Subnautica: Below Zero impressions - Have some hypoxia

Unknown Worlds trades away some terror for polish and accessibility, achieving solid results.


Following a two-year stint in Steam’s Early Access program, Subnautica: Below Zero emerges from the depths with an all-new narrative and an even coating of refinement. Not content to simply offer an additional helping of the first game, Below Zero is a slicker, more welcoming experience. Newcomers are sure to be delighted, though some returning players will find that the second helping of Subnautica lacks the complex array of spices that made the first release a meal to remember.

There is work to be done

Players that have waited for the final release of Below Zero to return to Subnautica can expect a familiar setup to the previous game with some subtle changes that help the sequel feel like its own thing. At the heart of the experience, players will be exploring, collecting data on the native flora and fauna, and pushing forward a story told in a much more conventional style to its predecessor.

Where the original Subnautica offered its story and progression through exploration and audio logs or journals, Below Zero puts players into the shoes of protagonist Robin and delivers conventional cutscenes and spoken dialogue. The presentation of the narrative is the biggest change in style between the two games, though which is more effective will come down to player preference. The original game revealed as much of itself as players were willing to dig in and find, while Below Zero chooses to do more showing and telling.  

Planet 4546B makes a return as the setting for Below Zero, though the action plays out in new areas split between the murky depths and the freezing surface. Survival is the name of the game here. You will need food, drink, oxygen, and the ability to avoid being eaten to progress. Craftable tools, habitats, and vehicles are mostly unchanged for the sequel, with some exceptions. 

The Cyclops submersible from Subnautica has been replaced by the Sea Truck. This new vehicle is simultaneously more capable of assisting in various tasks while also offering fewer options for dealing with hazards like Leviathans, large creatures who have aspirations of digesting you or your equipment. It’s smaller stature works well for the underwater environments in Below Zero that are much more constrained than the wide-open areas from the first game. Above-ground traversal can be handled by the new Snow Fox motorbike/snowmobile hybrid, my favorite of the new rides.

Above ground play is a much bigger part of Below Zero. The frozen grounds provide just as much opportunity for exploration, scavenging for materials, and progressing the story as the ocean depths this time around. You aren’t really any safer on the surface, though, as you’ll spend lots of time avoiding a giant ice worm that reminded me of the Sandworm from Beetlejuice.

A creative mode is available for those who would rather not be a part of the food chain or concern themselves with maintaining a steady supply of oxygen. It allows for the limitless building of underwater and above-surface habitats and is a great way to familiarize yourself with the base-building options without the threat of death or worry of cost. I really like the inclusion of optional glass ceilings that permit a view of aquatic life or the various types of inclement weather on the surface.

Spend your summer on ice

As a returning player from the first game, I really enjoyed the additional level of polish seen in Below Zero. Small changes like the addition of oxygen plants in caves allow for more free-form exploration outside of vehicles and the new large rooms keep your base from feeling cramped. I do miss how terrifying moving around the environment was in the original game and how you were forced to make split-second decisions to survive. The structure of Below Zero is certainly more friendly and accommodating, but could fail to hit the mark with returning fans. Many will have just as much fun this time around, though. Newcomers should dip their toes in the icy water as soon as possible. I suspect that Subnautica: Below Zero will be a summer obsession for many and I can’t think of a better way to beat the heat.

These impressions are based on the PC Steam release. The game key was provided by the publisher for coverage consideration. Subnatuica: Below Zero launches on May 14, 2021, for Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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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