Like most men who have lived overly comfortable lives, I figure I'd do pretty well if dropped into a harsh do-or-die survival scenario where it was just me against the wilderness – taking on all the worst that nature has to offer armed with nothing more than sheer willpower and the drive to survive. And like most men, this belief in myself is seriously misplaced. I'd probably be dead in minutes, slumped in the middle aisle of the nearest supermarket having died of starvation with a broken tin opener clutched in my hands and a veritable mountain of canned goods plonked down right next to my rapidly stiffening corpse.
The moment that really drove this realization home was during a playthrough of The Long Dark's early access sandbox mode. At one point I was grimly trudging through an arctic wasteland during a howling snowstorm in conditions of minus twenty degrees celsius with no shoes on (I'd neglected them to the point where they were irrepairable and I'm guessing they just kinda slid off mid-trek), whilst also carrying a rucksack stuffed with roughly fifty kilograms of raw meat through a wolf-infested ravine. See, this is the kind of demented, essentially suicidal action that makes sense to me.
So yeah, I figure that I'd best leave all efforts at surviving against the odds right where they belong (read: in videogames), and The Long Dark provides many such opportunities to cheerfully wipe myself off the face of the Earth through stunning displays of sheer stupidity. As might have been surmised already, it's a survival simulator for the PC set in a frigid arctic wasteland following a geomagnetic disaster which has sent all of mankind's technology spiralling right back into the stone age. This means that staying alive is no longer as easy as opening up Google Maps and ordering a cab and pizza – no sir! Now it's how it should be, facing off against a pack of starved wolves with nothing but the sharpest fist-sized rock at hand. This is what staying alive is all about!
Of course, that would lead to death in pretty short order, and The Long Dark's a little more grounded than that. Fending one slavering beast off with a hunting knife might be possible, but to really go to town on the lupine menace will require a hunting rifle and ammo. Warm clothing's important too, as running around these fairly unpleasant conditions in a tattered pair of underpants and a beanie is going to lead to hypothermia and a serious case of 'stone dead' in pretty short order. Then there are the usual considerations for any aspiring survivalist – food, shelter, first aid, tools for repairing clothes or prying open locked containers, the issue of warmth… whatever.
It should also be noted that I'm a massive quivering wussbag when it comes to killing non-aggressive wildlife in games. I refused to kill any deer or rabbits during my journey even though they carry some essential materials and meats on them – which led to several slightly hypocritical and utterly demented scenarios where I'd try to set it up so that wolves would do my dirty work for me, put one through Feral Fido's head after he'd torn out a throat or two and then salvaged any remains lying around afterwards. Hey presto! Guilt free meat and hides!
The Long Dark looks pretty good, though it's a stylised graphical style that forgoes realism – not a bad thing in itself, though some may find this approach a little simplistic. It looks great at night though, with the player's breath frosting in the air as the sun dips over a distant horizon and the stars peek through the clouds – or freezing cold chunks of ice assault unprepared faces as they blunder through the dark, ill-prepared, starving and enjoying the gentle caresses of dysentery and traumatic blood loss. The sound's great too, making it easy to tell how cold it is outside just by the whistling of the wind as it screeches past whichever hut the player's holed up in for the night.
As an early access sandbox, there are a few issues with The Long Dark as it currently stands. First, it's a case of surviving for survival's sake. There's no way out, and resources like rifle rounds and first aid kits won't replenish themselves so the end result is simply going to be another corpse in the wilderness no matter how hard players struggle. Second, it adheres to gaming logic a little too hard – at one point I was freezing to death in a blizzard, and couldn't light a fire because the only sheltered alcove was on a small wood surface. I also forgot to pick up my sleeping bag at one point, then discovered that it's literally impossible to sleep without either that or a bed at hand miles away from home in a bedless structure during the mother of all windstorms.
Other, less annoying examples include the likes of how furniture can't be chopped up for kindling, and how strips of cloth can never become makeshift bandages in a pinch. Though to be fair, those are kinda nitpicking complaints. It's a survival sim with its own sets of rules that don't necessarily relate to real world examples.
Not present in the current build are an upcoming story mode, featuring other living survivors to interact with in a manner more complex than simply looting the unfortunate buggers as they lie face down in the snow, and actual objectives beyond the somewhat simplistic 'don't bloody well die' one on offer currently. It's also a sure bet that new items, environments and gameplay elements will be continually added throughout its development.
Honestly, The Long Dark's looking fairly promising. Even in the unfinished sandbox mode currently on offer I still spent seventeen hours wandering around looking for food, murdered any ravenous wolves that looked at me funny and cheerfully stitched together natty coats out of their pelts before gobbling down their flesh.
It'll be interesting to see what the final game has to offer once it's finally feature complete some time down the line, but as of right right now? It's still pretty good fun, or at least as much as a game about slowly turning into a popsicle during the middle of a global catastrophe can be. Just don't walk too far out on to that frozen lake. Seriously.