Let’s Review: The Long Dark (Early Access)

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As we all know, independently developed survival-based games are very few and far between these days. Well, Hinterland Studio’s The Long Dark is here to fill that gaping void.

Okay, but sarcasm aside, I’ve been interested in The Long Dark since shortly after it hit Steam and just the other day I managed to pick it up as part of the Summer Sale, thereby breaking my early access rule. My early access rule is pretty important to me, and actually breaking down and buying an early access game is a pretty big deal, personally.

But I bought it. And I played it. And I liked it. A lot. I’m pretty universally shite at survival games, and met my first death at just under two days, when a wolf that I had previous scared away twice, came back and ate my face off. But it was the journey that counted, however short and cold it was.

Bear in mind with this review, that the game is still in early access and features I talk about here might have completely changed or have been removed completely by the time the game meets its “real” release. According to the Steam store page for the game, updates from the developers seem quite frequent, which is a great sign because continued support is my biggest worry when it comes to buying a game that is essentially unfinished. The game as of now is currently missing its story mode and the only gameplay available is the open ended sandbox mode. This mode comes in three difficulties, which is always a nice touch.

The sandbox game mode first asks the player to choose a gender for their character, which seems to affect nothing other than the character’s voice, as we never see them in the third person and any biological differences between sexes are ignored. Again, nice touch, but the female character is voiced by Jennifer fucking Hale so why would you ever choose anything else. If you ever wanted to know what Commander Shepard did when she wasn’t banging space babes, it was apparently eating dog food in the Canadian wilderness.

Sandbox mode starts with you as a pilot, having crashed your plane after some kind of magnetic storm that will apparently be explained in the upcoming story mode. For now we’ll just say it was Reapers.

From there, your goal is to not die.

The survival mechanics in The Long Dark are pretty complex, but not so complex that an idiot like me couldn’t understand them. You have to stay warm, rested, fed and quenched, and each of those things are tracked by bars on your tab screen. The coldness bar is rather uncomfortable to wrap one’s mind around, as it increases and turns red as you get colder, breaking about twenty years of mental conditioning dictating that RED == HOT. The tab screen also allows you to enter your inventory, light fires and lay down your bedroll and does not pause the game when opened, adding to realism, but feeding into one of my personal pet peeves in single player games. I think this game can be forgiven though, because if I were to be mauled by a wolf in real life I probably wouldn’t be able to rifle though my pockets that well either. Food is probably the most difficult thing to come by at first. Dried and preserved foods can be found spotted around but probably not anywhere in large quantities. Hunting doesn’t become possible until you dig up a weapon from somewhere and finding dead carcasses lying around is only a good strategy if you have a tool to remove the frozen meat. Food intake is not only tracked by a hunger bar but also by calories, which are gained and spent by various actions. The first aid system is extensive and there are multiple kinds of medicines for different kinds of afflictions, rather than a magic potion fix-all for everything, which I like a lot. Anti-biotics can’t do jack shit for internal bleeding.

So the mechanics of this game are very realistic, even on normal difficulty, without being too arcane to understand. The Long Dark probably fits the category of “easy to learn, hard to master” games. I always felt on edge while playing, never having enough food or warmth to be comfortable, so the difficulty balance seems right on the money at this stage in development.

Visually, the game is pretty great. Although not photorealistic, you are still kept immersed in the heavily stylized wilderness by the game mechanics themselves and the consistency of the visual style. There are some rather bad textures right now that I feel need replacing, but even those don’t break with the style. Even while lighting a fire and the camera zooms in on the wood you’re lighting, you can tell that the textures were handpainted, and something that the developers put a lot of  thought into. Meshes seem pretty low poly (not that there’s anything wrong with that) also, keeping in tone with the simplistic looking textures. Because of this the game may probably be playable at high settings on systems without powerful graphics cards. Although, according to the minimum specs listed on the Steam page, a rather mid-range CPU is required for the game, so you probably wont be playing The Long Dark on your grandmother’s system. Because the game has no real clock, time can only be determined by a vague UI element and the exterior lighting, which is lovely. There are a few graphical glitches, but those mostly just cause rocks in the distance to occasionally flicker or vanish and the game’s patch notes seem to indicate that the developers are aware of and actively working on these problems.

I couldn’t find many gameplay bugs. I did manage to have a little trouble getting fires to work as they should and had trouble getting them to warm me up despite practically standing on top of them. But I’m not quite convinced that that was not some part of the game mechanic that was poorly explained. Although the game was pretty easy to get the hang of, I do hope that the full release has a bit more guidance for new players.

The Good

  • Stylistically pretty.
  • Does not require even a mid-range GPU (as of right now)s.
  • Hard, but not too hard for people who suck at survival games (like me).
  • Multiple difficulty levels (for people who suck both more and less than me).
  • Jennifer fucking Hale
  • I got to eat dog food.

The Bad

  • Like all Early Access titles, you are paying for an unfinished game.
  • Limited procedural generation may make replay-ability an issue in sandbox mode.

When the game is eventually released I’ll probably review it again, as is only fair. I’m looking forward to the upcoming story campaign and most of the next review will probably be about that, with just a little bit about the changes made to sandbox mode. But so far the game seems pretty solid based on what has been released so far, and I don’t yet regret breaking my rule on not buying early access games.

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