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I heard about this yonks ago, when somebody linked me to the Kickstarter, but it wasn’t until Christmas that I realised an early access version had been released. I’m always wary of early access games; it seems like a cheap and lazy shortcut for developers, especially when some of them charge what seems like a full price for an incomplete game. The Long Dark, fortunately, is completely bug free. Early access simply provides two sandbox maps, rather than the fuller story mode.

The Long Dark is a post-apocalyptic scarcity survival game. An electromagnetic pulse of some kind has caused all of the world’s electronics to fizzle out forever. You’re a bush pilot who has was flying when the pulse went off, and survived the plane crash only to find yourself stranded in the Canadian wilderness: cold, hungry, and completely cut off from whatever’s going on in the outside world.

The game gives you four meters to keep an eye on: hunger, thirst, cold and fatigue. There are also wolves about, excessively keen on ripping your throat out. The landscape (there are currently two maps: a shoreline and a forested lakeside area, connected with each other) is scattered with cabins, logging camps, forestry lookouts and fishing huts, and you can ransack these for supplies. With every passing day, as you slowly add to your collection of tinned food and meagre weapons, you feel more confident. But The Long Dark is an instadeath game. One wrong move and you’re gone, your save file erased. My first death came as I trudged across a snowy valley, low on food, but confident I could reach the structure I’d seen on top of a hill by nightfall. Then the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted, and I couldn’t find my way up the hill. It was too windy to light a fire and I started freezing to death by the time I found the path. Footsteps slowing, vision blurring, I was almost dead but confident I’d make it inside by the time I reached the top… only to see that the structure was a fire lookout, at the top of a long set of stairs. I collapsed and froze to death halfway up them.

The Arctic environment is wonderfully rendered: beautiful, but deadly. The developers have used cell-shading to give it a cartoonish feel, but you soon grow used to it, and even running it on low graphic settings as I am, it’s very pretty. The sound effects are top notch – I particularly like the howling of the wind scraping against the walls once you’re inside, as though it’s a predator deprived of its prey. And a sudden, nearby wolf howling when I was in a narrow frozen river canyon made me freeze in my tracks.

the long dark

The Long Dark has a few issues. One of them is the way the developers have opted to run the scavenging: like crafting, fishing, harvesting meat or starting a fire, it’s displayed as a loading bar. This is usually fine, but there’s an awful lot of houses on the coast map, full of properties to be ransacked, and after a while it can begin to feel like you’re playing Canadian Cupboard Opening Simulator 2015. And the survival mechanics are a little odd. On the one hand, they seem to have thought of so much: animal carcasses left outdoors will freeze and take longer to carve up (but can be thawed again by lighting a fire next to them), the rifle will not automatically have a round in the chamber simply because you found it with bullets, things like that. On the other hand, it’s eminently possible to live indefinitely by drinking soda, or eating an entire box of tea, and your clothes and tools are ridiculously vulnerable to damage. (This last one seems to be an irritatingly common trait in scarcity games.) The lack of a game-style “you are here” map is an excellent choice, but it would be nice if the developers included a compass and an actual paper map as an object – it sort of defies belief that none of those ranger cabins have a map of the region.

Perhaps the biggest issue with The Long Dark – one which is fortunately temporary – is that in sandbox mode, it’s a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later you will die. My longest run thus far is eleven days before that fucking wolf in the hydro dam got me again, but I suspect that even apart from the wolves, you will die a slow death after exhausting all the canned food across the map; once you’ve used up all the bullets, all you can do is snare rabbits and catch fish, and I doubt that would be enough to get you by (especially as your tools degenerate.) Without a goal to strive towards, survival games inevitably become dull. You’re driven by survival, but you don’t actually have anything to live for.

But I’m sure that will be rectified once the story mode is released. (Which, apparently, is going to feature the familiar gravelly voice of David Hayter, a.k.a. Metal Gear Solid’s Snake.) Even until then, The Long Dark is a deeply engrossing survival simulator that I hugely enjoyed and thoroughly recommend.

The Long Dark on Steam