I’ve come to realise that I’ve had an unconscious bias against sequels that are, essentially, more of the same. I think this is because I’ve never been a “one game” kind of person, always playing a variety of titles across different genres rather than spending countless hours on one. Even during my MMORPG heydays I was still playing a bunch of other games with my mates, even if it wasn’t to the extent that I do now, especially since I committed to doing 1 game review per week all those years ago. So that meant that games that were more of the same usually got knocked down a peg or two, or I simply didn’t even bother because I felt I’d already seen what it had to offer. But here I am, after reviewing games like the recent Hitman reboot and now Subnautica: Below Zero, finding myself spending a lot of time in games that are essentially carbon copies of their originators. Do I think it’s a bad thing? Not as much anymore, but at least for Subnautica: Below Zero there’s some needed polish to get it back up to the original.
Below Zero takes place two years after the events of the original game. You are scientist Robin Ayou and you’ve smuggled yourselff onto planet 4546B in order to investigate the circumstances of your sister Samantha’s death, which Alterra claims was a result of “employee negligence”. Alterra hasn’t been idle during that time, building a number of bases across the planet to study the various lifeforms and the bacteria that had devastated it. However, for some unknown reason, they had recently withdrawn all of their personnel, giving you an opportunity to land on the planet and find out the truth about what happened to your sister.
The developers have obviously invested a bit more into the engine as Below Zero looks leaps and bounds better than its predecessor. It’s still tends towards the more simplistic/stylized art style, due to the other demands it’ll make on your system from a simulation perspective. Indeed I figured it’d run well on my laptop (a 5 year old XPS with a GTX960M in it) and it was barely playable at 768p, showing that there’s a lot more going on in this one than there was in its predecessor. Luckily for me my new rig was able to handle everything easily, and many of the issues that I’d noted in the original (like LOD and severe pop-in) simply didn’t appear here. There are still a few unoptimised areas that’ll drop your framerate through the floor for a while, but they’re thankfully rare. All in all, a great improvement over the original from a graphics perspective.
Core gameplay wise Below Zero stays true to its roots of exploration, base building and resource gathering. You’ll get to relive the same frustration of your early days once again, scrapping around for each of those precious minerals you need to make that one item that’ll let you stay out just a little longer. It might be because I knew what to expect and what to look for this time around but I felt the pace was much quicker, even when I spent the first 4 hours so just figuring things out for myself before remembering that I could open the console to see coordinates and the wiki was forever helpful. The main difference this time around is that there’s no seamoth, instead you’ll be tooling around in the seatruck, a modular vehicle that you’ll be upgrading over the course of your adventure.
I kinda liked this idea to start off with as I thought it’d be super cool to build out a kind of mobile base that I could flesh out to my specific needs. To some extent that’s true but there’s no way to make this thing as capable as the cyclops was, even if it moves a heck of a lot faster and packs far more utility in it than the seamoth ever did. My build below is the one that I think most people would run with: storage module, fabrication module and the dock for the prawn suit. In reality the amount of times I used both the fabricator and the prawn suit were few enough that I think you could easily get away without them and simply opt for more storage as that always seemed to be the limiting factor. To be sure you need the prawn to drill for some resources, but I can count the times I did that on one hand and I was still overflowing with pretty much everything by the end of the game.
It’s clear that the scope of Below Zero is to be a more compact, succinct version of the original as it’s much easier to run up against impassable terrain than it was in the original. Indeed there’s a giant ice wall that covers a good 30 degrees or so, one path that leads to a continental shelf which quickly see your vehicle destroyed if you stay too long (trust me, it was not fun having to rebuild a fully upgraded seatruck 12 hours into the game) and a bunch of other dead end zones. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing but I definitely felt pretty boxed in compared to the original where it seemed that I could go in almost any direction for a good long while before hitting any walls.
The story is much more direct this time around, consistently giving you objectives to track down in order to progress. Of course many of these are gated behind certain depth requirements which doesn’t feel too onerous, given that you’re going to need to get those anyway if you’re wanting to do…well anything of note. However I didn’t really feel as connected or compelled to follow it as much as I did in the original and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Part of it is definitely the lack of investment in creating something as crazy big as the cyclops and the shuttle, projects that took a good chunk of effort to undertake just so you could be able to experience it. So the developers managed to fix the pacing issue but the story they told this time didn’t grip me as much, getting us basically back to where we started!
All this being said I do think the tighter, more streamlined experience is inline with this being a solid sequel. To be sure, you’ll be treading old ground again for a good chunk of it, but at least the sequel doesn’t dwell on it too much, instead giving you just enough new things to make it worth your while to play. For those looking for more Subnautica this is exactly what you need but if you’re hoping for something completely new and different (or even something on the same scale) then you’re definitely setting yourself up for disappointment. Does it live up to the original? I’d say yes in most regards, with only a few small drawbacks that keep it from reaching the same lofty heights as the original did.
Subnautica: Below Zero is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S right now for $44.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours playtime and 61% of the achievements unlocked.