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.
Short version: survival… underwater.
You know, it’s easy sometimes to get jaded with videogames. Go around the block a few times and it will feel like you have seen it all. Same mechanics, different textures. Then, something manages to catch you by surprise. Subnautica is precisely that something.
The premise of Subnautica is that you are a survivor of a spaceship crash on what appears to be a complete waterworld. Your lifeboat contains a Replicator, a Medical Replicator, a locker, and a damaged short-range communicator. Good luck.
I played version 42313 (Dec-16), and already the game looks goddamn amazing. More importantly, the game feels amazing. This is important because you will be swimming underwater 99.99% of the time. Initially, you are slow and clumsy, and have to stick to the safety of the shallows to find scrap metal to turn into Titanium. Over time, you can craft some swim gear, extra oxygen tanks, and eventually vehicles to travel with greater style.
The surprising part of this game, to me, was how… new everything felt, mechanics-wise. In Minecraft, Ark, Rust, 7 Days to Die, and countless other games, the beginning is always the same: look around, punch trees, collect rocks, build a fortress of doom. I spent the first 15 minutes of Subnautica in that same mindset, and filled my inventory with anything I could grab by left-clicking. Which ended up being a whole lot of relatively useless Acid Mushrooms that, while they can be made into batteries later, did nothing in the survival department right now.
That was when I realized that I needed to let go of what I knew before. Subnautica is its own game.
There is no better example of this than the Subnautica take on weapons. Basically, you have a survival knife. That you have to craft first. As far as I am aware, that is it. Stalkers and Sand Sharks and other carnivores have little issue taking a bite out of your scuba suit, so there is absolutely a sense of danger in the game, above and beyond the mundane (yet omnipresent) risk of drowning. Poking one with the knife will get them to retreat for a while, but this is a game where discretion is pretty much the only part of valor. Which, again, is completely refreshing.
I’m not entirely sure how much of the “game” game is implemented yet, but I am impressed by what I see thus far. I just hit what I imagine to be the mid-game: constructing underwater bases. This allows me to craft where the resources are, instead of having to swim back to my lifeboat each time. The crafting isn’t terribly complex, but yet still feels involved considering your limited inventory, which is limited further by extra oxygen tanks (which take up 4 cells). At the moment, I am trying to nail down additional debris fields so I can scan technology to build better vehicles/base structures.
Overall, Subnautica feels like… a breath of fresh air.
Yeah, I went there. And you should too.