Subnautica: Below Zero opens with a Hollywood-style action scene.
A spacecraft hurtles down towards an alien planet as flaming asteroids pass by. One asteroid strikes the vessel, initiating a dramatic crash landing on an icy surface. The pilot kicks her way out of the flaming ship before it explodes, and everything feels like a Michael Bay movie. She books it to the ocean as meteors rain down, eventually swan-diving into the ocean.
That might sound like a far cry from Below Zero’s predecessor, 2018’s Subnautica. The underwater survival game was quiet and lonely, with much of its story told through environmental clues and discarded logs. Subnautica: Below Zero’s opening sets the stage for what’s already promising to be a more cinematic experience that still retains all the charm of the original.
Inverse attended a preview event for the game, which is set to exit early access sometime this spring. As Developer Unknown Worlds Entertainment walked through some of the game’s new features, it quickly became apparent that there’s a grander sci-fi story happening on planet 4546B this time around. Project Lead David Kalina tells Inverse that while the game originally started as an add-on to the original game, that added scale turned it into something much bigger.
“We were looking back at old games like Worlds of Ultima,” Kalina says. “They’re built on the Ultima 6 foundation and it’s basically the same tech and gameplay mechanics, but a whole new world. So we started by deleting the old world and starting from scratch. Our ambition was pretty big and we didn’t have a clear read on how big it was. So at this point, it’s a sequel. It’s a whole new world, new story, new creatures.”
The story drives the game’s flow this time around, guiding players a little more than the game’s more freeform predecessor. The subtle environmental cues are still there, but Below Zero also contains more explicit set pieces, direct dialogue with NPCs, and scripted story beats that bring an extra layer of structure to stitch together the stretches of non-linear exploration.
The story, which revolves around an explorer looking for her missing sister, initially created challenges for a series that’s primarily about survival. An initial draft had players starting with a fully operational base that gets destroyed, forcing them to start from scratch. Unknown Worlds had to go back to the drawing board to more naturally blend the core mechanics and the story it wanted to tell.
“I really like finding ways for the narrative and the gameplay to really connect, and that’s one of the reasons we rebooted the story after we started development,” Kalina says. “We changed the story so you came here intentionally. Your character took a risky decision to live on a planet alone in a dangerous environment to figure out what happened to her sister. That made for a story that better fit with the gameplay we had.”
Here on the Land and Sea
Below Zero isn’t a major departure from the original when it comes to moment-to-moment underwater gameplay. After the exciting opening, the game dives into familiar territory with the player slowly crafting some basic survival tools that allow them to dive deeper and collect more resources. Having not played the first game since 2018, I instantly found my sea legs when jumping into Below Zero, immediately losing an hour to its colorful world in what felt like the blink of an eye.
Ironically, some of the game’s bigger changes are happening above the surface. Players can climb out of the water, ride vehicles across ice floes, and explore hidden caves to uncover more of the game’s story. The preview even showed off a giant ice worm, bringing some of the game’s signature scale above the water.
Adding an on-land competent on top of the underwater gameplay wasn’t an easy process. Studio Art Director Cory Strader tells Inverse that the new element fundamentally changed the way the team actually leads the player around and required some delicate retooling to balance it with the underwater sections.
“There are some really big challenges with it,” Strader explains. “The biggest one is that you can’t move in every direction, so the way you set up pathways is very different … We actually had to do some big revisions to the surface area. We had one large chunk and it was such a long time away from the water that we had to rejigger it so you got back to the water sooner.”
Balance is a bit of a running theme behind the sequel’s philosophy. While there’s plenty of new mechanics to the game, Unknown Worlds had to be careful not to stray too far away from the series’ defining features. After all, swimming is what sets the game apart from its landlocked peers.
“The underwater is still the primary focus of the game. We’ve always looked at the surface as a break so it’s not the same thing underwater forever,” Kalina says. “One of the big lessons for us was trying not to treat them as so separate. We really thought of them very separately for a long time. They’re a little bit tighter than they used to be.”
For fans of the original, Below Zero still very much keeps the spirit of the original intact so far. The on-land sections and story beats add more layers to Subnautica without disrupting its carefully constructed ecosystem. Rather than flipping the game’s mechanics on their head, Unknown Worlds seems to understand that Subnautica’s most important feature is intrigue. That’s exactly what the latest chapter brings to the table.
Subnautica: Below Zero is available now in early access.