Winter is here
The Long Dark is out of Early Access, and there have been some changes since it was initially released in 2014. Its world has grown bigger, its animal AI has grown smarter, and its story mode has remained a promising yet barely distinguishable figure on the edge of the horizon. Until now.
This review covers both the survival sandbox mode and the first two episodes of the story mode. I’ll be back to cover more of it as I keep charting its chilly terrain and as more episodes are released.
The Long Dark (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Hinterland Studio Inc.
Publisher: Hinterland Studio Inc.
Released: August 1, 2017
The Long Dark is a survival game first, but dare I say it’s a bit of a walking simulator within a survival game? It’s often brutal, but the contemplative moments that come from exploration give it a strangely comforting air. Leaving your shelter in time to see the sunrise painting the sky with orange and pink watercolor hues contrasts with the more action-filled moments of trying to navigate through a blizzard or escape from a bear.
You wander around taking in breathtaking landscapes, softly falling snow, and the aurora borealis overhead, while listening to the atmospheric soundtrack behind it all, until suddenly your vision goes blurry and you’re breathing heavily, and you remember that you’re supposed to be trying to live. Then you die of exhaustion.
I spent a good chunk of time in The Long Dark‘s sandbox mode before delving into its story, and it turns out I was doing it backwards. The story mode, called Wintermute, serves as a tutorial of sorts, so it’s a good place to start. I learned things that might have prolonged my life in the sandbox if I’d played through the story first. That said, Wintermute‘s narrative left much to be desired. Only two out of the planned five episodes have been released, so there is room for improvement, but these first two felt overly long and tedious. The story never really gained its footing, struggling with the balance between exposition and gameplay.
You play as Will Mackenzie, who’s traveling with his ex-wife on a mysteriously dire mission when the plane he’s piloting runs into an anomaly and crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Once you’ve learned how to build a fire, patch your wounds, gather food, and other basics of survival, you set out to find your missing partner and uncover the cataclysmic events that led to your current situation.
The beginning tutorial is not only helpful but also feels realistic and intuitive. Each day focuses on a different aspect of survival as you work to piece yourself together after the crash. Unfortunately, what follows is much less intuitive. If the first few days of the story are like building a fun diorama in science class, the rest of it is like those times when your teacher gave you a boring worksheet to keep you busy.
Wintermute mostly consists of collection missions, where you’re tasked to go out and find a certain amount of resources, while avoiding wolves, hunger, and other means nature has of trying to kill you. These missions are made more interesting by the survival aspects, putting them a cut above, say, RPG collection quests, but they’re still ultimately boring. You’re never really rewarded for your efforts, which could be seen as a metaphor for survival in the wild, but it hampers the pacing of the game in a big way. Not only do the missions get as stale as a months-old granola bar, but I also never found myself connecting with the characters or caring much about what the narrative was trying to tell me. I mostly just wanted to get back into the sandbox.
Since Wintermute has a linear narrative, it leads you by the hand more than the sandbox does, preventing you from ever really getting lost in a blistering storm. Ultimately, two things defined my experience with Wintermute: avoiding wolves and managing my inventory.
Wolves seem rampant in the story mode, but I learned how to handle them better as the game progressed, using flares or making sure I had a torch in hand. The inventory, on the other hand, I never really got the hang of and found much more frustrating as Will than I did in the sandbox. Carrying around items for missions as well as for your own survival becomes a balancing act, choosing what’s most essential to get from point A to point B while leaving the rest behind. Whereas in sandbox mode I can venture out for more resources a little at a time, in Wintermute every item seems imperative, which leads to backtracking several times in a small area rather than striking out in a wider arc to unexplored locations.
Wintermute‘s story is told through a somewhat jarring combination of stylized flashbacks, present-day cutscenes, and text conversations with other characters. The cutscenes feature voice acting but often switch mid-conversation to silent text, which feels weird. The flashbacks are beautiful and an effective method of exposition, but they’re impeded by stilted voice acting and a clunky script.
Its survival sandbox is where The Long Dark truly shines as brightly as its auroras. The game is at its best when you’re let loose in the wilderness to manage your own supplies and create your own narratives. I’m fully aware that playing a video game about being alone in the wilderness is a romanticized version of actually being alone in the wilderness, which is not romantic at all and is probably one of the most terrifying things a person could experience. Still, being able to trek back to my little cottage feeling accomplished with a bag of quartered elk meat over my shoulder, build a crackling fire in the fireplace, cook up some coffee, and relax with a deck of cards as the wind whistles outside is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a video game.
There’s always something to be experienced in the sandbox that goes beyond what any preconceived narrative could give you. Even if that experience is having your pants ripped off by a wolf and limping to a nearby vehicle to bandage up your wounds and regroup before setting out to find more pants. There will be successful days and not-so-successful days, but ultimately, the world I built for myself in the sandbox was much more satisfying than the world presented to me in the first two episodes of Wintermute.
The Long Dark‘s environments are stunning, weighing more on the artistic side than the realistic to showcase its singing auroras, cedar and birch forests, and frozen coastlines. Simply standing outside for a while and taking everything in can be an event, albeit a dangerous one. The weather can move from clear skies to blinding blizzards in the blink of an eye. The music changes too, becoming ominous if you’re in a particularly dangerous area. The dynamics of the world around you make it feel like a character in its own right. It’s just you and the wilderness, surviving in…the wilderness.
I have to say, one of the best parts of The Long Dark is the feeling of discovery. Being unsure where I’m going as I venture off partially snow-covered roads, and then suddenly coming upon a lighthouse or a whale harvesting plant, is exciting. Since the maps are always the same, that excitement will fade once I’ve discovered and memorized everything each area has to offer. I have conflicting feelings about that because I want both the excitement of discovery and the comfort of knowing the world I inhabit.
New maps can always be added, and there are challenges within the sandbox mode that you can choose to partake in if you want to shake things up a bit. One of the challenges asks you to spend three days at different locations scattered across all the maps, forcing you to chart the entire world of the game. And there’s enough content there that it should keep you busy exploring every nook and cranny for a while.
While the story mode leaves something to be desired, the survival mechanics of The Long Dark‘s sandbox make it worthwhile. We have three more episodes of Will’s journey to weave a wider story throughout the alternately unforgiving and inviting Canadian terrain. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting back with my coffee mug, reflecting on my own small stories within The Long Dark.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]