Subnautica: Below Zero is a game about crafting for convenience. This frigid follow-up to Unknown Worlds’ seafaring survival sandbox subscribes to the same blueprint as its 2017 predecessor, plunging you into an aquatic open world and willing you to explore it. Where you go, and how you get there, is entirely up to you.
While there is a loose story to follow involving shady corporations and missing siblings, the main thrust of this arctic outing is mining materials that will ensure your survival is more straightforward. You’ll start the campaign with little more than a wetsuit and willpower, but as you slowly streamline your scavenging practices, you’ll end up with a sprawling underwater metropolis.
Almost everything you do over the course of the 35-plus hour adventure contributes to your overall goal of surviving longer in increasingly deeper and hazardous waters. You’ll need to manage your vitals throughout, by cooking seafood, drinking filtered water, and – perhaps most importantly of all – breathing oxygen.
There are some neat risk/reward systems here: curing meat with salt helps to preserve it and retain its nutritional value, but also increases the need for hydration. However, as your research progresses you’ll unlock unique blueprints which save you time and effort, such as a heated blade which simultaneously kills and cooks wildlife while you’re out and about. An alternative gameplay option removes the hunger and thirst meters, but you’ll still need to regulate your air intake.
Whichever mode you select, it’s this carrot-on-the-stick style of gameplay that makes the deep-sea diving sim so moreish. The title is constantly teasing you with tantalising new builds that will make your life easier, allowing you to embark on even more adventurous expeditions in pursuit of rarer resources. Suddenly, you’re submerging hundreds of metres for minutes at a time, scouring the seabed for interesting elements.
The loop won’t be for everyone, but the beauty is that no two playthroughs will ever be the same. You really are free to progress as you please, so whether your goal is to construct an Iron Man-esque underwater Prawn Suit and hike the bottom of the ocean or focus on your breathing apparatus to dive deeper depths, it’s up to you.
There’s profound satisfaction to be obtained from forging your own aquatic habitat, and we ended up spending a lot of time customising the interior to our liking with posters and plant pots. But beyond the decorating, bases also provide a home for critical gameplay components, like battery charging stations and scanner rooms.
In addition to your time under the water, you’ll need to explore frigid facilities on land. Temperature regulation replaces oxygen as you traipse icebergs, but you can craft motorcycles and cold suits to ensure you don’t feel like a fish out of water. The mixture of tropical oceans and glacial islands complement each other well, and make for an otherworldly locale you’ll want to explore.
The game looks and sounds really nice, too, with some wonderful visual effects – like when sleet punctures the surface of the sea and lightning is refracted through the water. The title targets 60 frames-per-second by default on the PS5, although it regularly falls below that. You can opt for a higher resolution alternative, but the 30 frames-per-second cap doesn’t justify the bump in detail.
It’s hard not to be absorbed by your surroundings. While the ocean isn’t particularly large in terms of surface area, it’s deep, with intricate cave networks and unique biomes to explore. Our only real criticism is that, with very few recognisable landmarks, it’s all too easy to get lost – and that’s even when you’ve crafted some of the navigational tools designed to help you to find your way.
This is especially frustrating when you’re looking for a particular element or resource; you may very well recall mining it in the past, but unless you’ve specifically placed a beacon to mark the location, you could find yourself swimming in circles for hours before rediscovering the area. Personally, we spent a lot of time browsing Google for answers. The user interface, too, can be needlessly complicated.
Fortunately, the DualSense fares better, with the haptic feedback allowing you to feel the impact of any bumps or scrapes you may take underwater. We particularly like how the adaptive triggers have been programmed subtly, adding satisfaction to toggling on flashlights and other basic operations.
Not everyone will warm up to Subnautica: Below Zero, but it’s an unquestionably rewarding release once you begin to get a foothold into the frigid foray. The game’s constantly tantalising you with new, exciting equipment, and its otherworldly ocean is an immersive environment in which to spend your time. A lack of landmarks mean that it can be a little too easy to get lost, and the story is light and largely uninteresting – but if the act of building an underwater base appeals to you, then this PS5 sequel unquestionably has strong foundations.