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Subnautica: Below Zero

Subnautica: Below Zero

Written by Eric Hauter on 5/11/2021 for PS5  
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Subnautica: Below Zero is so beautiful that it is easy to get distracted by the wonder of it all and forget the constant danger. This is a mistake, because the world in Subnautica: Below Zero is comprised of constant siren songs that come in all shapes and sizes. The game is constantly trying to lure you into pushing yourself too far, tempting you into swimming too far out of your depth, dangling something so enticing in front of you that you will decide to stay for just two or three seconds too long, and then its all over. If the player were a metaphorical fish, the world of Subnautica would be comprised of 95% fishing lures.

Here’s an example that comes early enough in the game so as to not be a spoiler. While exploring, I came across a radio signal from an earlier explorer, someone who had disappeared with the first wave of people to explore this planet. I decided to swim out to the signal and check it out. Arriving at the signal, I was horrified to see that the source was 200 meters down, far deeper into the murky depths than I had gone.

Now, this was early days for me. I had already probably explored further than the game expected me to at this point, considering that I didn’t yet have any equipment—let a lone a vehicle—that would let me dive deeper, stay underwater longer, or swim any faster. But I had two things: a dumb plan, and the will to execute it.

I decided that I would construct a network of air pipes that would allow me get down to check the source of the signal. Swimming back to my submerged base at least four minutes away, I gathered a bunch of titanium and constructed a little floating air pump and as many pipes as I could carry. I swam back and began the tedious task of laying the pipes in what I thought was a straight line down, but what turned out to be a herky-jerky zig-zag. Having laid all the pipe I had, I realized that I was still at least 80 meters from my destination.

I swam back home, gathered more titanium, and made more pipe. I swam back and continued downward. At this point, I passed an invisible threshold, and the game announced that my oxygen reserves would disappear twice as fast if I left my precious pipe-supplied air feed. I needed more pipe. Back to the pod to make more pipes. I ran a second line, so I could stop and get air on the way down to my first line because, again, I’m dumb, and this was a ridiculous plan.

By the time I got down far enough, I discovered a submerged ship. I could just manage to get inside it, grab a few things, and get back to my pipe before running out of breath. But then I noticed the nearby cave.

After I explored the cave (more pipe!), I noticed something even crazier: a fully submerged base, even deeper down. I figured I had enough air to at least swim over there a bit and check it out, which turned out to be ridiculously inaccurate. I swam too far, ignoring the strict mechanics of Below Zero which kill you the moment you run out of oxygen, and died 200 meters below the sea, losing most of my stuff.

And that’s how they get you. Go further, go deeper, find the next super cool thing. Get tempted. Die. I actually didn’t perish terribly often of underwater asphyxiation. Most of my drowning deaths were the results of my getting turned around in some underwater network of caverns and not being able to find my way out, rather than my own insatiable curiosity. I learned my lesson fairly early on.

I also learned to not carry valuable items on my body when I was heading into situations where I might be killed. I discovered that once my storage container in my pod was full, I could just dump things on the ground outside. Below Zero’s superb physics engine would keep stuff right where I dropped it (well, to be fair, the titanium would roll away and gather in a small ditch not too far from my front door). And that was far better than having all of my goodies and materials drop from my body 200 meters below the surface.

I’m not certain that there will be anyone reading this review that doesn’t have at least a passing familiarity with the Subnautica franchise, as the first game was so wildly successful that it became something of a gaming cultural touchstone. But for those that need a refresher, it works like this: Players arrive unceremoniously on a water-covered planet. With little in the way of survival equipment, they must dive down to the ocean floor to explore and gather materials, which can then be fashioned into helpful gear.

Survival is your first priority, with the constant nagging need for food and water dictating your first moves. But as the game goes on, you are able to travel farther, dive deeper, and create new structures, eventually freeing yourself from the whole “go back to base to build stuff” loop that dominates the early game. As you play further, you discover wildly unexpected things, a story unfolds, and the overall brilliance of the entire experience snaps into focus.

Below Zero adds a fun variation to the proceedings, with the player being able to hop out of the ocean and run around on land a little bit. The twist is that it is freezing cold up there, putting each on-land excursion on a timer which must be closely adhered to lest the player die of exposure. Hovering on the surface of the ocean is the only truly safe haven, as diving down and climbing out each have their own precarious challenges.

Subnautica: Below Zero is the second game in the franchise, and it’s been available on Steam via the Early Access program for a year or two. Apparently, Below Zero began as DLC for the first title, before gaining enough traction to spin off as its own release. I don't care one whit about this game's origin story. I'm only concerned with the final outcome, which absolutely stands on its own. The time in early access has allowed developer Unknown Worlds to polish the game to a ridiculous sheen, delivering a game of almost unheard of quality. I enjoyed everything about Subnautica: Below Zero, from the delightful and surprising undersea creatures to the amazing world building.

The way that Subnautica: Below Zero is constructed in such a deliberate manner that continuously teases the player forward caused one thought to ring like a bell in my head: thank God this game isn’t procedurally generated. The world design in Below Zero is so perfect, so precise, that it could never be achieved by a computer—I don’t care how many monkeys on typewriters are powering it. This is a world that amazes and delights, offering jaw-dropping moments of discovery and heart-pounding revelations.

I’ve only spent a few hours with the first Subnautica game (heresy, I know), so to me, every plot point in this game was astounding and new. I am loathe to mention much of the stuff that I found down on, and beneath, the ocean floor, other than to say that this game’s exploration engaged me in ways that few games ever have. Forget progressing the story, it is fun to simply swim in concentric circles and see what you can find. In Subnautica: Below Zero, when you ask yourself, “I wonder if there is anything down that way?” the answer is almost always, “Yes, and it will blow your mind.”

The plentiful wildlife in the undersea realm is just as exciting as the world design. An entire ecosystem of creatures thrives beneath the waves in Below Zero, with unpredictable and sometimes shocking behaviors. I approached every creature I encountered with a great deal of care after the first time one of them reached out and stole my survival knife right out of my hands. While some can be surprisingly helpful, others can hinder your progress, and not just by attacking outright. The variety of life that inhabits the underwater world of Below Zero is a testament to the insane level of creativity going on in this game. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Below Zero will pull the proverbial rug out from underneath you and knock your fins off with yet another killer surprise.

I played Subnautica: Below Zero on PlayStation 5. While I’m not sure what the game looks like on other platforms, it is an absolute stunner on Sony’s next-gen console. Subnautica: Below Zero delights with amazing animation and gorgeous effects, all the while looking crisp and clean in a way that previous generations simply could not achieve. From hail stones pelting down into the water from an above-surface storm to a blazing sunset painting the seafloor scarlet, the visual wonders in Below Zero never stop surprising and astounding the player.

Dive below frozen glaciers, explore darkened caverns lit by bioluminescence, find yourself agog in the middle of undersea crystal palaces. The sheer number of biomes found in Below Zero boggles the imagination. You never know what you will stumble onto next. That’s how I got myself into my silly pipe-laying conundrum. I couldn’t stop pushing the boundaries of the game, even before I was ready. It is a credit to Subnautica: Below Zero that it just let me carry on with whatever dumb idea came to mind. I don’t know much about Unknown Worlds as a company, but that group of developers deserves a champagne vacation, because the unknown world they delivered is cool as hell.

Looking back over this review, it is clear that while I’ve purposely avoided discussing Subnautica: Below Zero’s story, several words appear over and over again. Words like “delight,” “surprise,” “exciting,” and “wonder.” That’s because Subnautica: Below Zero is an absolute stunner of a game. The more you give to it, the more it gives back. Everything in the game is carefully balanced to keep pushing the player forward through an organic-feeling world. With just the right amount of escalating challenge and a constant pull towards risky behavior, Subnautica: Below Zero is an undersea trip that simply should not be missed.

Subnautica: Below Zero further refines the survival sim, setting a new highpoint for the genre with sky-high production values and amazing world building. Every excursion is risky and rewarding, as the game continues to tease, push, and pull the player ever deeper into its labyrinth. An extraordinary visual delight, Below Zero has the chops to match its graphics with superb gameplay. Subnautica: Below Zero is a masterclass in game design.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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