"Subnautica: Below Zero" is the standalone downloadable content (DLC) to the original "Subnautica" made by Unknown Worlds Entertainment. Early access for "Below Zero" dropped on Wednesday, January 30, the coldest day of the year funnily enough. Indeed, the original "Subnautica" was one of the few Steam early access success stories (with the full release of the game dropping on January 23, 2018), being a game I followed closely while in development. The original "Subnautica" was an absolutely fantastic game, with a vast alien world that felt truly alive with a tightly knit and substantially compelling story that you uncover as you explore and have to piece together for yourself. It stands today as perhaps one of my favorite games of all time. Given "Below Zero" assumes that you have played the first game, I would highly recommend playing the original before diving into "Below Zero."
"Subnautica: Below Zero" sees us return to Planet 4546B one year after the events of the first game, as the Alterra corporation that sent the Aurora to 4546B in the first game has begun to research the technology of the precursors that once used 4546B for researching a cure for kharaa, as detailed by the events of the first game. You play as Robin Goodall, a researcher stationed at an outpost near the equator of 4546B where the temperatures ensure an arctic climate. You begin the game searching a nearby cave filled with precursor technology looking for your colleague Jo Jeffreys, who has not yet returned to the research station. While in the cave, a freak electrical storm breaks out, and the research station ends up destroyed by an avalanche, causing you to have to flee for open waters. One of the most immediately noticeable differences from the original is that, at least so far, this game seems to be a lot more structured than the last game, with Robin being given objectives of where to go and what to find by her superiors in the Vesper, an orbital station that oversees research operations on 4546B. Robin's sister, Sam, acts as her eyes in the sky, dropping supplies and relaying orders. The original, in turn, was much more freeform. After the intro of the Aurora exploding, you were dropped in the middle of the ocean and were left to pretty much figure things out from there. While not directly telling the player what to do and where to go, the original was able to cleverly guide the player along a series of events using only the world you were allowed to explore. Another key difference is that with "Below Zero," you are actively conducting research and being given tasks by your employer, and the story's dynamic is more focused on dealing with the Alterra Corporation against the planet they seek to gain from. The first "Subnautica" had no human contact, and a distinctive feel of isolationism meaning you were alone with this beautiful alien world to take in, made all the more intriguing by its utter hostility. This isn't a bad thing, it just suggests a narrative shift from the original and a different perspective of both the planet and the alien species who left their technology on it. They easily could have given a similar plot to the first, with your character being abandoned on the planet and most fans, myself included, would have been perfectly fine with that. But with this new angle, it will be interesting to see where they go with it. Notably, your character now has a voice and personality, clearly outlining the narrative shift, whereas the first game's silent protagonist emphasized the focus on the world and its creatures.
It is important to remember that this game is still in early access, and the current build of the game is about as early of early access as you can get. Nothing beyond the earliest stages of the story are solid, and enormous changes are planned for the future. Indeed, those who kept up with the development of the original "Subnautica" and the Trello page "Unknown Worlds" might recognize some of the concepts for the original "Subnautica" already being utilized in "Below Zero." Indeed the concept for "Below Zero" itself began its life as a planned arctic biome for the original "Subnautica." The twisty bridges and lilypad islands biomes, the rock puncher, and a few other old concepts from art posted on Trello have already come to fruition in "Below Zero," and if the new concept art that's coming out is any indication, there is a lot to look forward too in the future. One of the most compelling traits of the original was the detailed design of all its creatures that made them feel alien, but still realistic; and "Below Zero" is no different.
The gameplay appears to be largely the same crafting-survival formula that served the first game, with new items allowing you to explore more areas where you can find new resources that allow you to build more items, and so forth. The true beauty of "Subnautica" lies in exploration, discovering the mysterious and beautiful alien seas of 4546B. And even in the earliest build of "Below Zero," there is some of that to be had. So far, no vehicles are present in the game, save for the sea glide, and the deepest explorable area is only around 300 meters. There have been quite a few new fauna and flora added to the biomes of "Below Zero," and a couple new tools that are going to be utilized more as the development progresses. But as of right now, the game is, as expected, in its earliest stages and is more of a playable demo than a full game. If you're at all skeptical about buying it, I would recommend waiting until the full version of the game comes out, scheduled for some time in late 2019.
Final Score: 7/10, a promising start to something far greater; I look forward to exploring more of the mysteries and wonders of Planet 4546B.
Image courtesy of Unknown Worlds Entertainment