“Home is where you hang your hat”, goes the idiom. Odd then that after two massive games, Unknown Worlds
hasn’t added a hat rack to Subnautica
’s list of underwater base items and collectibles, despite having caps to unearth in your abandoned ship and base rummages. I say this because mystery-laden narrative and exploration-heavy game-design aside, both Subnautica titles’ biggest draw lay in the base-building and resource and item collection systems, and the management and fabrication that stems from these.
It’s a delicate loop that isn’t quite Metroidvania due to the open nature of game-world design, but *kind of* still is in principle; collect, build, power-up -- progress further with access to new areas. Repeat, albeit now expanded.
Last week (week of May 17) Subnautica: Below Zero
, a sequel to Subnautica that started off life as DLC, then as an expansion through to full-blown standalone Early Access title, followed then by “ah fuck it, a sequel proper”, released into the retail wild. This milestone was exemplified most through the game’s console launch -- one that happened on promised time (a small rarity in Unknown Worlds’ case), and the version of the game we’ll focus most on here. The reasons for that are two-fold: it was the most up-to-date version of the game I ploughed through, and two: it represents Unknown Worlds’ reinvigorated trust in its own console development chops, which was choppy
at best in the first sink or swim release back in 2016.
"New biomes, new wildlife and new exploration opportunities offset by environmental challenges, chief of which is the cold...”
So, for those familiar with Subnautica, but not Below Zero -- what’s the difference? Well, Below Zero is a standalone story set on the same planet, 4546B
, upon -- and within -- one of its freezing poles. This means new biomes, new wildlife and new exploration opportunities offset by environmental challenges, chief of which is the cold. This is coupled with an expansive terrain section of the game, that is far more than what we played with in Subnautica and its handful of small islands. Below Zero has iceberg flotillas everywhere -- some of which have seen human activity (read: Alterra
), and some of which have seen Architect
activity (read: cool, mysterious Prothean
-like aliens), as well as volcanically-formed islands replete with deep cave systems rich in resources such as minerals, vegetation and more.
So that loop I mentioned earlier, it works like this: necessity feeds exploration, feeds resource gathering, feeds crafting, feeds discovery of blueprints, feeds necessity… then mixed within this loop, that is wholly designed to eventually have you diving to the deepest depths of this expansive slice of 4546B, is a human mystery and an alien mystery, inextricably intertwined. In this way, Below Zero follows some of the beats of the first outing, but it’s terrifically obvious Unknown Worlds has learnt a lot since then, especially in layering story and how that unfolds and reveals itself amidst that all-important loop.
"Scanning becomes a sickness and seeking information on why certain minerals only live in certain biomes, depths or hollows is more important than helping an alien reconnect to its hive mind...”
While you’ve crashed on the planet in search of answers to questions about the wellbeing of your scientist sis, who’s been stationed here to study the planet and some of its more unique offerings Alterra thinks has long term benefit to, err… science. Yeah, SCIENCE. You’re not really rushed for those answers. At least, unless you’re the sort of sibling who puts family first, but hey, this is a fricking giant water planet and you’re a scientist yourself, Sam can wait. Oooh look! A baby Pengling!!!
How both games have been structured to feed discovery is to be applauded. Collectionist types or lore fiends will lap up the world-building that has invaded your PDA across two adventures, where scanning becomes a sickness and seeking information on why certain minerals only live in certain biomes, depths or hollows is more important than helping an alien reconnect to its hive mind. In fact, one of the more celebrated expansions in this sequel is the deeper crossover of world ingredients. So rather than just eating a plant to sustain nutrition and hydration in singular form, for example, now you can make a salad from two ingredients that is doubly rewarding.
It’s a small example, but a huge thing that reflects the subtle, yet massive shift in thinking from Unknown Worlds where the collection of game resources is concerned.
"You know, I reckon a fish tank INSIDE the base is a great idea. But maybe we’re thinking too small...”
So with such tools at your disposal, or at least ready to be crafted to be at your disposal, and a world full of discovery to make your mark in, what’s any good concerned sister to do but build a base of operations. And while we’re at it, a simple Fabricator isn’t enough now, is it? We need storage for each ingredient, and those cupboards are going to need space, but we’re claustrophobic so the space is going to need windows. You know, I reckon a fish tank INSIDE the base is a great idea. But maybe we’re thinking too small… what if we build an Alien Containment tank. With another one on top of it? Waaait a minute, they get bigger?!? Wellity, wellity, wellity. Looks like we’re going to need at least four tanks stacked. Better raid those crashed ships for more titanium and pick up some quartz while we’re at it.
It’s honestly very, very easy to get lost inside Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero’s systems, and while some feel this is to the grindy detriment of the full experience, Unknown Worlds never tells
you to build or collect or learn as much as there is to -- that’s on you. In fact if you wanted to, you could ‘complete’ the narrative aspect of the game inside 10 hours, easy. Or, you could be like us and look at the game as a complex model kit with no instructions, just modular parts to build and place where and however you see fit. And that choice of playstyle and how deep
you decide to go is far and away one of the game’s biggest strengths and draws.
"And farming in this series is actually always fun and usually leads to some form of new discovery...”
It is true it can feel like a slog early on, especially when you’re trying to get to hard-to-reach places without the proper gear to facilitate such adventurous hunter-gathering, but the oft-mentioned gameplay loop here is designed in such a way that clever players will see there are shortcuts and ways to make your crafting life that much easier. Making sure you gather the seeds of a continuously-needed plant like the deep-found young cotton anemone, and planting them outside your base in an outdoor grow bed, instead of using the plucked one you found, for example, will half the amount of trips required to restock. Moreover, planning whole farming sessions around an item as annoyingly needed as table coral samples, then storing them inside your base, just means when the inevitable new blueprint that requires them comes along, you’ll be ready to craft and use right away. And farming in this series is actually always fun and usually leads to some form of new discovery.
Heh, that pesky loop.
It pains me to say, however, Subnautica: Below Zero on console just isn’t wholemeal mustard. It’s ‘yellow sauce’, at best. At least as far as visuals and performance go. The sting in that statement stems from just how good the PC version of the game is, which has been out in some form or another for the better part of a year-plus now. And with all content locked, loaded and delivered, Below Zero on a decent rig is easily one of the best games you’ll play and invest time in this year. Hands down. That said -- yellow sauce flavouring and all -- the console outing offers something different to that of the desktop in comfort through pacing. Or, plainly, on a couch with a controller in-hand on a big, awesome 4K or above TV, exploring 4546B’s depths is lounge-meltingly intoxicating.
"Unknown Worlds’ art through both games is simply breathtaking and what the studio has done with Unity as its game-engine (probably in name only at this stage) is to be applauded...”
So you get a less-than-perfect draw distance and some issues with crushed blacks on console, despite the option between performance and visuals, but if that’s your only option to play, the game still runs smoothly with no issues where framerate is concerned. It just breaks some of the immersion found in playing the game on the more superior PC build, and in particular with said draw distance. Which might seem trivial, but Unknown Worlds’ art through both games is simply breathtaking and what the studio has done with Unity as its game-engine (probably in name only at this stage) is to be applauded across the board. And seeing different biomes off in the distance, in spaces you haven’t explored before, is a wow moment you need a solid draw distance for. It feels like shortcuts might have been taken to maintain a solid level of performance over as close to PC a port as you can get where visuals are concerned, and so it’s not all it could be under your telly.
As far as gripes go though, you could do a lot worse. What you get with Subnautica: Below Zero is a game that has seen many forms, but has ultimately landed as not just an expression of what was learnt from Subnautica, but as one of the most engrossing game-worlds I’ve ever experienced. The nuance and attention to connective detail riddled throughout the playspace that is Below Zero 4546B is just not found in any other games, open-world, survival or open-world survival. And certainly not to the degree presented in Subnautica: Below Zero. And with an open approach to how you want to experience the world encouraged by the studio not forcing
you to play the game in any way other than your own way.
Whether you’re in it for the story, the world, the resources, the crafting or all of the above, Subnautica: Below Zero is a rich vein of fun and engagement you won’t want to escape from anytime soon.