Every now and then in this line of work – just occasionally – I get to play something that’s not only a great game, but a little bit special. Something that even though it might not be perfect, has such vision and identity that I’m able to overlook the technical flaws and see the bigger picture in what’s been created. The Long Dark is one of these games.
This episodic and very unforgiving tale of real world survival set against the backdrop of a harsh Canadian Winter is about as perfect a demonstration of developer passion as you’ll ever see. Even in receiving my review copy, I was forwarded a letter from the creative director, offering me advice on how to get the best snapshot of the whole experience before I put my thoughts to paper. This is a developer that doesn’t want their best ideas to be missed through rushed play time and flippant reviewing.
With that in mind, I ensured that I played through both of the two episodes currently available of the five part Wintermute story, which equated to the hefty play time of around 20 hours. I also dedicated another 10 hours to playing through TLD’s open survival mode.
In Wintermute, you play as Will Mackenzie, a Canadian bush pilot situated about as far from civilisation as any working man can be. Suitably bearded, stocky and red faced, he sits solemnly in his office, listening to the punishing weather howl outside. What led him to such isolation, we’re not made immediately aware, but a brief and awkward introduction to an ex-wife named Astrid gives us some indication. Astrid demands that Mackenzie fly her to a remote village on the island of Great Bear in the middle of this catastrophic storm to deliver a mysterious parcel without so much as an explanation. After some middling conversation between Will and Astrid in which it’s allured to that it wasn’t simply a lack of love that caused the separation, the journey is cut short by some sort of electromagnetic interference; a phenomenon currently unexplained, but likely linked with Astrid and her mysterious mission. The result of this is where we pick up the game as the player, with the plane grounded and beyond repair, Mackenzie wounded, and Astrid nowhere to be seen.
The first episode plays out like one very lengthy, but well integrated tutorial. The opening segment has you stumbling around your crash site, introducing you to the core mechanics of the game – how to scavenge for supplies, eat, drink, sleep, heal, build fires – everything you need to survive your first hour in their most basic form. Once you’re able to tick off all the tutorial’s boxes, new areas will open up to allow you to begin exploring, developing all these core themes – not only must you ensure that you eat, but you must consider what you’re eating in order to stay healthy. If you’re injured, not only must you ensure you deal with the immediate physical damage, but you must also consider secondary complications such as infection. Not only must you ensure that you’re clothed, but you must also take into consideration the condition of that clothing; how degraded is it? Is it wet? How much does it weigh? The game is deeply complex, and requires you to constantly monitor your vital signs, anticipating how your state of hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, general state of health and much, much more may be making it harder for you to survive.
What TLD does exceptionally well is create thick, tense atmospheres. The sound team have done a fantastic job of recreating the most subtle of audio detail. The crackling of bubbling fat as venison cooks over an open fire, the distant snarling of wolves amidst a blistering snow storm, and even the crisp sound of snow crunching underfoot as you trek your way across across an open expanse of perfect, brilliant whiteness. These sounds have all been designed to have a psychological effect on you as the player, leaving you feeling hungry, cold, alone, in awe or just plain scared, and are just a few examples of when I had to stop, close my eyes and allow the game to completely absorb me. Invariably, as in real life, taking note of everything you hear in the wilderness will be key to your survival. A suitably beautiful score made up of piano and strings also accompanies you on your journey, and adds to the contemplative hopefulness (and at times hopelessness) of your wanderings.
“I had to stop, close my eyes and allow the game to completely absorb me.”
Episode 2 I found didn’t have quite as much impact on me. We’re introduced to a second NPC who has us doing very similar item gathering missions to those we were asked to do in the first episode. In the first, it made perfect sense as we were undergoing an initial tutorial period, but TLD keeps this tutorial period going on throughout a significant portion of Episode 2 which I found very irritating in that it was teaching me to do things that I had long ago worked out how to do myself, and they weren’t small tasks either – in episode 2 the map is MUCH larger. This results in us making extremely long journeys to collect the items, and then covering that same ground again to return them. The distance itself isn’t an issue. I think the problem lies in that you’re given a very clear target destination at all times, and when you know what you’re trying to reach then the journey to get there becomes so much more laborious than when you’re just exploring for the sake of discovery. There were lots of areas that I probably would have veered off and explored had I not had a destination, which due to the time taken to traverse the map, I always tried to ensure was the most direct route. Despite this, episode 2 still continued to wow me on the visual front. Much more colour is introduced as the Aurora Borealis makes an appearance, covering the pristine landscape with hues of green, purple and blue – Just when I thought it couldn’t get any prettier.
And this is why The Long Dark’s Survival mode is in my eyes where the game truly blossoms. With no set mission parameters other than to survive for as long as possible, I found myself not worrying about what direction I was going in, and instead only focused on exploring these beautiful landscapes for what they were, giving myself more time to experience and appreciate them. I focused on preparing myself for nightfall and the punishing cold that came with it, trying to ensure I was well equipped enough to deal with predators, and stocked enough to remain healthy. This to me is what survival games are all about – a stand off between Life and Death; the desperate final battle that we all face before we’re dragged into the long dark.
“This to me is what survival games are all about – a stand off between Life and Death; the desperate final battle that we all face before we’re dragged into the long dark.”
Yes, I must admit there are a few problems. There may be too many fetch quests. There were a few instances when the sound didn’t sync up correctly or cut out completely. There were a few odd design choices such as making half of the dialogue voice acted and half of it subtitled, and I do think some of the editing was a little strange at times, especially with regards to the way in which the game transitioned from gameplay to cut-scene, which I found very jarring – In one instance when I’d been exploring a very quiet, solitary cave, I emerged from the other side to a sudden, intense and noisy cut-scene which due to the nature of the sounds in question, realistically I would have been able to hear well into the depths of the cave.
However, as I stated in the opening of this review, The Long Dark may not be perfect, but I don’t want to focus on the negatives too much because there’s so much to enjoy, and I’m happy to overlook these smaller teething issues in light of that. This is the first project published by Hinterland Studio, and is fresh out of early access. It’s ambitious, in-depth without being confusing, demanding, passionate, and faithful to a part of the World they obviously appreciate so much. It provides a truly original apocalyptic themed mystery without straying too far from reality, and certainly without the need for any fucking zombies. What I loved about this game more than anything was that it gave me time to myself to think, as any great walk does away from the busyness of life, and it felt entirely emulative of that real world experience.
“[The Long Dark] provides a truly original apocalyptic themed mystery without straying too far from reality, and certainly without the need for any fucking zombies.”
The combination of thoughtfully put together elements, particularly in terms of the symbiosis of sound and visuals has made this one of my most enjoyed experiences of 2017. If Wintermute can just tighten its story a little, and provide tasks more satisfying and diverse in nature than it currently mostly consists of, I’ve no doubt that it could be just as enjoyable as the Survivor mode which currently takes centre stage. I imagine this will be a common theme in audience response, and as long as Hinterland Studio try to take some of this feedback on board, I’m confident that the sequential episodes have more than a decent chance of being phenomenal.
Pixel Crashers will be covering each episode as it’s released, so be sure to check back for our thoughts on episode 3 soon.
The Long Dark is available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Linux and Macintosh operating systems.
Check out the trailer below