If at first you don’t succeed, drown, drown again. That’s how a good third of my Subnautica: Below Zero aqua-treks went and I regret nothing.
True, I wasn’t the one expiring on an alien planet but just roaming the waters of Subnautica: Below Zero is such a fulfilling experience that you won’t regret a few deaths by misadventure. Sure, you might lose an item or two from your normally packed inventory, but it’s still worth that extra glimpse of the deeps.
Make no mistake, exploration is Subnautica: Below Zero‘s beating heart. This sequel has more of a story than the original Subnautica and the notion you’re seeking justice for the “accidental” death of your sister drives the plot when it needs to. You will have a slight advantage if you’ve played the original; not because the territory is familiar (you’re exploring an entirely different part of the planet) but because you’ll have experienced the same cycle of exploration, resource gathering and building.
There’s crafting to be done (unless you choose Below Zero‘s creative mode) but that too pushes you deeper into the depths. Finding the pieces of a sea glide lets you craft the vehicle, for example, so you can move faster and dive deeper before your oxygen expires. Sure, you could stumble across an oxygen plant, but that’s a risk.
Then you find the pieces of a Sea Truck and, grinning with glee, you realise you can plunge deeper without the danger of asphyxiating. Except… some of the components you need to recreate it are… odd. You’ve never heard of these so, risk be damned, you head into the depths, tagging oxygen plants as you go. An hour or so later, you’re the proud owner of a Sea Truck. There’s just one problem: this thing has a crush depth of 150 metres. Wait… there’s a depth module? What do I need to build that?
Even if you’re not actively seeking resources, Subnautica: Below Zero‘s diverse biomes are wonderful to pick through or observe. For the sake of reviewing Below Zero, I held back on the base building, but in Subnautica I spent hours building down and down, then just sitting in my observatory watching the animals, including a colossal leviathan, go by. The most important improvement here over the original Subnautica is that it’s more welcoming to new players.
It’s not easier as such, and the deeper down you go the more things there are that will kill you, directly or indirectly. You’ll end up frantically hammering a button because a carnivorous anemone has mistaken you for a fish; it’s not going to eat you, but you’re seconds away from running out of oxygen and that oxygen plant is just five metres away. But despite the dangers that await as you progress, Subnautica: Below Zero‘s opening area eases you into the game, with creatures that will steal from you rather than straight up murder you.
In fact, Subnautica: Below Zero shakes things up enough to surprise fans of the original. You can head onto the ice (the story requires you do at some point) and, engrossed in gawping at the adorable penguin-a-likes, freeze to death before you can dive back into the water. Well, either that or be torn apart by an alien polar bear. The one thing I do miss from Subnautica is the Cyclops submarine. It’s cool to be able to attach modular “trailers” to the Sea Truck, but it’s not as immersive as being able to roam around the whole of your tin can or lose it when it starts filling with water.
I’m not about to give away story beats and, anyway, it’s more fun to discover the “truth” for yourself. But every so often, Below Zero pulls you back into its tale, giving you just enough incentive to revisit areas you’ve already explored. It helps that the game is gorgeous to look at and frightening when it needs to be, with creatures (some hostile, some not) that are appealingly alien yet close enough to an Earth species that you know exactly what they’re capable of.
Throw in an amazing, evocative soundtrack and you’ve got a game that’s enthralling exactly when you want it to be and and terrifying when you probably don’t. The fear factor isn’t omnipresent, but the off-putting thing about Subnautica: Below Zero – or, indeed, about any aquatic open-world game – is that enemies can come at you from anywhere. Anywhere.
So, while I loved diving lower and lower in my Sea Truck, discovering some new, strange flora or fauna, there was always the nagging sensation that something big could come at me from below. Then comes the point when your truck hits crush depth and, as you disembark to explore further, you’re horribly, acutely aware you’re way down the food chain.
Subnautica: Below Zero does require a degree of patience, not because of any glaring design flaws but because the game doesn’t take you by the hand. It will nudge you in the “right” direction though, and it’s easier to discover new things than in Subnautica; for example, submerged technology is easier to spot. And resources are scattered around more evenly, so while most of a particular resource might be in a certain area, there’ll be one or two in other places.
But there are certain resources that are out of your reach until you can dive deep enough and you can spend time looking for them without knowing you’re unlikely to find them. Rubies, for example, are typically deep down; I half-recalled this from playing Subnautica but if I hadn’t, I could have spent much longer looking for something I wouldn’t find. That, however, is the worst thing I can say about Subnautica: Below Zero.
This is a game where there’s not a radio tower, time trial or lengthy side-quest to be seen, and with a few exceptions, it’s down to you to make your own fun. And you know what? It’s an absolute joy to just get out there and mess around, embracing the thrill of discovery. It manages to be fresh, even if you’ve played the original. Subnautica: Below Zero is the most refreshing, engaging sandbox game I’ve played in ages and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t dive right in.
I still want my Cyclops back, though.
Subnautica: Below Zero Review: GameSpew’s Score