Subnautica: Below Zero (2021)

The original Subnautica started out as an early access title in 2014 and didn’t have its 1.0 release until 2017. In that time it changed quite a bit, originally allowing players to terraform the underwater landscape, and slowly change into a much more narrative based single player story. Below Zero seems to have followed a lot of the same paths as the original, and end up quite different than what it started out as.

While in announced as a early access game back in 2018, Below Zero was explained as a smaller but still full single player game taking place in the Subnautica universe. Below Zero takes place on the same alien planet called Planet 4546B, and is located on the other end of the planet, which was hinted at in the ending cinematic for the original Subnautica. Now taking place several hundred years later than the first game, you take on the role of Robin, who worked for the Altera corporation. Robin’s sister Sam has gone missing and the only information is that she was part of a research team on Planet 4546B. So Robin goes AWOL and crash lands on the freezing section of the alien planet.

Not much has changed in the last several years to the Subnaitica series, and Below Zero seems perfectly suitable as a “Expansion Pack” to the original game, or a “Stand Alone sequel”. The only real issue is that the scope of the game seems much smaller, as there are only a few different biomes, and lost of biomes that don’t return from the original.

Subnaitica holds a special place in my memories because of how crazy the original game was. Basically a “Minecraft underwater” at its inception, it changed a lot, and then became much more story focused, but keeping the exploration so well intact, that the sense of awe and wonder of exploring the underwater depths of this alien planet, and trying to survive the insane and scary beasts while building bases was just a joy. Especially in VR. The continual updates in its Early Access phase and constant dialogue to the community from the developers was a shining example of “Early Access done right”. And the same can be said of Below Zero, as the developers Unknown Worlds have hit it out of the park again with tons of information along the way.

One really odd thing was the fact that Below Zero went through a major script and story change late into the development cycle. For whatever reason the story was scrapped and they “went back to the drawing board” for the story. As I did play through a decent amount before that happened, and now having completed the final 1.0 version of the game, I don’t see much other than the beginning and end that really seemed all that different. The beginning originally had you and your sister living on the planet together, doing research and a massive meteor shower destroys a lot of your base and you go undersea to escape it. Now you are trying to find out what happened to her. The ending was never fully implemented into the game until the final 1.0 version, so I don’t know what changed there, but the Alien creature who you come across was in both versions.

In the long run, it really doesn’t matter as the game still plays as a Subnautica game, and exploration is still the main purpose of the series. New alien lifeforms show up, but for the majority of the game it’s a lot of the same familiar plants and animals.

There is a new focus on land exploration, and it takes a few hours to really explore the main island that has a research center that houses a frozen leviathan that has some sort of virus on it. Traversing the island is mainly done by just walking, which is very slow, and while a new speeder bike is able to be crafted, it still feels slower than it should and the environment is just too harsh to enjoy most of the time. Over the several hours of being on land, I would guess at around 80% of that time, the weather was so bad that I could barely seen. Maybe it was just bad luck, but not being able to see most of the time where I was going was quite frustrating. Pile on top that you are continually losing heat and have to hide in caves or constantly eat heated peppers to keep your body warmth up, it just became a bit too cumbersome to be enjoyable. Managing so many health systems, while trying to explore in a environment you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you really made me sour much quicker on the on land parts.

My main gripe with the game was that while the story seems pretty streamlined with not much more to do than follow the beats of what happened to Robin’s sister, and help the Alien named “Al-An”, I continually got lost and had lots of trouble navigating the labyrinthian underwater caves for hours. I saw people saying that it took around 17 hours to complete. And while I already had plenty of hours logged in over the last two years of Early Access play, it took me 24 hours to finish the game. Again, multiple hours just being lost, trying to find any new breadcrumb trail of where to go or what to do. I’m not sure if I just hit some random bugs where certain audio clips didn’t play, letting me know where to go next, but I had to jump out of the game and look up where to go next several times, which was frustrating as it really broke the immersion of the gameplay and also made the game feel incomplete from a technical standpoint.

Immersion is the real key to the Subnaitica experience. The original game had a native VR implementation to it, and back when VR was first coming out, it was an incredible experience, and being able to play all the way through a 19 hour game fully in VR was just such a awe-inspiring moment. Below Zero was announced and I bought it without any hesitation. Which it launched in Early Access that first day, I started up my VR headset and was confused on why it wasn’t working. After lots of reading and posting online the developers said that VR would not be implemented, even though it was in the original game. It was a baffling decision, but it didn’t deter me away from enjoying the game. Several months before launch of the 1.0 final version of the game, a group of modders changed some of the code and re-implemented VR, while it had some issues, it still made the game so much more enjoyable, and when the game finally launched in it’s finished state, the VR mod became stable and absolutely worth using.

Playing a Subnautica game in VR elevates the game so much more than words really can state. With the normal, flat version of the game, there is an airmask that borders the screen, giving you the feeling of breathing underwater. VR not only takes it away, but fully immerses you in the sense of being underwater and all the sights and sounds of a truly alien abyss become fully apparent and while it can be almost terrifying, the sense of exploration and wanting to see what's just at the end of the visible area is just too interesting. VR gives you the sense that you are really there, underwater, exploring all these places, and with the cursor fixed to your head movements, it’s much easier to catch fish and grab elements without having to position your character perfectly in front of an item.

Base building was not as big of an issue, nor was it as integral as I thought it was going to be. Partially because I always felt like I needed to be on the move much more than in the original game. Basebuilding starts off as a necessity to contain all the elements you gradually start accumulating and you need a place to store it all. My final and full playthrough was plagued by never coming across some of the basic things in the game until way way later than I should have. For one reason or another I didn’t even find my Builder device until around halfway through the game. I searched for hours only coming across the same seaglide and small equipment pieces to scan and never found the things I actually needed. This would have been much more frustrating if I didn’t already have them in previous playthroughs, as I might have just been wondering “what do I do now?” more and more often. Luckily once I was able to build a base, I already had almost all of what I needed to build the majority of my items to have a fairly decent base. But by that time, I only built one base single room with a fabricator, battery charger and a ton of lockers to hold all my stuff. All the items like beds, posters, and other items you can adorn your base with is all cosmetic and serve any real purpose other than being able to say “look at the cool base I built!” and as I don’t ever show off my base to anyone, it’s really a pointless waste of time for me to spend time building a base that no one else will see.

The story in Below Zero is weirdly split into three parts, the first part of Robin trying to search for her sister seems alright, but not something that should have been worth scrapping in early access, as it does seem to tell a fairly similar story to it’s original design. The second part of the story, sees an alien “Al-An” who embeds himself in Robin’s brain, because he needs her to make a new body for him seems almost more important but also so much less interesting. The two stories really are kinda thrown away, as is the only other human character you come across Marguerite. She shows up, you talk and do a couple missions with, then you never interact with her again. The whole story mode of the game feels really thrown together without any real wrapup on any one of them. If the story stuck only to finding out what really happened to Sam, and ditched the Alien story all together, I feel the resolution would have been much more interesting and emotional. As it is, Sam is found to have been killed in a cave collapes, partially due to her own fault and Robin just kinda excepts it at some point without any emotional breakdown or feeling one way or the other. Why did I just spend 20 hours being told that “something else is going on, she isn’t dead” only then to be like “well, looks like she’s dead, glad I got closure, alright Alien voice in my head, let’s build you a body!!!” There is no flow and it feels very disjointed.

The story being pretty abysmal, having no connecting points and reusing a lot of the same assets and locations as the original, while being smaller in scope really does make this a much less interesting and focused game than the original. But it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The development team brought more Subnautica to the world, and revisiting the series in VR again a few years later was still fun, and I was smiling ear to ear again just being in my little submersible trying to escape large sea monsters and hunting for gold and silver ore in the depths of an alien ocean. There is nothing else like Subnaitica, and especially in VR. While the story could have been much better told, with better direction and explanation on what I was doing, I’m still glad I was able to buy the game on announcement and show support for a team that is really doing something unique in gaming.