying over piers and ripping the limbs off scuba divers are obvious highlights, although you can’t help but feel a little uneasy at perpetuating the stereotype of creatures that have far more reason to be afraid of humans than the other way around.
Maneater and Depth are regularly mistaken for one another (since you play a shark in both), but where the former is a single-player game, Depth indulges the multiplayer side of the fantasy. It matches teams of scuba divers against various species (read: class) of shark and Its asymmetry is compelling. As the divers swim around trying to locate ever more lethal forms of ranged weaponry, the sharks have to use their speed to good effect. Despite being released in 2014, Depth is still being supported and it does have a fan base. If you’re willing to put the time into joining it, or have a ready bunch of underwater gaming chums to learn alongside, Depth is worth falling into.
Freediver: Triton Down (2019)
Since Subnautica is fully playable in VR (on PC at least), you might think that a one-hour long VR-only diving game would be surplus to requirements. For sure it lacks the scale, otherworldly adventure and sense of progression of Subnautica, but what Freediver has is bags of tension, as you explore a sinking ship for a way out to safety. It’s an escape room game, with dangerously rising water levels, capsizing bulkheads, and strategically-placed pockets of air to be found in the nick of time. What makes it with consideration is the navigation system, which has you holding the triggers and flapping your arms to simulate underwater swimming. Or you can paw at the walls and launch yourself around similar to in Lone Echo.
Ark: Survival Evolved (2017)
One of the first survival games to benefit from being in Early Access, Ark: Survival Evolved is also one of the most successful. This has led to a whole raft of expansions that have added to the game’s roster of dinosaur-inspired creatures, transforming the game into an online take on Monster Hunter. With its vast array of terrestrial and airborne creatures, and no small amount of aquatic ones that can be caught, tamed and ridden, a fully-expanded Ark probably offers the most diverse and expansive open-world playgrounds in gaming. But, it requires a significant investment in time, money, friendships and trust to get the most out of. The developers also have a tendency to harpoon themselves in the foot now and again, judging by the reception given of many of its latter day releases.
Stranded Deep (2015 - Early Access)
Had Subnautica been set on contemporary Earth as opposed to an alien sci-fi planet, with a plane crash rather than emergency planetfall being the catalyst for survival, Stranded Deep might have been the result. As the survivor of said aeroplane malfunction, your job is to stay alive by doing the usual survival-y things like building a shelter and filleting animals. You can also craft a gyrocopter.
Familiarity with the environment aside, there are two big differences between this game like Subnautica and Subnautica itself. One is that after six years, Stranded Deep is still anchored to Early Access. It’s very playable, with good content and reliable features, but it still needs work. The other difference is that it lacks the subtle narrative focus that Subnautica has, which (along with The Long Dark), lifts it a little above other single-player focused survival games. It’s also half the price and regularly discounted, so if you time your dive right you can’t go wrong.
Raft (2018 - Early Access)
Where most survival games pin you to specific locations until they are mined out, Raft is a survival game where your raft base is effectively always on the move. This means that the opportunities to keep it maintained and its occupants healthy can be fleeting. In that sense Raft absorbs some elements of a good rogue-like, which is a curious evolution when the game looks more like a Moana-themed Sims 4 expansion than a game in its own right. Despite the graphics being underwhelming and content is a little lacking on account of its Early Access status, Raft is a distinct, relaxing and engaging survival game – especially with a friend in tow.
Subnautica: Below Zero (2021)
Well, obviously, if you want more games like Subnautica, you’re going to have to gravitate towards its follow-up. Below Zero is essentially a standalone expansion, one that moves many of Subnautica’s systems into a chiller part of 4546B’s planet-wide ocean, with all the extra challenges you would expect – namely the extreme cold of the game’s arctic biomes. In gameplay terms, Below Zero offers more of the same. The setting is a lot less expansive, but the game comes with the benefit of a greater narrative focus that continues two years from where Subnautica left off. If you loved the first game, you owe it to yourself to get around to Below Zero sooner rather than later.
This beguiling underwater adventure was created by the art director of the iconic indie hit Journey, and it shows. Journey’s minimalist themes and influences permeate the entirety of Abzû, from beginning to end. However, the game starts out a little less ambiguously, as you find yourself bringing life back to the oceans and discovering what may have happened to the life that should have flourished there. The swim mechanics and ability to simply watch the wildlife flit about make this simple adventure a wonderfully meditative experience that gamers of all ages should enjoy.
In Other Waters (2020)
Being an exploration game in which you must guide a stranded scientist around a mysterious aquatic alien planet, there are obvious parallels with Subnautica. In Other Waters, however, is a very different and distinct game. Played from a stylish tactical-style top-down view, you are the AI assistant, relaying your findings to the human you are helping, and reacting in kind to their text-based observations. It’s a very relaxed and refined adventure, but one that thanks to its interface, audio and writing, captures the wonder and isolation of being alone on a watery world without needing to render it in 3D.
No Man’s Sky (2016)
There is a reason why astronauts train underwater, and it’s the same as why a space exploration game like No Man’s Sky is probably the best of all the games that are like Subnautica. It has much the same survival and base-building elements, vastly more expanse to explore, innumerable diverse planets rather than one, plenty of weird wildlife, and a sci-fi mystery at the heart of it all.
It wasn’t until 2018’s The Abyss update (1.7) that No Man’s Sky fully immersed itself in underwater gameplay, but the game had been a worthy alternative to Subnautica for many months already. If you love everything about Subnautica and don’t mind swimming through the heavens to enjoy a similar experience, you need to play No Man’s Sky. Just like Subnautica, NMS is stunning in VR too!
If you can think of any games like Subnautica that we’ve left at sea, drop a note in a bottle in the comments below and we’ll see if it’s worth rescuing.
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