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Subnautica: Below Zero – Above Average

Red Thomas Posted:
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Subnautica is easily one of my favorite Early Access titles.  I was a very early adopter of the game and remember their physics demo that involved flooding a submarine.  I thought Unknkown Worlds had a cool idea at the time and feeling that their Natural Selection games were pretty solid, it was an easy buy-in for me.

As the first version of what we’d today recognize as Subnautica released on Steam, the game was still very incomplete but had very solid bones.  In a lot of ways, I’m finding myself feeling the same about Subnautica: Below Zero.  The differences and similarities between the games tell us a lot about what to expect moving forward with SBZ.

Analysis of Similarities

The similarities between the original Subnautica and Below Zero allow us to build a very solid target profile (to borrow an old intel term).  With the same team behind both titles, we’ll see similar development trajectories and planning.  While a lot of the core functionality issues with Subnautica having already been worked out, SBZ development will mostly be about content and the minor game changes required for new environments.

I’m not sure what they plan to eventually do with this canyon-like terrain, but I’m really excited to find out.

If you jump into the game now, you’ll see an impressively well-developed environment that while a cosmetically different from the first game, is still very similar in most other ways.  Compared our initial view of the first game in late 2014/early 2015, SBZ has come a very long way.

For the following six months after Subnautica released as a more playable demo, most updates were related to core game functionality and adding buildable structures and other researchable items to the game.  After that, we got to the point where we are in SBZ’s development.  Once there, we still saw an increase in harvestable resources, biological lifeforms, and new buildable stuff added, but more important to Below Zero, we also saw new biomes added and then expanded every month at a really solid pace.

By the end of 2015, most of the biomes were in place and the team began adding in abandoned bases while they continued to expand the player survival experience with more buildable items and base components.    Typically, the teams that work on mechanics and environment are more or less separate.   Art teams still support the design and texturing of new items, creatures, and base components, but their heavy lift is usually the environmental art requirements.

I’d like to see the artic setting have more impact on the underwater world. Venting stacks like these should be home to a great deal of life due to the warmer water.

With most of the crafting assets built, the art teams can focus on environmental assets.  I suspect that means we’ll see more bio-diversity over time and a faster pace of developing new biomes.  Environmental development will probably happen more quickly in SBZ than it did in Subnautica because the team has experience, has older assets they can leverage as shortcuts, and some assets that’ll likely be reused as-is for the new planet.

The initial starting area is full and complex and a very interesting environment to explore, but only for a certain distance.  If you wonder too far, you find yourself in large underwater wastelands that are really just biomes waiting to happen.  I think we can expect these barren deserts to populate a little more quickly than they did in the previous game.

Dissection of Differences

There are a number of differences between Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero that are worth exploring, as well.  One is the obvious environmental switch from tropical to artic, which will present some really cool opportunities for new mechanics, flora, fauna, and environmental effects.  We’ve already seen some of them in the game already, like the periodic storms and heat-seeking flowers.

I kept noticing flashes when I was underwater and didn’t know what they were.  I actually just chalked it up to a graphical glitch, until I realized that it was a storm above the surface, and I was seeing lightning.   I think it could be refined a bit, but it’s a really cool effect that hopefully is just a precursor to future storms with some form of oceanographic impact.

What I believe to be the most important difference is the increased focus on story, and I expect this is where a lot of the new development effort will be focused.  Unknown Worlds isn’t just creating a new survival game for us, they’re telling a new story.   Just the first hour or two of gameplay tells us that we can expect a lot more dialogue and story content in this game.

The story in the first game was interesting, but it really served as an excuse to build bigger and deeper.  The story in Subnautica: Below Zero already feels central to the game and it’s not even done yet.  There’s more dialogue as opposed to monologued journal entries from the long-dead crew we saw in the previous game.

Subnautica: Below Zero looks like it’ll be a far more story-driven game, which is a great thing..

I’m finding myself far more interested in the story with SBZ and I think that’s a really good thing.  As a sandbox, Subnautica is a good game.  The lack of multiplayer support limits the value to some degree, though.  With more story in SBZ, that experience for single players is amplified and will likely turn a very good game into a great one.

Consideration of Culture

I don’t really care to get political.  It’s pretty boring for the most part because everyone just parrots their particular party line, but there’s one point I’d like to make with respect to Subnautica: Below Zero.  That point is how they kick the crap out of EA’s lazy attempt at social engineering.

EA idiotically tried to force a gender message on their fan-base and it backfired on them in spectacular fashion.  All their grandstanding and self-serving signaling turned a lot of gamers off and their sales suffered.  I’d also point out how jarring it was playing Battlefield 5 when it came to how they implemented gender in the game.  I just didn’t like how they did it and it was a real turn off for me.

Unknown Worlds, intentionally or not, has shown the larger studio up.  The two main characters in the game are female, one acts in a supervisory role, and you might not have even noticed.  I didn’t until my wife pointed it out while watching me play one night, and I love it.  Now that I notice the gender of those involved, it adds an interesting layer to the larger story of the game.

Who keeps a giant picture of themselves on the wall? It never occurred to me that I was looking at the protagonist.

The reason it works is because of the subtlety.  The game never makes to point out the gender of the protagonist, and there’s little about it other than her voice that would ever cue the player in on the fact.   And that’s what it is.  Just a fact, and not some grand statement to the world on where they stand on any particular cultural or political question.

To me, this is the best form of messaging.  It’s a statement about how things should be by showing them as just existing and absent any demagoguery.  The protagonist is female because she just happens to be female.  Her sister is in command of the expedition because she was the most qualified.  It’s a message made more concrete and more powerful by how quietly it’s made.

Again, I’m not one to go political and typically try hard to avoid it in articles like this, but the point in SBZ was so well made in this case that I really had to brag on Unknown Worlds a bit.  I’d really like to see more female leads in video games receive the same treatment.  It’s not as flashy as others, but it is a far more effective way of making the point because it’s a message that’s more likely to be heard.

Threat Assessment

I expect Subnautica: Below Zero to be even better than Subnautica, and that’s not something you can typically say about a sequel.  Most series are already cash-grabs by the second iteration, but SBZ looks to be made of better stuff.  It’s early in the development yet, and some caution is warranted.  That said, Unknown Worlds seems to be building on everything that was good in their first venture into the subsurface aquatic survival genre.

Unknown Worlds really know how to make a beautiful game. Definitely some of the best in the business.

Over the next six months, we should start seeing more biomes put into place and then expanded to fill the rest of the world.  I expect we’ll have the major game loops closed by the end of the year and the game will be very playable if the developers stick to anything like their old schedule.  All the while, the active development will continue to find and correct bugs that will likely help both games equally.

Story will be the key differentiator with Below Zero and will only get better as development moves forward.   If I were asked whether to buy the game or not, I’d emphatically say it’s a buy.  Whether you should buy it now or wait is the question.  I expect to enjoy the development of the game a lot, but those who are more interested in an unspoiled story should probably wait a bit longer.

I don’t expect the wait will be too long, but that also depends on how many new assets Unknown Worlds have to develop to support the new game.  Best guess would be at least a year, but you can be sure you’ll see an article from me when the game nears release.  In the meantime, smooth seas to all and remember to never trust the voices you only ever hear in your head.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.