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Subnautica: Below Zero, can lightning strike twice? [SPOILERS]

Subnautica was a fairly revolutionary concept in the survival genre when it arrived in 2014. Starting as a passion project that evolved into one of the earliest steam early-access success stories, its theme, looks and setting, quickly captivated thousands of gamers eager to get into a survival simulator based in an aquatic environment.

The title was a resounding success, receiving a 10/10 on steam and similarly high 9’s and 10’s on other platforms. This all came down to its execution along a very similar line to the development of another beloved title ‘Bioshock’, the music was memorable and well timed to transitioning environments, The environment design was varied and gave incentive to exploration, and the story featuring a silent protagonist gave you the feeling of taking the reins of the narrative, rather than being directed from point A to point B. It was, and still is, in my personal top 10 games of all time

Subnautica - 2014. So now we fast-forward to 2021 with the release of the follow up Subnautica: Below Zero. I went into this almost completely blind, only allowing myself to watch a couple of the trailers leading up to the release, and also did not play during the alpha development so as to have a completely fresh take on the game that I expected to be as good as, if not better, than its predecessor. The first couple of hours were reminiscent of Subnautica 2014, the fiery entry to the planet, 4546b. The utter lack of information beyond a simple goal to find out what happened to your sister, also now narrated by your voiced female character. Capped off with the first time you jump into the water and are greeted by the beginner ‘shallows’ area. It looked great, the movement felt fluid, tools and equipment returned from the previous game and some new tools made their debut. But after those first few hours of exploration, building a basic underwater home and searching for resources, one thing started to become more abundantly clear.

This is not Subnautica.

Subnautica: Below Zero Coverart.

Now it is well known that Below Zero faced some hurdles in its development, losing its original sound designer, and rewriting the entire narrative sometime around 2019 – about halfway through development after most major assets were already completed. But the map being made considerably smaller still comes off as an odd move in a series centred around exploration, and it wasn’t simply halved, Below Zero covers an area 6x less than that of its predecessor, and only sinks to a little over 800m deep while Subnautica’s ‘Lava Lakes’ sat at a cool 1400m.

This was supposed to be mitigated by the inclusion of more above sea level gameplay, a feature that was very limited in Subnautica, but played into the narrative of a water bound world. The issue is these above ground elements add very little to the satisfaction of exploration and discovery, as they are both; mostly barren, and uneventful, featuring almost exclusively in ‘1 time visit’ story missions and having much less appeal than the uniquely alien underwater world we all loved from the original.

Above Sea Level area Arctic Spires. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better from there. Survival is a key factor in, well, survival games, and follows a fairly established formula; you have to handle your player needs while also crafting equipment for survival, to craft equipment you need resources. Some areas are abundant in resource A while others have resource B, and to make Tool A you need a lot of resource A and a little resource B, and so on.

Subnautica: Below Zero has all but removed this simple formula by not only making resources overly abundant in such a small map, but also rushing through the access to new technologies by having enormous amounts of scannable items available almost everywhere right from the word go. In my playthrough I had actually unlocked the previously high-tier ‘Prawn Suit’ before I unlocked the new ‘sea truck’.

The new Seatruck, a modular submersible.

These issues are further compounded by the ability to find most advanced materials at less than 200m deep. Now, while some veterans might think that depth has the same issues as previously, it doesn't - all thanks to new overly abundant oxygen plants, you can basically stay down there for as long as you wish, even without a vehicle or snake of pipes leading to the surface. Now even if these plants were removed, the new above sea level portions of the map have more rare materials than you could ever need without even needing a prawn suit to mine nodes. The survival aspect is killed by this overabundance and a host of other easy-mode measures, like reduced build costs compared to Subnautica. It’s also missing its predecessors need to retrace over some areas for specific resources as everything is everywhere; lithium, diamonds, uranite, rubies, gel sacks, are all over the map starting around 160m deep, resource difficulty and specialized areas are just completely absent here outside of 1 or 2 of the highest tier resources.

Volcanic zones like this surround the entire central island.

The new craftable items are also very hit and miss. On the positive side are the new Jukebox, allowing you to play music tracks you find in the world, the recycler, allowing you to break down crafted components to their base materials, the resource scanner, which acts like a miniature scanner room, and the Seatruck, the new mid-tier vehicle that replaces both the seamoth and cyclops in a jack of all trades – master of none approach. The Seatruck is a little in both categories because of this, as its modular design is both very inhibiting and includes very few useful modules, with about 3 of the 6 module types being mostly dead weight to catch on rocky outcroppings, it also features no method of seeing behind or alongside your ever extending vehicle, leaving you to guess if you will fit through the tight and twisting map. Most of the other new additions to the game like the snow fox, command centre, tether tool and thumper are mostly useless and easily ignored – even some of the previous games favourites like the propulsion cannon are totally useless here outside 1 or 2 situations. Honestly, I was expecting some more tools to aid in traversal of terrain like skis for the snow portions or a handheld version of the prawn suit grappling hook to increase on land traversal and underwater mobility.