“Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive” once said the Bee Gees – maybe prophetically, as they could easily have been talking up their experiences of playing the The Long Dark.
The Long Dark is all about how hard it is to survive in the wilderness, with the horrors of preparing a hot meal, while purifying rancid water, trying to stop a cut going infected and keeping out of the way of a pack of prowling wolves. The Long Dark is very hard, but in that difficulty there is beauty, a unique world and a different type of experience from many other games.
The Long Dark has been in the Xbox Game Preview program for what seems like a lifetime now. It was one of the first games to appear on there and it provided a survival sim mode that initially proved very popular and gained a huge fan base. The full version of the game that has now been released comes with that survival mode intact – and a new story mode that provides a massive load of new content.
And it is in the story where I want to start talking first.
You start the game in and amongst a plane wreck, deep in the freezing Canadian wilderness. Straight away you have to find and craft a bandage to stop yourself bleeding to death. Then before you can take a breath you have to get warm before hypothermia sets in, so you need to start a fire. How do you that? Collect sticks, and paper. How do you start a fire? Maybe I’ve some matches from the plane. Done. Jesus, now I’m thirsty and I need food. Oh look, a deer carcass. Harvest that… using more calories and getting colder while I go about it. But I need to cook the meat up or it will kill me. Damn the fire’s gone out again. More Sticks…AHHHHHH.
The first hour of The Long Dark is the toughest and you might want to switch the game off after finding yourself freezing to death or dying of hunger. But please don’t because after that a strange calm comes upon you and you embrace the wilderness and the horrors it has to offer. It becomes addictive and the hours seem to fly by, and all you’ve seemed to do in that time is find some safe drinking water. That’s the beauty of this experience.
In the story mode you play a pilot who has taken an ex on a mysterious field trip into the wilderness. The plane crashes and you basically go searching for her to find out what has happened to the world. You run into strange abandoned buildings, even stranger NPCs and lots of bloody wolves. The wolves are the most annoying thing out there, but it becomes highly fascinating to try and work out how to tackle them. If they catch your scent, or get you in their eye line, they will track you and hunt you all the way across the landscape. I had one that I tried to get away from and as I kept looking back it was always there in the distance, stalking. I still have dreams about that wolf. If it attacks you, then you can fend it off, but that in turns risks the chance of injury and infection… but at least you can eat them and use their hide for warmth and crafting purposes.
The juicy dilemmas this games offers up are what makes the moments in the bleakness amazing. The story mode is great for a gamer like me who needs a purpose and a good through line. Others will argue, and fairly, that the great thing about the survival mode is that you create your own stories by just living and exploring. But that isn’t for me.
The gameplay is basically a great mixture of inventory management, crafting and resource hunting. If you get that right you’re halfway to successfully surviving in The Long Dark.
The mission quests are normally ‘find this’, or ‘go over there and collect food for an NPC’ style affairs. It all works well and the actual mystery is brilliant, with some strange hints and twists along the way. “A quiet apocalypse” is what the creator calls this game and he’s spot on because it’s a game about being alone at the end of the world. When you do meet someone or read a personal bit of information from someone, it’s a jolt to the system because you’re so used to your own solitude.
There is a fair chunk of gameplay with both episodes coming to around 15 to 20 hours of game time. The only problem I have with the story at the moment is that there are three more episodes to come further down the line, so I feel I still can’t judge the game as a whole yet without that conclusion. But the good news is that I am very intrigued to find out more and aside from a couple of animation glitches and a few floating items, there is nothing so horrible that will put anyone off playing.
The game looks brilliant with its almost watercolour tones too. The lighting and the effects make a brutal landscape come alive and are beautiful to watch and spend time in. In the story mode I really began to like the cut scenes and the way they are crafted. Menus and items are all neatly designed – at least once you get over the initial controls – and it’s a handy little system. The soundtrack is stunning, delivering haunting moments within a very subtle piano score that comes into the fray at just the right moments. Voiceover work is good, with some effective noises and grunts to show the pain and effort of survival. The cut scenes are well acted, even though they sometimes gave up on the voiceover and just put in text – which is a shame as it breaks the narrative up.
I would highly recommend giving The Long Dark a go, especially if you’re after something different and love the idea of a survival sim with an interesting story. There are three modes here – the story, survival mode where you can lose weeks trying to make your own stories, and challenge mode for the hardest Bear Grylls amongst you. Unfortunately, even after all its time in Preview, the game doesn’t feel quite finished yet with the story mode promising more to come. There are also bugs here and there, but I’m sure they will be ironed out in future patches.
But it’s a game that I will keep playing long after this review and I can’t wait for more content. Now excuse me as I need to purify some water, repair my shoes and cook a rabbit.