Subnautica: Below Zero hands-on impressions - We're not alone down here

Unknown Worlds is preparing to unleash the chilling follow up to one of the best survival games ever released.


After an extended period of development inside Steam’s Early Access program, the original Subnautica emerged as a full-fledged release in 2018 and arguably set the standard for excellence in survival games. Its mix of danger, exploration, and creativity made it a hit with just about everyone. One year after its official launch, the team at Unknown Worlds Entertainment began the Steam Early Access journey with Subnautica: Below Zero. It operates as an expansion and refinement of all the ideas explored in the original game and works as a standalone title. Below Zero is now nearing official release and should be on everyone’s radar.

No longer a solo mission

The original Subnautica was able to execute on its mix of gameplay systems while still providing a narrative thread for those who wanted to know more about Planet 4546B. How much backstory players experienced was dependent on how far they were willing to dive in (no pun intended) and search for clues. With Below Zero, the development team is taking a more direct approach to the narrative with the addition of dialogue, scripted sequences, and more.

Players assume control of the new protagonist named Robin as they venture into the arctic region of Planet 4546B. Along with the shift in location comes new flora, fauna, and ice-covered surfaces to explore, study, and be murdered by. As luck would have it, things don’t go according to plan and Robin ends up having to share consciousness with an advanced alien lifeform. This entity mindjacks Robin after being disturbed from hibernation and the pair must work in tandem to find a new host. 

Below Zero still offers the same basic setup from the first game. You will be scanning stuff, building out your undersea habitat, and securing supplies. You’ll also need to avoid drowning or being eaten, which are ever-present threats. Player movement feels a bit slower in Below Zero compared to the first game but works well in practice. 

The Seamoth and Cyclops submersible vehicles fail to make a return and have been replaced by a new ride known as the Sea Truck. The Sea Truck is a modular vehicle that can be expanded to accommodate various functions depending on what modules are affixed to it. Some of these modules include an aquarium for fish collecting, a dock for the Prawn Suit, and a sleeper cabin for relaxing and listening to music. The Sea Truck is also upgradeable so that it may dive to deeper areas, haul more modules efficiently, or use less energy. If you go hog wild, the Sea Truck can start to resemble your own underwater Snowpiercer.

Creative types will be happy to mess with the new additions to the Habitat Builder. It allows for more customization to your underwater lair with new exterior and interior pieces available. A creative game mode will also be available for those who want to ignore the dangers of needing to breathe or eat. The possibility of becoming a leviathan’s brunch is also absent from this mode, so players can craft their own custom world at their leisure.

A cold, dark expanse

Subnautica: Below Zero benefits from the extra refinement and additions provided by its time in Steam’s Early Access program as well as the overall blueprint laid out in the original release. I did feel that some of the mysterious wonder was missing this time around, but that could be the fault of my familiarity with the series. The shift to a more conventional narrative setup does eliminate some of the pleasure derived from piecing the story of the first game together yourself, but I did appreciate how much more developed Robin is as a protagonist. Below Zero will be an enjoyable dive for returning players and an absolute must-try for anyone who happened to miss out on Subnautica the first go-round.

These impressions were based on the Steam Early Access version of the game. The key was provided by the publisher for coverage consideration. Subnautica: Below Zero is expected to leave Steam Early Access in early 2021.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

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