REVIEWS

Review | Subnautica – Below Zero

Are We Truly Alone?

Played on Xbox Series X.

Survival games are some of the coolest genres in gaming. At their core, the standard goal of surviving is tied to a number of bars—be it health, hunger, sanity, what have you—with the few tools you have at your disposal and a large world to comb resources from. You would think that, at some point, the genre would hit a standstill in popularity. But they have only been getting more and more popular over the past decade. This is thanks to creative gameplay mechanics, unique settings, and cooperative play that can blur the line between player versus player and player versus environment. Subnautica is just one of the many survival games out there, and on the 14th of May its sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero will be available on Xbox Series and Xbox One consoles. Developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, a studio that I know of thanks to a very fun Half-Life mod, you will get to try and survive under the sea.

I have little experience with the first Subnautica, and you have its terrifying deep-sea creatures to thank for that. Below Zero is no different, offering new creatures small and large and most of them have no problem slapping you across the face. But armed with new courage, I jumped into the game ready to explore Planet 4546b with Robin, our main protagonist in search of what happened to her sister, Sam. The game’s intro is explosive, as we descend onto Planet 4546b by blending in with a meteor shower crashing into the planet. Once we land, our initial base descends into some of the shallower waters where we landed, and from there we gain full control of Robin.

From Copper to Diamonds

An image of Below Zero's frozen wastes.
Not my ideal kind of vacation. (Genghis Husameddin/Unknown Worlds Entertainment)

Planet 4546b is a winter wonderland. No matter where you go, you will encounter the frigid wastes of what remained of the research teams that lived here. To figure out what happened here without trouble, it is up to the player to build equipment with the resources around them. You can do this with a fabricator, any blueprints you have unlocked, and the resources needed.

You start out with the simple stuff, but the more useful equipment will need to be found by exploring the other biomes and scanning broken pieces of machinery to build more blueprints. Resource gathering is as easy as breaking rocks or cutting vines, but some require specific tools for the job. In one case, I did run into an annoying moment where a resource I assumed I could easily gather with my knife in fact needed a special tool that was slightly cumbersome to use. Not the end of the world, but it did involve backtracking that I felt was unnecessary.

But I digress. Crafting is relatively simple, and even though the game does not offer much in the way of a tutorial, anyone with an hour’s experience in Minecraft can figure out what to do fairly quickly. Robin’s PDA will also below out tips every now and again as well, even if they are a bit obvious. And while you build all this fancy new tech, you might find that it is kind of tedious to traverse the world from where you started.

This is where base building comes in, and just like the first Subnautica, you can get really creative with how useful your base is. And you can have many of them, all over the game! But like the other tools, you will have to find the ‘Habitat Builder’ as it is called.

Besides meter watching, Brute Sharks and the like want a piece of your ‘heart’. (Genghis Husameddin/Unknown Worlds Entertainment)

Like I mentioned before, Robin’s health depends on quite a few meters. In the standard survival mode, health, hunger, osmolality, oxygen, and internal temperature are all integral to survival. It sounds a lot! But they are not difficult to manage.

Your worst enemy in a game that is all about water is oxygen, and that can be upgraded as you spend more time hunting for resources, blueprints, and exploring the remnants of Alterra’s settlements. There are plenty of plants you will find above and below waters as well, which almost makes the whole survival aspect seem more of an annoyance if you are purely in pursuit of the game’s story.

Space Waits For No One, Especially People Who Love to Read

The game’s story is primarily told through cutscenes and PDA notes slash voice memos. Any creatures or structures you scan will also have bits and pieces of information about their habitat and behaviors as well. These descriptions are quite nice, all though the interactions between former members of Planet 4546b can be a little hit or miss.

It almost felt like a U.S. sitcom of sorts with the amount of awkwardness that flows between Sam, Fred, Emmanuel, and company. But they do get the point across in their messages: that something is wrong with Planet 4546b and they are doing things they should not be doing. But the cutscenes and the interactions with the Architects, the aliens of the game, were pretty great in my eyes.

Story told through memos scattered throughout a level are nothing new in gaming. Heck, they are the de facto way of filling in the player with exposition. How the ‘memo’ is presented in a game’s world, like books in The Elder Scrolls games, really makes a difference in how the player consumes said exposition.

In my time with Below Zero, something I really liked was finding these destroyed ships and bases; rather than listening to dialogue that would slip my mind a moment later, the game’s visual story telling was much more interesting to me. And I wish took advantage of that more rather than shoving minute details into notepads. The interactions between the Architects, for example, intrigued me a lot and I pursued the story to get a greater understanding just because of their physical-ish presence in the game.

Lightning storms, snow blowing from all directions, and blanket darkness makes me glad I passed over Marine Biology. (Genghis Husameddin/Unknown Worlds Entertainment)

Another thing with reading said memos is that the game, by default, does not pause time when the PDA is open. Thankfully, the game offers an option to change that in its accessibility menu, which also offers options to turn off the bright flashes from the lightning strikes seen in game, scaling the overall size of the user interface, and highlighting interactable items.

The rest of the settings are fairly standard, allowing you to choose between ‘high framerate’ or ‘high quality’ modes if you are on some of the more powerful Xbox hardware, subtitles, field of view, control bindings, language, and a few more things. Personally, I preferred the ‘high framerate’ graphics setting, which has the game targeting 60 frames per second at a cost of visuals. It usually held up pretty well but overtime I did notice the game’s framerate deteriorate over long play sessions. Nothing a restart did not fix, but it is something to keep in mind.

Speaking of the lightning strikes, the game’s weather system is very cool, if a bit a little too random at times. Hailstorms, large-scale thunderstorms, and snowstorms are hazards you will run into during your time in Planet 4546b. Besides covering up your vision, they will also either damage you or cause you to freeze up faster. They would be more of a threat if they did not constantly disappear, however.

Despite that, they are great to look at. When it is dark out, you will be treated to pretty views of aurorae and bright sunny skies during the day. Monster and endemic life have high resolution models and are aptly animated to the kind of being they are. The visuals, combined with the creepy sound of the deep-sea do a great job of making you feel alone. Mostly alone, but alone, nonetheless.

Research and Survival Go Hand in Hand

Robin sitting with penguin lookalikes.
I’m just not very good at this whole selfie business. (Genghis Husameddin/Unknown Worlds Entertainment)

Subnautica: Below Zero is a very fun survival game. In my time, I had had little happen in the way of bugs and some minor inconveniences in resource gathering. The story can sometimes feel odds and ends with the way its presented and the gameplay mechanics, and I admittedly had more fun building facilities and exploring Planet 4546b over finding out what happened to Robin’s sister. Though for the story-curious, hardcore maniac, or creative, the game offers modes for everyone. I could not say if this is better than the first Subnautica, but it is certainly a strong game in its own right.

Subnautica: Below Zero launches on Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles this Friday, the 14th of May, 2021.

Subnautica: Below Zero

$29.99
8.5

Great!

8.5/10

Pros

  • Strong visual work and a great weather system.
  • Survival mechanics are fun and exploring the ocean is intuitive.
  • Backdrop narrative presents enough intrigue for the player to pursue story events.

Cons

  • Procurement of some resources can be needlessly frustrating due to specific requirements.
  • Story presentation would have been a lot better had it emphasized visual displays over PDA memos.

Genghis "Solidus Kraken" Husameddin

I like video games, both old and new. Nice 'ta meetcha!

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