HARDDRIVE-BY: Subnautica Below Zero

HARDDRIVE-BY: Subnautica Below Zero

It is impossible to examine this game by itself.  It has to be held up to the mirror of its predecessor; Subnautica.

Subnautica Below Zero has been out on Beta for years but it was finally officially released in May of this year by Unknown Worlds.  Unknown is now a subsidiary of Perfect World, a Chinese media company.  Just so you know where your money is going if you buy this.

Subnautica was a horror game disguised as a survival game.  Below Zero tries for the same effect but ends up being more of an adventure puzzle game.

Subnautica began with your protagonist, Riley Robinson, having to grab an escape capsule and abandon the star-liner Aurora before it explodes.  The pod lands on water.  Riley has no resources other than a working fabricator (which frankly is a pretty awesome survival tool).  However, the fabricator needs raw materials. Riley gathers these which in turn allows him to build better tools, and thus unlock better resources.  In theory, Riley can do just fine living in the Safe Shallows, however, a self-scan reveals that he has contracted a fatal alien virus.  He has to solve a 10,000-year-old mystery before the virus can kill him.  To do that he will have to reach the bottom of the deepest ocean on the planet.

Along the way Riley discovers the various fates of his fellow passengers and crew of the Aurora.  As well as what became of a previous group of castaways. This is done by means of audio recordings found during the course of play.  In addition, he discovers why every ship that comes to this planet is destroyed.

Except for occasional cries of pain or alarm, Riley remains silent throughout the game.  This facilitates player identification with Riley.  The little vignettes of the people who died on this planet gives the game an overall sense of dread despite the beauty of the art design.  It sort of felt like the old F.E.A.R. game in that regard.  The writing was tight.  You got just a bit of feel for these people’s personalities and you couldn’t help being a little sad when you would find evidence of their deaths.

The game had a very wry sense of humor.  Subnautica also poked fun at Wokeness.  This is a transcript of a relationship discussion by two women in a relationship.

WILSON: Listen, I know I don’t have the right to make demands of you, but I need you to understand that I want to change our arrangement.

FOURNIER: I hear what you’re saying and I will try to respect it. How would you like to change it?

WILSON: I would like to reduce our contact hours.

FOURNIER: How much further can we do that?

WILSON: To zero.

FOURNIER: You’re dumping me?!

WILSON: I’m changing the terms of our relationship.

FOURNIER: How is it still a relationship if we don’t see each other?!

WILSON: It’s a relationship of a kind. You have so many expectations. 

FOURNIER: I feel you just want to spend more time with that dumb guy and his dumb robot suit.

WILSON: That’s not a feeling, it’s a judgment. And I feel hostility in what you’re saying. Perhaps your jealousy is a sign that you need to take another look at your business model. Why can’t you just be happy for me?

FOURNIER: I am happy for you! And I’m happy for all the guys in the Prawn bay! I’m just not happy for me.

WILSON: This is why, I want to change our arrangement.

Good stuff!

Since it was an Indy game, you would run into bugs here and there.  Fish swimming through your base, getting stuck inside a wall, the kind of things you expect from a game that costs $30 at launch.

And there were some problems that were with the game design itself.  The biggest and deepest diving submarine in the game was the Cyclops.  Difficult to get all of the blueprints for it.  Difficult to farm all the resources you need in order to build it.  And difficult to hang on to, because it was a monster magnet and it caught fire easily.  It was also ungainly and hard to maneuver.

The second time through, I didn’t bother to build one at all.  I just put up a large base at the center of the Lost River biome to support my Prawn Suit.  The game went much faster in consequence. Until I needed one component that could only be unlocked by building the damned submarine.

Clearly, the people at Unknown Worlds approached Below Zero with a list of improvements from the lessons learned in the first game.  For instance, in the first game wreck diving was an integral part of the game and there were a bunch of them.  The wreckage was pristine. In the second game, there was only one ship (Mercury II) that had broken into three huge pieces. They were rust-covered, dilapidated, and easy to get lost in and drown.  The Cyclops was replaced with the sea truck.  It was kind of an underwater train.  You added or removed the cars depending on the mission you were about to undertake. A definite improvement over the Cyclops submarine.   

Another difference was the freezing mechanic.  In the new game, whenever you are on land you are at risk of hypothermia because of the harsh cold.  In the first game, if you were on land you weren’t in danger just by being on land.

So, there were some improvements.

But there were also new liabilities.  

There were some attempts at humor but it was mostly of the Dilbert variety.  The little stories of the people who died in the first game were replaced with the troubles of corporate worker drones, who are still alive.  The hero of the story is a heroine with a rather irritatingly self-righteous tone of voice.  Since she speaks you can’t immerse yourself in her story the same way you could with Riley.  It’s her story but in the first story, it was really yours.  Robin made the decision to come to this planet, Riley was the more sympathetic character since he had no choice about being there.

There was no central story like there was in the first game.  There were a couple of goals that weren’t at all connected with each other.  Al-An, the alien’s portion of the game was one long fetch quest.  

While Below Zero has several improvements over its predecessor, the narrative is nowhere near as immersive.  And the difficulty is set permanently on Game Journalist Mode. It is a much easier game.

Is it worth playing?

Wait for a Steam Sale.   

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