So I picked this up in the Steam Winter Sale for £7.50 and I have to say I'm pretty smitten with it. The Long Dark is an indie survival game by Hinterland Studios for the PC and X-Box One. It's set in the immediate aftermath of an apocalyptic event when massive geomagnetic disruption caused presumably by solar activity knocks out electricity systems across the planet, permanently. At the start of every adventure a block of text informs you that you are a bush pilot in Northern Canada, having just regained consciousness after your plane crashed following the event. Following this you open your eyes and see a frozen wilderness all around you. You have little in the way of survival gear; barely any water, food or decent winter clothing. Your priority is to find shelter, fast, as although you awake to a mildly chilly ambient temperature, freezing fogs, blizzards and the icy blanket of night can soon fall upon you.
Oh, there are also wolves and bears out there. You don't want to run into any of them. Especially bears.
So you begin your exploration, trudging through the snow, hoping against hope that upon mounting the next snowy rise you'll see a trapper's cabin, or a lakeside holiday hut, or at the very least a stalled car on a remote road to escape the wind-chill. It's rather nail-biting stuff, as you hear your character shiver and mutter and pray as you trudge, trudge, trudge through the wastes. But when you do find that haven appearing out of the blinding dance of snowflakes, it's a heart-soaring moment. Of course once inside with your body's core temperature dangerously low, it's then time to get a fire going. Better search the lockers and stores and frozen bodies to see if you can find matches and tinder. Perhaps break apart some items of furniture to feed the stove. Once warmed and having popped open a few cans of soda and munched some candy bars, it's time to get some rest as night falls and you hear the wind begin to howl outside. Tomorrow will bring new problems, like what to do when your scavenged supplies run out. After all, exertion and the cold result in you burning through calories in record time. After a few days of dawdling around your little haven you'll have eaten your last tin of dog-food and begun wishing you'd try pushing out earlier to find a hunting rifle or fishing tackle or something. This is the genius of the game, you have to take calculated risks and push on into the unknown. Eventually you get to read the signs of shifting weather, of the presence of wolves in the area, of the grim balancing act of energy expenditure over the gathering of resources. After all, hunting and the chopping of wood and the trudging of scavenging burns up calories - best choose your next action wisely, and go about it efficiently. The game is one of praying as you light a damp fire that it'll catch, of hoping the cave you sit out a blizzard in doesn't have a bear within, and wondering feverishly if you've been turned around somehow in your seemingly harmless little jaunt into a bewildering forest as the gentle snowfall begins to cover your tracks and a mist sets in.
You'll die eventually of course. And there's no going back to reload saves either. It's merely a question of how long you can survive.
The game has five regions currently, with more to be released. However the sandbox was never originally intended to be a game in itself, it was first designed purely to allow players to test the game mechanics in advance of the eventual release of a story-mode, which consists of journeying through post-apocalyptic Canada encountering other survivors enduring the crazed wild and the harsh natural elements. However early access players carried on playing the sandbox mode for so long on the original two maps that three more were soon released, and more game mechanics designed to expand the different elements of survival and death. And it's this sandbox mode that has me hooked. The story mode is to be released episodically and features the voice talents of Jennifer Hale and Mark Meers among others, and is to feature lots of tough judgement calls as you have to decide if you can afford to save another life or not, as survivors beg outside your door as the wolf packs close in, and you realise you don't have enough supplies to feed those outside and besides, your winter coat is torn and the cloth on their backs would sure come in handy repairing it. However, being ruthless might jeopardise you later on as another soul isn't there to help you as stumble and fall and break your leg. The first part should be out in Spring.
The Long Dark looks great. It's got a simple, cell-shaded sort of watercolour style reminiscent of a more sober-minded Team Fortress 2. The weather systems are beautiful, and blend it to each other in a seamless naturalistic manner. As you become slowly aware that a blizzard is coming in and you're kilometres from the sanctuary of your lakeside cabin, you really feel panicked as the snow slowly begins to fall thicker and faster, and flurries begin to whip up over rock outcroppings. Animals roam in a naturalistic manner as well. The casual loping of wolves slowly hunching down as they spot their prey, before springing up and running down startled deer is something to behold. The game has a day night cycle that has some beautiful lighting effects, and interiors have rather pleasant shafts of light springing through the windows. Whilst at night, things get terrifyingly dark. The graphics aren't next-gen amazing or anything, but they are very atmospheric and refreshingly simple. And that's more than good enough when the sound design really pulls its weight. You can hear the shifting of wind, the tapping of woodpeckers and the cawing of crows (usually circling a dead body) and the distant howling of wolves. Chopping wood, shifting through snow, lighting matches, unzipping rucksacks - all have a great organic sound. In fact I'd say that it's the most impressive and atmospheric sound design I've heard since the War Tapes option in Battlefield Bad Company 2.
As it is at the moment in Sandbox, it's not a perfect game and not for everyone. Some will get frustrated at the permanent nature of death, although that gives weight and tension to all the decisions you make in the game. It's also alleviated by the narrative you can record with your character thanks to an in-game free-text journal that runs day by day, and that you can screenshot for review later in your Steam Gallery. I'm on my third character. My first, Luce Harlow, died on the third day out on a frozen lake as she took out her rifle and aimed at a wolf that began to pad softly towards her. She panicked and fired and the shot went wide and before she could reload, it was on her, and with her weakened state carrying too many supplies in her backpack, and her sprained ankle, she failed to fight off the wolf and joined the long dark as it tore out her throat. My second character got lost in a blizzard, I later suspected only fifty yards or so from safety. My third, Johann Lorre, is doing fine. He's on his eleventh day resting out a blizzard quite comfortably in his trapper's cabin. The lockers are stuffed with cooked venison and wolf steaks. On the floor, deer hides and wolf pelts are curing to later be made into garments to replace the rapidly fraying winter sports gear. Guts festoon the tabletops and shelves, drying out to later make rabbit snares and bow strings and cords and stitches for clothing. And a big pile of branches lie in the corner to stoke up the fire, ready to melt more snow and keep the fellow hydrated. No whisky in game though, alas, alas.
I can imagine a point when one gets too good at the sandbox mode and the game becomes something of a chore - though you are only a few bad decisions from death at any time. (I spent yesterday skinning deer for too long, too far away with Johann, and barely got home ahead of night and the inevitable increase in wolves it brings.) You could argue there isn't much to it either. No endgame at the moment, no building of Minecraftian edifices. Virtually no combat and in the developer's lexicon the word zombie is clearly seen as the foulest of obscenities, never to plague the realistic, slow paced setting of the game. (Which is fine by me, I'm very much bored of zombies.) But for me the game is truly special thanks to the escape into another world it provides. You're on your own in The Long Dark. There's no one to talk to, but then that means there's no one hassling you to go bowling or giving you bullshit fed-ex quests. Every problem affecting you is ultimately one of your own creation, born of underestimating the cruelly indifferent powers of nature around you.
Last night I dreamt I was in a coffee shop in Northern Canada, and there was a wolf outside. I think this is the sort of game I've been looking for, for quite a long time.
4.5/5The Long Dark Game WebsiteStory Mode Teaser Trailer