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REVIEW / The Long Dark (PC)

 

“A mysterious geomagnetic storm has brought your plane crashing down into the Northern Canadian wilderness.
How long can you survive?

This short, ominous message accompanied by one of several quotes from classic survivalist novels was all the instruction I received before I was thrown headfirst into the cold and unforgiving landscape of The Long Dark, Hinterland Studio’s new wilderness survival simulator currently in alpha testing. This beginning does a great job at setting the tone for the rest of your experience and making the game’s message abundantly clear – you’re on your own.

When you start in the game’s sandbox mode (the only mode currently available as The Long Dark is still in Alpha, Early Access), you are dropped at a random point on the map, at a random time of day, in random weather conditions. This means that you could start midday conveniently within view of a cluster of abandoned trailers like I did in my first playthrough, or be immediately subjected to a harsh snowstorm, at night, in the middle of an indistinguishable thicket of trees. I liked the “ready or not” feeling that the random starts provided, and it forced me to readjust my beginning strategy each time a started a new game. Regardless of your starting conditions though, your one and only goal is the same – keep yourself alive.

 

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I’ll take the “Pleasant Winter Morning” start, please.

 

In The Long Dark, your survival is influenced by four major factors: fatigue, cold, hunger, and thirst, which are indicated by status bars that show their severity. If your hunger stat is too high, you’ll begin to starve. If your character becomes fatigued, you’ll lose the ability to run. Each stat is fairly straightforward, and figuring out how to manage them is easy enough to pick up on your own. However, these stats aren’t visible in a HUD while you walk around, and are only visible when you bring up your survival menu, which requires your character to stop moving in order to access. While I enjoyed the less cluttered, more realistic display that the lack of typical “health bars” allowed, it quickly started to feel tedious having to stop my momentum exploring to check my stats, which had a habit of sneaking up on me otherwise. It should be noted that notifications do appear on your screen to inform you if your stats have reached dangerous levels, just so you don’t drop dead out of the blue.

To meet your character’s needs and ensure you stay alive for as long as possible, you’ll need to search for supplies, which is where the meat of this sandbox’s gameplay resides. Within the game’s sprawling map, which is made up of several distinct areas, there are numerous containers, frozen bodies, and abandoned buildings in which you can search for things like food, clothing, tools, and medical supplies. There’s a finite amount of supplies in each area, so exploration becomes essential to keeping yourself well-stocked. Some food and containers require tools to open, which can also be found throughout your environment.

 

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Abandoned cabins never looked so comfy.

 

During my playthroughs, I spent most of my time trekking from building to building, which I discovered tended to be more supply-rich than the outdoors, attempting to outfit myself with the best gear while constantly looking for food and water. The contents of each building is randomized every time you start a game, so I never got bored searching familiar buildings for new supplies. However, when I had played enough that I was familiar with the map, I found that the actual exploration became more monotonous than entertaining. The agonizingly slow walking speed of my character tempted me to run everywhere (which increases your fatigue), and aside from the occasional run-in with wolves (the game’s only hostile enemy), outdoor exploration was mostly uneventful. What little combat exists in the game feels detached and clunky in comparison to the game’s other mechanics, with wolf fights being little more than clicking your mouse repeatedly and the rare firearms available being very unwieldy. There are several core mechanics not available in the game’s current version that looked like they could help diversify the gameplay and make up for the game’s current shortcomings, but only time will tell.

In the moments I wasn’t absorbed in my search for life-saving materials, I found myself genuinely enjoying the amazing visuals in The Long Dark. The game’s design is highly-stylized, with looks similar to a graphic novel, which allows the game’s snow-covered setting to shine more so than it might have with realistic graphics. I especially liked the games smaller touches, like the line of footprints my character left behind in the snow, and the unsettling shining eyes of wolves at night. Certain visual elements have room for improvement (frozen bodies have a gumby-like quality to them), but they are easily overlooked when compared to the design as a whole.

 

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Nature is beautiful. And cold.

 

When playing The Long Dark, I was entertained. The concept was fresh, the survival management was engaging, and the visuals were constantly eye-catching. However, it didn’t take long for me to feel as though I had done all there was to do, and the shortcomings that I had initially barely noticed began to seem more and more significant. I’m optimistic about the game’s full release, which includes an entirely new story mode, but chances are I won’t be revisiting it until then.

 

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