Diving into the arctic world of Subnautica: Below Zero

In the memorable words of Jacksepticeye, we’re going into the deep down dark deep down… That’s right, Unknown Worlds is back with their much anticipated Subnautica sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero.

If you’re not familiar with the original, Subnautica wass a survival game that predominantly takes place underwater, and the sequel follows in its wake. As someone who has a fear of underwater in video games, the idea of a whole game of underwater antics used to terrify me – honestly, it still does – but while the dark crevasses of these Unknown Worlds’ titles are sure to give even the bravest explorer the chills, they have undeniable charm. Arguably, this charm comes from the ability to research alien aquatic creatures, build and customise your bases, and hopefully unlock the secrets of an alien planet.

These elements are what primarily drove the first game, with its story feeling almost secondary to the survival and investigative aspects; yes, there were important details about the Aurora Station to be found, but it was so easy to get sidetracked by everything else. It’s a belief that’s arguably behind the story-rich approach Subnautica: Below Zero is taking.

Story spoilers ahead — don’t go any further if you want to learn about the story organically through play.

During the early access preview and developer discussion, the devs made it abundantly clear that they’ve taken the series in a more story-driven direction. This is why we’re introduced to the main character, Robin, and her reasons for being on planet 4546B very early on — because it’s what compels us deeper into the depths of the ocean. That being said, they were quick to reiterate that they wanted to make sure the story wasn’t too linear. Consequently, those who’ve seen YouTube let’s plays of the title through early access will notice that Robin’s story has been given a massive overhaul.

Back in its early stages of development, the reason for Robin being on planet 4546B was related to her job: similar to her sister, Sam, she was a researcher tasked with learning more about the planet. Fast forward to the latest builds of Subnautica: Below Zero, and we find Robin on the search for answers after learning something’s happened to her sister. As one of those devout gamers who’s been religiously awaiting news about the game, I couldn’t help but ask why this change came about.

Risk. It’s a simple, but incredibly valid reason for the decision — without that sense of needing answers, of wanting to learn the fate of her sibling, players didn’t get the full effect of this immersive world. There were external risks, such as the squid sharks (a new creature to frantically swim away from), but it wasn’t personal enough to make us invested. As if family crisis wasn’t enough of a risk factor, there’s the planet’s harsh elements to set our hearts racing faster.

In the original game, we encountered plenty of fantastical thunderstorms, but nothing quite as unforgiving as the arctic. By having greater challenges on land, the game takes on a refreshed feel — we don’t feel like we’re merely playing a rehashed game, we feel like this is a whole new chapter of Subnautica. This is exactly what the devs wanted, and that I feel they’ve achieved thus far. During the events of the first game, we rarely had to spend much time on land, however, this time around there’s many reasons to keep our feet on solid ground. Though, as always, the main action is down in the darkness.

Ultimately, these subtle but vital decisions succeed in creating a more open world for us to roam as opposed to a rigid one. Of course, this means the gating of the game is dramatically different from the first, with several revelations coming earlier on, though still in a way that doesn’t reveal too much too soon. This being said, do keep in mind that Subnautica: Below Zero is still in early access with a rough target for release in spring 2021, meaning that things can, and will, change as the game develops further.

Moving away from the story and to customisation, it’s time for us to talk about bases. As fans of the first game will know, bases are crucial for survival. What’s more, they provide a quirky avenue to express some of your personality in the game — you’re able to design the base in your own vision, meaning your playthrough will always be slightly different from your friends’. If this was one of the reasons you loved Subnautica, you’re in for a lot of fun because Unknown Worlds have built in a lot more range.

Players can look forward to changing the exterior colours of their base, can have larger glass-domed spaces, jukeboxes for some fan-created musical interludes, and plenty of other innovations. Partnered with this, there’s some old equipment making a comeback, as well as some new alien hybrid tech to test drive. Essentially, these all act as a way of upgrading your character’s capabilities as the game progresses, but in a way that continues to deliver the non-violent survival experience we’ve come to expect from Subnautica.

Naturally, before we wish you luck on your next expedition, we know you’re all dying to know the answer to the biggest question of all: will there be more games in this series?

I put this to the devs during the event and was met with a message of hope; the team would love to return to this world again in the future because there’s still so much more to discover. However, with the company and its team wanting to explore new directions, and with the knowledge that they’re working on a new game in secret, if and when that’ll happen is nothing but guesswork right now.

Considering that Robin’s story is only just beginning, perhaps we should focus on the here and now rather than looking too far ahead? We don’t want to be caught off-guard roaming the part of planet 4546B.