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An overview of rules for challenge runs that allow for a different Subnautica experience without mods
Playing on the highest difficulty setting seems an obvious choice for a challenge run. Though, the permadeath option of Hardcore Mode seems like a really bad idea for a game that can kill you any time with bugs and glitches. But there’s a simple remedy: Make backups of your savegame, and use them whenever you want to! Because in my opinion, this game mode is not about punishing players for mistakes, it’s about taking away the wrong incentives. Fast travel by suicide is no longer an option, and planning your trips carefully becomes much more relevant when save points are to be used wisely.
If you play a challenge run, you don’t spoil the experience with console commands, cheats or exploits – that’s common sense. For example, glitching through walls or making wreck structures disappear with your builder are nice tricks for the speed runners, but such things can really make challenge runs pointless. On a similar line, you should not be collecting time capsules, as those can contain all kinds of otherwise unavailable items and upgrades.
In Subnautica, you can easily reach the late game areas early with nothing but courage and an inventory full of oxygen tanks or bladderfish. This or endless chains of air pipes can be restricted with a simple rule: Divers can ascend or descend for at most 200 meters before reaching a base or vehicle. This one does not seem exciting on its own, but the rule is essential in combination with some other challenge run ingredients.
No Alien Arches
In the late game sections, alien gates are incredibly convenient for fast travel. If you are not allowed to use them, you will have to prepare for some longer trips, especially when you cannot bring a fabricator with you. So, this is another rule that only gets interesting when paired with other restrictions.
Finally, this is a rule that works as a standalone for a challenge run. The idea is simple and common: Without the use of a Seamoth, Prawn and Cyclops, sea bases and smaller outposts become essential to explore a world that suddenly looks and feels much larger. Without a sonar, you should know in advance where you are going. And quite obviously, this rule includes the no drilling restriction.
If you do not have access to a prawn suit with a drilling arm, large materials deposits cannot be harvested. This makes resources like Nickel and Kyanite harder to obtain, and it cuts you off from an unlimited supply of ion cubes. This is really not a game changer, but it’s the relevant consequence of several other challenge rules.
This is one of my favorites, as it completely changes the game experience. If you are not allowed to ever touch the water surface, horizontal exploration becomes much more challenging, and you won’t be able to construct any vehicles. Especially during the early game, navigation is rather tricky, and you will be on the constant lookout for oxygen sources like brain corals. Things get better once you can carry a minimal base with you, which is still restrictive, but allows free exploration. Growing plants like marblemelons is impossible, and purple tablets are much more limited, since you cannot explore the surface. This also means that yo cannot reach the Aurora and build the Neptune, so this challenge ends as you get cured.
No Early Surfacing
This variant of the No Surfacing rule only affects an early stage of the game, so it can be combined better with other restrictions. One possible implementation of this challenge is to allow surfacing, but only once you entered the quarantine enforcement platform via its moonpool, and reached the surface using the alien elevator. This is not difficult at all when you know your brain coral locations, and it plays in a somewhat consistent way. Other variants are well possible, so feel free to share yours in the comment section.
A typical and well known challenge run for Subnautica. When no sea bases are available, the Cyclops will replace most, but not all of their functionality. Without a Moonpool, the Seamoth and Prawn lose all of their upgrade abilities, which means no drilling and greatly reduced exosuit mobility. At least you can find a depth and storage module in the Aurora, but the exosuit’s crush depth cannot be improved. Without a scanner room, finding resources, data boxes and fragments will be more challenging. And without external energy sources, the Cyclops relies on thermal energy or fresh energy cells to keep going. So overall, this rule comes with an interesting combination of restrictions on its own.
No bases, no builder – does that even make a difference? Can it even get worse? Hell yeah! Without any structures in your Cyclops, you are stuck with the single fabricator in the Lifepod, so plan for some longer trips back and forth. And without a modification station, advanced equipment is unavailable, and the crush depth of the Seamoth and Cyclops can no longer be upgraded. Farming with growbeds is not an option either, so you will have to survive with what you find in the wild. And as a last detail, batterries cannot be recharged.
I don’t say this a challenge for masters. Rather, it combines pretty much all of the above challenges: No builder, Diving Limit, No Alien Arches and No Early Surfacing. Compared to the No Builder challenge, you clearly have to push some vehicles far beyond their crush depth. This is no show stopper, as you can repair them on the go, but you really need to be prepared accordingly. And since you cannot use alien arches on your way back, it takes some skill, planning and patience to make it back to the surface alive. Will you take the Prawn and climb all the way back with no grapples and no jet boosters? Or will you try it with a fragile and defenseless Seamoth? It is up to you. Overall, this challenge certainly is tedious, but it also makes the game experience quite different.
I know there are many other interesting challenges that work fine without mods. I wanted to provide a first overview that can be combined well and gives you a consistent picture. Rules like “No Beacons” or “No Seaglide” can be pretty cool, too – or pretty tedious, depends who you ask. Feel free to discuss and share your comments. Be creative and have fun!