The Long Dark is a first person, wilderness survival game. It launched as an Early Access title in 2014, but has since officially released – though it’s still not entirely complete. There are two main modes of play – Story and Survival. The Story mode is episode based, but only two of the planned six episodes are currently available. The Survival mode is a customisable sandbox where the goal is to simply stay alive as long as you can.
I began The Long Dark with its Story Mode. You play as Will, a pilot who crashes in the wilderness following some kind of natural ‘geomagnetic disaster’. Your ultimate goal is to track down your missing ex-wife, which means following her path through the wilderness whilst also trying not to die of thirst, hunger, the cold or angry wolves.
The first episode is essentially the ‘tutorial’ designed to teach you the basics of survival. It does a decent job of it, but there’s still a lot you have to figure out yourself via trial and error. Unlike the Survival mode, there are NPCs to interact with – one in each episode – and these give you additional missions and objectives you’ll need to complete in order to progress.
The first episode feels a little rough, and I encountered a few bugs mostly to do with item interactions not triggering when they should. The second episode is a little more polished, with 3 connected maps and more compelling story elements. A lot of the NPC quests do devolve into basic ‘fetch me X amount of Y’ bullshit, but episode 2 does add some fun ‘set piece’ style sequences in the form of a bear hunt and your final escape through a dam.
The integration of the story and missions into what is primarily a sandbox focused title doesn’t always work, but episode 2 makes some smart choices to balance this out, and hopefully they’ll continue to learn and improve upon this balance as further episodes are released.
In all, I played the Story mode for about 20 hours, so it’s a pretty substantial piece of content, even incomplete – although it should be noted that a lot of that time is spent travelling or fetching stuff. By its nature, The Long Dark is a very slow paced game, so it’s easy to clock up a lot of hours without much really going on.
Many will consider the fully customisable Survival mode to be the real meat of the title, but a part of me prefers a more objective focused adventure to just survival for the sake of it. It’s an impressive mode, no doubt, with so many difficulty settings to choose between, plus an extensive range of custom options, but I’m not sure how long it can really keep me engaged.
Like so many survival games, once you get yourself established with a regular supply of heat, water and food, you fall into a repetitive pattern. You have to, really, because it’s the most ‘efficient’ way to play and survive. The mode uses a perma-death system, so taking risks isn’t exactly encouraged. It’s very enjoyable in the early stages, as you scavenge for supplies, tools and weapons, but becomes more of a monotonous grind as you progress.
Time, in many ways, is your most valuable resource. Everything you do requires time – eating, drinking, cooking, crafting and exploring. Managing your time is key to your survival. It can feel a little silly at times, as even basic actions take far longer than they really should.
Even with a decent axe, it can take up to 45 minutes of game time to break down a rickety chair, which in reality I could probably disassemble by hand in about 10 minutes. The way the game handles thirst and hunger can also feel a little . . . off. During one stretch of Episode 1, it seemed like I was eating five steaks a day and my guy was still complaining he was hungry – although I suspect this may have been a bug, because it seemed to settle down after hitting another story trigger.
As far as the general survival mechanics go, The Long Dark is fairly comprehensive and provides a compelling and enjoyable experience. It’s not striving for absolute realism, but to walk that fine line between realism and fun – and in that sense, it does a pretty damn good job. There are a few oddities – such as your inability to jump, or even climb over a tiny fence, but this may just be an engine limitation.
Wildlife has some terrible path finding, but it’s not a major issue. Graphically, its cartoon style doesn’t detract from the serious nature of the gameplay, and lends itself to some lovely environmental visuals.
Overall, The Long Dark is one of the few titles that’s emerged from early access in a more impressive state than it began. With regular updates and fixes, and what appears to be a good level of community engagement, it’s a great example of early access done right. Despite my concerns about the longevity of Survival mode, I am looking forward to the next Story episode to see where it goes.