At the time of writing a quarter of a million souls have braved the harsh cold of the Canadian wilderness in Hinterland Studio’s deliciously fiendish first person survival title, and it sits pretty at number two in the Steam charts. Not bad for an indie game that is still in Early Access but the question is: should you buy it too, in its untamed yet unfinished state?
• Developer: Hinterland Studio Inc.
• Publisher: Hinterland Studio Inc.
• Reviewed on: PC
• Also Available On: Mac
• Release Date: Out Now on Steam Early Access
Amazing highs and brutally crushing lows. The Long Dark is survival done right. This is a lonely, desperate experience, there are no other players to help or hinder you in Hinterland Studio’s Early Access offering. It is just you and your wits. Oh and wolves. Lots of wolves. And in The Long Dark wolves are dicks!
My first playthrough consisted of spawning in the middle of a blizzard, visibility was literally zero. The vicious wind howled around me, bombarding me with snow, soaking my clothes and stinging my skin with its icy teeth. I needed to get inside. I opened up my menu and saw my cold condition rising at an alarming rate. I needed to get inside. With the environmental awareness of a blue bottle I ran straight ahead, branches whisked past me as I ran, the wind still howling about me and the snow crunching underfoot. I pressed on, recklessly through the murderous blizzard and slipped down an embankment. The sickening crunching sound alerted me to an injury, as did the words “Sprained Ankle” in the corner of the screen. Ah. Fall damage in an interesting and realistic way then. I did have a first aid kit, but by the time I would have treated myself I would have frozen to death, I needed to press on.
I limped through the snow for what seemed like an eternity. The wind died down a little and a nebulous black shape appeared on the horizon, becoming clearer with each painful step. A cabin! It was a cabin! Even though it made no difference I slammed my finger back on to the sprint button. I was going to make it! My salvation edged nearer until a distinct howl raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I didn’t see it until I was lay on the icy ground trying to fight the wild animal off, desperately punching the wolf as it sank its teeth in. I managed to fight it off, and hauled myself up, the red words “First Aid” suggested something was amiss, probably a large portion of my face. I made it to the cabin door and collapsed inside. I doused the wound with antiseptic and staunched the bleeding with bandages. I took a look at my status again, hungry, thirsty, cold, fatigued. I wasn’t going to last long. I searched the cabin high and low, but could find only a can of soda and a solitary can of dog food. I drank the fizzy beverage and then it dawned on me that I didn’t have a can opener. Never mind, I smashed the tinned dog food open and devoured its foul contents complete with metal splinters. I then unfurled my bedroll and drifted into an uneasy sleep.
The Long Dark is most certainly grim, but it is equally brilliant, the burst of adrenaline I experienced when I saw the potential safety of that cabin through the blizzard only the have it potentially ripped away from me by an apex predator, only to return as I sent the mangy bastard packing is one of the best gaming moments I’ve had so far this year. At times, The Long Dark is incredibly exhilarating, especially early on, and that feeling of tension and danger never really abates like it can do in other games in the genre as you are always susceptible to exposure from the elements. You always have to be on your guard as you explore each of the sandbox mode’s three beautifully crafted maps, there is no power creep here – you do not end up decked out in body armour mowing down wolves with a machinegun you’ve cobbled together from a few twigs. You’ve always got to be on your toes to stop them from freezing off.
The key to survival is managing your condition. This is a measure of your general health combined with four needs: fatigue, cold, hunger, and thirst. You’ve got to keep these needs satisfied, think The Sims but with the impending threat of hypothermia. You will need to scavenge for warmer clothes, food, supplies and forage for wood to build fires to keep you warm and the hungry wildlife at bay. Some buildings you discover may hold workbenches and log fires that you can use to craft traps and cook food, these can serve as temporary bases until you need to move on. Crafting traps is a great way to snare yourself some rabbits, if you can remember where your traps are but it’s okay, you marked them on your map right? You were making a map? No? Nevermind, I’m sure you’ll be fine.
One thing that really impressed me is the subtlety and nuance of the cold condition. Sure standing on a frozen lake wearing only your socks is a quick way to die, but if you crouch against a rock taking cover from the wind, you will get slightly warmer. If it’s a decent enough wind break you’ll also be able to start a fire, curl up in your bedroll and keep warm. What’s that? You left your bedroll in the cabin you abandoned two hours ago? Nevermind, I’m sure you’ll be fine.
In its current state The Long Dark is tough and unforgiving and those of you who, like me, enjoy that first desperate hour of survival should get plenty of fun out of the sandbox mode. Hopefully the story campaign, which promises voice work from ALL of the Commander Shepards, Jennifer Hale and Mark Meer, will help set The Long Dark apart from the other four million survival games on Steam. As it stands, it provides a beautiful and dangerous world to explore with some solid survival mechanics and is well worth your time. I recommend playing with headphones to take advantage of the excellent sound design too.
If however you prefer your games complete, you could do a lot worse than pick up NEO Scavenger. Although be warned, that game is far more brutal and you’ll find yourself getting far more excited than you should do for finding an intact plastic bag. Fun times!