Continuing in my Early Access Checkup series, this week we’ll be looking at The Long Dark. Another survival sandbox title, The Long Dark shares its basic concept with many games in the genre: a stranded, isolated protagonist in a hostile environment, struggling to survive with only their wits and meager supplies. It has many familiar features, such as weather, fires, and player warmth, hunger and thirst, crafting, hunting, and dangerous creatures in the form of hostile wild animals.

Where the game differs is in its presentation and focus. While many survival sandboxes leverage the availability of 3D engines like Unity to present the most realistic looking world possible, The Long Dark uses the same technology to deliver a more stylized visual representation of the frigid Canadian wilderness that is the game’s setting. Rather than zombies or even the animals that do populate it, this harsh environment is the game’s main threat, and you can just as easily die of the cold as by a savage wolf attack. The crafting is also bit more minimal, with more focus on scavenging for key supplies and no ability to build shelter, although this makes sense with a game set in a once-populated area.

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I’ve discussed the benchmarks for a good Early Access process before, and they remain pretty much the same here. Early Access games need to demonstrate a constant development process that keeps early fans invested and shows progress toward a finished product. This means more than just bugfixes and engine improvements, but content and at least some sense of vision. Especially for sandbox titles, this can pose a real challenge: when is a sandbox “finished”? Fortunately, The Long Dark’s development team has done an exceptional job of showing they have the answer to exactly this question. Released in September of 2014, it’s now at version .338, and the game’s changelong lists around 70 patches with a number of large updates and smaller fixes.

Starting with a single playable region, these updates have added several additional areas, each with a distinct flavor and unique balance of terrain, abandonned structures, weather, and wildlife. Gameplay can start in any region, offering further variety to the sandbox play. The zones also connect to one another in such a way as to create a sense of progress and add depth to the survival concept. While originally a player might have only worried about setting up camp in a single area, now they have to consider the risk of travel against the rewards of new supplies in an unexplored region. This taps into the narrative pacing of basically every popular TV show and movie in the genre: the balance between home and the road, between scavenging and digging in.

Several new “challenge” modes also leverage the new content, giving the player goals that require them to move from zone to zone while completing other objectives. One requires the player to avoid constant pursuit by a hungry bear long enough to find a rifle to kill it, while another has them trekking around the map locating a flare gun and ultimately firing it from the top of a lighthouse to try and find rescue. Each of these mini adventures feels like they could be individual chapters in a longer narrative, showing that the devs clearly know how to leverage their world for story potential.

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With a huge number of patches, The Long Dark has had numerous technical fixes and balance tweaks as well. Many of these address the incredible depth (and harshness) of its survival system. Of various games in this genre that I’ve played, The Long Dark has some of the most complex simulations of both its environmental dangers and the human condition. Ambient temperature is affected by wind (and shelter from it), time, sunlight, clothing worn and heat sources like fires. Body temperature, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and physical health are all tracked. All of these systems have subconditions (like starvation, hypothermia, and specific injuries and infections), and they’re all interconnected.

For instance, a hungry character tires more quickly, and a tired character can carry less weight without suffering speed penalties. Balancing all of this is tricky, but the devs have put a lot of effort into it, adding different difficulty modes and tweaking the setup in almost every patch. In my playthroughs, the game modes all felt very different, from carefree exploration with just moderate attention to survival in the easiest, to being chased by wolves while suffering from hypothermia in the first few minutes of gameplay on hard (I lasted all of 1 day, 9 hours my first time). They’ve also added a journal that tracks survival stats and allows customized entries, and these journals are saved after you die, leaving a record of prior playthroughs.

Ultimately, The Long Dark is not just a great survival sandbox game in the making with extremely realistic mechanics, but a great example of how the Early Access process should be used. Not just new content and constantly-updated mechanics, but the introduction of new zones and game modes that hint at what’s to come show exactly the sort of vision that players need to see to keep faith in an ongoing project. While the game presents a bleak world with little sense of hope, the devs have given their players plenty to look forward to in their finished product.

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