Subnautica: Below Zero is an expandalone to 2018’s Subnautica, a game I more or less enjoyed. The prospect of heading back to Planet 4546B was enticing and I was excited to see if Unknown Worlds Entertainment could make magic happen a second time. It’s important to go forward with a bit of context. I put a solid 73 hours into Subnautica and all of that was post-release. I didn’t experience the state of the game as it grew over the course of four years, so I’m coming into Subnautica: Below Zero from the perspective of having played a completed game in the franchise rather than an incomplete Early Access product. With that in mind, I say the signs of a good game are there, but Below Zero has a way to go yet.
Your adventure begins in a much less hectic fashion as compared to the evacuation of the Aurora in Subnautica. You wake up in a bed, turn off your alarm, and have the freedom to move at a leisurely pace. The research base you’re staying in has a few PDAs scattered about, but there isn’t much in the way of useful tools other than that. You can see an orbiting space station above, a welcoming respite from the loneliness of the previous game. Once stepping outside, a radio alerted me about a missing researcher. I set out to go find him.
After making a short journey, I discovered an alien structure. It took a while before you even saw the slightest hint of alien tech in Subnautica, but Subnautica: Below Zero puts this stuff front and center. A force field closed up and an ominous voice told me to leave. I made a return to the research base just in time to see it obliterated by an avalanche. It wasn’t long before I found myself out in the open ocean and watching an emergency shelter pod descend from the sky.
Left: an avalanche destroys the research base early on in the game. Right: any subsequent exploration of the land reveals a whole lot of nothing—for now.
One key difference between the games has to do with your toolset. Your equipment and the things you can build are largely the same, but you don’t start Subnautica: Below Zero with the same set of tools that you had in Subnautica. In fact, I didn’t get access to the Build Tool until two hours or so into the storyline. I’m a hoarder at heart, and the inability to create buildings and storage chests was something that I wasn’t terribly fond of. Essentially, many important pieces of equipment aren’t available until you’ve spent some time in the world.
More critically, some absolutely essential items aren’t available in the current build of Subnautica: Below Zero at all. You eventually acquire a full complement of battery powered basic tools. Once the batteries drain, they’ll need recharging. Of course, Subnautica accomplished this through a Battery Charger, an interior module installed in your base. Unfortunately, I was unable to find one at all. A quick search of the forums showed similarly mystified people. This is an egregious oversight as your tools will eventually run out of power, forcing you to make a new battery and stash or discard the depleted one.
Less egregious (but nonetheless distressing) is the lack of an Exterior Growbed. This planter outside your shelter can grow indigenous flora. Many items do not respawn in the game and you’ll need something like this to cultivate essential materials. Unfortunately, this item doesn’t appear to be available yet, either. The lack of a Battery Charger and an Exterior Growbed somewhat hampered my ability to sustain myself and explore the world.
After about two and a half hours, a message pops up telling players that they’ve reached the end of the story. Subnautica: Below Zero is in Early Access, but this still felt disappointingly short. After deciding to continue onwards for a bit, the lack of equipment hampered my exploration efforts. I could make use of the console (and I did, once, to make a Battery Charger), but I wasn’t able to see much of interest beyond the starting zone and the Twisty Bridges area. Effectively, I ran out of things to do after about six hours of gameplay.
In my time with the game, I saw more than a few bugs and pieces of missing content. I’ve seen other players report that this has launched generally in a better state than when Subnautica first hit Early Access and I’m happy to take them at their word. Even so, a few issues caused me some trepidation. Drinking a bottle of Disinfected Water would break the HUD and require me to exit to the menu and restart. An item or two straight-up disappears every now and again. In addition, poorly-placed objects and torn seams in the level geometry litter the terrain.
Graphically, Subnautica: Below Zero looks just a great as its predecessor in many respects. There are some issues with terrain glitching out and other graphical artifacts, but the good largely outweighs the bad. A lot of this is likely thanks to the fact that this game is building on stuff that was already made and polished for Subnautica. As for the sound, Below Zero also makes use of a lot of assets from the previous game. The only real new thing is the voice acting and even that has a disclaimer about being placeholder files. The music and sounds from the previous game were excellent and I haven’t yet noticed anything that stood out to me as “new” other than the aforementioned placeholder voice acting.
Left: Precursor technology litters the map. You can scan it to advance an objective, but this objective isn’t entirely functional. Right: a Leviathan was a surprising find, but it was nonfunctional and could not be scanned.
There is a project roadmap for Subnautica: Below Zero that lets us know when we can expect to see more content. (Be forewarned, said roadmap is positively brimming with spoilers about upcoming content; you can view it here if you don’t mind that sort of thing.) As it stands, there are six big updates in the works. Everything leads up to the eventual planned release on October 31, 2019.
For the moment, I don’t think Subnautica: Below Zero makes for a good value prospect. There just isn’t enough content there to justify the price, especially when you can get a robust, complete game in Subnautica. I’d advise waiting until at least another one or two Early Access updates have dropped before picking it up.
What do you think of Subnautica: Below Zero? Are you going to get the game in Early Access or will you wait for it to be finished? Let us know in the comments below!