Subnautica: Below Zero Early Access Impressions

GAMEPLAY

Unknown Worlds Entertainment's upcoming sci-fi survival game Subnautica: Below Zero is almost ready for its full release. Available via early access since June 2019, the title started its life as an expansion to the original Subnautica. Over time, it evolved into a fully fledged stand-alone sequel set a year after the events of the original game.

Last big update the game received was delivered in late October last year. It brought the game as close to the finish line as possible, delivering a revised storyline, full voice acting for the cast of new characters, and is as feature complete as it's going to get before the full release. Everything except the ending and accompanying story beats is playable in the latest build, while the full release is set for May 14.

 

Subnautica: Below Zero mostly follows the same formula brought by its critically acclaimed predecessor, while it puts a stronger focus on the story as its guiding tool for the player. In the original game story took the back seat most of the time, the protagonist was a mute blank slate character, while the driving force behind the game's progression was the exploration aspect. The story was there and pretty good to boot, but players had to actively seek it out by exploring.

For Below Zero developers opted for a more direct approach to storytelling. For one, this time the game features a voiced protagonist. In addition, Below Zero comes with bigger cast of voiced characters, some scripted sequences, and even a few cut scenes to further enhance the experience.

 


The player character Robin Ayou

The players assume the role of Robin as she arrives at Planet 4546B searching for her sister. Robin has a developed backstory, clear motivations for venturing into dangerous arctic waters, and is overall a compelling and charming character. Voice acting is good across the board, and the same could be said about the writing. The storyline, while not groundbreaking is more engaging and better paced this time around. You won't spend hours without hitting any story beats like in the original, instead Below Zero keeps a steady pace by introducing a mysterious new character that will keep you company and engage Robin in the dialog throughout the game.

Ultimately the voiced protagonist and dialog used in Below Zero give it a different mood than the original Subnautica. In the original, you truly felt alone and isolated on a dangerous alien planet with survival being your main concern. Since the main character didn't talk, the sense of immersion was rarely if ever broken. That feeling is gone in Below Zero, and whether you like the change or not depends entirely on your preference. It's the age-old debate between mute and voiced protagonists, each with its own set of advantages and drawbacks. Personally, I kinda miss that feeling of complete immersion provided by the original, and see myself revisiting it more often than Below Zero.

 


The oxygen plant will save your life many times in early game before you build your first submarine

On the gameplay side of things Below Zero follows very closely in its predecessor's footsteps. After landing on Planet 4546B Robin's first task is to reach the Drop Pod. Just like in the original, the Drop Pod will be your base of operations early game as you gradually explore its souroundings. From then on the gameplay loop is near identical to the original game's satisfying rythm.Z

You have to explore, avoid being eaten by angry fish, scan flora, fauna, and any tech you encounter to unlock new blueprints that will help you explore ever deeper, and over longer distances. Additionally, just like its predecessor Below Zero can offer you an almost terapeutic experience when exploring some of the frendlier biomes. The combination of a beautifull art style coupled with a stellar soundtrack can set the perfect mood for some relaxing exploration. It can also scare you close to death and fill you with dread as you stare in the black void below, with nothing but terryfying screams of horriffic sea monsters to keep you company.

Should you chose to play in the survival mode which is the reccomended mode for normal playthrough, you'll have to manage your food and water levels in addition to health and oxygen. One new addition with Below Zero is temperature management. Since the game takes place in the arctic region of the planet blizzards are a regular occurance. Robin can lose her bodyheat very fast when trecking across harsh environments on land.

 

Land based exploration is a bigger part of gameplay in Below Zero. Thankfully the movement on ground feels much better than in the previous game. In the original, walking on solid ground felt rather clunky, especially when compared to underwater gameplay which was damn near perfect.

While movement is improved, the land gameplay still has its problems. Just like Subnautica, Below Zero doesnt provide players with the benefit of having a map. It's a feature not an ommision, some would say as the lack of map encourages organic exploration. And I would agree in regards to the underwater part, as developers provide just enough of guidance to avoid being frustrating. On land it's a different story. Trekking on ground can be frustrating as you'll be hit with blizzard after blizzard severly limiting your visibility, especially at night. Couple that with the map's maze like structure and it's a recipe for frustration as you keep walking in circles not being able to see where you're going. Thankfully the majority of gameplay is still underwater and as good as ever.

 


As you can see, trekking along over icy surface can be dangerous, still nothing your trusty Prawn suit can't handle

To help in traversal on ground, the game introduces a new hoverbike for zooming around called Snowfox. While it looks nice and can be fun to drive, it's fairly limited in its use. You can only drive it on snowy terain as it cannot work over or under water. Additionally it is outclased by the returning Prawn mech suit, which is a vastly better option for traversal, as it offers protection from agressive snow critters and gives you some combat capabilities.


Seatruck's cab unit

Seamoth and the Cyclops submarines from the original game fail to return, so to replace them Below Zero introduces the Seatruck, a modular submarine that can function as both. If you just use the small cab unit it functions just like Seamoth, while by attaching various useful modules to the cab unit you can transform it into something that can function like your mobile base, just like Cyclops from the original.

 


Seatruck with attached modules

Base building also receieved a big update, you get many new options to decorate your base along with a number of new base modules like Large Room, the Control Room, glass domes etc. As for the tools, the one notable addition is a handheld Mineral Scanner, a very useful gadget that can scan for nearby mineral deposits. Another one is the Spy Pengling, a remote controlled reconnaissance drone that can squeeze trough small openings that often contain rare minerals.

 

All in all there is not enough new stuff in Below Zero to call it a sequel in the true sense of the word. The map is smaller, there is less open ocean than in the original making big part of the exploration more vertical and claustrophobic. Yet even with those drawbacks Below Zero is a worthy follow up to the original. With its gorgeous hand crafted world, beautiful soundtrack, satisfying gameplay, and interesting story it's well worth the asking price. 


The articles content, opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in SAPPHIRE NATION are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of SAPPHIRE Technology.
Marin Madunic
A long-time PC gamer with passion for single-player story driven games of various genres. Some of my favorites include old PC classics such as Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock 2; their modern counterparts from the Immersive Sim genre, and a host of western RPG's and FPS games from the last two decades and beyond.   

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