The Long Dark Early Access Review

I'll just lie down in the snow and close my eyes.

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GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

If Gary Paulsen’s The Hatchet were a videogame, and not a coming-of-age novel, I doubt the eponymous axe would have survived the first hour. A couple swings into the process of building a makeshift shelter, and the young hero would’ve found himself stirred by a sudden and terrible acuity: “Hatchet durability at 27% percent. Hatchet is in danger of breaking.” Sorry Brian: I guess your mom should have splurged for the Hatchet +1. Good luck with the wolves.

Flares can fend of the darkness, or a wolf
Flares can fend of the darkness, or a wolf

Planned obsolescence bothers me enough when I’m buying cell phones, so I’m not much pleased when it rears its head right as I’m in the middle of fending off virtual zombies or slaying dragons. You’d think of all the videogame scenarios, a survival adventure would be the worst possible venue for tools that break after a couple minutes of use towards their expressed purpose. And yet here I am, wandering the chilly wilderness of The Long Dark with socks that last a couple days and six backup can openers.

The Long Dark dubs the singular mode currently on the menu its sandbox, which is a pretty playful-sounding name for what turns out to be “wandering a godforsaken forest until you eventually expire of cold or hunger.” There’s a bit of perfunctory exposition describing you as the sole survivor of a plane crash, and then you’re unceremoniously dumped into a random part of the game’s single map and encouraged to find what shelter and sustenance you can. But there’s no search crew coming to find you, and no civilization to reach--you’re to ultimately succumb to the elements, one way or another. A few found tools and some looted granola bars can stave off the cold creep of death, if only for a spell.

But there’s no search crew coming to find you, and no civilization to reach--you’re to ultimately succumb to the elements, one way or another.

Surviving The Long Dark is pretty formulaic, really: find an area of previous human habitation, ransack its cabinets for additional clothing and foodstuffs, make a fire, sleep a time, and then set off in search of the next building. A found rifle can allow for some rudimentary hunting if you happen to stumble upon it, and a hatchet will let you allot time and energy to the chopping of firewood. But any activity, from building a fire to sleeping consumes precious calories and resources, and keeping those counts above the red is an ever-present concern.

Paulsen’s protagonist survived for some fifty days in remote Canadian wilds before being rescued. By way of contrast, The Long Dark reports that I first clocked out of the mortal coil after four days. But the passage of days loses its evocative power when you speed up its rate, as The Long Dark does, or when the player can set a timer for sleep and be walking again in seconds. So it’s the items that end up becoming the more tangible measure of time’s passing--the appetite-curbing power of the food, or the durability of the familiar tools. And it’s there where The Long Dark takes some curious liberties, because intuitively, we know that you shouldn’t have to eat a dozen energy bars and a pound of venison to sustain yourself day-to-day. We know a crowbar doesn’t lose half its integrity after being used to pry open a couple lockers. When I play The Long Dark I don’t feel like a survivalist, stretching my resources; I feel like an insatiable force that roves through the environment, picking it clean. Everything’s too fleeting, when the demands of the situation should encourage just the opposite: an intimate connection to belongings that have taken on heightened significance. Tom Hanks cried when he lost his volleyball in Castaway, after all.

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The wilderness often feels too inert.
The wilderness often feels too inert.

I’ve been trying to track the source of these issues of scale, and my hunch is that they’re all trickling down from the problem of the map’s size. It doesn’t take long to see all there is to see in The Long Dark--a few rudimentary structures, a lot of inert trees with branches you clip through, and a couple landmarks, like a dam and a lake. Climb a hill, or roam anywhere that looks like it’s off the critical path, and you’ll encounter a rock wall that tamps you back into your snowy coffin. Perhaps staying put is sometimes the savvy thing to do when you’re really stranded in the woods. But for a player, the feeling of being penned in chafes at a natural inclination to explore. The Long Dark intermittently seems to acknowledge this, with a beautiful nightscape over a frozen lake, or a pale, ice blue cast of light through windows of a long-abandoned building. Step indoors, and the wind howls at you from outside like it’s upset that it lost its prey.

There are wolves howling out there too, but that spine-tingling atmospheric touch goes right out the window once you actually see one. Wolves in The Long Dark don’t hunt, or sneak, or operate in packs. They just lazily patrol back and forth around points of interest--oblivious, like a stealth videogame guard with an asphyxiation fetish. But I’m not sure The Long Dark needs a live threat, when cold, hunger, and exhaustion feel tethered to you. At any given moment there’s some ailment occupying a corner of your screen, telling you you’re “freezing,” or “exhausted,” or “starving.” As cues go, they’re a bit on-the-nose, but when the wind picks up as you’re limping on a sprained ankle towards a distant shelter, you start to feel something of its bite, all the same.

One of them got me in the end, anyway, when I decided to see what would happen if I tried to take a nap outdoors in a snowstorm. I simply didn’t care anymore. I don’t expect my motivations to align with my character’s--not explicitly, at least. He’s angling for another day of life. I’m in it for an interesting experience, and maybe a bit of pathos. But there’s the rub: we each need something to help us sustain the effort, and I’m tired of scrounging for his fifth helping of canned peaches.

What's There?

A free-roaming sandbox mode, wherein the objective is simply to survive as long as you can in the single available map.

What's To Come?

A story mode, more sandbox content, and at least one more map, alongside the expected patches to improve various aspects of the experience.

What Does it Cost?

$19.99, available via Steam.

When Will it Be Finished?

Winter as currently forecasted, depending on feedback.

What's the Verdict?

The Long Dark sometimes evokes the desperation of wilderness survival, but in its present state it feels light on reasons to brave the cold.

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