ONE hundred metres beneath the surface, my torch battery has just died, my oxygen tank is down to a dribble and, oh hell, is that a giant shark arrowing towards me?
These are the nightmares of Below Zero, the sequel to the highly regarded underwater survival game Subnautica from 2018. As before, you’re an explorer on a remote sea planet scrabbling to stay alive as you unravel a mystery, this time the search for your lost sister.
Don’t dismiss it as just a large expansion pack for the original, though. Yes, many of the core systems – resource gathering, crafting, gear-gating – remain the same but Below Zero has spent two years in Early Access. The polish and (hah!) depth is evident throughout while the storyline takes the player in a different direction, with new corporate shenanigans to uncover.
The snappily titled planet 4546B doesn’t welcome visitors and much of your time, at least initially, will be spent warding off the quadruple demands of oxygen, hunger, thirst and temperature as you roam the seabed by swimming around your underwater pod. In fact, this is the tedious overwhelming imperative for the early hours, learning to craft air tanks, food and water supplies, plus protection from the elements.
As in the original, you can turn off survival mode entirely or in part at the outset of the game, though this drains much of the tension from the gameplay loop because you no longer need eat, drink or worry about O2.
Once you’ve established a small base and get a feel for the rhythm of gathering resources and blueprints to build bigger and better gear, Below Zero spreads its wings and begins to tantalise you with hints of a deeper conspiracy. You stumble on abandoned bases built on land. You encounter ever-stranger creatures, not all of whom are friendly, as you probe deeper into the ocean.
The pace is deliberately slow and not everyone will enjoy the faffing around with inventory space. But if you liked No Man’s Sky or the first Subnautica, Below Zero offers a wondrous sense of exploration coupled with the tense sense you’re in over your head.
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