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Review: ‘Subnautica: Below Zero’ thrives on survival, exploration and mystery

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Published in Science & Technology News

Sequel is more than ‘underwater Minecraft’ by giving players a compelling plot even if it meanders a bit

Scientist Robin Ayou is alone on a strange planet and everything is trying to kill her. If it’s not the wintry weather on the surface threatening her with hypothermia, it’s the creatures of the ocean world trying to eat her while she’s exploring the deep. Even when she’s indoors, she sees the danger of ocean breaching the hull and drowning her.

This is the world players encounter in “Subnautica: Below Zero,” the sequel to the 2018 hit. It’s a title that fits squarely in the survival genre as Robin has to stay alive after she crash lands on Planet 4546B. Her initial mission is to investigate the mysterious death of her sister, Samantha, who was working on this alien world for the interstellar company Alterra.

Robin doesn’t buy the corporate report blaming her sibling’s demise on “employee negligence,” so she’s on the planet to see for herself. What she uncovers is a wider conflict that involves an ancient alien race and the deadly Kharaa Bacterium. It touches on the main story of the original, but players don’t need to know much about the first game to follow it. This campaign stands on its own.

“Subnautica: Below Zero” is more about staying alive in the inhospitable underwater environment. That means finding the drop pod from Robin’s crashed ship. It acts as a base as players scout the ocean for resources. Because this is a sci-fi survival game in the first person, players have to worry about hunger, thirst, heat and air. Think of it is as “underwater Minecraft” as others put it, but it’s more narratively focused, up to a point.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

 

Initially, players have it rough. They can stay underwater for a few seconds before coming up for air. They move slowly without external equipment. They know nothing about what can help or kill them in the environment. As they spend more time meandering and gathering resources though, that changes.

Players craft upgrades such as flippers and a seaglide that lets them venture further into the deep. They find blueprints for a habitat builder, which lets them establish a base. The more time and effort players put into the exploration and crafting aspects, the more the world opens up.

That’s because “Subnautica: Below Zero” essentially locks parts of its world behind natural obstacles. Players can’t delve into the labyrinthine cave formation because they would run out of air. They’ll need to craft a high-capacity oxygen tank and cave markers for the job. They can’t safely travel to the deepest trenches without Seatruck upgrades that increase the depth it can dive down.

The developer, Unknown Worlds, tries to guide the players through this gating process via story beats told with personal digital assistants. It works for the introduction of the campaign, but after players acquire a mysterious alien entity called Al-An and they build more equipment, the goals grow too defuse at times.

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