The Long Dark

The Long Dark is a gru­elling fight for sur­vival in a snowy Cana­dian wilder­ness.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Andy Kelly

Amys­te­ri­ous ge­o­mag­netic anom­aly has plunged the world into dark­ness and ren­dered all tech­nol­ogy use­less, in­clud­ing the plane you were fly­ing over the frozen wilds of Canada. You awaken sur­rounded by flames and wreck­age, and find your­self in a bat­tle to sur­vive in one of the most in­hos­pitable cor­ners of the planet. It’s a hell of a place to spend the apoca­lypse, and death lingers around ev­ery cor­ner of this deadly, win­try ex­panse.

There are two ways to play The Long Dark. There’s Win­ter­mute, an episodic story mode that fol­lows bush pi­lot Will Macken­zie as he searches for his miss­ing friend in the wilder­ness. This is a lin­ear ex­pe­ri­ence with stylish, melan­choly cutscenes ex­plor­ing Macken­zie’s past. Then there’s Sand­box, which lets you tell your own sto­ries. The only ob­jec­tive here is surviving for as long as pos­si­ble, and how you do that is left to you.

Win­ter­mute is a good place to start. It be­gins with a se­ries of tu­to­ri­als de­signed to drip-feed the game’s sys­tems to you. You’ll learn about treat­ing wounds, for­ag­ing for plants, build­ing fires and other es­sen­tial skills. Some­times you’ll meet sur­vivors who need your help, forc­ing you to com­plete fetch quests, which grind the story to a halt and feel a lit­tle too much like busy­work.

But it’s in Sand­box mode where The Long Dark’s sur­vival knife is sharpest. Hav­ing the free­dom to ex­plore its large, in­ter­con­nected re­gions is more com­pelling than fol­low­ing a pre­scribed path. Choos­ing how you spend each day is more en­gag­ing than tick­ing off ob­jec­tives. This free­dom and un­pre­dictable el­e­ments, such as the weather, make ev­ery game fer­tile ground for emer­gent sto­ry­telling.

MEM­ORY LANE

Some of my most vivid memories of The Long Dark were not cre­ated by the de­vel­op­ers, but emerged nat­u­rally from its sys­tems. I re­mem­ber the un­bear­able ten­sion of be­ing on the

edge of star­va­tion, one bul­let in my ri­fle, and a skit­tish deer in my sights. Cow­er­ing in a cave at night, camp­fire about to burn out, lis­ten­ing to wolves howl­ing out­side. Limp­ing half-dead through a bliz­zard, only to see the sil­hou­ette of a life-sav­ing shel­ter through the wall of snow.

Wildlife is a nui­sance. Wolves will catch your scent and stalk you, and if they at­tack you’ll be left with a num­ber of se­ri­ous wounds. Hon­estly, they’re mis­er­able to deal with, spoil­ing the pen­sive mood of the game. Surviving the el­e­ments is far more in­ter­est­ing to me, and I’m glad there’s a dif­fi­culty mode in Sand­box that dis­ables an­i­mal at­tacks. But in story mode you have no choice but to deal with them.

The weather is con­stantly in tur­moil, which can change the mood of the game in an in­stant. One minute it’s a crisp, clear day with pierc­ing blue skies. The next a storm­front is rolling in, the wind blow­ing the fall­ing snow so hard it moves hor­i­zon­tally. Wa­ter­colour skies shift from a blan­ket of loom­ing grey to the dusky pink of early evening, paint­ing the snow­fields around you in vivid colours. It’s an in­cred­i­bly at­mo­spheric game, with a gor­geous art style that lends it a pe­cu­liar, ethe­real beauty.

Surviving the el­e­ments is far more in­ter­est­ing to me

ON THE MENU

Like a lot of sur­vival games, ev­ery­thing in The Long Dark boils down to man­ag­ing a se­ries of meters. But thanks to the el­e­gant de­sign of the sim­u­la­tion, and a slick, min­i­mal UI, it’s not a game where you feel like you spend half your time buried in menus. The abun­dance of progress bars is dis­ap­point­ing, how­ever. Many ac­tions, such as break­ing a branch down for firewood or cook­ing food, hap­pen off-screen, il­lus­trated by a slowly fill­ing cir­cle. I would have liked to see my char­ac­ter in­ter­act­ing with the world a lit­tle more di­rectly.

There are only a handful of great sur­vival games on PC, and The Long Dark is one of them. Win­ter­mute has its mo­ments, and does a de­cent job of telling you how the game works, but it’s when you’re cre­at­ing your own sto­ries in the sand­box that it’s at its most ab­sorb­ing. Beau­ti­ful art di­rec­tion and rich sound de­sign bring the deep forests, frozen lakes, and ragged moun­tains of Canada to life. And your end­less strug­gle to keep the Grim Reaper at arm’s length is enor­mously re­ward­ing, pro­vid­ing you have the pa­tience to ap­pre­ci­ate its slow, mea­sured pace.

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