The follow-up to Subnautica adds the perils of an ice planet to the original’s list of underwater threats, in this enjoyably mellow survival game.
2014’s Subnautica dropped you onto an ocean planet with nothing but an escape pod, and let you figure out how to survive in its cavernously deep, monster-infested waters. The answer to that problem turned out to be crafting. Using the pod’s fabricator – the equivalent of a crafting table in Minecraft – you could turn the minerals you harvested into all manner of useful items, chemicals, and eventually machines.
A standalone release, but still not quite a sequel, Below Zero has been in early access on PC for the last two years. Its premise is near identical to the original, only this time you’re deposited on a much colder ocean planet. Underwater all is much as it was, but on the surface you start to freeze within seconds, hypothermia following in about a minute unless you find shelter, drink a cup of coffee, or huddle next to handy heat-radiating flora.
It’s a feature that gives surface exploration the same sense of brinkmanship as diving, where you’re perpetually daring yourself to go further and discover more against the countdown towards freezing to death or drowning. You can also starve, dehydrate, get eaten by sea monsters, or crushed by exceeding your submersible’s maximum depth, but drowning is by far the most frequent way you’ll die.
Drowning doesn’t happen all that often though, especially once you’ve started to unlock more advanced equipment; each piece of which adds a fresh dimension to exploration, giving you more time underwater, the ability to reach greater depths, and to stray further from the surface or your undersea base. The latter is practically a sub-game of its own, as your constructions get steadily more elaborate, adding flowerbeds, multiple rooms, a moon pool, observation pods, and all sorts of useful contraptions and decorative frippery.
The slow drip feed of new gadgets also gives the game a slight Metroidvania flavour, gradually opening up new cave systems and areas of the ocean, all of which were accessible from the start if only you’d had sufficient oxygen supply to explore them. The same goes for the edges of the map. Stray too far and the sea gets darker and the music fades, quietly telling you that you’ve gone too far without any eye rolling invisible walls or pointed announcements.
Speaking of maps, there isn’t one. You can leave floating beacons at points of interest, and you’ll often have target areas highlighted for you, but you never get a visual map, relying instead on the superbly differentiated biomes and your natural sense of direction. From the sunny, resource rich shallows, you’ll find thermal vents in one direction, leading you out to unfathomable depths strewn with enormous floating lily pads, while in the other direction is an ice shelf and kelp forests.
Each of those biomes supports different ecosystems, both swimming and geological, offering new beasts and materials to scan into your PDA, mine for elements, and use in the construction of fresh gadgets. Although there are weapons, equipment is heavily slanted towards mining, exploration, and storage, and actually your most useful defence is ramming medium-sized predators with your mini-sub, the seatruck.
Eschewing the original’s gradual escalation of submarine size, Below Zero instead lets you unlock modules for the seatruck, adding a portable fabricator, storage room, mobile aquarium, and sleeper unit – that lets you skip day or night cycles. It can be upgraded for deeper exploration, and you can also use it to tow around the prawn suit, a sort of underwater mech with powerful mining and defensive capabilities.
Disappointingly, Below Zero manages to retain the original’s graphical problems, with noticeable object pop-in, dropped frames, and relatively short draw distance even on the PlayStation 5. It does make use of the DualSense’s haptic feedback as you smack into fish with your sub, or use triggers to activate lights or equipment, but it’s subtle rather than dramatic.
Below Zero also suffers from regular crashes, forcing you to reload the game, something you’ll need to repeat when you get stuck on pieces of scenery or furniture. That happens frequently enough to remind you that despite the beauty of the undersea world, and the wealth of exploration and discovery it supplies, this is an indie production rather than the triple-A title it often looks like; the incorporated bug feedback form isn’t just for decoration.
There’s much to like about its tech, however, with the only load time you’ll ever see the one right at the start of the game. After that you can enter buildings and vehicles completely seamlessly and in real-time, as well as swimming, floating, and driving wherever you please, using the game’s surprisingly rewarding and intuitive underwater navigation. It adds to a wonderful sense of freedom as you plumb the ocean’s depths, moving from one biome to another, the music and atmosphere changing as you do.
While exploring, you’ll notice the groans, clicks and squeaks of nearby fish, and the rumbling growls of more dangerous fauna, each of which gives you information about your surroundings as well as adding a sense of foreboding as you move from the safe shallows to more spectacular and dangerous deep waters.
Despite its multiple tweaks and fully formed new plot, there’s no escaping the manifold similarities with the original game. That’s not a terrible thing given how good Subnautica was, but seven years is a long time in video games, and it would have been nice to see more fresh material. However, even as a kind of standalone expansion pack, Below Zero is just as enthralling as its forebear, making it easy to lose tens of hours exploring its elegantly differentiated sub-aqua environments.
Subnautica: Below Zero review summary
In Short: A mellow paced and captivating game of underwater exploration, crafting, and discovery, that feels more like a Subnautica expansion than a discrete sequel.
Pros: Beautiful environments with their own distinct identities. Loads to explore, great sound design, and an interesting plot that doesn’t rely on cut scenes.
Cons: Very similar to the original and suffering from the same graphical glitches and shortcomings. You’ll spend a lot of time on subsistence in the early part of the game.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Release Date: 14th May 2021
Age Rating: 12
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