The original Subnautica is one of those games I wish I could wipe from my memory so that I could plunge in and comb its depths for the first time all over again. No one’s worked out how to do that without some pretty severe side effects, but Subnautica: Below Zero is the next best thing: even though it’s a bit smaller, it gives us a whole new watery sector to explore, survive, craft, and build awesome bases in, and it’s just as exhilarating.
Returning to the mostly submerged alien world of 4546B some time after the events of Subnautica, Below Zero tells a more personal and emotional story. You are Robin Ayou, a sharp, defiant xenobiologist searching for her sister after the Alterra corporation pronounced her dead in an accident. And what kind of rube trusts a faceless megacorporation to tell the truth, especially in the future? There are more strange, alien mysteries to discover, including a lot more about the enigmatic Architects. This is all accompanied by excellent voice acting that will lead you on a bread crumb trail toward the truth.As you track down abandoned Alterra facilities and use context clues and voice logs to piece together what happened, you’ll get to unlock and play with new technology like the spy pengling, an adorable little robot that can access areas Robin can’t. Combat is still pretty limited, especially in the water, but that’s by design. It would take a lot of the sense of danger out of Subnautica if you could just bolt a machine gun onto your suit. It’s much more fun to have to sneak by or outrun the giant ice worms and sea monsters that serve as guardians to some key story areas and valuable resources.
And of course, Unknown Worlds’ art direction continues to be astounding. With several new land and underwater biomes to explore, I was filled with wonder as I navigated the tangled passages of the Twisty Bridges or swam alongside alien wales in the Fallen Lily Pads. The use of color and shape gives such a strong identity to each area and creature, with instantly recognizable and memorable silhouettes for important landmarks and species. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful game. And the jarring texture pop-in from the original Subnautica seems to be all but extinct, though I did still run into it in a couple areas, like around the edges of icebergs.
The sound design and music are also just as awesome as ever. The icy, oppressive, yet beckoning feeling of the Arctic sea really comes alive when you can hear the distant calls of massive oceanic life forms and the bubbling of your rebreather through the shimmering gloom. I got to the point that I could close my eyes and make a rough mental map of what kind of creatures were around, including their relative position and distance – which is not only useful but pretty damn impressive that it’s possible at all in such a huge, 3D environment.
The map itself is significantly smaller than the original Subnautica’s, though. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed when I reached the map edge only about 10 hours in and said to myself, “Wait… this is it?” Even so, it doesn’t feel small. If you played the original, you might have some idea why measuring by pure surface area can be misleading. And if you didn’t, I’d prefer you get to see what the late game is hiding for yourself. But even Below Zero’s deepest secrets don’t measure up to the sheer scale of those in the main game. It makes this adventure come across more as a standalone expansion than a true sequel.
The upside of this is that there’s less empty space, and every area has been given a lot of love. Almost every corner of the glacier and the sea floor has something interesting going on, and there are some very elaborate hidden areas to explore.
Subnautica: Below Zero Screenshots
Below Zero’s gameplay feels instantly familiar, but has gotten some nice touch-ups across the board. Gone are the zippy Seamoth and the colossal Cyclops submersibles. Instead, you get the rugged Sea Truck, a modular vehicle that can be equipped with extra storage, a crafting station, and a docking bay for the trusty Prawn Suit. This lets you operate an entirely mobile base, while also giving you the option to detach the cabin and pilot it independently when you really need speed. There’s a good helping of new stationary base modules, too, for building and decorating your own deep sea research station or party pad.
The other big addition is the glacier that takes up the Northwest corner of the map, where you’ll have plenty of oxygen but constantly battle hypothermia and a variety of land predators. It’s a nice change of pace, but it doesn’t really match up to the underwater adventures that make Subnautica so cool. Even with the addition of the agile Snowfox hoverbike, it still felt like a side area. I would have probably preferred less of this to make room for more water areas.