Given the popularity of a spate of TV shows starring survival experts such as Bear Grylls, Ray Mears, and Mykel Hawke over the last few years, people have started to think that surviving on your own in the wilderness isn’t all that difficult. Some would say that productions (and I use that term loosely) like Survivor and Alone have even made it seem like getting by without ready-made food and soft drinks is almost glamorous. Well, The Long Dark is here to put it all into perspective, by providing as realistic and tough a survival experience as it can muster, where you must forage through frozen wastelands for every morsel of food and drip of water whilst finding ways to stave off the cold (and the wolves) during the long, dark nights.
Most players will start out with Wintermute, the game’s episodic story mode. After surviving a plane crash in the mountains, you start with the absolute bare minimum of supplies and must stay alive until you’re strong enough to climb out of the ravine in which you’re stuck. These few days serve as The Long Dark’s tutorial and while it does introduce some key controls and ideas, it generally does a poor job of setting you up to go out on your own. You’ll learn how to wantonly waste fuel and food – in fact, you’re required to do both to progress – in a manner you’d never do in the game proper, but you won’t be told anything about recovering health or the requirement for sleep. Of course, you won’t know that the instructions are incorrect until you do build up the strength required to wander out into the big wide world, but you’ll probably realise when you drop dead of hypothermia or starvation a few minutes afterward.
A Testing Challenge…
In developer Hinterland’s defence, there is an awful lot to learn about The Long Dark’s various systems and mechanisms, which provide impressive depth. Find a nice thick jacket in the snow and put it on without defrosting and drying it for example, and you’ll find that your temperature plummets. Try to light a fire in a blizzard and it’ll probably fade away before ever getting the chance to warm you up. Wander around with a bunch of venison in your pockets and wolves will be more likely to attack you. A lot of it is just common sense, but the sheer number of things that the developer has thought of covering means that there are times when your disbelief will be well and truly suspended.
Indeed, for a game with an almost complete lack of more traditional action, The Long Dark is an incredibly gripping and tense experience. Every decision you make really matters here, and not just in the short term. Often, your slow trudge towards an icy (or painfully bloody) death can be traced way back to when you were on the horns of a dilemma about what to do an hour or more before. When your torch has burned out and you’re searching in almost pitch darkness for somewhere to hole up and get out of a blizzard, your heartbeat slowing as your steps become more and more laboured, your vision blurring as you trudge towards the faint hope presented by a cabin in the distance that you absolutely know you won’t reach before the final curtain beckons…it’s genuinely stunning.
The same feelings can be found in game’s other modes. Free-form survival was what made up the entirety of the game when it launched on Steam Early Access in 2014 and this sandbox mode is as enjoyable as it was then. There’s no goal, other than to survive for as long as you can. Some might say that sounds like it could get old fast but to the game’s credit, it doesn’t. Just the seemingly basic act of staying alive for another 24 hours is as tough on your twentieth day as it was on your first, and that keeps things compelling. For those that do need a little bit more of something to aim for though, a Challenge mode is also included. The gameplay is largely the same as in Survival, though you actually have something to work toward. With 15-20 hours of story, another 15 (at least) in Challenge, plus whatever you put into Survival mode, there’s a lot of playing time to be had for those who are bitten by the bug. And that’s before you consider the three free extra episodes that are coming for the campaign mode which at launch, only consists of two.
The Long Dark Review – Far From a Perfect Storm (PS4)
…Which Required More Testing
What will undoubtedly get in the way of that addiction though, is the general instability of the product. If you die in the story mode, there’s about a 1-in-3 chance that the game will crash to the dashboard when you try to go back to the last checkpoint or load your last save. That’s not going to affect Survival or Challenge of course, since they feature permadeath. However, crashes that do affect those modes can be found when opening doors or travelling between areas. To be blunt, any time the game tries to load something substantial like a new room, your saved game, or an entire new piece of the map, you could find yourself being dumped out to the PS4 home screen.
Elsewhere, auto-checkpoints (there’s no manual save to be found) seem to love getting you stuck between a rock and a game-restarting hard place in terms of supplies. That’s if you don’t get actually stuck between a rock and a hard place due to the lead character’s inability to jump or climb outside of preset scaling points. Those without the vision of a hawk on a clear day will surely not enjoy the fact that Hinterland have decided to make the aiming reticule a single tiny white dot either, in a game that takes place almost exclusively on snow. In a blizzard. During the wintertime.
You’ll find that you generally have to select your matches or torch twice from the command wheel, as the game will periodically decide to entirely ignore you. That’s not handy when you’re trying to light a torch to scare off a wolf (they hate fire, apparently) even though AI issues mean that the likelihood is that they’ll completely ignore the fact that you’re waving a blazing stick of death in front of you and try to eat your face regardless. If that’s not an unfair way to die, how about when the command wheel decides – for no reason at all – that you weren’t trying to select one of the upper options and instead were trying to exit away from it (despite you still holding the L1 button down) and walk directly into a campfire? All you wanted was a snack, but now you’ve got third-degree burns that will likely end up killing you when they get infected and your legs fall off. Those scorch marks aren’t going to come out of those sweet jeans you found, either. Great.
If it sounds as if I’m overly frustrated with The Long Dark, it’s because I am. The sheer number of times that it hints at being a special game that entirely dominates every single survival-based title that has come before it is staggering. But for every one of those times, there’s another time where it’s broken, bugged, or just plain poorly thought-out. If the development team patches up those bugs and tweaks things here and there, it’s no exaggeration to say that this could be a must buy that reaches the top end of the scoresheet. The fact that it gets the score that it gets stands as testament as to just how enjoyable the game can be and often is in the face of a veritable snowstorm of issues and imperfections.
The Long Dark review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.