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Game review: Subnautica - Below Zero (PS4/PS5)

It's time for console gamers to return to Planet 4546B, this time to explore the frozen water of its arctic region. Following the January release on PC, Subnautica: Below Zero is now out on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/ Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.

With the original Subnautica, I had a pleasant surprise when I took a late-night punt on the fledgling Steam PC early access game. I watched as a game with the simplest of premises, a crash landing on a planet of water, evolved into a polished work of art.

Subnautica: Below Zero launches as a complete single-player survival game. The developers have, however, promised to continue working on the game as an open development project. So, we can expect more changes and improvements to come.

As before, players find themselves crashed on Planet 4546B this time searching for their lost sister. Crashing in the arctic, the first thing players need to do is get into the water before they freeze and locate their base. Whilst oxygen is of concern whilst underwater, it's the freezing temperatures that need to be watched out for whilst exposed on the arctic surface.

The game's core game mechanic (as with all others of the survival genre) is that of a resource collecting grind that offers just enough reward to make you want to continue. Sure, the game's sandbox mode gives players access to everything, but this completely eradicates any point to the game. To get the most out of Subnautica: Below Zero you need to be in it for the long haul before things start getting interesting. It's a slow burn that'll be wasted on those without the time to sink into the game.

After a crash landing, players start with a tiny base resting in the shallows just off the coast of the frozen planet's surface. Inside the base, there's a storage area and a fabricator. Players must scavenge for resources to manufacture materials with which to, in turn, build equipment. The early game has players watching a scarce oxygen supply and having to return to the base or to the surface to refill. Manufacturing bigger air tanks, flippers, and submersibles makes exploration easier and faster. This opens the game up to a higher level of grind.

As players travel deeper and further from the base better materials and blueprints become available. Blueprints being gleaned from wreckage scanned on the ocean floor. As the game progresses, not only does the planet reveal its mysteries, players get the freedom to create sprawling structures and a fleet of underwater and surface vehicles.

Of course, players are not alone and some hostiles need to be dealt with. From the annoying sea monkeys to some of the more carnivorous beasts of the deep (and land), players need to be able to defend themselves and heal themselves when injured.  

The game hits its stride with the construction of complex bases. These can be customised with equipment and furniture to create unique structures running from the surface deep to the seafloor. Specialist modules such as moonpools create an authentic-looking undersea base. Adding windows and observation decks allow for some stunning underwater vistas.

The construction of structures also allows players to sink shafts deep into the ocean's canyons and crevasses. These create submersed, easily accessed outposts to stage expeditions even deeper.

As well as base elements, vehicles such as the modular Seatruck can also be manufactured. With this new technology, players can start to explore further from their original base.

Players wanting less of a challenge can opt for the create mode, which gives access to all the equipment without the worry of oxygen or dying. I think that this negates the point of the game, somewhat, but is interesting to sample all the huge amount of construction elements available.

Exploration and mystery are what propel the game. Initial expeditions will have players scavenging the shallow waters around their tiny base. Curiosity starts to propel you deeper into the chasms and canyons. Something interesting always seems to be just out of reach, too deep, or just too far for your oxygen supply. And this is what gets you hooked. This is one of those games that turns 10pm into 4am.

The gorgeous world of Subnautica: Below Zero is a major factor in fostering the desire to explore. The undersea environment looks amazing on both the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. PlayStation 5 owners can expect a faster framerate. At night the luminance from fish and flora is beautiful showing off the undersea landscape in a different light. The visuals really immerse you in the game and inspire you to explore deeper and further. This time, the surface is a lot more accessible as well, with abandoned installations to explore and collect clues from.

Subnautica: Below Zero builds upon the success of its predecessor. It's a polished game that offers intrigue and rewards for players willing to sink the time into it. Beautiful to look at, it's a game the defines the survival genre, embracing the spirit of exploration along with the grind of collecting resources and crafting equipment. It's not a game for everybody, but if you are into survival games and like the idea of exploring a very detailed undersea world, this one is for you.

Verdict: 8.5/10

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