As The Long Dark emerges after years in early access, it introduces the first two chapters in a five-part story, called Wintermute. The game's demanding survival mechanics have the potential to mesh well with the story of a plane crash survivor stuck in the Canadian wilderness of Great Bear, but it's too early to say whether or not Wintermute's narrative ultimately pays off. It is, however, clearly off to a rocky start, leaving the more open-ended sandbox mode as the best reason to jump into The Long Dark today.
During Wintermute, you play as Will Mackenzie, a loner pilot working in the northern reaches of Canada, who agrees to help transport his distressed ex-wife and her mysterious cargo somewhere into the far reaches of the woods. Though there are a few revealing moments shared between Will and Dr. Astrid Greenwood before their plane comes crashing down, the quick and cliched implication of an emotional backstory through suggestive and vague dialogue makes a weak first impression. It certainly doesn't help that many of the scenes throughout Wintermute's first two episodes are hampered by odd animation jitters and floating objects that pop in and out frame.
While you both survive the sudden crash that cuts your conversation short, you are separated from one another, and Will succumbs to injuries that make surviving the harsh winterscape a true challenge. Recovering from the crash acts as the game's tutorial, throwing you into the basics of survival. Whether it's seeking shelter, starting a fire, or generally looking after your vital signs, almost everything you need is covered, giving you some confidence before you set out on a journey to find your lost passenger. Learning how to make the most of The Long Dark's survival mechanics is no simple task, but these foundational steps are relatively easy compared to the hurdles that lie ahead.
Despite Mackenzie's apparent desperation to find Astrid, he's more than happy to scout the countryside to gather things for other people, ultimately earning nothing for himself except scraps of information about Astrid's possible whereabouts and increased knowledge of the wild. It's frustrating to watch--and even more frustrating to play.
As you carry on, most of your time will be spent scouring abandoned structures for granola bars, harvesting meat from animal carcasses found frozen in ice, and dodging the elements as best you can. Tools like knives and hatchets can be built provided you have the right blueprints, parts, and access to a forge or a workbench. They also need to be maintained using spare parts, which can be gathered by breaking down extra items. Annoyingly, inventory management doesn't let you optimise your carry weight by combining like items, so instead of being able to do something like emptying lantern fuel containers into a jerry can, you're forced to carry them all around separately. Be careful where you tread, as well, as it's not uncommon to get stuck in geometry without the means to free yourself--you aren't able to jump, only crouch and walk.
Mackenzie's survival knowledge is minimal to begin with, so his crafting abilities are minimal at best, but what he can make is essential. Blueprints can be found to learn how to craft new items, though these are extremely few and far between. In my experience, most crafting time is spent breaking down things found in the world; spare chairs, tables, curtains, old bedrolls, there's a lot that can be fixed into something else, and it could be life-saving. By combining some sticks, a bit of spare cloth, and some lantern fuel, you can make a simple torch, providing not just light and heat but also warding off any potential predators that may be circling nearby.
The first episode never really lets go of your hand, keeping you close to a small township for most of its entirety--and rarely asking you to venture to edges of the playable area just beyond the town limits. It's not until the second episode that you're set free--albeit under the conflicting pretense of playing fetch for someone else--across three large expanses of untamed wilderness.
Refreshingly, these spaces are deathly beautiful and a showcase for The Long Dark's striking visual style. When the aurora borealis shines at night, it's nothing short of stunning--the green hues bounce softly off of snow-covered surroundings. Likewise, the stark pink and orange sunsets that wash over Great Bear are consistently captivating. They are easy come, easy go, due to the game's dynamic weather system, but it's impressive how the world--and your place within it--can turn on a dime, choking clear skies with a gusty snowstorm, turning a moment of peace into a chaotic dash for shelter.
When you set aside the available Wintermute episodes--which, crucially, you can--The Long Dark's tough yet rewarding gameplay owns the spotlight.
When you set aside the available Wintermute episodes--which, crucially, you can--The Long Dark's tough yet rewarding gameplay owns the spotlight. Survival mode is unforgiving, but it plays to the game's best strength, and you can always dial down the difficulty to keep going--likewise, if you're finding it too easy, you can ramp it up as well. The sandbox also has five challenges you can attempt if you require a hint of direction, offering a more catered survival experience, but without the stringent procession of tasks seen in Wintermute.
Stricken from frostbite, and desperately wanting shelter from a violent blizzard, the feeling of helplessness in the sandbox mode gets overwhelming, and it's in these moments of desperation that The Long Dark is most effective. And thus every minute you survive, and every meter of progress you make, feels remarkably rewarding--the result of a series of calculated decisions you made in the face of depressingly unfavorable odds.
When the weather isn't out to kill you, chances are you'll find some wildlife that would be more than happy to try. A lone wolf can be handled by waving around a lit torch or flare in its face, but if a pack gets a whiff of you nearby, the only option is to run. And did I mention bears? There are bears, and they aren't interested in being friendly. Death comes swiftly and brutally at the hands of the animals in The Long Dark, a stark contrast to the slow fade into darkness that comes with growing colder and hungrier.
It's important to remember that The Long Dark is just waking up from early access. It's cold, hungry, and huddled somewhere under a rock face, but it's just gotten the fire started. Another three story episodes are still due, so there is time to turn things around for Will and Astrid. However, because the best parts of The Long Dark are already alive and well in survival mode, perhaps Wintermute's weak beginning is reason enough to stick to what's worked for the game all along, blemishes and all.