When Subnautica released into 1.0 in 2018, I was obsessed. I think my wife genuinely worried about my health and wellbeing. It was definitely one of my favorite games that year—I even remember telling a friend that it was my personal game of the year, even over the beloved God of War. When Subnautica: Below Zero was announced as a standalone DLC, I was still in the grips of Subnautica fever. I did play Below Zero when it first released in 2019, but I didn’t want to spoil too much of the full experience, so I quit after only an hour or so of gameplay, so I could savor the full finished experience when I finally got my hands on “1.0.” Needless to say, my hype for Subnautica: Below Zero was real—and it delivered in many ways.
Subnautica: Below Zero is a first person open world survival game where you play as Robin Ayou, on the hunt for answers. Years after the Aurora crash landed on the water world, Alterra has set up research facilities on the frozen north pole planet 4546B. Robin’s sister Samantha worked for the greedy corporation on planet 4546B and suffered a tragic fate under mysterious circumstances. Not trusting the corporate line about her sister’s death due to negligence, Robin heads off to the aquatic planet to find answers—and find out what really happened to her sister. To find the answers she seeks, Robin has to survive in the icy alien waters by building tools, vehicles and habitats with her sights always set on going deeper—well, most of the time.
Exploration is the main gameplay loop in Subnautica: Below Zero, and one of my favorite parts of the original Subnautica. I’m happy to say that Below Zero still has a sense of wonder and discovery left for those (like me) who endeavored to find everything there is to find in the original game. Exploration isn’t as easy as going from point A to point B, however. Often the story, or need for a new material, will drive you deeper into the ocean. Going deeper begets the need for better oxygen tanks, or modules that allow your vehicles to survive past their ordinary crush depths. There’s usually an environmental or story reason to seek out the next upgrade that will get you to your next objective. Despite it being an open world experience, Below Zero shepherds you to the next story beat.
One of my favorite parts of the original Subnautica was its near flawless sense of progression. Below Zero, I feel, loses a bit of that. Both games are inherently a mystery, and it’s the mystery that drives the need to explore and discover. However, Below Zero presents the player with almost two different mysteries that feel like they’re pulling you in opposite directions. Not only that, but Subnautica left me feeling like my discoveries were organic, while Below Zero feels like I’m completing quests given to me by quest givers. And that highlights another flaw in Below Zero over its predecessor: the lack of loneliness.
Subnautica felt like a lonely, desperate mission to live against all odds. You play as a person who is thrust into a situation and has to struggle to survive. Below Zero, on the other hand, isn’t about survival so much as a search for the truth. Robin is a badass, and has survived similar situations before. Unlike the original protagonist, Robin isn’t silent. And that takes me out of my own place of thalassophobic fear, and instead puts me into the head of this person who doesn’t seem to even bat an eye when confronted with Lovecraftian horrors, or is face to face with awesome alien technology. Planet 4546B isn’t a lonely place anymore, either. In fact, you’re here after the party already left—and they proved even lowly Sea Truck drivers can brave these waters if necessary. Just like in Subnautica, Below Zero has you find PDAs that tell you the story of those that were here before, but unlike the Degasi logs or those of the ill-fated other Aurora survivors, these logs don’t add to the bleak survival atmosphere, and even have a comical quality to them. I didn’t mind the shift in tone, but it really took some of the fear away from my scary fish game.
In the original Subnautica, it’s a little bit of a spoiler to even mention there is land. When you get off of your escape pod, besides the wreck of the Aurora, there is nothing around but ocean. Below Zero takes a decidedly different approach, and is full of different places that can be considered “dry land.” Gone is Subnautica’s wide open ocean, replaced with towering icebergs that often create underwater obstacles which make travelling from point A to point B more than a straight shot. There are also plenty of times you have to get out of the water and brave the freezing cold to complete your next objective. Weather outside of the water in Below Zero is quite harsh, and without shelter and cold weather equipment, you can die just as readily by freezing as you can if you ran out of oxygen in the depths.
Vehicles are almost essential in Subnautica, and that’s the same for Below Zero. Gone are Subnautica’s Sea Moth and Cyclops, however—replaced with the monstrosity that is the Sea Truck. And while the Prawn suit survives, and the Snow Fox adds a land vehicle, I can get over the loss of the the Sea Moth and Cyclops. I can see where developer Unknown Worlds was going with the Sea Truck, as it works as a sort of replacement for the behemoth that was the Cyclops submarine; it loses a lot of functionality. See, the Cyclops was a lot of player’s main home away from home. Since you could build on it, it was the ultimate customizable submersible, and had plenty of room to spare to dock a Prawn suit or Sea Moth. The Sea Truck, on the other hand, is a modular beast that becomes cumbersome and the more you add. I could write an entire angry article about the Sea Truck and my love hate relationship with that vehicle, but I’ll spare you the most of it. I do appreciate its modular nature, and the fact that you can take with you just what you need. You can attach and detach cars by physically moving and rearranging them—something that I found oddly satisfying. I wish the Sea Truck had an option for independent looking while driving, and observation cameras like the Cyclops. A Sea Truck with a full train is almost impossible to turn around in any sort of tight space. Thankfully, if you need to get into tight spaces, you can detach the front cab without having to leave the Sea Truck, turning it into a Sea Moth-vehicle with the flip of a switch. The Sea Truck tries to be the best of the Sea Moth and Cyclops, but ends up being inferior to both.
Despite my frustrations with its vehicle situation, Below Zero adds just enough new gadgetry and changes to base building to be interesting. For those that like to build sprawling bases, Below Zero has many options—and even new rooms, and new customization options. Name your base, and even set colors. Some games make bases necessary to save your game, but Subnautica makes them an integral part to the gameplay. Who doesn’t like a nice home to return to after dodging leviathans in the deep?
Below Zero features lots of new flora and fauna to discover and scan—with plenty of it wanting to take a bite out of you. Unfortunately, there is nothing quite like the Reaper Leviathan in Below Zero. Sure, Below Zero has its share of scary giant fish that want to eat you, but none of the leviathans in Below Zero had the same impact on me as those in Subnautica. I think a lot of that has to do with the creature design and sound effects, as nothing in Below Zero quite lives up to its predecessor in terms of ability to terrify.
As a standalone DLC, I’d say Below Zero definitely met my expectations. I missed the loneliness, and the ever-present sense of dread that the original Subnautica had. But I really enjoyed the new toys that Below Zero let me play with, even if the Sea Truck is a missed opportunity. If you’re a fan of the original, and want more Subnautica, Below Zero is a heaping helping. But if you’re coming into the series for the first time, I’d recommend starting with the original.
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