Surviving the Wilderness

The Long Dark
A game review by Laura Martin “Fuyumé”

The air is freezing cold; you can see the breath leave in huffs of warm clouds from your mouth. You need to find shelter, so you set off down a frozen river, searching for some abandoned building. It’s almost sunset when you find a cabin, devoid of life but containing an energy bar, a lantern half full of fuel, and a bed with thin blankets. You eat the bar and drink the last of your water, knowing you’ll need to find more in the morning. You settle into bed, just warm enough to sleep. So ends another day in the quiet apocalypse.

The Long Dark, developed by Hinterland Studios, is a post-apocalyptic survival game. There are no zombies or factions of evil. It’s just the player versus nature, trying to survive the frozen Canadian wilderness. The player assumes the role of a stranded bush pilot whose plane was downed by a “mysterious geomagnetic event”. The only goal of the survival mode, until recently the only mode in the game, is to survive as long as possible.

The game’s visual style is reminiscent of a painting. The effect is calming; despite danger lurking around every corner in the form of hunger, exposure, and wildlife, one can’t help but take in the beauty of each unique map. Snowy mountains, towering trees, and frozen lakes cover the land, coated in a thick blanket of fresh snow. The same style can look a bit odd on the animations of people in the game, but Hinterland has made many improvements to its animations since its official launch on August 1st.

In a game so dependent on its sandbox mode – called Survival ever since the official release – gameplay is vitally important. The Long Dark alternates between a rhythmic, methodical playstyle as the player goes through the day to day task of making sure he has enough resources for tomorrow, and the rushing, panicked playstyle when something goes catastrophically wrong, like a bear attack or a badly timed blizzard. The HUD is clean and minimalistic, completely absent unless the player brings it up. The immersion is enough to make me feel a chill in the height of a Texas summer, to feel my heart race when I hear the bark of a wolf nearby.

The story mode, named Wintermute, debuted on August 1st with the launch of the game. The story is paced much like Survival; at times, calm and methodical, and at others making the player feel panicked. The story follows Will Mackenzie, a bush pilot, and Astrid, a doctor determined to deliver something to the remote and desolate Great Bear Island. The game opens with Mackenzie in the wreckage of his own plane, a sharp piece of metal stuck in his hand. Unfortunately, the clean HUD works against the game in this instance; any player new to the game not aware of how to interact with things would have trouble recognizing how to remove the metal from his hand and progress to the next scene.

The Long Dark has never held its player’s hands; from the very beginning of its early access and through its development there was no tutorial for Survival mode. Many players would die quickly in situations where they may have lived had they known the mechanics. For example, to obtain water reliably, the player melts snow in fires. However, the menu to do this is hidden behind the menu to add fuel to the fire and cooking food, in a vague water drop shaped tab. While this is fine for a sandbox, it becomes frustrating in a story mode where there is a tutorial section, but is ill explained. However, for veterans of the game through its early access phase, the tutorial section is a breeze to rush through and get to the real challenges the game offers.

The voice acting, though limited in some degree, is fantastic. Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale, the voice actors for Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect series, provide the voices for Mackenzie and Astrid, respectively, as well as the male and female voices for Survival mode. Hale, as a seasoned voice actor, performs as expected, which would be well. I’m pleased to say that Meer also does a stellar job as Will Mackenzie, considering he is a lesser known voice actor outside of the Mass Effect series. David Hayter, well known for his work in the Metal Gear Solid series, gives a great performance as a side character guiding Mackenzie through learning the ropes of survival.

Unfortunately, this somewhat star-studded cast does have a downside; in what can only be assumed was a choice based on a restricted budget, only major cutscenes are voiced, with dialogue between characters inside of the game being text only. While this isn’t the worst thing that could have happened, I can’t help but think that had they only used Hale and Meer, and talented unknowns for the rest of the cast, Hinterland may have had the budget to voice all the dialogue. However, this is only conjecture; the voice acting that is present is well delivered.

Over all, I must say if you were looking for a new survival game to shake things up, one that doesn’t rely on zombies and other supernatural beings to make it challenging, this is definitely the game for you. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but if you give it a chance, you’ll see the diamond.

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