The Long Dark is a first person survival game out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock huddles by the fire to bring you this review for Comiconverse.
The Long Dark is full of memorable moments, but they’ll be different for everyone. My first was early on. The premise: you are stranded on an abandoned Canadian island in deepest winter, your only goal – survival. I was exploring a deserted road, my efforts to find shelter thwarted by an angry wolf prowling the area. I’d retreated here. I was starving and dying of thirst. As the sun set, I desperately scoured the snowy woodlands for usable firewood, only a fire would prevent me from freezing to death during the night. As the sky turned pitch black, I prayed my last few matches would be enough to start the fire, and to my relief the curl of smoke became a proper blaze. I went to sleep, hoping the fire would last the night.
I woke up in pitch blackness. It was 3 in the morning, and I could hear howling wind. Snow blew past me. A blizzard. It had blown my fire out and the temperature had dropped to minus 30 degrees, I would freeze to death soon. It was too windy to light another fire. My only chance was to push on and try to find shelter before I succumbed to the cold. In the almost pitch black, I staggered into the snowy woodland. All I could see were the dark silhouettes of trees, endless snowbanks and raging snowflakes. The force of the wind made my steps slow. I wasn’t going to make it. I was completely lost. I would freeze out here in the cold and the dark. I staggered onwards, my vision starting to blur, my movements unsteady. Then, a miracle. Out of the blackness, a square shape began to emerge. Could it be a building? I got closer. It was a cabin of some kind. I stumbled inside. Warmth. An old loggers dormitory. Just above freezing. I fell into bed, and slept. I’d survived another winter night by the skin of my teeth. Tomorrow, I would need to find food and water, but for now, I was alive.
The Long Dark is a survival game set in the Canadian wilderness. A mix between Bear Grylls style survivalist skills and post-apocalyptic scavenging, the game has two main modes: Survival and Wintermute, a story mode. In Survival, there is no end-game, your only goal is to survive as long as possible. In Wintermute, the survival elements are the same, but they are drip-fed to you more slowly, teaching you the fundamentals first, and the storyline gives you tasks to fulfill and other characters to meet. It’s a good place to begin for new players, as this is a difficult game and there’s a lot to learn. Two long episodes of Wintermute are already out, with more coming in the future. There’s also a challenge mode set in Survival which gives you a specific task to meet for a shorter experience.
The world of the Long Dark is an attractive one. The snow-covered landscape full of woods, trees and abandoned settlements is rendered in an attractive pastel style. The sky is particularly pretty with some glorious sunsets and sunrises, purples and oranges bathing the land in a warm light. Starry skies and even the northern lights can bring nights alive, although you usually won’t want to be outdoors to enjoy them. The audio really adds to the wild atmosphere. Footsteps crunch in the snow, in shelter you can hear the muffled sounds of a blizzard raging outside, trees crack as they warm up in the morning, your backpack rattles and clicks depending on what you’re carrying inside. It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into this world.
Survival is based on four main factors: warmth, hunger, thirst and fatigue. These are represented by meters on the screen. Let any of them fall to critical levels and your health starts to drain. If it reaches zero, it’s game over. Additionally, you can catch illnesses, die from blood loss or from a host of other maladies.
First off is warmth. Good clothing helps stave off the cold, but even during a sunny day, temperatures can plummet to freezing levels. Finding decent clothes is a top priority. Interiors are usually warm enough to survive, but any time outside will leave you needing a fire to warm yourself back up. If you’re outside at night, a fire is essential to prevent freezing to death. When making forays into the wilderness, the cold is always your enemy. Weather conditions can change rapidly – blizzards and wind making it even colder. You may have to scurry for shelter to build a fire and wait out a storm. Making fires requires firewood, which you have to scavenge around the environment, or you could hack down furniture in abandoned buildings. To start a fire you need matches or some other method, and starting a fire takes time and doesn’t always succeed. You stare at the embers as a bar fills – which sounds boring but can be very tense if this fire might mean the difference between life and death.
You can find food in old settlements, but anywhere else you’ll have to hunt for it. Rabbits can be stunned by rocks or trapped, but you’ll need to find them first. Wolves and deer are harder to kill but yield much more meat. If you find ice fishing huts and have a fishing line, you can fish. Some plants are edible too. Catch game and you’ll need to spend time harvesting the meat, but you can also get hides and guts, used for crafting clothing or tools. Meat has to be cooked on a fire or you risk food poisoning. It also emits scent which predators can detect, so walking around with raw meat is a recipe for disaster. Starvation is usually what forces you out into the wilds. A rabbit will only last you half a day. Often, your biggest worry is where your next meal is coming from. Thirst is simpler – find canned drinks or just melt ice and boil it – of course, you’ll need a fire to do so and it takes time. As you walk around or do energetic tasks, your fatigue drains – more so if you are injured or sick. When it gets low, you move slowly and can collapse – the cure, a good rest.
Initially in both the survival and story modes, just keeping on top of these needs is a full time job. You’ll head out into the wilderness hoping to find food sources and abandoned settlements where you can scavenge supplies. In the longer term, you can craft tools or find useful kit and weapons to make day to day survival easier. In survival mode, you have skills which improve over time, such as fire lighting or fishing. You can only carry a limited amount, so making somewhere a temporary home base is usually a good idea, a place of safety like an old house where you can leave gear, somewhere you can sleep or make a fire free from danger. But everything decays over time – food, clothes, tools. Eventually, you’ll have to push further afield to survive.
The environments in the Long Dark are large and include rugged coastlines, forests and snowy mountains. They are interconnected, so in survival mode and to a lesser extent, story mode, you can move between them. Because travel time is slow – you can only walk or run (which burns more energy), and day to day survival takes up time, exploring is time consuming and requires thought. Heading into the unknown is the greatest adventure, especially if you’re under pressure. There is a basic map which gets filled in as you explore, but you’ll mostly rely on your own memory and navigation skills to find your way around. Points of interest such as settlements, huts, caves, watchtowers, lakes are liberally spread around the levels, meaning there’s a good chance that you’ll find something during your explorations. Levels are preset, but there are enough of them that it isn’t too much of an issue. In survival mode, items are randomly distributed through the levels each game, meaning you won’t get the same experience twice.
Aside from your survival needs, there are other hazards in the environment. The weather is unpredictable, although if you keep an eye on the sky you may be able to foretell a bad weather front coming in. Blizzards can last for days and force you into shelter, wind slows you down and lowers the temperature, thick fog can make exploring hard or even get you lost. The wildlife is the other big threat. Wolves are your main opponents. They’ll often attack on sight and if attacked you can suffer serious wounds – you’ll bleed out without bandages. They are drawn to your scent especially if you’re carrying meat, and will even track you – which when I first saw it was an amazing moment. They are usually afraid of fire and loud noises, so fires, flares or guns can scare them off temporarily. The sound of growling can induce panic as you scramble to produce a torch or run for shelter. Bears are huge and deadly – mess with a bear and you’re likely to end up dead or seriously injured, so staying well clear is usually the best advice. Raise the difficulty and you’ll have more hostile animals to contend with. Going outside brings with it the constant threat of becoming the hunted.
There is a tremendous attention to detail in The Long Dark which helps to reinforce the realism it’s aiming for compared to other survival games. There are many examples. Wind direction changes, but if you can find a protective wall or rock against the wind, you still might be able to start a fire in the temporary shelter on the other side. When animals are wounded they run off, but leave blood spots in the snow that you can follow to find their corpse. You leave your own footprints which can be a lifesaver if you get lost in a blizzard or fog. Stay cold for too long, or fall through thin ice into water and you’ll catch hypothermia which can lead to death. Storms bring down more firewood from trees. Predators hunt deer and rabbits. Crows fly in circles in the sky above corpses, revealing their locations. These kind of details all add to the realism and provide extra depth to the core gameplay.
This depth came about from the game’s long time in Steam Early Access. Another sign of the game’s incremental development process is that it’s a bit rough around the edges. The console release was plagued with bugs and even crashes, most of which are now fixed. But on all systems there are still minor graphical issues, weird animal AI behaviour and a general lack of polish, particularly in the story mode. And on that subject, Wintermute is enjoyable and provides some welcome direction and set pieces, but on the flipside feels restrictive compared to survival mode, and reuses survival levels too. There’s also a few too many compulsory fetch quests which feel chore-like – and times when you end up in the bizarre situation when you’ve stocked someone’s larder but are starving to death yourself.
Overall though, The Long Dark is a triumph. At times it may feel a little grindy, but there’s always a level of tension thanks to its finely tuned systems never letting you get complacent. Survival here is tough and challenging, but extremely rewarding. The finite resources and item decay forces you ever onwards, whilst weather and wildlife mean exploration is never predictable. You need to plan and adapt to circumstances as they occur. In this world, even the best seeming situations can turn fatally dangerous in an instant. The question is, how long can you stave off the inevitable? And don’t forget the excellent atmosphere and sense of isolation in the Canadian wilderness. It’s a compelling, immersive package. The Long Dark is to my mind the best, and purest, survival game of all time.