Checkpoint: Subnautica: Below Zero

I’ve been playing some games. Let’s talk about it.

Subnautica: Below Zero

My experiences thus far can be summed up by this meme:

There is an interesting philosophical debate as to whether Below Zero is a DLC or a sequel, but I think the truth is that it’s neither: it’s a map pack. Almost everything is literally the same: same drop pod, same resources, same recipes, same fish, same upgrades, same base building components, same progression. The moment I stepped out of the drop pod (it is a short walk from opening scene), I said “OK, time to make a scanner and build a Sea Glide.” I didn’t know there was a Sea Glide in this game, but I knew. The last time I touched the original game was 2018, by the way.

The bigger marine fauna is different… sorta. You won’t see any Sand Sharks or Stalkers or Bonesharks. Instead, you have the Brute Shark and Cryptosuchus and another bitey creature you swim away from, because who cares? They all make the same scary-at-first roaring noises as they try to take an easily-ignored percentage of your HP bite. Things are so bad in this department that I didn’t even realize I had encountered the Reaper of Below Zero – named Chelicerate, which totally rolls off the tongue – until I got into a special “totally being eaten whole right now” sequence. Then I said “huh, okay” and swam away because nothing one-shots you from full HP.

So what I’m saying is that the novelty is 100% gone for me. There’s a new story and perhaps some additional lore and new set pieces and such. But what I am finding is that it’s not good enough to justify the short-comings inherent to the Subnautica formula.

For example, new items are unlocked via scanning (3) pieces on the ocean floor. Ostensibly, this is to encourage and reward exploration. The problem is that navigating a 3D underwater environment in 30-40 second increments with hostile creatures and no map is difficult. More difficult still is knowing something is there in the first place. You might be in an area with pieces of an item you already unlocked, and not realize there was a second disassembled item available. Or maybe you found 1 of 3 pieces and now for the life of you can’t remember the area where you found that. And maybe that one piece was part of the Ultra-High Capacity Oxygen Tank, which would double the amount of time you can further explore. And so every minute you play the game not having found the remaining pieces you remember how much more restricted you are exploring anything else for not having it.

“Look it up, then.” I did. Then I saw the rest of the game automatically play out in my mind.

I may ultimately go back and finish Below Zero, but it will be with the reluctance one has in going through the motions of inevitable victory in a Civilization game. In my search for the other Oxygen Tank pieces, I ended up landing on basically every other major location/story node and seeing 80% of what they offered. Part of the whole appeal of discovery is doing whatever you want, but what I want is to not drive around the map in a slow-ass Sea Truck back to the same areas I was blocked from accessing the rest of, due to some item I hadn’t scanned yet.

Which included the Habitat Builder, by the way. You know, the thing that allows you to build a base and utilize 90% of the tech you scan? It was apparently sitting right on a box next to everything else I scanned, but I missed it somehow and had to look that shit up too. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like hand-holding or arrows over objectives, but the Habitat Builder is a huge chunk of the appeal of the game. I don’t think anything is improved by allowing that to be missed.

And that kinda sums it up: Below Zero improves nothing on the original.

Posted on October 15, 2021, in Impressions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hard agree with your post here.

    I remember right back to its announcement being disappointed with the approach they were taking with this, instead of making it a ‘true’ expansion in the sense of creating additional contiguous space and further expanding the tech tree.

    I kind of get it — even now — that by the end of Subnautica, exploring the depths was essentially a ‘solved problem’ but still.

    I loved, loved, loved my Subnautica experience. Somewhat ironically given the clime of this stand-alone xpac, I was at best luke-warm on it.

    If the series were to continue into a full ‘Subnautica 2’ I’m not even sure what my wishlist would be at this point. I wonder whether the experience they created is such that recapturing the magic of the ‘first time’ is never going to be entirely possible, similar to how you can never go back to your first time with an MMO.


    • Yeah, I debated whether to add another paragraph talking about the sequel issue. Like… what would I even want? A whole different planet? Can “Subnautica” survive outside of the one planet? It would be a crazy coincidence for someone else to crash on another ocean planet that only has a bit of land in one area again.

      Putting that aside, something would need to be radically different with the tech tree, because I can’t handle the otherwise rote – after just one game, apparently – starting sequence. Which, again, is weird considering I have no issues punching trees in the beginning of every other survival game. So why is that? All I can think of is that other survival games have actual combat, which is a pretty compelling survival mechanism.

      I dunno. Maybe the Subnautica formula is more like an Adventure/Outer Wilds game wherein it’s compelling the first time, but maybe not more than once.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the main difference leading to the fact we can happily punch trees in other survival games but had such a tepid reception to Below Zero is at least in part one of expectations.

    Hmm… Maybe ‘expectations’ isn’t quite right, but what I mean here is that so much of the insane high that Subnautica rode was by power of realising a wholly new experience with its setting being a terrifying ocean.

    Transplant the raw mechanics of Subnautica into your more typical ground-based experience and it really isn’t anything new.

    But the ocean depths elevated everything to 11.


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