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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.

The Snowfox, ultimately useless compared to a Prawn suit.

Moving away from resources and crafting, the most apparent departure from its roots has to be the ‘Fear’ aspect. In Subnautica you began in the shallows surrounded by exotic fish, and sunlit tropical waters, but as you descended to 300m you passed a wide variety of predators shimmering in the kelp forests, or uttering a bone chilling call before silently pursuing you and taking a bite out of your rear end, it built suspense and tension as you scanned your surroundings looking for what was hunting you, it scared you and it was great! All of it culminating in the ultimate non-leviathan horror of the deep, the crab-squid, a fearsome alien creature capable of disabling your vehicle and inflicting massive damage if you weren’t observantly listening for it high pitched clicks and whines. In Below Zero every creature feels more generic and less alien, with most of them heavily leaning into being facsimiles of earths aquatic life, now this has always been a thing, but where Subnautica had alien fish that filled a similar role to something on earth, Below Zero just flat out makes many of them look just like creatures here on earth, namely among them, the glow whale. Which appears as a humpback whale with glowing bits and extra flukes on its fins. Compare this with the Reefback from Subnautica, both animals are set to occupy a similar role, but, both are on totally opposite ends of the scale of alien and terrestrial.

Concept art for the Glow Whale, final product is almost identical Sadly, it gets even worse with the predators, every. Single. Predator. Apart from the smallest Brinewings and Symbiotes, now imitate the attack pattern of the Sandshark from Subnautica, they target the player, then proceed to CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP, gnashing their jaws 5 times before disengaging, with a huge amount of over-the-top audio that comes off more like a cheap jumpscare than the mostly silent stalking we used to experience with the majority of predators. It also makes them feel less believable in an immersive sense, with the sandshark adopting this behaviour as a bottom feeding ambush predator, while predators like the bone shark adopted the sneaky approach in shallower waters. To my amazement, this lazy approach to predatory behaviours is also present in both of the aquatic leviathans, even worse, the leviathans are missing the strength and presence they once held, now taking 5 grapple-hits to destroy your vehicle, but also letting you go long enough between attacks for you to repair the damage, and pop the kettle on. But it doesn’t end there... They have also introduced a protective system for the sea truck that basically makes dealing with leviathans akin to swatting mosquitoes away, turning what once was a terrifying journey to the depths into a game of pinball at 800m deep as your craft is swatted by the retreating behemoth – they have effectively made the ultimate obstacle, a joke.

The Shadow Leviathan feels less imposing than the Ghost or Reaper

The Music and Biomes themselves also do little to set this game apart from the original, with both having a visible dip in quality. The vast majority of the map feels as though its covered in a single biome that is completely devoid of anything in some places, again making a small map feel even smaller. It’s a far cry from the mostly obvious transitioning we’ve seen prior, and almost none of It is particularly memorable in the same way as the Jellyshroom caves or the Lost River.

Thinking back to the first time entering the deeper portions of 4546b and being greeted by a green river of brine, a blood curdling change in soundtrack and the bones of a leviathan left me and many others thinking “what the hell is in here that could kill a reaper!?”. The soundtrack does just as much lifting in this category as the visuals do, but I found the music itself did little to create moments like we’ve experienced in Subnautica, with most of the tracks trending toward ‘shallows’ style music even when entering Crystal Caves and the lair of the leviathans. It is very much up to personal opinion when it comes to something like a soundtrack, but for me its left wanting in a big way when compared to what was.

Reaper Leviathan skeleton - Subnautica 2014

The voiced protagonist and attempt to expand on story driven elements should have been a fresh point for this series, but ends up being yet another misstep of failed ideas and botched execution. The protagonist feels very wooden, and overly trusting in a situation where their survival is on the line every minute of every day. This isn’t helped by the 3 storylines A, B and C. A is your original purpose for being here; find out the truth of what happened to your sister, B is discovered by following the first clue you are given, and includes some pretty nice looking cutscenes, while C ends up being the main story. C is the only one to get what feels like a somewhat satisfying conclusion, albeit it relies heavily on cliché, and your character behaving like a dog fetching sticks. Story A feels as though it was the original narrative, but ended up being cut apart and restitched during development, and B completely stalls after a few interactions with no conclusion at all. The fact you can completely ignore story A and B with no effect on C – other than some missed PDA entries, desk items and blueprints – makes it seem like their vision for this story was not anywhere near as airtight as Subnautica.

The aliens of Subnautica are back again

On its own, this is a very mediocre second outing for Subnautica, and I could continue pulling apart very small details that were overlooked or simply cut for time; like some PDA entries mentioning uses for flora, but had no in game use, or original subnautica fauna having much more detailed entries than their new counterparts. But I feel like the core aspects being in this state sets a pretty solid expectation of the rest of the game; nothing is as good it was, and not much of it has improved for the better, which is a sad thing to see for a sequel to a game that sits in my personal top 10 games of all time.

Here’s hoping they may address some of this with patches and toggleable game modes like disabling oxygen plants in a higher difficulty to reintroduce oxygen as a hard limitation, but I feel like this is the product they wanted to ship, and for me at least - its very disappointing.


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