Pre-game disclaimers are some of my favourite things in gaming; they’re always hilarious. Whether it’s Assassin’s Creed covering itself from allegations of racism, or even just warning of fictional use of names, I love them. The Long Dark has the best I’ve seen in years; an entire page of disclaimers about wolf behaviour, and warnings not to try and use the game as a survivalist guide.
The Long Dark strands you in the heart of the Canadian wilderness. No food, no water, and no weapons, with the only goal being to survive. I mean, thanks for the warning, Hinterland, but I was never going to try this at home.
Hinterland Studios have been working on this for a few years now, since getting greenlit on Steam back in 2014. There’s no endgame in this sandbox survival simulator; it’s over when you die, and not a moment sooner. Die, and you’re done; start again, and see if you can do better. If this sounds boring and repetitive, that’s because it is. But also, that’s kinda the point. This isn’t an adrenaline packed sprint, it’s a slow, methodical, marathon.
My first playthrough panned out roughly how I expect everyone’s to go. I spawn near a derelict dam, where I scrounge up enough discarded sodas, forgotten jerky, and decent winter clothes to make me feel fairly secure I wouldn’t die immediately. Leaving the dam I head south, and eventually find an abandoned cabin beside a frozen lake. Sweet, everything I need; a bed, a knife, a stove, a frozen dead guy and – oh wait what?
Yeah there’s a lot of this in The Long Dark; whatever’s gone down to make the world this way, it wasn’t fun. So anyway,I melt enough snow on the stove (and purify it) so I don’t die of dehydration, chow down on some stale jerky, and catch some z’s next to a frozen corpse. First day was a success.
The following morning I set out to investigate a nearby train tunnel, and am immediately faced with a wolf. Now as I’ve said, the game has already warned us that wolves are far more aggressive in The Long Dark than in reality, and so I’m not surprised that this wolf is extremely unimpressed to see me, and expresses this with a vicious attack that I barely fend off. As it’s scampering into the woods, my screen is going nuts with notifications: twisted ankle, lacerations, risk of infection from wolf bite. My brief hope of becoming a werewolf fades when I notice I’m bleeding to death very rapidly; the jerk even ruined my shoes, so I’m also probably going to get frostbite. I’m close to the cabin though, so I down some painkillers, pour antiseptic on the worst wounds, and prepare to limp home.
My mistake here was thinking the wolf was done. It was not.
I’m bandaging my hand, literally within view of the cabin’s back door, when I hear the growling. I try to run, but my ankle won’t let me. I fall as the wolf tackles me, fail to fight it off, and succumb to the ravenous fangs of death. I lasted two days.
So yeah, this is a really, REALLY fun game.
This is the survival game I’ve always wanted. There’s no zombies, no monsters, and you never feel like anything is really unfair beyond the whims of nature itself (my second sandbox, 12 days in, ended when I got caught in a blizzard and froze to death before I could reach shelter). Meters tracking your temperature, fatigue, dehydration, and starvation are unobtrusive but there when you need them, and never deplete in ways that scream of game mechanics. Food is there if you know where to look, you get better at basic things like hunting and fire starting as you do them and at a realistic rate, and a single bad mistake can leave you dead. Injuries occur at the slightest provocation, so no Skyrim cliff jumping here; I sprained my ankle going down a ledge that couldn’t have been more than two feet high.
In so many words, it’s a proper survival game.
The crafting system is a triumph, though a little hard to navigate and puzzle out; I was wondering why my map wasn’t updating for hours before I accidentally grabbed some charcoal and realised that was how to do it. The time it takes to complete actions, too, is something to keep an eye on. You could be harvesting a deer when a blizzard hits and you’re half frozen before you even realise, or your fire could go out while you’re boiling water. So many little things can ruin you and, while death is permanent, it’s not really the end; with seven sandbox maps all interconnected, starting in or venturing to a new region adds new challenge and difficulty. Lake too easy? Try the frozen tundra.
Just kidding don’t try the tundra, you’ll die instantly.
There’s a story mode too, added ahead of the console release, which aims to explain why you’re there, why the wolves are insanely aggro, and gives you a handle on the survival mechanics; it’s what passes for a tutorial, albeit a 20 hour one. I don’t feel the episodic nature works here, and even if it did the plot feels underdeveloped and hashed together. It’s playable, sure, but it’s night and day; I massively prefer the freedom of the sandbox.
The Long Dark is, in many respects, a boring game. It’s certainly not for everyone; an almost total lack of music, pretty but cartoony visuals, and a ridiculously deep crafting system make it a chore if you aren’t really invested in the game for the long haul. But for those that are? It’s a one way ticket to your very own frozen paradise.
The Long Dark was reviewed on PS4 from code provided by Hinterland.