Me, Myself and I – The Long Dark (Early Access) Review
Disclaimer: The Long Dark is currently in Early Access, and is a work in progress. This review evaluates the current state of the game, with a focus on the Sandbox mode.
Ever since Minecraft and DayZ hit it big there has been a boom in the number of games sporting an ‘open-world survival experience’. An overwhelming number of these games focused on worlds ripped apart by zombies and various other life-ending plagues. A quick glance at Steam shows that these post-apocalyptic survival simulations are the “in thing” with developers, AAA and indie alike. The Long Dark, though, it breaks the mould and does something daring. You’ll catch no sight of zombies in its barren arctic tundra. The only cause of death in this game is complacency. The hills you climb, the water you drink, and the wolves that stalk you in the trees could well be the end of you if you aren’t careful.
The Long Dark is the first title from Hinterland Studio, whose team is composed of a number of veteran developers from various AAA studios. Now in Early Access, it offers a realistic survival experience without the various fictional additions that other developers have opted to include. It’s just you, the snow and the wolves.
The game currently includes a sandbox survival mode, giving you the choice of either a male or female protagonist. An episodic story mode is promised in future, along with an accompanying story. For the time being, we decided to prepare ourselves for what is to come with the survival sandbox.
Our female protagonist awoke in a vast wasteland of snow, with nothing but trees surrounding her. The cold air fogged her breath as we began walking with no sense of direction or where we were going. The Long Dark affords the player no mercy and thrusts your straight into the action, in a confusing daze. You’ll get no fancy electronic devices to contact help, and no GPS to find your way either. A catastrophic geo-magnetic disaster has rendered all electronic equipment useless and you will have to adapt.
A tiring, aimless walk eventually brought us to a small wooden cabin where we decided to set up camp. Fortunately, the cabin was well stocked with enough cans of grape soda and pork and beans to keep our energy up and the hunger down. You’ll need to keep an eye on various statistics as you play and make sure that you are never too hungry, thirsty, cold, tired or injured. Bringing any one of these into the danger zone can have dire consequences and could cost you your life.
The ultimate goal of the sandbox is to become self-sustaining by finding enough tools and resources to keep your belly full, your body warm and your fire blazing. The current map is medium in scale but packed with interesting buildings in which you’ll find items to help keep you alive, such as knives, kindling, and a rifle. The Long Dark will also feature a crafting and salvage system in future.
After a short period we had amassed a decent food supply and fire materials to keep us warm. The trick to staying alive is knowing when its safe to venture out into the wilderness. The arctic can be a harsh mistress, and wading out in the middle of a snowstorm is not advised. You might end up short on food, water and kindling but staying indoors will at least keep you alive.
Hinterland clearly took influence from the likes of Shelter and The Walking dead, with their use of a basic polygonal, cel-shaded art style. The tundra isn’t going to win any awards for beauty, but the surroundings feel undeniably cold and barren. Roaming deer offer a glimmer of hope, and a tasty meal, that is soon shattered by the menacing presence of the black wolves as they skulk around the trees.
The foreboding solitude is compounded by the mutterings of your character. Whether they are bitching about the ankle they just sprained or how cold it is, you will always know where you stand. These audio cues serve as a reminder to keep checking your health statistics; so long as you don’t hear the dreaded “I am not ready to die” you should be fine.
Weary, hungry and cold we eventually dragged ourselves to what looked like an abandoned power station. A treasure trove of items was strewn around the area, awarding us with lighter fluid, food, and fresh warm clothes. A locked safe sat in the corner of one of the rooms, like a square metal temptress, but without the combination we would never find out what lay inside…or would we? Using skills we had acquired from spy movies, we began turning the lock and listening for any movement inside. This technique proved effective and we eventually cracked the combination using nothing but our ears. Our reward? Some more grape soda and a can of pork and beans.
At the end of a long day we tucked into our pork and beans and washed them down with the soda we had “acquired”. It had become dark and stormy since we first entered the power station, leaving us no option but to sleep on the cold grey floor inside a sleeping bag. This arrangement was far from ideal, but at least indoors we would be in relative safety and warmth. Or would we?
Suddenly and violently we were shaken awake by a rabid dark demon dog. Mercilessly we pounded at the left mouse button, trying in vain to shake it off, watching the health counter tick down. Gradually the screen faded to black and we were no more. We had managed to survive just over 2 days. Our cause of death was not the wolf, rather, it was complacency. Further play revealed that we hadn’t quite explored the area thoroughly enough. Battered and beaten we began all over again, this time awaking near a deserted rail track, ready to avenge our fallen survivor.
The Long Dark is as atmospheric as survival simulators come, and it achieves this by turning its apparent weaknesses into strengths. The lack of companions, minimal but meaningful voice acting, sparse and gloomy surroundings and basic sound effects all play a significant role in making you feel vulnerable. It is the very epitome of the ‘less is more’ mantra. Hinterland opt not to overload your senses, instead they let you come to your own conclusions.
Venture out without equipment as the night rolls in and see for yourself.
The Long Dark is available on Steam.