The Long Dark Hands On Preview

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
When the Xbox Game Preview program launched last summer, it did so with two debut titles. One of those has since released in full. The other is Hinterland’s wilderness survival simulator, The Long Dark. If you don’t know anything about the game, you could check out our extensive previous coverage but, in short, it puts players in the middle of the northern Canadian wilderness and asks them to survive the elements. In its current form it offers a sandbox survival mode where supplies, weather conditions, and wildlife all vary with each playthrough. For this preview, I decided to head into a new starting area that was added with a recent update. With nothing but the clothes on my back and a small stash of supplies, I ventured into the ominous terrain known as Desolation Point.

Immediately as I’m dropped into the world I’m met with a fork in the road midway up a snowy mountainside. A door behind me could lead me back to the previous area, but I chose this more difficult map specifically, so there’s no use in turning around. I say map, but in reality the game offers no navigational system at all. I’m meant to discover and then commit to memory the lay of the land. The fork presents two different options: go left, and head up and around a nearby curve in the mountain toward the unseen. Or I could head right and down the mountain where in the distance I see an abandoned vehicle. With the cold slowly but surely chilling my bones, I have to choose quickly even though I don’t know which is wiser. I choose the former and head up and around the mountain.

After trekking through the snow, occasionally shielded from the winds in the shadow of enormous mountains on either side of me, I come upon some fallen trees. Further ahead I see a building. What at first looks like a log cabin turns out to be a stone church. With the windows being nothing but holes in the stone structure, it doesn’t provide me with any warmth, but I do find some supplies: matches, newspaper, and rifle ammo. No rifle though. In the front aisle sits a man, frozen and lifeless. It seems he exhausted his real world options and resorted to seeking salvation with a god who didn’t pick up the phone. I rummage through his clothes and backpack. Sorry dude, but you don’t need this granola bar anymore.

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I leave out the back through a broken fence. In the distance I see a narrow bridge leading to a lighthouse. Knowing not where to go, I figure that’s as good a destination as any. I move toward it, searching through an empty vehicle along the way. Before I reach the lighthouse, I notice the wind is starting to pick up. Good thing I’m not lost. I arrive at the lighthouse, start a fire using the matches, newspaper, and a little bit of kerosene to kickstart it. There exists a skill system, mostly unseen, that helps determine how my attempts at survival play out. Because I used the right combination of supplies, the fire had a 100% chance of successfully being lit. Had I been shorter on supplies, I might have wasted those items with the only benefit being that my backpack would be a bit lighter.

I finish ransacking the lighthouse and head up to the top. Stepping out on the balcony, I now find the storm has picked up immensely. Strong winds are blowing the snow so fiercely that I can’t see more than a few feet ahead of me. But I can’t stay in the lighthouse forever. There’s simply not enough food or drink for me here. I do all I can and venture back out into the blizzard. Heading back to the car I ransacked, I follow the snowy road on which it was abandoned for a while. Eventually I come upon a new location and the game informs me of its less than inspiring name: Blocked Highway. It’s a dead end. I just wasted several minutes of stamina and rapidly receding warmth for nothing. I turn back as the storm continues to pile in.

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I stray from the path a bit and find a frozen lake. This should end well, I think to myself, sarcastically. Carefully crossing, things go without issue for a while, but I still can’t see any new land mass ahead. Then the screen warns me that I’m treading on thin ice. Well, now what? I panic. I keep pressing on ahead, to what, I don’t know. The ice gives way below my feet and I fall in. I don’t have to fight my way out; the game teleports me back to safer ice, informing me that I’m now the unfortunate recipient of hypothermia. My clothes are drenched in water and the winds are freezing my wardrobe into icy sheets of discomfort and pain. Still lost in low visibility, I try again to cross the ice. More unsafe ice results in me taking another unintentional swim, despite my efforts to crouch and move very slowly. At this point, I look for anything to get me out of the unforgiving conditions. I find land, at long last, and see a bridge. Is it the same one as before?

I’m hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and freezing. I don’t have time to wonder. I find a path up a short hill to the bridge, falling and bruising myself and tearing my clothes along the way. As I traverse it, I see a tragically familiar site: the lighthouse. I’ve apparently wandered in a cold circle and have now returned unchanged besides my physical ailments. I go inside again anyways. I start a fire, use up the last of my supplies in doing so, change out of my frozen attire, eat the rest of my food, drink my clean water, and lay out my bedroll. I lie down to get some rest, hoping I wake feeling better but knowing I may not wake at all. Such an ending has found me in several previous playthroughs. Miraculously I do survive the nap and slept through the night hours, avoiding the added difficulty of night travel. I’m now a bit rested, satiated, and warmer, though my hypothermia still afflicts me. Where do I head next? I have no idea, and I didn’t sleep through the storm. The wind outside the lighthouse continues to howl much like the wolves that I have, to this point, so thankfully avoided.

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There are a lot of systems at play in The Long Dark. Many of them are changing constantly, so it’s tough to discuss them here. Hinterland has said previously that they want to do away with game-ifying their UI and they have done that for the most part. Your screen rarely uses words to deliver information, although it still does sometimes like the “weak ice” warning. It’s a brutal game and a slow burn. Story content is on the way this year, which will come in addition to this sandbox mode that I’ve been playing for months. I’m eager to see what the final product looks like when it releases in full. It’s changed a lot since last June and will likely continue to add and alter content in the weeks or months ahead. One thing that seems fundamental, however, is that The Long Dark is not interested in going easy on its players.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.