In the first Subnautica game we were sent down underneath the waves in search of the resources needed for our survival following an almighty catastrophe, but in follow-up adventure Below Zero, things are altogether frostier than they were in its predecessor. The question is, does the charm and quality of the experience survive the transition? In short, the answer is a tentative "yes". So far it seems to borrow much of what made the game such a pleasure the first time around, although they've added just enough new ideas to keep things fresh, and after our initial introduction to the new snow-topped setting in Below Zero, we're optimistic that Unknown Worlds Entertainment will once again deliver an engaging survival experience.
Below Zero, which is available via Early Access on both Steam and Epic Game Store, is far from done, and the plan is to release the game in a year or so, with its development dictated by feedback from the community, at least to a certain extent. Right now players can explore the starting zone and some connected areas, so there's still plenty to add to the game in terms of content, and of course, there's going to be plenty of bugs to squash as and when they're discovered down in the depths.
Naturally, the concept is somewhat different compared to the last game, and things start off with less of a bang in Below Zero. Whereas Subnautica opened with an almighty crash, this successor has players waking up from a well-earned slumber before going about their business on a base found somewhere in the Arctic region of Planet 4546B. It's a less daunting start to proceedings, but we appreciated the change of pace - this isn't a simple rehash of the first game, although there are a fair few similarities.
It might start off slow, but it's not long before trouble hits and an electrical storm brings giant stones crashing down before your eyes, and shortly thereafter your base of operations is swallowed up by a giant avalanche. What's more, you can't stand the radiation caused by the storm and so you're sent back underneath the waves in search of solutions to your laundry list of problems.
Our protagonist-in-chief is called Robin, and she's talking the whole time with her twin sister, who's on the comms in a giant station floating above you in the sky. With her advice trickling in through your headset, it's up to you to explore your surroundings and find the resources you need to stay alive. Once again finding the things you need often means scouring the environment for materials that can then be crafted into useful items, like health packs and blades and other such gadgets and gizmos. The old cycle of explore and craft carries on from the last game, but it worked a charm then and it works a charm here, with players always encouraged to push on in search of the next thing.
As was the case the last time around, Subnautica: Below Zero is able to create a wonderful atmosphere and we thoroughly enjoyed our tentative first steps in this world. Whenever you meet a new sea creature for the first time it's impossible to know who should be scared of who, and this low-level tension works splendidly with the overall atmosphere that Unknown Worlds has crafted. It's accessible and colourful and not too taxing, but it's also a little edgy thanks to the incredible local fauna and flora, and the constant threat of drowning. It's tremendously engaging, and that's before you throw in the various survival elements that define the experience.
There are different difficulty settings to choose from before your adventure starts, and these determine the severity of the survival experience. You can, for example, crank up the difficulty by giving yourself more to think about with hunger and thirst levels a constant worry. On the other hand, you can remove some of the stress and just focus on general survival without having to think about where your next meal is coming from. If fighting to stay alive isn't your jam, you can go creative and just focus on exploration - it really is up to you and these options make the game pleasingly accessible to a broad range of players.
New features are being added via updates all the time (the latest involving a hoverbike called the Snowfox), so don't go in expecting the finished product. In fact, there's a way to go before it's finished and there's not a huge amount of story content in there at present, however, we've seen the studio deliver in the past and all things considered, this seems to be Early Access done right. Subnautica: Below Zero is shaping up to be an intriguing continuation of the adventure that started off in the first game and we're looking forward to taking another look when it's finished.