If ever there were an award for most dramatic-sounding video game name, I think The Long Dark would most probably win. Having recently hit full release after 3 years in early access, I was stoked to get stuck into the game. I played an early build back in the day – when The Long Dark consisted mainly of a survival mode and a whole heap of promises. “How does it stack up now?” I hear you ask – let’s take a look.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of The Long Dark, it’s a post-apocalyptic survival game. Please don’t run away at the mention of the phrase “post-apocalyptic”. This game involves no zombies – it’s all about the decisions the player makes, and whether that will lead to survival, or a quick and cold death. The game is set in the wilderness of Canada – where a geomagnetic event has caused your plane to crash land. As a lone wolf in the winter, you’ll have to eke out basic supplies such as food, water and clothing. The player will also need to seek shelter in order to build a fire and keep warm. The Long Dark is brutal. That’s the harsh beauty of this game – survival is a real challenge. Before we talk about survival though, it’s worth mentioning that the game has a number of different play modes.
The story mode is sadly not worth checking out – it’s a badly written tutorial that just says “you’re hungry” and leaves you to figure it out. I get that the bulk of the game is about decision making, so if it spoon-feeds how to do everything then you won’t have much fun, but the story mode just feels a little slap-dash. There’s also a challenge mode where players will have a short amount of time to complete objectives.
Without a doubt however, the game really shines in survival mode. This is an open-ended environment where the only goal is to survive for as long as possible. With limited resources in the world, you will die at some point. How long is totally up to you however, as every decision in The Long Dark could be the difference between life and death.
The Long Dark is presented in a semi-cartoon-like graphical style, with crisp, clear and often haunting audio. The ambient environmental sounds have been nailed – from the whipping winds to the squawk of a bird in the distance. Many sounds such as these aren’t redundant, atmosphere-builders however. The presence of birds might signal an animal corpse on the ground for you to skin, or the cracking of sticks that says a wolf is stalking nearby. The voice acting in the game further adds to the sense of extreme isolation – as your character begs the fire to light, or complains of being too cold.
The game has tonnes of atmosphere, and sound is only one way the developers have effectively conveyed the reality of the wilderness. The game reminds me of the book and film ‘Into The Wild’, where Christopher McCandless went into the Alaskan wilderness to live a simple existence – simple it would not be however.
The danger in the Long Dark is constant – from starvation and thirst, to cold and the local wildlife, you will die and it’ll be frustrating. One of my biggest gripes with the game, is that it all boils down to time management – not necessarily resource management.
Tasks such as boiling water can be potentially deadly, as they lock you into an interface where you must wait until the task is complete. It’s incredibly frustrating because I’ve died countless times from starvation or thirst, whilst waiting for water to boil in front of me. It’s a shame, because the player is ultimately punished for spending a few seconds too long in the cold – making it a bit of a clinical experience, as opposed to being able to use pure human determination to push on through.
There are 4 levels of difficulty in survival mode, all with different focus points – for example, ‘Pilgrim’ is for the pensive explorer who wants a poetic experience, whereas ‘Interloper’ level is hardcore – full of wildlife that will hunt you down.
The addition of a UI wheel that allows for quick selection of items and constructs such as the bonfire, is pretty welcome on console. Having compared the PS4 and PC versions, I can confirm that this wheel is better suited to the console version, where button real estate comes at a premium.
The experience offered by the Long Dark is grim, contemplative, and thought-provoking. Despite its melancholy subject, the game is wonderfully presented with a real sense of danger, fear and longing for warmth. Picture fighting your way through a biting snow storm with no warm clothing and very little food or drink. You’re slowing down as hypothermia sets in, but then in the distance you see a looming shape coming closer. You’re edging towards a small shack with a chimney poking from the top – a fireplace inside. There are few more satisfying moments in gaming than the small mercies and glimpses of hope that The Long Dark throws at you. It’s kind of a morbid and sadistic way of enjoying games really.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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