AirToob Lightning

An Introductory Guide to Subnautica (Updated May 2022)

This guide tries to ease the new player gently into Subnautica, without spoilers, and provides an easy way in one place to access the most needed information.

A feature of this guide is that it is extensively hyperlinked to external info, including from images. So if you click on an image showing some aspect of the game, you'll be taken straight to info about that aspect.

(If you are looking for a really comprehensive guide to the game, I highly recommend Subnautica: The Grand, Regularly-Updated Tutorial V2.)

What is Subnautica?

Subnautica is a fascinating exploration and survival game that has provided me with well over 180 hours of exploration and discovery, as well as the pleasure of constructing and improving habitats and vehicles. In a way, it's a modern and very different version of the original Minecraft. It also provides, as the magnificent Skyrim does, a truly vast and detailed world to explore, in this case of course mostly underwater. Unlike in Skyrim and many other games, however, you have no lethal weapons (apart from a survival knife), a conscious decision by the developers following Sandy Hook. You will, however, be able to acquire several ways of defending yourself, some of them more ingenious than they first appear. As someone put it very well, you are not the top of the food chain here!

(BTW: If you have already played this game, have you seen the “Making of...” video How Subnautica Succeeded Without Weapons?)

(This is a long post. If you want to skip to my previous post, click the chevrons >> below.)


Habitats ~ Vehicles ~ Exploring & Navigation ~ Islands ~ Wrecks ~ Going Deeper ~ A Word of Appreciation ~ Bugs ~ Game Console ~ Key Controls

Update (*)

I first played and reviewed this game with the Sep-2018 61056 build for PC. I have recently played it again in February-April 2022 with the Feb-2021 68598 build, and have updated this review to correct some errors and omissions and to reflect some changes that I found in the game. My updates are marked (*).



(*) My shallow-water habitat, close to the lifepod in which I landed, built in stages as needed and when I found the resources. Many configurations are possible. Habitats (and their internal power-using modules) can be powered by solar panels where there is sufficient light, or by bioreactors, thermal plants and even nuclear reactors (which aren't necessary as many people including me have found).

(*) Solar panels generate power in proportion to the illumination (and more than one can be used). The connected habitat can store any surplus power for use during dark periods. Bioreactors within a habitat generate energy from organic matter, e.g. fish, and are one reason why you might want to build an alien containment aquarium nearby to breed fish and grow various flora. Thermal plants need to be placed near natural heat sources (there's one near here to experiment with), if necessary using power transmitters to reach the habitat.

The bigger the habitat, the weaker its overall structure (as you may find out the hard way - the realism of a flooding habitat is truly awesome), so learning how to reinforce the structure is a must.

(*) Tip: When you launch a saved game, or when you add a habitat component, pay attention to the small text appearing briefly at the top of the screen, which are the only ways of seeing the current structural integrity (needs to be a positive number or you're in trouble).

Closest in the picture is my first scanner room, which helps find resources and also allows you to explore safely using remote trackable cameras - something very useful indeed towards the end of the game.


Subnautica seaglide
The Seaglide, a nifty hand-held device for improving your swimming speed (I dropped this one on the seabed just in order to photograph it). It doesn't take up much room in your inventory so you can keep it with you at all times. In dangerous swimming situations that you will encounter later, this little guy can save you from predators and/or get you back somewhere safe quickly before your oxygen runs out.

(Like a real diver, you have to carry an oxygen supply with you, which initially doesn't last long, and one of your early objectives is to upgrade your air tanks.)

Before you can build (craft) things you need the blueprints to be in your Personal Data Assistant (PDA), if they aren't there already. Many useful blueprints are already loaded there, in which case you just need to find the resources (early on, often by breaking limestone outcrops and sandstone outcrops). Pre-loaded blueprints will allow you to craft (among other things) another fabricator (which you have in your initial lifepod) and a habitat builder, two items which can each craft other things.

Many blueprints that you need have unfortunately been corrupted in your PDA, so you will need to craft a hand-held scanner and use this to scan fragments of what you want to build (e.g. fragments of a Seaglide) that you find on the sea bed or in wrecks. Depending on the item, you may need to find and scan several fragments of the item before the blueprint is restored to your PDA. You can also find blueprints in data boxes, so you need to hunt for those too.

Tip: Make sure that the scanning action is complete before moving on. Scanning can take about 10 seconds.

(*) If you want to improve something that you already have (e.g. you want to make go-faster swim fins or a better survival knife), then you need to find the blueprints for and construct a modification station, using the habitat builder. You can, however, build a high capacity O2 tank with the normal fabricator (once you have the blueprint).

(*) Tip: Later in the game, I found the swim charge fins to be extremely useful when used with the Seaglide, allowing unlimited swimming explorations without having to keep charging its battery.
Subnautica Seamoth
One of the most useful vehicles in the game is the Seamoth, an agile personal submarine. Even when you have the blueprints and resources, you will have to craft a mobile vehicle bay which is then used to construct the Seamoth.

(*) Tip: In order to deploy the mobile vehicle bay, it isn't enough to simply drop it in the water. You must also have placed it first in one of your quick slots.

Initially the Seamoth will take you as deep as 200m, which allows a great deal of exploration. You can upgrade it in various ways, including extending its maximum depth in stages to 900m. Finding the resources and blueprints to upgrade the Seamoth will require exploration in progressively deeper (and more dangerous) places. Actually fabricating the upgrades requires a moonpool (see below) equipped with a vehicle upgrade console.

Tip: One of the earliest tools you need to craft is the repair tool, which fixes damage to your vehicles and other things. It's worth reading its description carefully, including the bit about radiation.
Subnautica moon pool
This is the moonpool that I eventually added to my shallow-water seabase (as with all the images in this article, click the image for more info).

Either the Seamoth or the P.R.A.W.N. suit (see below) can be docked, automatically recharged and upgraded here, and you can also use it as a swimming entrance to the habitat via its two ladders.

(*) Tip: Later in the game, you may also find a moonpool useful as a stand-alone habitat, since it doesn't need a hatch and has plenty of internal room for storage and other modules (in particular, the vehicle upgrade console which can only be placed in one of these, and a power cell charger).
Subnautica P.R.A.W.N. suit
This is my P.R.A.W.N. suit (aka Prawn suit) fitted with the Drill Arm accessory. Acquiring the blueprints and resources to fabricate one of these and its upgrades took me a long time and visits to some dangerous places.

(*) Initially the P.R.A.W.N. suit will take you as deep as 900m. In order to go deeper, two separate depth upgrades will be required, each adding 400m to the crush depth, in order to reach 1,700m (sufficient for the deepest part of the game).

You can do a vast amount in the game before you need one of these, but it will become absolutely essential below 900m, and very useful before reaching that depth. Among other upgrades, the Jump Jet Upgrade (fabricated from materials found only at considerable depth) will extend both horizontal and vertical mobility considerably. The Drill Arm accessory is essential for mining large resources, e.g. big chunks of magnetite or nickel, and is a useful defence against predators. The Grappling Arm accessory can be fired some distance to get you to some places you couldn't reach otherwise.
Subnautica Cyclops
This is the Cyclops submersible that I eventually managed to build. It's a huge thing that needs to be built in deep-enough water using a mobile vehicle bay. It is powered by six power cells, which will normally need to be recharged by equipment in a habitat.

(*) Initially the Cyclops will take you as deep as 500m. In order to go deeper, three separate depth upgrades will be required, each adding 400m to the crush depth, in order to reach 1,700m (sufficient for the deepest part of the game).

Compared to the Seamoth, it feels quite ponderous and unwieldy to drive. Unlike the Seamoth it has no side thrusters and can't be tilted up or down. For manoeuvring you can only swing it left and right and make it rise and sink, while it remains perfectly horizontal. it has three speeds (top speed not recommended) and comes with an energy-consuming but occasionally life saving "silent running" mode.

Tip: It's much harder to guide the Cyclops through confined spaces than the Seamoth, even using the Cyclops's external cameras. However don't be too worried by the collision proximity warnings - you can bump gently against obstructions and keep moving without damage. Keeping moving will sometimes be important.

Tip: Crafting and installing the Energy Efficiency Upgrade Module should be one of the first things you do with the Cyclops. It triples the engine efficiency but doesn't reduce the overhead of "silent running".

(*) Tip: Beware of using the Sonar Upgrade Module for any length of time. It consumes a huge amount of power when running - if you need to use it, do so as a "quick peek". (I never used this upgrade, preferring where necessary to leave the vehicle and investigate the surroundings by swimming.)

(*) Tip: The method of installing the MK3 depth upgrade in the Cyclops requires you to remove the previous depth upgrade, use it to fabricate the new one using resources found only at considerable depth, and then put it back. Unlike doing this in the Seamoth and P.R.A.W.N. suit, which can be done at depth when they are safely docked in the Cyclops (via the nearby console), removing the existing depth upgrade from the Cyclops below its crush depth for any length of time is kind of fatal. However you do have time to craft the upgrade and install it before any actual damage results, if you don't hang about!

You will eventually need the Cyclops to at least deliver the P.R.A.W.N. suit to deep places (especially to the Lost River and below - be careful of spoilers when following this link).
Subnautica Cyclops
The swimmer entrance opens automatically as you approach.

Further back are large clamshell doors that open automatically when approaching from underneath with the Seamoth or the P.R.A.W.N. suit. You can dock these in the Cyclops in the same way as you do in the moonpool. Unlike the moonpool, a useful Cyclops upgrade will allow docked vehicles to be automatically repaired, as well as automatically recharged (but any electricity usage in the Cyclops naturally drains the Cyclops's own power cells).
Subnautica Cyclops
Looking forward in my Cyclops, which I used as a mobile habitat. Two of my many storage lockers have been placed here, as well as an ordinary aquarium (not the much larger alien containment) for mainly decorative purposes.
Subnautica Cyclops
Looking aft. The hologram here indicates any damage that you need to go outside and repair, and any power-draining pests (found in very deep areas) that you need to go outside and get rid of.

Further aft is the Seamoth/P.R.A.W.N. suit docking area, in a large room that will hold much storage and many other things that you could place inside a seabase habitat, except e.g. a water filtration machine (which would need access through the hull) or an alien containment (too large).

(*) Above the Seamoth/P.R.A.W.N. suit docking area is what appears to be only a status readout panel for the docked vehicle. It does, however, permit you to manage upgrade modules and access any storage on a docked vehicle - but not to exchange the vehicle's power cells.

Exploring & Navigation

OK, time for a little exploring...

Navigation: While being very careful of spoilers, check out the multi-layered Subnautica Interactive Map. Run your cursor around and watch the (x,y) coordinates, which are in metres, in the bottom right hand corner.

When you need to know depth (z coordinate) as well, you will see coordinates as (x,z,y), i.e. with depth as the middle coordinate (contrary to some online information, which may be out of date).

How to find your own coordinates is described here.

It's really useful to know in which direction you're currently pointing while swimming, so an early objective is to craft a compass which will be automatically added to your Head-Up Display (HUD).

(*) Tip: Craft and always take with you several beacons. You can drop them in the water to mark places that you find and want to come back to. After you drop them you can give them an identifying name. Beacons will appear as icons in your HUD. You can use the Beacon Manager in your PDA to select beacons that you want to see and deselect those you don't, and to change their colour in the HUD to make them easier to see or to identify. You can pick up and reuse beacons no longer needed, but they are cheap to craft and I generally left all of mine in place.

Vehicles (like the Seamoth), moonpools and remote cameras deployed from scanner rooms have in-built beacons, as do most other lifepods that you will hear about via your radio. You can also select and deselect the icons from these via your PDA.
Subnautica Kelp Forest
You won't have vehicles to begin with, so your first explorations will naturally be by diving from the surface in relatively shallow areas. You will soon be motivated to build a Seaglide and to upgrade your air tanks!

(*) Tip: One of the most useful tools you can get for diving is the Air Bladder, an easily constructed device that may save your life. It is reusable, has no batteries and will take you up to the surface quickly without using a Seaglide.

Above is one of the Kelp Forest biomes (it's worth following the link and reading fully, if you are not already familiar).

You will occasionally be attacked here by Stalkers, large fish that aren't really that dangerous. They seem to mistake you for bits of (useful) metal salvage that they like playing with, and on which they occasionally break their (useful) teeth. They are similarly attracted to remote camera drones deployed from your scanner room, which may go on unexpected journeys!
Subnautica Grassy Plateau
...and this is one of the Grassy Plateaus biomes. There are many other kinds of biome to explore, and you can find info about them by clicking their area on the Subnautica Interactive Map, again being as careful as you can to avoid spoilers.
Subnautica entering Jellyshroom Cave
Below the biomes seen above lies the large Jellyshroom Cave, best explored with a Seamoth (upgraded so as to be able to reach a depth of 300m). This photo is taken heading straight down into one of the entrances.

Tip: Placing two beacons here, one above and one below this cave entrance, makes re-visiting, navigating and leaving the cave a lot easier!
Subnautica Jellyshroom Cave with scanner room
(*) I found it really useful to place a scanner room here, as the cave is full of useful resources, including plenty of magnetite. Unexpectedly, there's enough bioluminescent light to (barely) power the scanner room with a solar panel - but I found out later that this is a bug in the game, and you can't fabricate a scanner room upgrade with that power. On my second playthrough of the game, I brought solar power down into the cave from solar panels nearer the surface, using power transmitters. There is also plenty of thermal energy in the cave, which can be used if you have the blueprint for the thermal plant.

There is something else interesting to be found down here. It won't be long until you discover clues about what it is.

Reality check: You may find it odd (if very useful) that you can swim freely in water at depths that would crush even a depth-upgraded Seamoth. I think of it as an unadvertised feature of the various hi-tech dive suits that the Alterra Corporation kindly provides for you to wear (one of which I never found out about).


Subnautica Floating Island
This is the Floating Island, one of the two island biomes. It's a very pleasant and useful place to explore fully. You can locate it on the interactive map, but take a long swim on the surface from your lifepod in a south-westerly direction and you can see a clue as to where it is.

On this island you will find three abandoned seabases built by survivors of the Degasi, mysteriously shot down by something on this planet, which your own ship (the Aurora) was sent to look for when it was similarly shot down.

As usual, scan everything you find, including wild and cultivated plants. You will end up with many useful blueprints and clues to further exploring. Take useful edible plant cuttings, as you can grow them later to survive on - especially one particular plant that satisfies thirst as well as hunger.

If you haven't found one very surprising and obviously different thing, then you aren't finished here yet...

The other island

Early on in the game another rescue ship, the Sunbeam (no link because of spoilers), will radio that it's on its way, and will plan to land at a particular location that you are given. Unfortunately it is shot down before it can land, but one way to find the other island is to get to that location (before the arrival countdown finishes if possible - recommended, but not necessary).

In any case, exploring the other island will provide vital information about what is shooting down approaching ships, and at least some clues as to why it is doing it. The island also has very useful resources, both above and below water.


Subnautica Wreck 1
In early explorations you will soon be finding and scanning wreckage from the Aurora lying on the sea floor. However larger chunks of the Aurora need you to explore their insides, swimming, for which you need something nearby (e.g. a Seamoth) to replenish your air.

A very useful guide to the wrecks will be found here. Because of spoilers, I strongly suggest trying to explore wrecks that you find on your own, before consulting the guide.
Subnautica Wreck 1
Before exploring a wreck (this one is small and relatively easy) it is useful to have aquired at least a flashlight, a laser cutter and a repair tool (and of course the essential scanner).

The laser cutter will cut through doors which have a slightly blackened centre. Some doors are unlocked and will open normally. Some doors have damaged wiring which can be repaired with the repair tool, after which they will open normally.

Eventually you will be able to craft and bring along the multi-purpose and deceptively-named propulsion cannon, which among other things can be used to shift blockages such as crates that aren't too heavy. It's a gravity tool that can fetch remote things to you, which you can either take (e.g. a fish!) or fire in some direction. You can also fire things from it that you have in your inventory. You'll find many ways to use it and reasons to love it.
Subnautica Aurora
By far the largest, most dangerous and most valuable wreck to explore is the crashed Aurora (a picture taken by me when standing on top of my Cyclops!). From here it doesn't look too bad...
Subnautica Aurora
...but up close, at its wrecked front end, it is a very daunting prospect indeed. It's huge, noisy, on fire, and everything is shaking. It's the most awesome and intricate game environment that I have encountered.

(*) I suggest you don't even think of coming here until you have explored at least most of the other bigger wrecks. You'll obviously need a radiation suit, as something in here is leaking radiation (you're going to try to do something about that, right?). A propulsion cannon is apparently not strictly necessary but I wouldn't come here without one - among other things, it's useful for shifting obstructions.

Apart from your other wreck-exploring stuff, bring a few fire extinguishers and rations. You're going to be here a long time, but the good news is that you'll be able to pick up more fire extinguishers, rations and other useful stuff when you finally manage to penetrate inside, so don't take any unnecessary items in your inventory before that.

(*) You will have to swim through many submerged corridors and bewildering spaces filled with various kinds of clutter. The good news is that these areas often have air pockets above them. The bad news is that retracing your steps can sometimes be hard if you don't have a good memory (and a beacon or two might be a handy thing to bring with you).

Naturally you will explore all the rooms and living quarters, but don't miss places that store vehicles or vehicle parts for which you haven't yet been able to scan a blueprint.

(*) There is one cabin that has a door code you won't know yet. You will need to return much later, when you finally receive a radio message giving you that code. The cabin contains something that is part of what you need to finally escape the planet. Tip: Don't waste time looking for the other parts, as there aren't any. What you have found is enough to get you started (once you have all the resources and have fixed the minor problem of being shot down as you try to leave). Note: This is different from an earlier version of the game.

Good luck...

Going Deeper

As you descend to greater depths, you find essential resources and more danger, as well as more of the vital information you need to progress.

You may already have met warpers, a major pest in this ocean (whose purpose is only revealed later). They appear via what looks like a large bubble of air, and if you get near them they can warp you right out of a Seamoth or P.R.A.W.N. suit (but not a Cyclops). You suddenly find yourself swimming, you're not always sure where your vehicle is, and an alarming creature is after you.

People have different ways of dealing with them, but you can actually fend them off just with an upgraded survival knife. My own approach, FWIW, is to exit the vehicle before I get warped out of it (if I can't avoid it and if I see it coming), and use a repulsion cannon to knock the pest into the distance. You might want to make one of those before heading downwards (I created a second propulsion cannon and then upgraded it, since having both types of cannon is useful).

OK... We're about to head off on a first explore of the Lost River (be careful of spoilers in following this link), using a Seamoth in order to get a quick lie of the land, so to speak. It's also easier to get in and out of the four different entrances than it will be later when using a Cyclops.

Before doing this I had to upgrade the Seamoth to its maximum depth capability of 900m. I also took time to find all the entrances to the Lost River and drop beacons to mark them. This turned out to be very helpful for navigation when down in the depths!
Subnautica Lost River
I am entering via the western entrance, which is in an easily-found deep trench in a grassy plateau, to the west of the home lifepod.
Subnautica Lost River
Here is a stretch of the underwater river itself, formed of greenish brine that is deadly to swim in, but contains many useful resources. I came back later with a Cyclops and deployed a P.R.A.W.N suit to collect resources from the brine.
Subnautica Lost River
Descending still lower, passing over one of many "brine falls"...
Subnautica Lost River Bone Field
...and passing through the Bone Fields. The creature whose skeleton this is is thankfully not still around.
Subnautica Lost River Tree Grove
This is the entrance to the Tree Cove. I am watching the depth gauge carefully as I am perilously close to crush depth. The brine is blue here, not green, and is safe to swim in. The area around and behind this tree is a kind of safe haven down here, with no agressive fauna, and is an ideal spot to park a Cyclops. It also has a thermal vent which makes it a good spot to place a scanner room, powered by a thermal plant near the vent.

In the distance beyond here is one entrance to the next level below (but this is as far as I am taking you, as too many spoilers would otherwise result).

Coming in to the Lost River the way I did in the Seamoth is much harder in the Cyclops. Eventually I found that the southern entrance is practically impassable, and personally I would recommend bringing the Cyclops in via the eastern entrance, which I found easiest. Coming in from the east you will pass a huge, derelict alien structure. Entering the top of it will get you set for the next stage of your journey.

All I can say here is that a great experience is waiting for you...

And finally...

A Word of Appreciation

The artistry in this game, both technical and other, is quite wonderful, and the sheer amount of work that has gone into it staggers my mind.

You may remember that when Finding Nemo came out, it was considered a landmark in creating realistic underwater effects. In the audience we probably took it all for granted, not appreciating that every frame of the movie was the result of hours of processing time on powerful computers, not to mention the work by many people in creating the computer models in the first place.

Now this game delivers a wonderfully realistic experience (to which still images can't do justice) in real time on a desktop computer.

You need a good-enough CPU and graphics card to play it properly, of course, and a 64-bit OS. I have an Intel i5 CPU with 8GB of main memory, and a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics card, on which the game runs fine.

Thanks also to the legion of fans who have created a vast amount of online information, most of it very useful.

Bugs (*)

There are a few, of course, but far less than (say) in Skyrim. This isn't a definitive list, it only records those that I have encountered.

Some bugs that I encountered in the Sep-2018 61056 PC build (invisible walls within the Aurora, the laser cutter not opening some wreck doors that it should have been able to open, suddenly falling out of the Cyclops apparently in air) were not encountered in the later Feb-2021 68598 build.

Some, however, I also encountered again in the newer build. Fish are still occasionally swimming inside a habitat and the Cyclops (I killed a power-draining lava larva inside the Cyclops and it floated to the ceiling). I was also unimpressed to encounter a bone shark (who ignored me) swimming in the air between a teleport exit and a water-air barrier shield.

In the Feb-2021 68598 build that I just played I encountered two bugs I hadn't met before:

1. The P.R.A.W.N. suit sometimes becomes immovable if walking within an alien structure. I could cure this by saving, quitting and reloading, and on one occasion by jumping. This happened repeatedly in one alien structure and was seriously annoying.

2. The habitat fabricator malfunctioned once. You should be able to repeatedly fabricate drinking water from a supply of bladderfish, but I had to close and reenter the fabricator for each bladderfish individually - a trivial problem, fixed by saving, quitting and reloading.

Game Console

Getting past the normal limits of the game is what the console is for. You can find information on it here.

Cheating, for me, spoils the game, but there were times when I used the "day" and "night" commands.

The game has different modes of play, from Creative to Hardcore, the normal one being Survival. There were times when I found eating and replanting tedious, and switched from Survival to Freedom, which allows you to stop eating and drinking in the current game session. The console commands are simply the name of the mode (in lower case). I only selected Freedom mode when inside the Cyclops and had the means of eating and drinking readily to hand; it just drove me crazy having to stop the sub in some critical situation and go to the back room to cut, harvest seeds and replant yet again! In other situations I didn't select Freedom, since it would remove a main feature of the game.

Key Controls

The key controls for the game will be found here. The basic movement controls are the normal W,A,S,D, with spacebar for "up" and "jump" and C for "sink". I used F11 to take the photos you see in this post and then screen-captured and cropped them from the PDA's photo manager.

If you are still reading this, many thanks for your interest! If you want to give me any feedback (most welcome), you can rate my guide and/or leave comments here on Steam.

If you like this, you might also like...

[An Introductory Guide to Transport Fever 2]