The Long Dark may have given a new meaning to the Early Access stage. It was initially released as “early” as September 2014 (same age as my Steam account) and until August 2017 it remained in Early Access. Thus a really long wait for the dev team to finally implement a storyline along that lovely survival mode. The game I’m writing about is special for a couple of reasons. First, its 2013 successful Kickstarter campaign was a following to the already secured funding from the Canada Media Fund. The public sector joined forces along with public funding, in order to finance one of the best video games focusing on the Canadian wilderness. The second and most important feature, is that Long Dark is a very thorough survival simulation. It leaves next to no details or variables out of the equation. No easy feat considering that Hinterland Studio Inc. is a developer with no previously released projects.
I received a review copy several months ago but delayed my review for The Long Dark on purpose since I always like judging a video game for the merits and potential strength of its narrative as well, not just gameplay diversity and fun factor. As always, I’ll be completely honest and I do have to confess that I expected a subpar story, filled with plot holes and clichés. What I witnessed instead, is an emotional tale featuring metaphors to both life and death. They aren’t even disguised by subtlety and I couldn’t fathom just how deep this “rabbit hole” would go.
Before leaving Early Access and playing in that notoriously unforgiving survival “sandbox mode”, I imagined at the very least that it would have to be a story about a stranded person, having to fight nature and overcome/tame it somehow. I knew that a journey would have to feature locations far more diversified than the initial six maps and an ending to this simulated ordeal. I didn’t expect this struggle for survival to feature two main characters, each connected to the other in an emotional way. Players shall get to experience The Long Dark from the perspective of utility pilot Will Mackenzie (at least in the two out of five episodes released so far) and his former wife, Dr. Astrid Greenwood.
Just by having that as a feature instead of an option, speaks volume about the future plans for this game’s storyline. At the time of this writing, I definitely can’t tell you how it will end (nor was I ever inclined to spoil it, anyways) even in broad terms. Three more episodes shall be released in the future and The Long Dark shall reward both its veteran player base and the new wave, by offering all the future story content, absolutely free. Who can argue with that? I will try to summarize at least a few crucial details about the main characters and their motivations.
Will is regarded as a “bush pilot” (person used with flying over/landing on rough terrain and equally difficult weather conditions) and he reluctantly agrees to transport his ex-wife to a remote location in the vast northern wilderness from Canada for a cryptic reason which he doesn’t question a lot. Astrid is carrying a tightly locked briefcase and insists on departing at once, despite the impending snow storm which shall ultimately force Mackenzie to crash-land. They are separated and wounded, hungry, thirsty, freezing and in mortal danger from the inexplicably aggressive wildlife. But they must endure and survive to meet once again. The Story Mode is named “Wintermute”. That is a hint by itself.
Just like its “Canadian wilderness rival” Kona, Unity Engine is powering The Long Dark as well. Apart from the different visual style separating these two, the gameplay experience went on smoothly. I could run them both, maxed out and at 4K resolution without ever worrying that the frame rate will drop below 60. It goes without saying that both titles feature plenty opportunities for epic screenshots, thanks to their minimal User Interface and a HUD which fades away, when not in use.
Do I still have to emphasize how dark the nights in The Long Dark, really are? It’s right there in the game’s title after all. I didn’t expect this either but I wasn’t as shocked as going from Vice City’s neon-lit ‘80s streets to the gritty realism in Grand Theft Auto IV and its depressing depiction of night life. No, I was aware that survival in the dark, in the middle of freezing nowhere basically, should force players to seek shelter at once. I am glad that The Long Dark didn’t feature the unmodded skyline from Skyrim. Epic, yet far from reality and the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) musn’t distract you from the approaching pack of starving wolves since you’re just a regular Joe, not Dragonborn.
Overall, the visuals stood out in a nice way, the HUD allowed me to take as many screenshots as I pleased (& on my terms) while the textures had some minor flaws from time to time. Nothing game breaking and at least from afar, it wasn’t much of an issue. Eye candy doesn’t mean everything and The Long Dark is anything but plain. Looks or otherwise. The visual style is a mix between comic book and cel shading, but without visible outlines.
If the soundtrack will certainly satisfy your ears, wait until I tell you about the voice acting. It’s a Mass Effect reunion, without you knowing, the actual Mass Effect gameplay and feel. Ladies and gentlemen, Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer! Jane and John Shepard, if you never bothered changing their in-game names. These two voice actors made the ME trilogy a lot better and they have now used their talent in The Long Dark with the same kind of convincing enthusiasm. Sure, there isn’t nearly as much dialogue in the game but even monologues require skill. Otherwise you get a “stellar” performance such as Destiny’s “Dinklebot”. I prefer silence than phoning in your lines for a quick paycheck.
This is without exaggeration, the most comprehensive survival game I played or written about so far. I must have tried at least a dozen already, since this particular genre is quite popular on Steam. Early Access or not, most titles never go beyond: “Find these sticks, set up the fire by pressing another button and now find food to fry over it”. Well, The Long Dark will make you work for your survival. It won’t be easy, but don’t consider it a chore either. Even the tutorial tips which come in the form of text boxes and pause the action, are filled with useful information that could very well save your life in the eventuality of a similarly life-threatening situation.
Fires need to be lit first and foremost. This is going to be the hardest part, since it involves multiple objects and has a risk percentage of failing and players losing the invested items. Then fueling that fire shall be just as crucial. Cooking, crafting, melting snow. They all go in-depth and involve some type of risk. From poisoning and injuries to starvation, the entire spectrum is simulated. Nothing is left to chance, instead relying heavily on the “cruelty” of mathematics. Or the simulated Mother Nature, if you will. Everything which can be taken apart, looted and repurposed, you can rest assured that in The Long Dark such objects are aplenty. Afterall MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) rations are a luxury in such a remote place. If you wish to survive you must hunt or become prey.
Don’t expect Hunting Simulator 2017 since this game is both respectful in regards to the wildlife and the portrayal of weapons and tools. You don’t hunt for “sport” but you won’t be invited to PETA parties either. Did I mention that you must eat in order to survive? Only several dozen times, I know. It won’t be easy finding a live animal that can’t kill you, before you’ll even see it in those snowy forests. Which brings us to the hot topic of wolf aggressiveness. Yes, it may not be entirely accurate. I can’t really vouch for it and frankly, this game is about as close as I’d ever wish to be next to a starving wolf or an entire pack of them. I’m a cat person, not that I’d switch hungry wolves with lions/tigers anytime soon. Early Access Survival Mode used to be the video game equivalent to Liam Neeson’s “The Grey” (2011). After so many updates and patches, its difficulty has been toned down a bit, yet permadeath is still out to get you. Play the story first since it’s fully worth it and it shall train you at least partially for the sandbox punishment.
If many Early Access titles have failed their fans, The Long Dark is a fortunate exception. The long wait has paid off and considering that three more episodes are still expected to arrive (hopefully in the next few months, instead of years), I’d say that you get your money’s worth. If you’re still unconvinced, a Steam Sale will prove an ideal opportunity to purchase and play one of the finest games dedicated to survival. The wolves aren’t the true enemy, fear not. Just another obstacle along a journey which is far from superficial. That word cannot be used in the same sentence as The Long Dark.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.