Exploring the Icy Depths of Subnautica Below Zero
Roughly two weeks ago, Unknown Worlds announced the follow up to Subnautica—a wildly popular, survival-exploration game unlike any other in the marketplace. As a quick recap,unlike other games of the genre—like No Man’s Sky—Subnautica opts out of having a procedurally generated world in favor of a highly structured, diverse map that takes players kilometers under the sea of an alien world. I must stress the “alienness” of this world, which is easily Subnautica’s greatest and most distinguishing strength.
The developers have done an unparalleled job creating animal and plant life unlike anything found in other games . Each creature is lovingly crafted with authentic behaviors and actions, lifelike food chains, and—in some cases—merciless sadism.
Thalassophobia is the fear of open waters, the murky depths which hide unseeable monsters until it is far too late. Subnautica, for all of its beauty, pushes this natural fear to its absolute limits. This survival, crafting, and exploration game has the incidental twist of throwing colossal beasts (quite seriously labeled Leviathans) at the player at nearly every turn, capitalizing on this all-too-human fear in a way that even the greatest horror games fail to do. As proof, check out this to-scale concept art of the Ghost Reaper Leviathan. Look close enough and you may actually see the player model hovering just over the translucent beast’s head.
Unlike other studios whose games had a long early access period (fear not, the game proper has been fully released on PC and Xbox, with a PS4 port coming this holiday season), Subnautica’s devs kept their doors open to curious gamers every step of the way, with a very accessible Trello board outlining all new additions and future content plans. The same is true for Below Zero, the upcoming Subnautica expansion expected to hit early access in the coming months.
So, join me as I outline the most exciting features hidden in this forum, as well as the more-than-cryptic clues these devs have lovingly left us.
The World of Subnautica Below Zero
For those of you who closely followed the base Subnautica’s build updates, several notable biomes missed the final cut, namely Twisty Bridges and Lily Pad Islands. The two were teased for a bit, kicked around, tinkered with, but players were ultimately left with little more than gorgeous concept art. Fear not, as the two finally get their dues.
Admittedly, Subnautica’s land mobility paled in comparison to its incredibly intuitive underwater controls—potentially a factor as to why these islands were pushed to this stand-alone experience. Gamers shouldn’t worry though: Unknown Worlds is stressing on-land gameplay with Below Zero. Which leads directly into the next planned location: The Ice Ceiling.
Below Zero is set in an arctic-inspired landscape. Like the frozen tundras of our two poles, Below Zero’s world features a prominent, icy sheet that coats the sea. The devs are using this to both distinguish between above- and below-surface ecosystems, as well as provide a new game mechanic that limits where players can breach onto solid land. As oxygen preservation is a major mechanic, this addition provides a new challenge for veteran players.
Exploring this new land seems like a major focus, as two new vehicles have been revealed. Players can hop in either a hoverbike or what’s currently known as the Sea Truck to explore this icy landscape. But diverse biomes mean little without interesting creatures to stumble upon.
All The Fun Things Bound to Kill You in Below Zero
The Trello board already revealed plenty of new lifeforms to discuss. Below Zero’s penguins were one of the first fauna to reach the general public. But look deeper and we find the classic, real-world mashups that Subnautica loves so much. To name a few, we have fearsome Squidsharks, a land counterpart to the base game’s barracuda-like Stalkers—aptly dressed in a white, fur coat—and presumably defensive Brinewings (pictured above) which are seemingly capable of blasting players with freezing water.
It’s not all eat or undoubtably be eaten, though. Players should expect plenty of peaceful land and sea critters to add vibrant colors and thriving environments as they explore the frozen depths. Two of the most notable being a far larger variation of the seahorse’s cousin, the Seadragon, as well as the curiously named Glow Whale.
What to Do, What to Do…
Unsurprisingly, Trello reveals new gameplay features to go alongside all these delightful locals and locales. Players have clamored for female avatars. Good news: the Unknown Worlds team has new animations and character models for a female protagonist.
While story details have been left deliberately vague, narratively significant alien bases (or, at least, a base singular) will likely drive the action. From a lore perspective, Below Zero takes place after the events of the base game. In a quick, spoiler-free recap, a mysterious community called The Precursors pushed the bulk of the game’s plot. We can reasonably assume the same here.
The last thing worthy of note (for now) is dynamic weather. Why? It’s the only thing I could find with genuine gameplay footage. Of course, this will be an interesting challenge. This well-polished footage implies a playable alpha will hit Steam sooner than anyone expects.
What’s Next for Subnautica Below Zero?
Tough to say, given this seems like a thorough breakdown of the tasty morsels hidden on Unknown Worlds’ Trello board. Based on what we’ve seen, however, I promise I will be one of the very first adopters when Below Zero hits the general public. Until then, this recap should feed the hype until a playable demo drops. In the meantime, I’ll be following the game’s Twitter and passionately speculating as to what this teased Leviathan might be.
Thanks again for humoring me in this analysis. Subnautica truly is one of my favorite games of the last several years. It’s an indie title that deserves all the praise in the world. Yes, I wanted to drum up some publicity. And yes, I totally wanted to geek out on how exciting I find this new expansion.
I geek out about a lot of things though, namely Zelda. For instance, I loved Breath of the Wild so much, I wrote about how it may be the most overrated Zelda game to date. If that sounds confusing, you better strap in for my ranking of literally every single NPC in the game. That list is drenched in personal bias. If you disagree with me there, you quite literally cannot when I rank every single Zelda dungeon using the number of small keys as my only metric. It’s purely a numbers game and surprisingly funny.
Our Punished Backlog team has some more great content I encourage you check out. We just broke down the design process behind Cuphead’s gorgeous animations. Otherwise, we like to all get together and rant about the best “you name it” in video games; for example, we have some phenomenal lists about gaming’s greatest soundtracks and merchants.
Thanks for reading. Check us out again soon.