OK, I’ll come clean! This is my first review. Ever. Ish…well, a good friend of mine told me once that I’m judgemental (rude). I do like to talk about games, play games, attempt to make games and follow the industry as it goes from strength to amazing strength. Something unprecedented and wonderful happened a few years ago and changed the game a bit (pun absolutely intended). That something was the rise of the indie developer. With an average-spec laptop, a copy of Unity, Unreal Engine or 2D code library and a restlessly creative mind; anyone can make games. This is why I’m here, reporting on that exciting growth, that carving of a new age of game development, feeding on the digital feast of creativity and innovation, pixel by delicious pixel.
I digress. This is a review of The Long Dark, a survival simulation by Hinterland Studio Inc. that they specifically boast contains “no zombies — only you, the cold and all the threats Mother Nature can muster.” It’s currently in Alpha stage and can be purchased on Steam Early Access now (release date 22/09/14).
What The Long Dark really is, is all my nightmares rolled into one: darkness, wolves attacking me in said darkness, noises in – you guessed it: the darkness and survival horror games. ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, new kid, you said this didn’t have zombies”- Ah yes, but this is horror, trust me.
Horror, lovely readers, is defined as an intense feeling of fear or shock – let’s run with that. I must admit, the shock I felt came immediately from the extremely high quality of the way this title is packaged. I download the Alpha from Steam, loaded it up and I’m met with a Triple-A quality intro sequence, detailing the awards and accolades the game has celebrated, whilst the camera sweeps over a beautifully stylised and highly polished 3D environment. The title screen is a lonely animated ‘Glad you’re not here’ postcard of a log cabin and some abandoned survival tools, leaning up against a fence, showcasing the game’s impressive particle-effect snowstorms occasionally.
I can already tell that this is an altogether more serious affair than your average indie adventure. As soon as the game loads, I’m dropped into the environment in first-person, lucid, breath visible. A sprawling and nicely stylized landscape of paper-white snow, hacked into by harsh rocky terrain and lined with North-American evergreens fills my view.
I start to walk around the environment, enjoying the satisfying crunch of snow underfoot. There are no tutorials and no dramatic cut scenes. I like that- there’s nothing more annoying than having my control relinquished every ten seconds to show a cut scene or teach me how to crouch under a felled tree, forced into the environment through tutorial level design. No, this is a simulation. I feel like someone’s just asked me the question: “what would you do if you survived a plane crash, thus stranded in the Canadian wilderness?” and this is me, playing out my answer from the safety of my armchair.
The UI (or lack of) is very pleasing, with a simple dot in the middle of the screen to inspect items with. I begin to look around, find some twigs and stumble across a lake. So far so good, there’s some huts up ahead. Suddenly, a sharp rasping breath cuts through my speakers and my character starts complaining that he’s cold. I’m instantly put on edge and frantically hit all the classic keyboard controls until I find Tab and see a slick status screen showing my stats and a wireframe of my body. ‘No afflictions’, reads the display. I relax slightly, but notice that the warmth bar is already down to half.
I press on and start raiding the huts for something to start a fire with, or something to wear. I find both. This game has already got me thinking in real-life mode. I’d want warmth, shelter, water and food. My life is saved by a scarf, some grape soda and a candy bar. I forage for some tinder, a book to burn and some matches – OK, this is the masked tutorial part.
When you hit the action button to pick up each item, you are met with a 3D model that you can spin around and view. I enjoy the stylized craftsmanship of each of the 3D assets before moving on and am reminded of a certain 90’s survival horror again. The items are stored in an inventory in the form of a backpack, which you will need to open regularly during play to refuel, equip lanterns to see in the dark – believe it, there’s plenty of that – and make decisions on what you want to drop when it eventually gets too heavy and you can’t run.
Speaking of running, I’ve barely started my first fire, causing my character to breathe a sigh of relief and the UI to very discretely show me a warmth bonus, when a sharp bark and whooping howls tear through the hum and crackle of the fire. Now it’s time to run! I frantically check through my recent pick-ups and equip a flare. My heart literally starts pounding as I peer out of the open-door fishing hut and see two wolves in the distance. This is it, this is the end. No. The life-saving silhouette of a cabin looms into my eye-line on the other side of the lake. I make a dash for it. A louder, shiver-inducing bark resonates from my left, much closer this time. In my panic, I light the flare and beeline for the cabin.
Somehow, I manage to make it (I picked medium difficulty, I doubt this would have been the case in hard) and I’m met with a dark, moody and sterile cabin. Some exploration has me searching a dead body. I’m still half-expecting it to spring to life, but move on when I’m happy it’s staying dead. I pick up a handy hatchet and proceed to hack up every piece of furniture in the place. At this point, I start to read the information discreetly etched onto the UI before I make the decision to break up the wood: everything has a calorie and time cost!
Long story, short. You die. Quite a lot. This game makes you really think about the stats. Warmth, thirst, hunger and fatigue (pretty much in that order) are what will kill you, with the added bonus of illnesses from drinking dirty water, wolf bites, hypothermia and injuries as trivial as twisting an ankle just by hopping off a rock. In a word, you feel ‘mortal’ playing this game.
The first time I faded, I had lit a fire, cooked some foraged meat (drastically reducing the time the fire had to burn) and decided to rest, not paying enough attention to my water-levels. The lack of UI is a key hindrance here, but the game does show how many calories it will use just to sleep – as well as a toasty warmth bonus – ahhh that’s better I think as I let my character hang his boots up after a long day of not dying. Little did I know that he was dying of thirst. I had ONE job: don’t’ die…and I forgot to even have a drink to fulfil it!
Upon waking, a heartbeat begins to pound and the horrible words “I’m not gonna make it” dance about my pricked-up ears. When my character wakes, his vision is blurred and slightly darkened around the edges. The frame updates less and less regularly as I start to run to the lake, in desperate hope of finding another soda on a dead body, or maybe a fishing hole to stick my face in. I get turned around, ending up on a railway track as images blur and sound fades, only heavy breathing and heartbeat audible. The screen darkens some more and the terrible phrase “You Faded out into The Long Dark” fills the screen. My hunched shoulders, as if released from invisible puppet-strings, relax and fall as I breathe a long sigh of relief from the pressure. Wow, that was intense.
If you don’t have much patience (like me at first) and you’re used to parkour-style leaping through game worlds, swinging large melee weapons into the skulls of hapless victim after victim, then you’ll really struggle with The Long Dark. However, if you take the time to analyse your surroundings, manage your equipment and your time well, you could have hours of challenging fun.
So we know all about the core mechanics here: exploration and status management. What else is there? Well, how about crafting? Once you find a crafting table, which are dotted around the indoor environments in the game, you are able to assess some of the seemingly useless items that you’ve picked up. You quickly find that the availability of items to craft cascades and expands the more you do it. Items like a hook and a line must be created separately and they combine to make fishing tackle. This provides some further depth to the ‘keep fed and watered’ mentality you are forced to adopt in order to survive your first day. Planning the combinations and where to gather the materials from can be fun; taking your time and double-checking is the key, however.
This game has a long way to go before it’s finished but the prospect of the incumbent story mode and additional environments make for a very promising, well rounded package. Multiplayer survival maybe?
Whether you’re a seasoned gamer or relative newcomer to the scene…whether it’s the cold, a wolf attack, or just a silly infection; one thing is for certain: You will fade out into The Long Dark.
Positives: Replay value, stunning visuals, atmospheric, intelligent sound design, crafting mechanics, realistic status effects
Negatives: Can be frustratingly punishing at times, boring in easy mode (even for a big wimp like me), white text on white (snow) background sometimes hard to read