The Survival Mode for The Long Dark has been available in Early Access on PC since 2014, but now it’s emerged as a full release for PC and console along with the first part of the story mode, Wintermute. Set in the Canadian wilderness after an unspecified global disaster has knocked out all electronics, you play as a pilot whose plane has crashed, trying to survive the thirst, hunger, freezing cold, and ferocious wildlife.
To say my first few hours with the Story mode of the game were fraught would be a drastic understatement as the game suffers from one of my pet hates: the almost complete lack of instruction. There’s no help system, no manual, nothing. Unfortunately the developers have not catered for console players who want to jump straight into the story mode, expecting it to ease them in even a tiny bit. It is utterly brutal during the initial few days with the lacking tutorial mixed with bizarre in-game logic meaning that I had to scour the internet for guides and instructional videos.
Once you know how the menu system and the game’s logic works, so that you’re not dying from hypothermia every two minutes, the story mode spends the first few days introducing the various aspects of the game, trapping you on a cliff edge while you learn how to make rosehip tea. By day five you can climb up the cliff and enter the larger world, enjoying the scampering bunnies and, to a lesser extent, the scampering wolves which bring almost certain death.
Of course you still have to find food, water, and shelter, and this wouldn’t be such a big problem if it were not for the save system. Your progress is only saved when you enter or exit a building or vehicle and there is only one save slot. I had to restart the story, losing about three hours of play time as my save spot had placed me right next to a wolf who I could just about fight off, only to then die from blood loss whilst trying to make a bandage. In fact, I managed to get myself into hopeless situations a number of times which was incredibly frustrating and had me replaying the first part of the story mode over and over as there is no option to skip days you have already completed.
Unfortunately Hinterland have completely missed the point of a story mode, in that its meant to focus on the story. It follows the relationship between pilot McKenzie and his estranged wife who is missing after the plane crash, but rather than dwell on that you have to spend every moment battling the elements just to stop the game from being over. Crippling the character from the start so he can only move at a snail’s pace, making resources scarce, and having instant death roving around on four paws every few minutes is just not fun and means you are more concerned with where you can find a can of soda more than where you can find your wife. If you can survive long enough in story mode the game opens out with new characters to meet and quests to fulfil. It’s a little cliched and preposterous with prison breaks and a mysterious suitcase, but thankfully does get a little easier to survive.
Firing up the Pilgrim difficulty level Survival mode, in which you are left to wander the wilderness on your own is, quite frankly, a kick in the teeth after playing the story. You start in perfect health, have a belly full of food and drink and can run about the snowy wilderness for a good while before you even have to bother thinking about where dinner is going to come from. It also gives you plenty of time to learn crafting, hunting, and just exactly what those numbers and little stars on items in the menu mean (it’s condition of the item, to save you having to look it up). Whilst danger is still just a snarling bear away, it’s actually quite relaxing and I spent a lovely evening sat by my fire, watching the Aurora Borealis whilst the snow drifted down.
The other three maps in Survival mode are less forgiving, but you still have to make difficult choices with your resources. For example, do you spend time reading a cook book to improve your culinary skills or burn it for heat? It’s a very solitary experience with a surprising amount of depth and it’s unlike anything else you will find on PlayStation 4. If resource management is your thing then you will be in heaven, as it boils down to flicking through menus, crafting, watching progress circles slowly fill up for half the game, and scavenging tins of peaches from abandoned cottages for the other half.
The game has a simple yet effective art style, with only the odd dip in frame rate that’s nothing to complain about. The music is suitability minimalist and haunting with simple yet effective sound design, although the commentary from your character can get annoying, so the option to mute him/her is a godsend, even if does mean you don’t get audible indicators regarding afflictions or problems.
Despite having been through Early Access on PC and Xbox One, the game still has a lot of bugs, even after a patch has been released. It crashed multiple times, one of which wiped my save file, I fell through the map as soon as I started Story mode one time, the sound cut out at one point, and even the name of the game frazzles and ghosts it’s way across the screen when it first loads rather than scrolling smoothly.
There are also some poor design choices. You an only interact with objects when your reticle is in the very centre of the object, which may be easy to achieve on PC with a mouse, but is hard work with a controller. Speaking of which, who decided that colouring the reticule white would be a great idea in a game filled with snow and ice?
The best ‘bug’ I encountered occurred when I was wildly thrashing some buttons to skip a cutscene. I discovered that pressing L1 and R1 together puts the game into debug mode, complete with options to fly, become invulnerable, and a menu to unlock all the trophies/achievements with a simple button press. I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be able to do that, and only playing on a secondary PSN account stopped me bothering to see if it would unlock the platinum trophy.
I really, really, wanted to love The Long Dark, but a myriad of poor design choices and bugs teamed with lacking instruction made it one of the most frustrating games I have ever played. You can pick some objects up, but not others, you can smash a crate to bits for firewood, but not a table, and none of this makes any sense. If you were freezing to death, you’d burn the frigging table! Survival mode is by far the best way to experience the game offering some gorgeous views and a real sense of achievement when you make things nice and cosy, it’s just a shame that Story mode is so poorly thought out.
Version tested: PlayStation 4
Update 11/08: After discussion with the developer, we’ve reworded some points surrounding what we see as lacking (but not entirely absent as was suggested) instruction and tutorial. Our score has not been changed. In the meantime, .