Unknown Worlds launched Subnautica: Below Zero into early access about two and a half years ago, and the full version of the game is finally here on nearly every available platform. Originally intended as DLC for Subnautica, the game has grown into a full-fledged sequel that takes about half the time to play its predecessor. Set two years after the events of the first game, players take on the role of new character Robin, who travels to the planet 4546B of Subnautica in search of her missing scientist sister. After inadvertently crash-landing in Earth’s arctic region, Robin has two goals : to find out what happened to her sister and survive.
Fans of any survival game will no doubt enjoy Subnautica: Below Zero, but the follow-up to Unknown Worlds will keep even newcomers to the genre satisfied. The learning curve, while a bit shaky at first, isn’t prohibitively high. Games fulfill innate needs—food, air, heat—and instinct kicks in even if the tutorial doesn’t, which almost makes success feel more rewarding.
The first thing that strikes any player upon loading the game is the unbelievably stunning visuals. This isn’t a dull green ocean with a bland sandy bottom, dead seaweed and the occasional discarded plastic bottle floating by. It’s a world of vibrant marine and plant life, many of which glow and illuminate the waters in a range of enchanting colours. It’s easy to get caught up in the environment and the game’s intuitive base-building mechanics, and forget for a moment that this is a survival game that requires constant attention to food, water, and air.
Although it’s a standalone game, it’s safe to assume that many of those who dive into Subzero have already played the first game, and the sequel will be very familiar in terms of graphics and gameplay. The PDA, being the repository for all useful game information, is pretty much the same, with the only noticeable and very useful difference being that blueprints can now be pinned, making it easy to see the required materials from the HUD. Most of the tools, food, flora, fauna, equipment, and vehicles found in Subnautica haven’t changed much either, but there are some interesting additions to keep players from feeling too much dj vu. There are new gizmos to play with, and unfamiliar plant life and creatures to befriend or escape.
Below Zero has launched two new vehicles, the Snowfox and Seatruck. In the game, players will spend a bit more time on land than they do in Subnautica, and the landscape is covered in snow and inhabited by aggressive Snow Stalkers. This is where the high-speed all-terrain Snowfox hoverbike comes in handy, allowing players to cover a lot of ground quickly and make some escapes if necessary.
The Seatruck, as its name suggests, is a motorized undersea vehicle that can be customized with various modules attached to the back to form a sort of train. For example, the storage module has a large number of lockers for storing items found while exploring away from the base. The aquarium module has two tanks that suck up any unlucky fish that venture too close, providing a useful way to catch sea life for food or display without the need for manual chasing. The Seatruck is a very useful add-on that players will want to unlock as soon as possible, although adding too many mods can make the car bulky and prone to damage.
Subnautica: Below Zero is very successful at evoking a sense of exploration and discovery. After carefully packing up the Seatruck with supplies and tools, players may set a specific mission in mind : “Okay, go to that wreck!” After 20 minutes, they will find themselves mining a new discovery The mineral, located in a narrow canyon 400 meters deep, is filled with phosphorescent flora and perhaps dangerous sea life. They won’t mind. Subzero’s underwater world feels vast and full of secrets, many of which will forever be hidden in caves and rotting remains of previous expeditions.
The game offers a wide range of biomes to investigate and enjoy, each distinctly different from the next. And of course there’s the Arctic biome, where ice stalactites grow relentlessly towards the seafloor and hapless sea creatures become barely recognizable ice sculptures, frozen to the sides. There are glowing thermal vents, forests of creeping vines swaying in the currents, dark depths filled with giant cetaceans and even larger lily pads, and claustrophobic winding tunnels leading to mysterious alien structures.
Not all of these areas are initially accessible to players. Access is distributed at a steady and satisfying pace as players find data pads and damaged machines, unlocking blueprints for items that provide access to the rest of the world. The mesmerizingly red-glowing rift at the far bottom may not be reached until a blueprint is found that provides greater oxygen reserves, allowing exploration at greater depths. Rusty doors in the shipwreck are sure to hide treasure, which can only be opened by finding the recipe and materials for the Laser Cutter. Curiosity and perseverance exploring every hidden corner rarely go unrewarded.
This freedom to explore means players are almost never bored. Below Zero also provides regular guidance, providing clues via beacons or recorded conversations about key locations to investigate. While Subnautica can sometimes leave players feeling a bit unsure about what to do next, Zero Lower Bound is more story-driven, but not overly so. The ability to freely explore the open world is still there, but there are now also scripted sequences, some cutscenes, and plot points to prevent stray players from possibly going astray.
Base building is another integral component of Subzero. Anyone who has spent hours building a base in Valheim or building a complex CAMP in Fallout 76 will know the allure. While perhaps not as in-depth as the mechanics in those games, building a sea base in Zero Lower Limit is just as engaging. While many of the base parts and modules are the same as those available in Subnautica, there are a few additions, most notably the Great Room, which offers more space than a spherical multipurpose room and thus more opportunities for personalization. The developers even added components to build bathrooms, including toilets and showers.
In developing Subnautica: Below Zero, Unknown Worlds drew on the lessons learned from Subnautica and player feedback on both games over the years. Below Zero doesn’t take any backward steps, but instead offers a more polished experience than its predecessor. As for the gameplay and story, it’s not necessarily the better game, but it’s certainly just as good.
Subnautica: Below Zero will release on May 14 for PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. Game Rant obtained the Steam code for this review.