Subnautica: Below Zero Review – A dive worth taking

Reviewed May 25, 2021 on PC

Platforms:

PS4, PC, , Xbox One X, PS5, Xbox Series X

Released:

May 14, 2021

Publisher:

Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Developer:

Unknown Worlds Entertainment

Subnautica: Below Zero is the sequel to 2018’s Subnautica, changing things up by taking place in a frozen tundra and tasking you with exploring the freezing ocean depths to craft, build, and ultimately survive. But does Below Zero bring enough to the table to warrant your time and surveying skills?

First things first, this game is absolutely beautiful! The underwater scenery that you will spend a majority of your time exploring never ceases to amaze. Each dive you take is filled with gorgeous and exotic wildlife, colourful plants and coral, and an abundance of beauty to take in. The game does a really impressive job of making you feel like an explorer on an alien world, discovering new species and plants and using your wits to evolve your tools and bases to expand your reach further.

The main gameplay loop of Below Zero is simple and largely unchanged from its predecessor; explore, craft, expand, and repeat all whilst surviving. That may sound mundane and repetitive, and it can be in a way, but it also isn’t. You will repeat the cycle of searching the ocean for materials and food, filling up your inventory before returning to your base to craft what you need before heading out once again to do the exact same thing, hopefully with a little more reach. The genius of this title though is that it mostly avoids becoming such a mundane task thanks to the lush scenery, evolving landscape as you progress further outwards, and the ever hanging carrot in front of you to get what you need to craft a new tool or structure. It truly can become an addiction when exploring this weird and wonderful world. The survival mechanic of eating and drinking never become too much of an issue with the way in which you create these resources being both abundant and easy to manage.

You will be presented with the choice of playing 1 of 4 game modes. Survival is the base game mode that presents the story and all of the mechanics as intended. Freedom mode is the same as survival, but removes the hunger and thirst mechanic, allowing you to explore to your heart’s content. Hardcore mode only gives you one life and removes the O² alerts. Lastly, there is a creative mode that disables oxygen, hunger, and thirst needs, and allows you to build anything without any constraints.

I was instantly drawn into Below Zero’s world, always excited at what new discoveries lay before me on my next trip out to gather supplies. The first dive into the water is always satisfying, as is the moment you begin to swim around and encounter the wildlife of the beginning area. Towards the beginning of your playthrough, you will be pretty restricted in terms of the distance and depth you can travel as you will only have a small oxygen tank and no flippers or vehicles for increased movement speed, though it isn’t long before you can craft upgrades to the oxygen tank. As a result, you will spend most of your beginning couple of hours close to your small base station, venturing out a little further each time to see what new areas and discoveries await you. That’s not to say that you can’t travel out far from the start, because you most certainly can if you wish. Though doing this whilst ill-prepared is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, you will spend the first few hours getting accustomed to the controls, the inventory system, crafting, and various materials you can find and create. Slowly but surely you will craft some useful tools like the scanner, knife, and flashlight, which will assist you with your expedition. Before long you will be creating massive underwater structures that become your base to store vehicles and items. From the outset, you are really left to your own devices, and Below Zero does a decent job at assisting you without holding your hand. For the most part, you truly are on your own from the get-go, free to search in any direction and make your own way in this arctic world until you have enough resources at your disposal to feel like a well-versed expedition extraordinaire.

I was instantly drawn into the world, always excited at what new discoveries lay before me on my next trip out to gather supplies.

Once you have the core Subnautica loop down pat, it really is a charming experience to search the waters, view the wildlife, and hear all of the aquatic bleeps and bloops of the creatures that inhabit this world. The day/night cycle is impressive, with a clear difference between the two. Daytime ventures provide a well-lit way to explore areas, but as the sun begins to set is when the ocean comes alive. A lot of the creatures and plants emit bioluminescence, so during the night you are treated to a colourful display of bright neon-like colours littering the ocean and its depths. The way light works seems fairly realistic as the deeper you venture into the ocean or a cave, the darker it becomes, necessitating that you bring your own light source to see much of anything.

I will say that players of the previous Subnautica title may not find enough changes or additions here as they may have been expecting, and as someone who has experienced Subnatuica before, I did feel that some of the awe and intrigue was a little lost. I just felt like I had been here before. There are a few interesting areas to explore, with an abundance of twisting cave systems and caverns, along with areas that seem never-ending as you stare off into the deep, dark endless ocean unsure of what is lurking just off in the distance.

This time around there is a more cohesive and centred story at play. The premise is simple: you play as Robin, a woman who smuggles herself onto planet 4546b in order to investigate the circumstances of her sister Samantha’s death. What unfolds is your search for answers and to uncover the truth behind her death, along with unravelling an alien mystery with a friendly biological AI. Whilst the story may have been more cohesive than the previous one, I didn’t find it as captivating, with fewer major milestones that catapulted the story forward. That’s not to say that Below Zero’s story is bad though. It does provide a backbone for your progress in the game, but it wasn’t this aspect that drove me forward and kept pushing me to progress further into the world. Exploration is the name of the game here, with the story progressing as you explore further out by pinpointing areas of interest close-by to your proximity. These areas are sometimes out of the reach with the equipment you may currently have, so you will be forced to search for and create upgraded equipment to reach these new points of progression.

The wildlife on display represents some breathtaking design choices. Sure there are a few that seem slapped together, but for the most part, there clearly was an intent to create creatures that capture a long-lost sense of discovery in all of us. From alien penguins, small glowing fish and larger more imposing sealife, all the way through to arctic foxes, each species really does feel like it belongs to the world, all working in a little ecosystem. Not all the wildlife is friendly or benign, with some of the further out or deeper dwelling creatures posing a risk to your survival if you get too close. The first time I encountered a Sea Monkey had me stopping to study the creature before it approached and scared me and stole my scanner before fleeing, forcing me to give chase to retrieve my precious tool that this cheeky creature decided was its own. The AI of the creatures has been improved since the previous title, but you will still find moments where they may get stuck in a wall or make some odd movements, but this never really poses enough of a problem to call it game-breaking.

Below Zero controls well for the most part, but it can take some time for you to get accustomed to the floaty feeling of being underwater if this is your first time with a Subnautica game. The user interface is clean and simple, and I never had an issue with managing my inventory or navigating the menus whilst crafting. Thankfully, the layout of materials and objects you can collect seems to be more evenly spread across the map, with you never needing to go on super lengthy searches to gather multiples of the same item.

Unfortunately, the areas that you can explore out of the water are far less exciting, with the on-ground controls feeling clunky, making navigating the terrain difficult with the weak jump you are provided that never really lets you ascend anything above knee height. Thankfully, these sections are few and far between, as I always found myself wanting to dive back into the ocean where I felt more at home. But then again, perhaps this was a design choice to make you want to seek solace in the ever-inviting and mysterious ocean depths – but probably not.

Below Zero does run at a slow pace, leading to it being quite relaxing at times just exploring, and for me at least I found it to be a soothing experience swimming around in the tranquil ocean. It will take time before you really start to get a feeling for the area, and even longer before you are able to find new blueprints by scanning objects in the environment to craft vehicles and other means of surviving. So for players searching for something more frantic, you might be better off looking elsewhere. Below Zero demands your time and undivided attention. As with any survival game, the fun does not come from blasting your way through hordes of enemies, but from finding new ways to survive and explore the various areas, which can at times be a tedious and lengthy endeavour.

The game on average will take between 15-20 hours to complete, depending on the amount of exploring that you do, but it can far exceed that for players that truly take the time to explore this world at their own leisure. I found the best way to enjoy this game was with shorter sessions of a couple of hours or so, with each session seeing me progress further into the world and learn new things for my next session.

7

Good

Positive:

  • Gorgeous graphics, art design, and aesthetics
  • Exploring is rewarding and engaging thanks to the fleshed our environments
  • Plenty of gadgets, vehicles, and base pieces to play around with

Negative:

  • Sections that are out of the ocean are dull and cumbersome
  • Might be too similar for people that have played the previous entry

Subnautica: Below Zero is another masterclass in survival gaming, setting itself apart from the overabundance of survival games on the market with its tranquil ocean setting, addicting exploration, and unique wildlife. If you are a fan of the previous title or survival games in general, this really ticks all the boxes that you are looking for, providing an enthralling world to explore and get lost in, all with gorgeous graphics and sound design. It can at times feel like a retread of the previous game with a few tweaks and additions, but Subnautica was by no means a bad game, so this is still a very well-crafted follow-up in the series. It is a hard title to put down as you are always on the cusp of something new and evolutionary, so players in search of something more fast-paced will need to search elsewhere. In saying that, I still think this is a title that everyone should check out or at least give a go, as it really does represent something unique and captivating that is hard to not recommend.