Three years ago, The Long Dark entered Early Access and began its length journey towards the anticipated story mode, Wintermute. After what has felt like an eternity surviving solely in the game’s Sandbox mode, a comparable experience to other survival titles cluttering the digital landscape, the game has escaped Early Access and we are finally able to acquaint ourselves with the narrative aspect. Unlike its competition, Wintermute looks to provide The Long Dark a standout feature to separate it from the masses and revitalize this overplayed genre. The question is, has it succeeded in this venture?
The answer to that question can only be provided in part at this time. Wintermute may have finally arrived, but it is not whole. The full story will consist of five episodes. For now, we have access to the first two of those episodes, Do Not Go Gentle and Luminance Fugue. This apocalyptic tale revolves around bush pilot Will Mackenzie and his ex-wife Astrid Greenwood as things go awry when their plane, and all other technology for that matter, loses power following a geomagnetic flare. As is common with powerless planes, the aircraft quickly plummets to the snow-covered landscape of the Great White North, specifically Great Bear, and crashes.
Episode One manages to get things moving by having the player tend to Will’s wounds as he recovers from the wreck, lost and disoriented. Unfortunately, Astrid is nowhere to be seen and the biting cold keeps the player from journeying out in search right away. The story between these two manages to provide enough of a baseline to give the player a sense of purpose, but it is not beyond anything you may have experienced before. At the very least, the cutscenes are expertly crafted with stunning art and commendable voice talent. The two main characters are brought to life by Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale, who played male and female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.
Navigating the opening area that is set ablaze and littered with debris, The Long Dark begins drip-feeding feeding the player the base systems — fatigue, hunger, thirst, temperature, and health condition (injury and illness) — and it becomes clear how time-intensive overall management will be moving forward. For some, this may slow down the pace too much. In fact, anyone who has played the game prior to its full release might see the added campaign mode as a glorified tutorial to prepare players for the long haul that is the Sandbox mode. However, the mounting drama and slow burn of the transpiring events definitely have their appeal and are worth pushing through.
The numerous systems in The Long Dark are not unlike other survival games, as they demand regular attention and maintenance. Players will quickly become familiar with resource gathering and Will’s ever-changing status. Learning how to create a campfire and which plants harness healing characteristics for sprains are presented in the opening moments. Step by step, players are pushed from one mechanic to the next until the game sends them out into the more hostile environments. Early on, players are taught to stun rabbits with thrown stones, grab their limp but living bodies, and break their neck so that they may obtain their crucial meat. Staring these fluffy animals in the eyes as this all transpired was unsettling, but it also drove home the point of what unsavory encounters Will needs to contend with in order to survive. And having adorable animals peer into your soul before committing a dark deed is just the beginning of it all.
Alongside the unforgiving weather, other dangers lurk in Canada’s wilderness. Wolves are an ever-present threat, stalking Will and leaving him with nasty wounds should they get close. Their numbers have swelled since the release of the story portion, likely to induce consistent paranoia and fear compared to their more scarce presence in Sandbox. The predators’ determination has also seen a boost, causing them to hunt the player relentlessly if refuge can’t be found or a weapon isn’t handy. The encounters are definitely tense, but the consistency of them can make for the run-ins to stray into irritable territory.
Regardless of whether you are attempting to lose a persistent wolf or simply trying heat up Will’s core temperature, every action in The Long Dark takes considerable time. Sadly, nearly everything done in-game is presented as a circular progress bar, which fills at a snail’s pace. The basic, and common, act of creating a fire consists of combining three parts — ignition source, tinder, and fuel. The quality of each component dictates the fire intensity and duration. Although you may have selected fine components, there is always the chance that the fire fails to start. Given the regular use of this resource for regulating body temperature and crafting purified water, going through the slow paced motions can become a bit monotonous. As it pertains to fire, an uncommon commodity comes in the form of accelerant, which reduces crafting time and increases the success rate, hastening this otherwise tiresome process at a cost.
None of this extends beyond the genre’s norms. Survival games often fall into tedium as you grind your way to subsistence through the time-consuming allocation of necessary items. Since Hinterland Studio is trying to break away from the mold with the intertwining narrative, some of these aspects become a bit more noticeable. The real reason behind the issue of the lacking animations may be due to the fact that every other facet of The Long Dark is so beautiful and detailed, only magnifying the focus on the lesser parts.
The Canadian wilderness that stars in the game is a sight to behold, both due to the chosen artistic style and the variety of conditions under which the areas are experienced. The damp, dark night lit lightly by scattered fires in the beginning soon gives way to a silent, sun-kissed winter wonderland void of nearly all sound but a few skittering critters and the whoosh of the breeze. The aurora, a phenomena tied to the First Flare incident that kicked everything off, is extraordinary eye candy. The world feels very much alive, even in its silence, whether it’s due to the weather taking a tempestuous turn or the wildlife quietly going about their business. It is in these moments that the gradual progression feels like a gift, allowing you to soak in these carefully constructed locations. That is, until you realize Will’s status is deteriorating.
By the time Episode Two wraps up, players can expect to log around 15 hours. Depending on a handful of factors, such as player skill and time spent resource gathering, this number could increase. Given that we are only playing two-fifths of the final narrative product, this is a solid chunk of gameplay time to be had. One could argue that a few menial fetch quests, lengthy backtracking segments, and the general completion time for actions all come together to artificially pad out this length a bit. Regardless, if the pacing doesn’t bog you down considerably, you might not care much.
The Long Dark takes an interesting approach to the bustling survival genre by adding a story-heavy campaign, and it looks to be paying off so far. The tale being told in Wintermute has not developed into anything wildly deep at this point and there has yet to be given much of a reason to care for the characters in play, but by the end of the second episode I still felt the desire to see everything through to the end. I needed to know how this unique apocalypse pans out, so the developer is clearly doing something right. The slow, methodical pacing may turn some potential players away, but those that can carry the weight of the game’s encumbering systems will find a gorgeous adventure worth the time investment.
8.0 Broken Bunnies Out Of 10
Release Date: August 1st, 2017
Available Platforms: PC, PS4
Publisher: Hinterland Studio Inc.
Developer: Hinterland Studio Inc
Disclosure: The Long Dark Was Provided By The Publisher For Coverage Purposes