Subnautica: Below Zero Review
Swimming in the very early game
Subnautica: Below Zero is the sequel to 2018's Subnautica, an exploration game about surviving in a huge alien ocean with loads of biomes and open waters for over a kilometer in any direction. Each biome had its own unique wildlife, ranging from harmless little fish you could eat for sustenance to 100 meter nightmares that could eat you as a snack. You progressed in the game by picking a direction and pushing out as far and as deep as you were able to, then returning to base with your new resources and blueprints to make equipment that might let you go further. It was a brilliant loop, at least until the endgame turned it into a grind for rare resources.
Above ground in the late game
Below Zero trades the tropical environment of the first game for an arctic glacial bay. While the first game had a handful of small islands you could explore above water, BZ features several entire land biomes that play a major role in the story and take several hours to search completely. Your oxygen meter becomes a temperature gauge that functions effectively identically when you're above water, and you can warm up by entering caves, approaching certain environmental features, or by eating special foods.
Looking for fragments early on
So far, so good. But while the basic idea of adding land isn't necessarily a bad one, the actual implementation of it greatly hinders the rest of the game's design. Because they chose to set the game in a glacial bay to allow for several large land biomes, the entire northern stretch of the map is effectively dead for exploration, and there's not much to see in the ocean near any of the entrances to mainland environments. As a result, instead of having 360 degrees of 1km+ free exploration like in the first game, you really only have at most few hundred meters in any direction to the north of the map's origin point. But it's really worse than that, because as I said before, there's also nothing interesting close to land and land forms a U around the entire map, there's an island in the middle of the U, and there's nothing interesting to the west of the island or very far east of it, so everything worth exploring is either within 500m of your base or in a narrow band of maybe 10 degrees extending up to 1.5 km southeast. Many biomes in those areas have trenches and caves that may go hundreds of meters deep and add vertical space to explore, but there's only so much you can do to make a trench feel unique.
That shark looks scary, but it is about to die
Sadly, the new creatures can't come to the rescue. The first game required you to get close to all of its predators in contexts where they could actually hurt you, but BZ makes it practically trivial to stay far away from anything that could hurt you until you're able to build the Sea Truck vehicle. This has enough health that none of the three common predators pose any threat while you're inside, and it does enough ram damage to kill two of them in one hit. The third is the Squidshark, which is one of two predators shown on the box. Despite that billing, it is absolutely hopeless against the Sea Truck, and is only more of a threat in that it takes quite a few ram attacks to kill and has an annoying habit of running away. I made a point of killing all three of these predators whenever I saw them, with the exception of one cluster of smaller sharks that proved to be a useful navigation marker.
The other box predator, the Ice Worm, is a 100 meter ice-boring creature shamelessly stolen from Dune. As terrifying as that sounds, it only spawns in one biome that you only visit once, and it poses no threat as long as you keep moving. The worst it can (and will) do is repeatedly knock you off your bike, which is incredibly annoying.
That leaves two Leviathan-class predators. One is actually scary, but only spawns in a handful of out-of-the-way places and you can easily finish without ever even seeing one, let alone needing to get close. The other guards the endgame areas and will almost inevitably grab your truck several times. In doing that, though, it becomes familiar, losing its terrifying aura and becoming an annoyance like the Ice Worm. The first game new that monsters were only scary as long as you barely understood them and wisely made sure its Leviathans acted threatening while secretly being hard to properly aggro, but BZ forgets that for all but one of its predators.
Oh, and on top of all of that? For some inexplicable reason, they made one of the small sharks unbelievably loud so that its roars are the only thing you can ever make out clearly. Leviathan roars carried for hundreds of meters beyond their draw distance before and expertly set you up for what you were about to encounter. Now you can barely hear them at all.
The herbivores fare better, and I actually like most of them a lot. But this isn't ABZU - I'm not playing to look at pretty fish in a safe environment.
As a final point against BZ, the story progression needed another pass from someone who didn't already know where to go. I had to use a guide after a certain point because it wasn't clear that one story-critical area was actually open, but only while swimming outside my Sea Truck. I ran into a few bugs with markers not appearing or indicators for scannable objects sticking around for too long, which made me miss a separate story-critical scan.
Sunrise just below the surface is always a sight to behold
Still, it's not all negatives. BZ can be beautiful when it isn't hiding everything in a snowstorm or thermal vent smoke, and the story flows better than the original when not held back by unclear directions. Base building is much improved, and I love that they added a jukebox full of fan music. The endgame isn't grindy at all now, and you can complete the objective at the deepest part of the map in one go if you're paying careful attention or using a guide to know which resources to bring. That's a huge improvement over the original rocket ship, which abruptly asked you for a million rare resources right as you thought you were done.
And best of all, you have additional modes at startup to play without survival mechanics (recommended - they add very little), to delete your save after the first death, and to play in creative mode. I have no interest in creative and don't think the ironman mode changes much given that it'd be pretty easy to complete the game in one life as long as you're careful, but it's great to have the options.
A second picture of looking for fragments early on, because this took a long time
It probably sounds like I hated BZ after all this complaining, but the core experience of Subnautica is strong enough that I still won't hesitate to recommend this despite all of its flaws. BZ isn't a bad game by any measure, but if you played both games without knowing their release order, you'd probably think Subnautica was the improved and expanded sequel. It's a good game that feels like a step down from its predecessor in almost all the places that matter. Play it, but only if you're done with the first Subnautica and want more.
Time to beat: 24 hours
Platform: PC (also on all consoles)