Somewhere between the despairing realism of Into the Wild’s final third and The Grey’s more absurdist moments of extreme lies Hinterland Studio’s largely brilliant survival sim, The Long Dark. After what feels like years of Early Access success on Xbox One, this incredibly stressful, extremely unforgiving but consistently compelling experience finally releases as a full-fledged product – albeit one with a few bits still missing.
For anyone who has tried the game out on Early Access, the full release won’t hold too many surprises, but as somebody who struggles with ‘make your own fun’ gameplay, the inclusion of a narrative-driven single player story mode turns what was previously a bit of a curio into something much closer to essential. Some will inevitably prefer the more freeform Survival Mode (which is included alongside an all new and brutally difficult Challenge Mode), which in fairness, is a purer, more expansive experience than the purpose-driven Story Mode, but I for one always appreciate the dangling carrot provided by a defined and well-crafted narrative.
With you spending most of your time stuck in the middle of nowhere, that narrative is invariably rather limited, but it’s amazing what a little bit of storytelling can do for a previously unstructured experience (well, unstructured beyond trying to survive I suppose). Whether it be running into one of the games’ rare NPCs or simply unlocking clues towards the global disaster that led to your plane going down in the wild wilderness of northern Canada, The Long Darks’ Story Mode is both captivating and incredibly robust. Each episode will take you well over 10 hours, and with three more to come in the not too distant future, it’s certainly not a game short on content. Of course, the Survival Mode can essentially be played forever, but even if that’s not your scene, the Story Mode alone is well worth the price of admission.
The thing is, as enjoyable as The Long Dark is, many will invariably be put off in the first few hours. Whether it be Survival Mode or Story Mode, it’s the first few hours that are the most brutally unforgiving. With little to point you in the right direction, death is often the ultimate outcome. Whether it be infection, huger or the cold, death is never far away in those early moments. Sure, there is the more traditional threat of wolves (wolves who will follow you to the ends of the Earth), but it’s those non-traditional killers (non-traditional in a video game sense of course), the kind of things that you don’t usually have to deal with in video games, these are the things likely to catch you (and kill you) unawares in the games’ opening minutes and hours.
The game does become more adventurous as you settle in, but those initial moments are about survival and little else. With gear and equipment essentially non-existent at the start, it will come as something of a shock to gamers accustomed to feeling empowered. Stick with it though – really, if you struggle at the start, stick with it as the pay-off is one of the most unique and absorbing experiences to be found on Xbox One. That element of simply surviving is always there, but it does become easier as you come to terms with your surroundings.
“Easier” is a relative term of course (this is a difficult game from start to finish), but as you become accustomed to the crafting, and of the dangers of the world around you, The Long Dark becomes a more manageable and enjoyable experience. It’s a bit too bleak to call it an adventure, but as you build up your awareness, abilities and equipment, it definitely becomes more exciting.
While it looks like a first person adventure / walking simulator at a glance, at its core, The Long Dark is all about hunting, crafting and resource management. You can get into scraps here and there (you can take on a wolf if you’re feeling brave), but for the most part, it’s about building up your resources so that you can survive that little bit longer.
No one element of the game is particularly complex or difficult, but with items scarce and death around just about every corner, survival becomes about using the resources at your disposal in the smartest and most efficient way possible. Essentially, it’s a game about decisions – some tougher than others. Yes, it would be much easier and safer to steer clear of that wolf, but if you did manage to kill it, not only will it inevitably stop following you (death does seem to slow wolves down), but it will also mean that you’ll be able to takes its hide for warmth and its meat for food. That sounds great of course, but yeah, if things don’t go to plan, that’ll be you dead….again.
As addictive as the resource management-centric gameplay might be though, it’s often the world itself that makes The Long Dark such a resolutely special experience. While stylised, its visuals are akin to a slightly more realistic (and snow covered) version of Firewatch. Everything is unequivocally of our world, but an array of visual flourishes and stylistic choices make for more aesthetically interesting environments. Despite its very realistic take on survival, this exaggerated visual style helps to bring the game to life in a way that hyper-realistic visuals might have failed to do. The same is true of the games’ score which is subtle but often perfectly timed (much in the same way as Breath of the Wild).
It won’t be for everyone, and the first few hours are likely to scare off many, but honestly, if you’re new to the genre, stick with it. Hinterland Studio’s, The Long Dark might be brutally difficult, but it’s also exceptionally addictive and quite unlike anything else on home consoles. Its representation of an unforgiving wilderness, its impeccable systems and its outstanding art style all combine to create a genuinely memorable experience, one that will likely stick with you long after you put the controller down. It’s arguably not quite finished (even after all these years in Early Access), and there are a handful of technical issues to contend with, but these are minor issues with what is an otherwise fantastic survival simulator.
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