Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Release Date: May 14, 2021
I seriously considered skipping over this one entirely. I still haven’t gotten around to playing the original Subnautica, although it’s been in my library since its inclusion in the Humble Freedom Bundle, back in February of 2017. However, since the description led me to believe this is an expansion of the universe rather than a direct sequel, and since the game was available as part of XBox Game Pass, I decided I’d give Subnautica: Below Zero a chance to sell me on underwater exploration and base building.
There are four difficulty levels to choose from. I knew I wanted to check out the story, so that ruled out Creative. I’m starting to think I maybe only like the idea of survival games, and I often find that managing hunger and thirst is the least compelling part of the gameplay, so I decided to go with Freedom, although I appreciate that there’s multiple ways to play this one based on what the player finds appealing.
The story sets you up to go looking on an arctic alien planet for your missing sister. This isn’t a sanctioned rescue op; you have no support and you’re pretty much on your own after your shuttle crashes. Thankfully, the underwater drop pod deployed in time, and that will be your initial home base from which you can start collecting resources, fabricating new items, and unraveling the mystery surrounding your sister’s disappearance.
The beginning of the game is very slow – you’re not given much for guidance, and you lack even the most basic tools needed to survive underwater. I think the early game exploration would have been less tedious if I didn’t have to swim to the surface every few minutes to replenish my air. Between that, and 3D navigation not really being my strong suit, the first half and hour or so was painful.
Once I started discovering the resources I needed to make a scanner and a survival knife, things started to pick up. I was then able to use the knife to obtain the materials I needed to make a basic oxygen tank, which is still an agonizingly small amount of air. I was starting to explore further from base, when unexpectedly, a sea monkey got all grabby hands and took my scanner. Another took my knife. I needed to head back to my pod to make new tools, and I managed to completely lose track of the place I had been where the story was starting to actually progress.
While I can see why this series of games is pretty much universally liked, I don’t think I will personally be going back to either game. I definitely struggled a bit with some motion sickness, although I didn’t spend too much time adjusting settings to see if I could do anything to mitigate it. Really, the turn off for me was the navigation and the O2 management – I was just getting turned around to easily when I surfaced, and I 100% acknowledge this is a me-problem and not a flaw in the game.
Subnautica: Below Zero is probably the most commercially successful game I’ll look at for this project. SteamDB estimates it has sold somewhere between 1.29 and 3.55 million copies on Steam. Over 90% of the reviews are positive, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a beautiful, captivating game. It just wasn’t right for me. It is ranked 188 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.