I should’ve died down there. When you’re 300 meters below the surface of an alien ocean and your nearest source of oxygen is half that distance away, you turn around when half your air is gone. But I really needed some diamonds, and at long last there it was.
So I rolled the dice. With my oxygen supply slipping past the point-of-no-return for safely getting back to my Seatruck submersible, I snatched up a couple of diamond deposits and sped back up toward safe harbor. The calm voice of my suit’s AI robot assistant blared its always gentle but chillingly dire warning: “30 seconds of oxygen remaining.”
I swam straight and hard, watching the little oxygen meter at the bottom left corner of my screen tick down toward zero. The Seatruck still seemed impossibly far away. Maybe I was toast? The O2 gauge hit zero just as I swam up to the submersible’s hatch. While the whole world started fading away to darkness, I grasped wildly for the handle. And I got it.
Light and color returned to my screen as Robin Ayou, Below Zero’s star, eased herself back into the Seatruck’s command chair. A hissing sound filled my ears as the O2 gauge refilled slowly and steadily. I’d dodged death. Again. For all its alien beauty, planet 4546B is a hostile place in regions where the sun’s light can’t reach.
These are the moments when Subnautica: Below Zero shines. And they happen often when you play the game on its own terms, without succumbing to the lure of a wiki filled with answers. It’s similar to games like Minecraft where a whole community exists that has figured out the keys to survival in Below Zero, which was released as an early access game more than two years ago.
But unlike Minecraft, there’s a story driving Below Zero. This was a misconception that I and many I’ve spoken to had with Subnautica, where it put out the vibe of an “underwater Minecraft” kind of game. That’s part of it for sure: You’re always scrabbling for resources to sate your hunger and thirst, craft helpful gear, build bases, and eventually escape. But unlike Microsoft’s blocky hit, story guides your path through both games.
Image: unknown worlds
Below Zero makes that much more apparent up front, with Robin’s journey from an ice-covered crash site to her initial shallow-waters settlement marked by moments of clear, purposeful exposition. She’s on planet 4546B for a personal reason — learning her missing sister’s fate — and while there are other mysteries to be unraveled later on, you’re handed this emotional anchor immediately and dutifully follow it down into the depths.
It’s an unwieldy story at times, in part because Below Zero shares Subnautica’s commitment to open-endedness and emphasis on exploration. This isn’t a game where you fiddle with maps or follow checkpoints. It is possible to craft an assortment of pathfinding tools, including a sort of “gun” that leaves a trail of virtual breadcrumbs behind you, and deployable beacons that show up as permanent checkpoints in your heads-up display until you pick them back up.
But none of that stuff is automated. You can’t press a button from moment one and see where Robin is in the world. So you’ve got to rely on your eyes, your powers of observation, and your memory. It helps that Below Zero, just like its predecessor, divides the world up into visually distinct biomes. But you can only learn what they look like and where they are by getting out there and paying careful attention to your surroundings.
At its best moments, Below Zero is a beautiful experience that lets you explore a dazzling alien oceanscape. Swimming from the shallow starting waters — an area rich with edible fish and abundant sources of drinkable water — into the glacier-dotted arctic zones, shimmering kelp forests, and dark, volatile fields of thermal vents is the game here. The story’s mysteries offer some welcome hooks but the sharpest and most alluring hook of all is the mystery of the deep. The further you go, the further you want to go.
The sharpest and most alluring hook of all is the mystery of the deep.
It helps that there’s never any combat or unwarranted aggression to distract you from that sense of wonder. Just like its predecessor, Below Zero presents a world that is frequently dangerous but never hostile without reason. Robin doesn’t have a gun or any other truly effective killing tools for dealing with bigger threats. But those threats are just like everything else in this alien ocean: They’re living their lives. Catching their attention may put you in danger, but they’re not going to chase you to the end of the planet just to score a kill. All they want is to be left alone.
So far, so familiar. Below Zero is definitively not a sequel to Subnautica. It started life as an add-on for the main game, though it evolved over time into something that stands on its own. And while it’s got some fundamental differences — new game world to explore, additional gear, tweaks to the vehicle lineup, newfound focus on story — its so-called gameplay loop is instantly familiar if you played the earlier game.
That helps to make Below Zero feel instantly more approachable than its predecessor, but it also makes me wonder how long it’ll take a total newcomer to catch on. Subnautica wasn’t always great about explaining itself and Below Zero isn’t much better. That inscrutability is intentional, intended to fuel the mystery and sense of wonder derived from discovering an alien landscape. But there’s a fine line to walk there, with confusion awaiting just on the other side.
It helps that Below Zero’s world is a bit smaller and more focused on servicing the story. You may not always know where to go, but pretty much anywhere you visit has direct relevance to Robin’s presence on the planet. But even that is controversial choice, since fans of the original game may be left feeling like this not-quite-a-sequel is a lesser experience.
I don’t think that’s the case, personally. Below Zero is certainly different, but a smaller world doesn’t necessarily equate to a smaller game. If anything, developer Unknown Worlds seems more confident and purposeful here, with a focused play space that feels less like the first game’s sandbox and more like the story setting it’s supposed to be.
It’s still not quite there, though. The story lands as a bit of a jumbled mess, with some threads leading toward a clear finish while others just sort of…trail off. That may be a product of the open-ended structure, where it’s possible to stumble on things that don’t necessarily make sense until you have the exposition to back it up.
Image: unknown worlds
Robin’s access to important tools and vehicles is also still a bit of a dice roll. Just like Subnautica, you discover most crafting blueprints by scouring the ocean floor for fragments and scanning them. Catalog enough and boom, new blueprint. It works well enough at reinforcing the core emphasis on exploration, but it’s also terribly easy to just miss key fragments on the murky ocean floor where fields of deep water brush easily mask useful points of interest. (There’s a settings menu option that highlights objects you can interact with and I highly recommend switching it on.)
There’s also an odd sort of progression to the tools you unlock. Take the headlamp, an inexhaustible source of light that you can attach to Robin’s head, leaving her hands free to futz with tools. It’s not likely to be a blueprint you discover early, and it uses one part in particular that you don’t have access to until the later stages of the game.
I can’t shake the feeling that Unknown Worlds is still paddling along in the proverbial kiddie pool.
The problem is, by the time you get everything you need to put the headlamp together it’s basically useless. You’ll have the Seaglide by then, a handheld conveyance equipped with a light of its own. You’ll also likely have the ability to quickly and easily recharge the batteries for your Seaglide or your handheld flashlight through a variety of means. You should also have the rebreather mask by then, which improves your O2 use at lower depths. It’s massively useful and occupies the same equipment slot as the headlamp, making the two tools a one-or-the-other proposition.
Below Zero also stumbles whenever Robin gets out of the water. It’s a more frequent occurrence here than it was in Subnautica, and it just doesn’t work all that well. I lost count of how many times I’d take a step in the wrong direction or jump on the wrong rock and just…get stuck. Never to the point that I’d have to quit and reload an earlier save — which is all manual by the way, so save early and save often — but there were many times I spent multiple minutes trying to dislodge Robin from a wonky bit of physical geometry.
I can’t shake the feeling after playing Below Zero that Unknown Worlds is still paddling along in the proverbial kiddie pool. Subnautica is a uniquely special experience, filled with great ideas that mostly come together. But it’s also unwieldy and not totally approachable, especially up front. It’s the sort of game that rewards persistence and patience.
Below Zero is basically the same deal, with the developer clearly circling around some big, potent ideas that feel largely but not completely baked. They’re not the same ideas, this is no carbon-copy. Unknown Worlds is stretching out in Below Zero, testing some new boundaries that Subnautica never explored as well as it could have. But in the process, it’s also piling new issues on top of inherent issues with the first game’s structure.
I adored Subnautica and was similarly thrilled by Below Zero, but neither one feels like the best version of the series’ — we can call it a series now! — core ideas. Hopefully that’s still to come. I’ll enthusiastically shout at people to play this new game, just like I did with the last one, but I’m also so excited to see the day when Unknown Worlds finally swims this series off into deeper waters.
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