Subnautica was one of my favorite open world survival games of the last decade, and on the surface of its frigid ocean, Below Zero could almost be mistaken for a huge expansion. As I dive deeper, though, what I’ve found is a full-fledged sequel that doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken about the first game while improving in little but meaningful ways in a lot of areas. I haven’t fully plumbed the depths of the current Early Access version, which now includes the entirety of the fully-voiced main story. But what I have seen makes me eager to go deeper.
Right as I take my first plunge, it’s immediately noticeable how much better the tech is this time around. One of my only major frustrations with the original Subnautica was how mood-ruining it could be to see textures and objects pop in as I was zipping around the otherwise beautifully immersive underwater environments in my submersible. Those jarring eyesores are completely gone, allowing me to explore eerie reefs and foreboding geothermal vents the way they deserve to be seen. The overall fidelity hasn’t taken a huge step forward, and I can recognize a lot of re-used and recolored models, but it’s a great example of how far a little optimization can go.
Below Zero also puts its story front-and-center much more than its predecessor. Your character has a name (Robin), a backstory, existing relationships, and built-in motivations for pursuing the mysteries of this watery world. A series of personal logs that unlock as you hit certain milestones give you a glimpse into her thoughts and feelings. I’m not quite sure yet if I like that better than the blank slate protagonist of the original, but the voice acting and writing have been impressive so far. And without spoiling too much, I think it’s worth mentioning that you might not be the only living human in the ocean this time…
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Most of the basic gameplay of exploration, crafting, and fleeing from sea monsters seems pretty unchanged, but it’s the little things that make a difference. There’s a new radar gadget to craft that lets you find specific minerals and other resources faster. I still have flashbacks of hours spent hunting for lithium in the first Subnautica, so this was a welcome addition. The Seatruck is the replacement for the old Seamoth, which can tow useful modules like a crafting station or extra storage like an underwater big rig. Being able to bring a mini-base with you early in the game, long before the Cyclops becomes available, is a great way to cut down on hours spent going back and forth between your habitat and the next objective.
The other big divergence is that more of Below Zero takes place on land, though the developers estimated it’s around ten percent of the content and wanted to stress that the oceanic gameplay is still the main focus. These surface expeditions are complicated by harsh weather and a temperature system, which can lead you to freeze to death if you’re exposed for too long in the Arctic chill. With hypothermia above the water and the threat of drowning below the water, you’re only ever truly safe within player-made vehicles and enclosures. That enhances the sense of danger effectively.
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Add in a small handful of new creatures with interesting designs and ecological niches, and a story that seems to be building up to some kind of reckoning with the heartless Alterra corporation, and Below Zero is shaping up to be a worthy follow-up to its stellar precursor. The final version will be out later this year, but you can check out the Early Access build (the very same one I got to play), which includes the full story, right now.
Leana Hafer is a contributor to IGN. Talk Subnautica with her on Twitter at @AsaTJ.