Review: Subnautica: Below Zero

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The original Subnautica is one of my all-time favorite PC games. It’s more than just a well-made adventure, it revitalized the undersea genre and showed how survival games could be more fun than work. Even with some indie jank, it was one of the most magical gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. I was content to wait until the sequel, Below Zero, was entirely complete before diving in, so that nothing would interfere in recapturing that same magic. And the thing is, it’s not quite the same magic even in its completed state. It’s a very good game, and good in the same ways the original was, and that might be why it doesn’t work as well.

You are Robin Ayou, and you have a problem. Something happened to your sister, Sam, while in the employ of amoral megacorporation Alterra. Obviously they’re not going to help you sort it out, so you’ve arranged your own one-way trip to the alien world of 4546B, her last posting. Sam worked at an arctic research station, so you’re going to have to brave icy waters and snowy cliffs as you piece together what happened at the abandoned bases. You’ll also need sustenance and shelter to survive these conditions, so doing a little of your own research goes a long way towards base-building and prospering. As you close in on Alterra’s dirty secrets, you may find more than you bargained for beneath the cold waves.

Subnautica: Below Zero was originally conceived as an expansion tot he original game, and it’s helpful to keep that in mind when it comes to the similarities between the two. It starts in much the same way, with an eventful landing in a strange, alien ocean. You have a lifepod to operate out of while you start assembling tools and exploring your surroundings. Fairly early on, you get access to base-building tools and vehicles, so you can set yourself up in style in your undersea domain. Crafting is very much like before, in its simplicity and general lack of farming, though there are some changes and improvements to be found. And of course, the deeper you dive into the secrets of the planet, the larger the threats to you and your little operation become.

In many ways, Below Zero remains very close to its origins, and I think ultimately that’s why it doesn’t leave as much of an impression. Subnautica was so new and exciting when it came out, with the promise of a sprawling alien world to explore and untold dangers to face. Everyone remembers the first time they built their Cyclops or were grabbed by a Reaper leviathan, because it was so unlike anything else in gaming. With Below Zero, you’re really hitting all the same beats, after already hearing the song before. You build the same bases, you plumb very similar depths, and you get grabbed by functionally identical leviathans. If anything, this one makes the threats even less of a threat, with them only doing tiny portions of damage to your vehicles or simply bumping you off them harmlessly instead of sometimes smashing them to bits.

The other issue is the story. Below Zero has a more fleshed-out story than the original did, which starts with a mystery, winds through some side stories, and ends up in a very different and very interesting place. On its own, it’s a solid addition to the game, but the inclusion of more characters and more complexity honestly hurts the atmosphere that made Subnautica feel so special. The first game was just you stranded on an alien planet, all alone, working out the enigmas of the past and present on your own. In Below Zero, as a function of the story you’re retracing the steps of others who have already uncovered much of the mystery, and this time you are accompanied on your journey. The result is an entirely different feel, more comfortable and with more narrative to follow but also lacking the spark that made the original such a singular experience.

It may seem like I’m really down on Below Zero, but I’m absolutely not. This is a fine follow-up to Subnautica, and offers a lot of familiar gameplay with more polish than the original and a few clever twists on the formula. But I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone coming here in the wake of the original, so what I wanted to focus on was the difference in tone and feel. If you’re like me and found Subnautica to be a magical, awe-inspiring experience, you probably won’t get that here. It follows the template of the original too closely for that same sense of discovery to take hold, and focuses on story to the detriment of the atmosphere. While not ideal for a sequel, it’s still a very good game in its own right, and a fine choice for anyone wanting to uncover the secrets of a watery alien world.

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