The Long Dark Review - A Superior Survival Experience
Hinterland Studio accomplished a rare feat for early access games; officially release their game. The Long Dark originally hit Steam’s early access program in September of 2014 after going through a Kickstarter funding campaign. On August 1, 2017, the official release hit Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
The Long Dark originally started out with only a sandbox mode, an open survival mode that tosses the player into the middle of the frozen Canadian wilderness and says, “Good luck. See if you can survive.” The full release adds a long-anticipated story mode, though only the first two chapters of a planned five are available at launch. Story mode will be released in an episodic format and season one is called Wintermute.
My review will cover the first two episodes, as well as the sandbox survival mode. The game had a bit of a rocky launch, with more than five patches released in the first two weeks. While the developers certainly acted quickly to squash bugs, due to the nature of patching on consoles, some players had to endure issues longer than others. I only encountered a few bugs, none of which I would consider game-breaking, though that experience was not had by everyone.
General Gameplay and Style
The Long Dark’s graphics are unique. The style is reminiscent of watercolor paintings and the game is unencumbered by UI. You can practically feel the cold coming through your monitor when you play. When you first find yourself in The Long Dark, whether that be in the story mode or in the sandbox survival mode, it doesn’t take long to realize the gravity of the situation.
There are no monsters in this game. No zombies trying to eat your brains. No aliens have invaded, and you won’t be taming dinosaurs or building bases. It’s you against the environment, and that’ll become evitable the first time you check your statuses.
There are four factors that will keep you alive. Ignore any of them for too long and you’ll die. Prepare yourself for that right away; this is not one of those games that you can just breeze on through. Even on the lowest difficulty, The Long Dark requires you to commit to it.
Cold, Fatigue, Thirst, and Hunger combine to affect your overall condition, which can be affected by animal attacks, simple sprains, and even broken bones caused by the environment. Think it’s smart to run down a steep slope in snow while carrying 40kg of gear on you? Think again. The game punishes you for being careless, and it’s exactly that which makes it the best survival game you can play today.
You’ll think about how to attack each day. Food is scarce forcing you to find some by exploring the environment, often for cans of dog food which, may sound unappealing, but will save your life some day. A better meal would be a deer, but you can’t kill that with your bare hands. You could try rabbits that you can knock out with a stone, if you can hit them, run to them and snap their neck before the scurry away. You even get the choice to release them if that’s too much for you and you’d rather go hungry.
Water is easy to get, just melt snow and boil or purify it. Of course, you need a fire for that. And something to light that fire and fuel it while the water boils. And shelter so that the wind won’t blow out that last match you have on you. Oh, and you can’t make a camp fire indoors, so unless you find a cabin with a stove, you’re going to do this outside. Did I mention it’s cold outside?
The weather plays a huge factor in this game. On clear days, you can see for miles, plan your route, and avoid hostile wildlife that’s searching for its next meal. During blizzards, you won’t have to contend with wolves, most likely, but you also can’t see for more than 10 meters in front of you. Have you ever felt the panic of walking in circles while your chance of permanent frostbite damage increases every minute? You may be sitting in your warm living room, but the sense of fear you get from getting lost in The Long Dark is quite real.
Audio plays a key role in The Long Dark as well. You can often judge what the weather is outside of your warm cabin just by the sound of the wind howling. Wolves announce themselves with a familiar howl or bark. Most of the time. If you hear a growl behind you, it’s already too late. The voice acting is great, especially in the story mode, although I’d like to have seen more of it.
The first two episodes of the season entitled Wintermute were released as part of the official launch of The Long Dark. Story mode is new to the game and I would recommend it as the place to begin if you’re just starting out. Doubling as a bit of a tutorial for the greater survival experience, the game tells the story of a bush pilot and his ex-wife crashing their plane during a strange magnetic storm that becomes known as the Aurora. The first two episodes deal with one of the game’s protagonists, Will Mackenzie, and his efforts to locate Astrid, who has gone missing after the crash.
As Will makes his way towards a small abandoned town, you slowly learn how to survive on your own. You’ll make fires, hunt rabbits, and eventually meet other characters. Well, two or three other characters in total, not counting the various frozen dead bodies.
The game resorts to fetch quests to keep you busy during the campaign, but does use them as teaching tools. Let’s face it, surviving is essentially one never-ending series of fetch quests: gather fuel for a fire, hunt animals for food, loot houses for clothes, find a place to sleep. Rinse and repeat.
While you’re learning to survive and helping other characters by doing their bidding, you find out a little bit more about what’s happened and why everyone seems to have left this land. The story is frustratingly sparse with answers, however, and I wish there were more episodes available. The wait is going to be a little bit agonizing.
Your interactions with other characters are handled in form of short cutscenes, followed by typical conversation trees and options. Oddly, only the cutscenes are voiced. The remainder of conversations are done via text only. This was jarring at first, as I assumed I had encountered a bug, but it’s by design. I don’t understand that choice, but there it is. The characters you do meet are interesting enough, and perhaps the biggest flaw to the overall story is the freedom you have. I understand why you’re able to take as much time as you want to complete the various side quests you’re given, and it does help prepare you for the survival mode, but it feels odd to be feverishly searching for your lost companion while spending what amounts to weeks solving other people’s problems.
The second episode forces you to rely a little bit more on what you’ve learned in episode one as you make your way through Mystery Lake, an area that has been available since the first days of early access. Gamers who are returning to The Long Dark will feel comfortably at home, yet challenged enough by a few changes to not be bored.
Here you meet Jeremiah, a trapper who enjoys living off the grid, and is in the middle of a feud with a giant old bear. Jeremiah has what you need to move on and follow Astrid, but first you must kill the bear for him. As you go through episode two, there is never any sign of this bear until you’ve reached the point in the story when it’s time to confront him. That’s by design, I understand, but it does break the sense of immersion a little bit. The battle with the bear should be one of the high points of the episode, and if things go reasonably well, as they did for me, it is. That experience isn’t the same for everyone, though, and your mileage may vary. Some of that fight feels forced, as if it must happen a certain way just to satisfy the storyline.
An unfortunate part of the way the save system in this game works is that I missed a whole conversation with a character due to a bug. That bug was fixed the day after I completed episode two, but short of replaying it, I have no way to go back there. It makes sense that you wouldn’t be able to save at your leisure, but I’m still not a big fan of forced checkpoint saves.
Overall, I enjoyed the story mode and can’t wait for more.
As enjoyable as the story was, the bread and butter of The Long Dark is its survival mode. Survival mode is a sandbox experience where you are dropped into one of six regions that are all interconnected. You can travel from one to the other via a variety of transition regions, such as caves or coal mines.
Your only goal here is to survive. There are feats and challenges that you can unlock that will grant you benefits in future runs in survival mode, but you’re essentially left to your own creativity. Fair warning; if you have no creativity, or you can’t think of things to do without direction, you won’t enjoy survival mode.
If you played the story mode, you’ll be familiar with most of the basics required to survive, but you’ll soon realize that you had it easy in the story mode. I mean, really easy. All loot, items, and even wildlife in survival mode are limited. Loot a house of all its canned goods and they’re gone forever. Get a jacket ruined by a wolf attack, you’ll never get that one back. Wildlife does eventually respawn if you’ve killed it off, but it’ll be days before that happens.
You’re truly on your own in survival mode and everything you do matters, especially on the higher difficulties. Lose a match while attempting to make a fire in a windy area and that may cost you your life later. The game really puts all responsibility on your shoulders. Food spoils, clothes get worn out, and if you don’t manage your resources properly, you won’t last long.
If you can find a balance between keeping yourself busy, taking advantage of what the environment offers, and calculating all your steps carefully, the survival experience can be truly gratifying. There’s something extremely satisfying about spending a day stalking a deer with your homemade bow and arrows, landing a kill shot without losing any of those valuable arrows, and then using the meat from the deer to eat for a few days, all while curing its hide so you can make some new pants.
The experiences that The Long Dark provides are not comparable to any other game I’ve played. Since the first days of early access, surviving in this game feels like a true survival experience. Enough so that I know I wouldn’t last very long in the real Canadian wilderness.
The Long Dark provides the enjoyment of being creative and accomplishing something you set out to do. At the same time, it terrifies you should you make a misstep. Getting lost in this game is like no other. You value your items, your food, and your clothes. You’ll curse that wolf that tore apart your vest, and you’ll kick yourself for letting that rabbit meat spoil.
The Long Dark is punishing, but it’s so much fun. The potential of the story mode mixes some of that challenge with providing a goal and knowing there’ll be an end to your suffering. Survival mode, in the meantime, will just kick your ass repeatedly and have you coming back for more.