A wise little lobster once said “We got no troubles. Life is the bubbles, under the sea”. Yes, of course I’m talking about the classic The Little Mermaid by Disney. But if Sebastian (the lobster) had actually been under the sea in the universe of Subnautica he would eat those words and hide under a large rock. You see, whilst the world of Subnautica: Below Zero is a beautiful one, full of mystery and stunning aquatic life, it can also be one of constant terror; a fight for survival as strange alien lifeforms try to destroy you at every turn.
I have to be honest with you – I never played the original Subnautica. I was fully aware of this amazing game though, in particular the universe that gamers have plowed hundreds of hours in to, creating underwater cities in the process. Please bear in mind then that this review comes from the point of view of a newcomer to the series rather than a hardened professional Subnautica veteran.
The story puts you in the shoes, or should I say fins, of Ronin Ayou. She is a tough, fearless xenobiologist who starts the game running away from a meteor shower on a strange alien world. As she dives into the water, Below Zero begins to open up as she ends up in a little underwater base hub and we slowly get the chance to work out what is going on. You are searching for your sister who is believed to be dead, but you have other ideas that the megacorporation Alterra is hiding something. Soon you’re on a mysterious journey where you discover an alien race – the Architects – and derelict dwellings that hold clues to the story through datapads and characters you meet along the way. The story is great, highly intriguing in fact, and that’s thanks to the witty writing and fascinating telling of the lore of the Subnautica universe.
It is however the survival and crafting mechanics that are key to how you play and enjoy Subnautica: Below Zero. You start with four options to choose from, or four difficulty levels. Survival follows the story while leaving you to hunt for food and water for your daily needs. Freedom is like that, but you have no need to quench your thirst or quell your hunger. Hardcore does exactly as you would expect – you only have one life to play with and no indicators to when your oxygen may run out. Finally, the Creative mode unlocks everything buildable from the start, but disables death, food, thirst, and the story. For the purpose of this review, most thoughts will attain to the Survival route.
When you arrive in your underwater hub you are presented with a story quest that is slightly vague, leaving you with a marker regarding an emergency supply drop some 400m away. My one main criticism of this great game is that it relies on you to have some knowledge of survival games or the Subnautica world to know what to do next. In fact, right from the start I had to look online to begin to understand what should be my best course of action. It transpires that one must mainly focus on the basics tools you’ll need for survival, and then go out exploring the world. Whilst I’m new to Subnautica, I’m certainly not new to the genre and in No Man’s Sky, for example, you are hand-held through the first few hours of the game. You always know exactly what you are meant to do. That’s not the case here and I think if I wasn’t heading under the waves for review purposes, I may well have given up. That would be a shame too, because once you do get a grasp on proceedings, this is an excellent and rewarding experience.
You have in your hub a fabricator, and it is this which will allow you to make and design all manner of items. To start with you need to get fins in order to move faster, a compass to know where you are going, a scanner which will allow for blueprints for new items and story clues, and a knife for getting those all-important resources. The list of things to create in Subnautica goes on and on, and the more blueprints you discover in the underwater world and the frozen world above it, the deeper the whole Below Zero experience gets. And yes, you read that right, you get to go on land this time around.
Building any goodies is a cinch, at least once you’ve gathered the resources, yet to get these resources you have to dive underwater or go above ground and forage. There are all manner of things to look out for too – the main thing that will kill you underwater is running out of oxygen so it’s vital that you build a bigger oxygen tank, and then expand your ships to let you explore the depths in safety. As you would expect to hear, there are alien creatures under the sea that will kill or damage you, but as combat is limited you will find that evasion is the best way of escaping unharmed.
Visually and there are no two ways about it – Subnautica: Below Zero is beautiful and delightful to spend time in. The underwater world comes with a variety of Biodomes which have different variations in underwater fauna and lifeforms; all are just beautiful to explore. The world outdoors and above the sea is fantastic as well, even though it’s totally inhospitable at times. There is a huge world to explore and plenty of secrets to find on your travels.
The soundtrack is just as awesome, with a variety of relaxing chill-out music that is perfect for under the sea. It comes close to putting you into a state of tranquility. The effects are brilliant, as is the excellently performed voice-over work that brings the story to life.
Subnautica: Below Zero is an excellently designed survival experience. It’s a place where the most creative can utilise the tools that they find, going out, exploring and creating a whole world under the sea. It’s helped by a cracking story that sits perfectly alongside this adventure of a lifetime. Admittedly, initial moments are confusing, but once you get into the rhythm of things and understand the resource hunting, it all becomes second nature. There are certain elements that should, really, prove to be frustrating, but when you’re swimming in the water all the stresses just seem to float away. Fans of Subnautica will love the fact that they can get back into the water with another fantastic adventure, whilst newcomers will be delighted once they get through the opening moments. Whatever type of player you are though, there is a delightful underwater adventure to be had in Subnautica: Below Zero.
The adventure of Subnautica: Below Zero awaits from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S