Subnautica: Below Zero Game Review by ltdkBelow Zero is definitely a solid improvement on the foundation of the original game. it strengthens the parts of the game that were good, adds newer parts I didn't know I wanted, and overall makes for a fantastic experience. probably the weakest part of the sequel is the pacing, which isn't that important to a lot of people, but feels important to me. I might even go far enough to say that the pacing in the sequel is worse than the original, even though it feels like they tried to address some of the problems with pacing
to start out more specifically, we need to talk about Subnautica as a genre. the first game really wanted to be an underwater survival-*horror* game. not only is the ocean scary on its own, but they felt the need to add additional, even cartoonish horror elements on top of it. a lot of the vibe of the first game is about wondering whether other people survived the crash of the Aurora, given the vast swaths of evidence that a lot of people *did not* survive the crash of the Aurora. ultimately, the first game leaves a lot of dead ends beyond the implied dead-ness, with the justification for the dead ends just being "horror." while these unresolved mysteries feel very realistic in the sense that you *wouldn't* know what happened to these people, it feels just like bad narrative design
the sequel does away with a lot of the distracting horror elements in favour of just being a good underwater survival game. yes, the ocean is still dark and horrifying, but they don't need to add anything else to make it more scary. you're just on an underwater adventure, trying to figure out what happened to your sister, and occasionally getting swallowed by a very large fish* with a blood-curdling roar.
* yes, I know not every underwater creature is a fish, but it's also on an alien planet and literally doesn't matter
in terms of story, they took a step beyond making their silent white-man protagonist a black woman, and gave her a voice and personality. Robin Ayou is an excellent character with a lot of nuance, and all the other characters in the story are great too. having an Indian woman as the voice of the PDA also angers a lot of xenophobes and I'm all for it. having all of these characters with a wide variety of different emotions is great, as opposed to the first game where the characters were sparsely developed due to that whole dying thing we talked about
if you want someone to nitpick all the gameplay details, honestly, there's probably a better summary out there. the bottom line is that Subnautica strives as an adventure game, and I think that Below Zero does a great job improving on this. the world definitely *feels* smaller than the original's but I don't mind that nearly as much. and the addition of temperature and more above-ground exploration was nice. base building is better than before, a load of bugs were squashed, and overall, it just feels fun to play, with jank physics and weird behaviour not getting (nearly) in the way of the actual game. I'll talk about the two big bugs I experienced in the spoilery section after this review.
like the first game, there is a problem with pacing in the sense that a whole lot of the game relies on you stumbling into the next hint or the next area, with occasional messages leading you to a new place to go. the first game required you to go all the way back to your base to reach a radio, and the second game thankfully did away with that and just periodically gave you new waypoints to explore. however, ultimately, there are points where you have no hints and just have to keep guessing, or worse, look up what's next
in the first game, they did a rather good job of making the game tread down a gradual path to its end. ultimately, all of the different waypoints were just gentle nudges to explore the whole map and gather the resources you need before discovering the real destination. the story reaches its peak, there's a nice reminder of what you've achieved, and roll credits
in the first game, there was a clear end goal: leave 4546B. the second game starts with the nebulous goal of "find out what happened to your sister," then early on develops a more clear goal which I won't spoil. there is a definitive ending to the game, but the build-up is too weak, I feel. and, while there were a lot of good story beats all the way until the end, it felt like they were only loosely paired with what was happening in the game in the meantime. as a result, by the end, I more wanted to get on with the story and finish it up for the sake of it, rather than enjoy the game
and that's a hard problem, too-- a lot of the gameplay elements want you to get *attached* to your base and the environment, but ultimately, you have to leave. the first game had this problem too, and I don't really know what the best way to solve it is. it is a problem, though
final thoughts -- I really liked this game, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the untitled Subnautica 3. they really fixed a lot of the minute-to-minute gameplay and improved the story, but like the first game, they had problems with pacing. while I'm still not sure if the first game is necessarily worth your time to play, without a doubt, this game is, and you don't need to know the original to play it.
NON-STORY, GAMEPLAY SPOILERS BELOW:
so, the seatruck. wow, this is a brilliant idea. the cyclops submarine from the previous game was honestly an awkward choice and really detracted from the base-building elements, since it had the potential to be a base in its own right. making the seamoth and cyclops into a modular vehicle with the clear cost-benefit of bigger != better, is fantastic. A+, I hope that they go down this path in any future games.
as far as the two major bugs I discovered, the game still has issues with slope collisions, and by the end of the game I actually just abandoned my prawn suit because it got wedged in a hole it was too big to fall down, that it also couldn't jump out of. I also managed to deploy my snowfox into a hill where I couldn't retrieve it, which was similarly upsetting. ultimately, like a lot of the underwater glitches from the first game, you can resolve them by just not saving, but I messed up and saved, and there's no way to fix it without cheating. makes me upset.
ACTUAL (EARLY-GAME) STORY SPOILERS BELOW:
Al-An is a very interesting addition to the game, and I overall like him and the fact that they really fleshed out the Architects in this game. getting him a body is the "clear goal" I mentioned earlier, and it's actually the only goal the game requires to finish, since even though it seems improbable you won't find closure on your sister before the game ends, you technically are allowed to finish without it.
the main reason why I'm cautiously optimistic about Subnautica 3 is that this really leaves a lot of confusion about how the series will continue, if the next game will be a prequel, or what exactly it will entail. I trust that Unknown Worlds will make a good game, especially after seeing Below Zero, but I'm just unsure what kind of game they'll make