To buy in to Early Access or not to buy into Early Access... it's a question that has bugged many a PC gamer and Hamlet. On the one hand you can see your favorite concept come to life and blossom, while on the other you have a title like DayZ, stuck in development limbo and Alpha stage seemingly forever. Aside from that, nearly 10% of all games Kickstarted that end up on Early Access are apocalyptic survival titles. Well, we have yet another one for you in The Long Dark, but this time it's most definitely falling on the side of good.
The Long Dark describes the aftermath of a geomagnetic storm that occurred in the "Before Age" and was able to cripple all things humans hold dear. Their Xboxes, their smartphones, and their microwave dinners. Now people live out their days surviving the wilderness into which they were suddenly thrown. The concept surely sounds like grimly similar what we have seen and read and heard many times before, but the game is shaping up to be one of the best of the lot, helped no doubt by the oft-underused Arctic setting.
As with all Early Access, The Long Dark is still in the Pre-Alpha stage and thus is extremely light on content. The Story mode is set to be introduced in a Beta update sometime in Early 2015, with developer Hinterland Studio looking to leave the Alpha stage by the end of this year. Despite this, what content there is shows great promise for something still so far from release; many like minded titles show nowhere near this level of finesse in the early stages.
Is there anybody alive out there?
Throughout The Long Dark's Early Access release you play on a single available Sandbox environment map. You can essentially explore it to your heart's content without any sense of where and why you are, traipsing through ruined buildings and long-abandoned fishing cabins dotted around a frozen lake. Since The Long Dark is set exclusively in a frozen realm for now, you have to manage your calorie intake and temperature effectively, much like the Realistic Needs and Diseases and Frostfall mods for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. You can do this by looting and eating at proper intervals, rummaging around for stuff to hastily build fires with (including firewood you can chop down and old newspaper) and finding shelter from the ever-encroaching darkness during the night.
The world is not dynamic and locations are fixed but your spawn point is random. In my first playthrough I started off at a fork in the road (or rather an ice formation), with a corpse nearby who has some necessary gear for survival like warm clothes, canned food and flares with some lighter fluid thrown in. It's usually the middle of the day when you start, so you probably have time explore around a bit before finding a cabin and hopefully building a fire and resting in a bed if all goes to plan. Resting is a necessity but also eats up those crucial calories.
The survivor you play as also comments dynamically depending on your surroundings or on your present condition, and boy is the voice acting is amazing. If you play with an optional letterbox, you can really feel immersed inside the game with the constant murmurings and whoas from the character. Taking shelter around a fire as the wind and snow buffets your shack is a bizarre and captivating experience.
Throughout your survival adventure it's possible to get over-encumbered, as you start out with a carrying capacity of 30 kgs, and this will make you fatigued and thus really, really, slow. You have to maintain your temperature as it's indirectly related to your movement speed and your ability to fend off attackers. Going out onto glaciers or frozen lakes make you colder, while staying inside any sort of small structure will ease your condition.
It's all very functional and intuitive, the basic survival needs are exactly as you'd expect. Bigger establishments require a fire to be built to stay hot, especially on higher floors. In terms of wildlife presence The Long Dark doesn't offer masses just yet - although you can occasionally find a deer or two around, none are spawned in during your playthrough and the quantity set when the world is created is what can be found during your whole days of survival.
Deers are joined by wolves though, and wolves cannot be waved off or avoided if they get too close and must be either scared off with precious flares or, if you have been able to procure a weapon, highly unlikely for the first few days, you can attack them, which still doesn't guarantee your survival. You will, at the least, walk away with a bad bleed, which need to be washed with hard to come by fresh water, disinfected with antiseptic, and patched with clean bandages, or hopefully ignored with painkillers. Bleeds in turn affect your movement speed and keep deteriorating your Condition, which certainly narrows your chances of survival.
The Long Dark currently includes achievements for surviving in the cold wilderness of up to 50 days, which seems an almost insurmountable task right now thanks to the character's demands; he's thirsty every hour like clockwork and the only thing you can abundantly find in the environment is Grape Juice which makes you lazy and thus slow.
There's certainly a lot of mechanics at play in this Early Access package, which even in the Pre Alpha stage work great together. The Long Dark is looking to be a survival marvel when it's finished, to say nothing of the lovely art style which is equal parts stunning and minimalistic. At one point I sat back and watched events unfold with the local wildlife when a wolf attacked a defenseless solitary deer. The chase lasted a few hours in game time and culminated when another deer attacking the wolf, who was eagerly munching on the previous deer having killed it recently. It was a sight to watch and made the world really feel like it was alive and playing out around you.
Meat and greet
Luckily you can salvage meat and pelts from half eaten animals such as this if you've got the proper instrument, which is found randomly in bigger lofts and buildings. Interiors are not safe either though, as you can get bitten by rats and contract deadly diseases, or even find wolves dwelling inside these establishments. You can gather snow using an appropriate instrument and heat it to get a little stew going to cook up your kill or leftover animal carcasses from the wilderness. Get a little fire barrel or a fireplace built (which is dependent on your fire stat, so you can try to light a fire but you may not always be successful), and you can heat up the water in a pan and cook up the meat to make it edible and remove any potential diseases that might be lurking within it. You also need empty bottles or cans to actually store any melted snow for water and that, as you can guess, complicates things. Hinterland Studios has really gone all out on the survival aspects and left it up to the player to find everything.
One thing that The Long Dark game lacks in this early state is an ability to camp down and fortify an area in order to make it your origin point for future excursions. It seems like the only sensible way to survive 50 days of in-game time. As it stands The Long Dark feels like you need to be nomadic in order to survive, and thus deviates from the general rule of camping down and holding resources to survive.
All in all, The Long Dark is shaping up to be a marvel in all accounts and we'll be eagerly looking out for future Alpha updates. Our verdict, as it stands, is most gamers would be better off not buying it just yet in its early state as you don't get a huge amount of content for your $19.99 investment in terms of time actually spent playing. What you do get though is a lot of fascinating features, which may not be game changing but are implemented admirably. If its unfinished state and ever-evolving updates appeal to you though, it's hard to argue with the core gameplay at work in The Long Dark.