Subnautica first introduced us to the wonders of Planet 4546B back in January of 2018. Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s open-world survival title gained fairly immediate acclaim for its creativity, world design, and gameplay. It even won a Golden Joystick for PC game of the year in 2018. Subnautica: Below Zero, released May 14, expands on everything introduced in the first game, exploring the arctic regions of the same planet with a variety of new features, gear, creatures, story elements, and some upgraded technical performance. All these changes make for a much different experience when compared to the first installment. Has Unknown Worlds Entertainment crafted the ultimate underwater survival title? Find out in our Subnautica: Below Zero review!
Story – On a Mission to Save a Sister
In Below Zero players take the role of Robin Ayou, a scrappy, independent scientist on the search for her sister, Sam, who has mysteriously disappeared from her post in the ever-frigid Sector Zero of Planet 4546B. Alterra, Sam’s employer (and somewhat scary space conglomerate), had manned a variety of research projects around the region, exploring the landscape and researching the alien life that resides there. After Robin stops receiving messages from Sam she decides to pay a visit to the planet and ends up stranded in a veritable frozen wasteland with no immediate means of rescuing herself, let alone her sister. Subnautica: Below Zero certainly takes more of a swing at actual character development than the first, which is a welcome addition for my review. I loved hearing Robin’s back and forth with certain characters although at times she did come off a little flat.
As the player progresses through the story they quickly realize that things aren’t quite what they seem in Sector Zero, with the research projects of Alterra taking on a much more sinister tone as more is discovered about them. I was glad to see expansion on Alterra’s storyline from the first game and the variety of perspectives that are presented in Below Zero really help paint how things have progressed since the events of Subnautica and added some previously unknown details about things we may have found out about in the first game.
Robin also begins to encounter signals of inhuman origin on the planet and must investigate them further to get to the bottom of what has occurred before her impromptu crash landing. This somewhat mirrors an interaction in the original, but in a much more fleshed out way which allows for more story development. The end of the game left me hankering for more and I’m insanely interested in seeing where Unknown Worlds takes the story from here. There’s not much else I can give away without going into spoilers, but know that there’s a fairly deep and multi-faceted storyline to explore in this title, one that proved particularly satisfying.
Gameplay – Much More Than Rubbing Two Sticks Together
Subnautica: Below Zero‘s gameplay follows much the same pattern as the first with some slight adjustments, which made this review much easier, funnily enough. You are dumped into a hostile location with nothing much in terms of survival gear. The player explores an unmapped, open-world that allows you to go wherever you choose and complete story objectives in a fairly non-linear fashion. Luckily, you can use your environment, as well as the limited technology that survives your journey, to begin crafting tools, shelter, and sustenance for yourself as you begin your trek from shell-shocked survivor to god (or in this case goddess) of the seas.
Tools such as the scanner are used to glean the recipes for the tech you find on your journey and you eventually begin exploring the depths nearly exclusively via submersible vehicles such as the Seatruck or the Prawn Suit when oxygen tanks and flippers can take you no further. I enjoyed the addition of all the new tools included in the sequel, they seemed to be answers to frustrations players had with the first game. However, some mainstays from the first game – like the previously mentioned Prawn Suit – become almost completely unnecessary in the sequel and I think that is perhaps a bit of a step backward in terms of gameplay variety.
The game takes place almost exclusively in the open ocean, with players making their way deeper and deeper into the abyss to collect more advanced materials and new information to further their journey. That being said, Below Zero also introduces more above-water gameplay than the original, allowing players to shed their sea legs and take a shot at using new vehicles such as the Snowfox to further the experience beyond treading water (albeit in a somewhat clunkier fashion). I experienced a bug during this section where my character decided to ditch her Snowfox every time an Ice Worm reared its ugly head which was frustrating for obvious reasons.
Below Zero does seem like it has been designed to accommodate new players as the danger level has certainly been reduced a bit with the largest and most frightening creatures in the game residing almost exclusively near the end-game objectives. I certainly recall running into leviathans almost immediately in Subnautica and soiling my scuba suit accordingly. The map’s reduced size seems tailored to keep people from simply wandering the open ocean for hours and hours, which can be seen equally as a positive and negative depending on what you enjoy doing within the game.
Graphics/Audio – A Welcome Improvement in the Abyss
Below Zero has made significant strides in both the graphics and audio of its predecessor. Gone are the draw distance issues that plagued me as I bumped my way through the original. The textures have been drastically improved making for a much prettier, engrossing ocean exploring experience. Locations such as Deep Lilypads Cave and the Fabricator Caverns are wondrously trippy and personal favorites of mine. The new creatures introduced within Below Zero are expertly crafted and able to exhibit both comical and terrifying traits at the same time. Some fall more within the realm of cartoon rejects (looking at you Arctic Peepers) while some seem like they could be hiding among us here on Earth (perhaps on a slightly smaller scale).
The audio of the game ranges from remarkably soothing to wondrously adventurous and blood-pumping. Auditory clues will let you know that you are entering a new area and the music seemingly becomes more subdued and ethereal the deeper the player gets to the bottom of the ocean. I vividly remember collecting materials on the near-seafloor and hearing almost nothing besides some electrical pulsing and whooshing and the sound of me hammering away at mineral outcrops. This provides an excellent, if not realistic, gradient of soundscapes to accompany your journey through the game. The sounds of the creatures within the game should also be mentioned, as they quickly become your signal to run or take a stand and are immediately and memorably etched into your brain.
Summary – Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful, But to Me, It’s So Delightful
There’s a lot I could say to wrap up this review of Subnautica: Below Zero. While I have been mostly positive throughout, the game does have its share of small shortcomings. I was finished within about 15 hours, which seems somewhat quick considering the $29.99 price tag. I spent around 40 or more hours on the first game, but I do think my prior experience with the series may have given me a bit of a leg up in the newest edition so take that with a grain of salt.
That said, the music, the fauna, the story, the gameplay, and the chance to dive back into the Subnautica world more than made up for it. I had a great time playing and even with my hangups regarding the above-ground sections and the reductions in map size and random monster danger I was thoroughly engaged the whole time. I also felt like I was always progressing in some way at any point of my playthrough which is definitely a feeling I can’t say is mutually applicable to the first title in the series. This is a great title to explore if you are a fan of survival games like No Man’s Sky or even if you just want to zen out (there is a creative mode) and explore a huge, alien ocean world, a setting that not too many games have explored before in the same way. All in all, Subnautica: Below Zero is a great open-world survival title and I’m glad I had the chance to review it.
- Beautiful world and creature design throughout
- Masterful audio cues and design
- More of the addicting gameplay of the original
- Wonderful new items, features, and upgrades
- A very interesting story that ties in tangentially with the first game
- Above-ground sections are somewhat clunky and at times frustrating
- A few bugs throughout, but nothing game-breaking
- Limited scope when compared to the original