Subnautica Below Zero has been one of my most anticipated releases this year. The standalone expansion to Subnautica—the widely acclaimed narratively driven survival game that landed a spot on our best of 2018—has finally been released to Early Access, and it’s off to a pretty good start.
If you’re not familiar with Subnautica, stop reading and go play it. It’s an open world survival game that incorporates a narrative that guides you on your journey surviving its harsh ocean. It’s full of mystery, wonder, and terror—seriously, just go play it now.
Subnautica Below Zero takes place sometime after the events of Subnautica. You’re another employee working for Alterra: a mega-corporation that explores space to exploit whatever resources it can find for profit. While their motivations are capitalistic, the technology they employ is something you would see out of Star Trek. Your character is a researcher on planet 4546B, the same planet the hapless survivor from Subnautica found himself stranded. This time though, you are assigned to the planet, not just a victim who needs to survive. This changes the feeling a bit, and provides a mental safety blanket that the original Subnautica intentionally pulled from you.
This change in tone makes Subnautica Below Zero feel much different than the base game. Gone is the sense of isolation vanilla Subnautica had. There are voices constantly: the protagonist is voiced, and you have a whole space station’s worth of support that talks to you and helps you. You’re not alone, and you’re not strictly in a survival situation, either. The main character is given the choice to evacuate early on, but she chooses not to. The story and feeling are totally different—but different is not bad, and I will reserve judgement until I can get the full experience.
That said, though I do miss the feeling of isolation and impending doom that Subnautica had, it will be interesting to see where the new story will go. I actually don’t hate the voiced protagonist, and there have even managed to be some moments of humor squeezed in because of it.
Another change in Subnautica Below Zero is the sheer amount of land to walk on. Dry land, floating icebergs, and other things your character can stand on dot the open ocean. This is significant because in Subnautica, finding land—or anywhere you can stand that isn’t open water—was rare, and significant. The terrors of the deep feel less terrifying if you can keep them at bay by popping up onto a floating ice chunk, but only time will tell if they will be completely safe havens.
Below Zero has a variety of new flora and fauna, both magnificent and terrifying—as usual. The penguin-like pengwings are showing up everywhere in relation to Below Zero, but there are a lot more things to find, and new things that will try to eat you.
Weather effects are a new thing in Below Zero, having only been hinted at in Subnautica. Besides serving to move the story forward in the first few minutes, the weather effects (for now) don’t seem to have any effect on gameplay, but they do look neat—if a little rough.
There is about 2 hours of story content in Subnautica Below Zero right now. If you don’t want to spoil yourself by avoiding the story in Creative Mode, I have to warn you: some of the the story beats still trigger in creative, so you can’t completely avoid spoilers. Even so, Creative Mode allows you to build and explore without having to worry about hunger or thirst, so it’s a great way to take a look around without having to worry about pesky things like starving to death, or getting beaten to a pulp by a rock puncher. If you do explore, you’ll notice a lot of the world is left unfinished, but it’s fun to go into the dark, murky depths and imagine what will be.
As an Early Access title, Subnautica Below Zero doesn’t seem completely optimized, either. I ran into some frame rate drops and other performance issues. Despite performance drops, Below Zero has been a relatively bug-free experience.
It’s not finished yet, so if you want to go into the experience completely spoiler free, you might want to avoid it for now. But if you want to help support developer Unknown Worlds, Subnautica Below Zero has a bit of content that will keep you entertained, and it will definitely whet your appetite for what’s to come.
There is no VR support so far, so if you want to go into Below Zero donning a virtual reality headset, you will be disappointed. As it is right now, the developers don’t seem to be prioritizing VR support—and Subnautica Below Zero may not ever get it–a consideration if it was something you loved about the vanilla game.
Subnautica Below Zero is available now on Early Access on Steam and Epic.