It’s -4°C, snow’s falling and a wolf just stole my trousers. It’s going to be a long night.
When I think of episodic story-modes, Telltale Games and Life Is Strange come immediately to mind: gameplay-light, narrative-heavy experiences with a lot of talking and not much of anything else.
This is not that.
The Long Dark: Wintermute is a mechanically-complex ordeal with brutal survival at its core, where the story serves more as a push in the right direction than a primary minute-to-minute focus.
Following bush pilot Will Mackenzie as he searches for his estranged wife Astrid in the immediate aftermath of a mysterious blackout, the first two episodes of The Long Dark: Wintermute tell the beginning of an intriguing story, but one that’s still firmly in its opening acts. As you traverse the beautifully desolate Canadian wilderness, you’ll have to scavenge what you can to stave off the elements, avoid predators, and recover from the plane crash that stranded you.
The story is told through intermittent cutscenes with the characters rendered in a brush-stroked art-style, which is juxtaposed nicely with the game’s high-contrast lighting and landscapes. And while things like lip-syncing do suffer because of this less photo-realistic approach, the haunting soundtrack and brilliantly expressive voice acting do enough to flesh out Mackenzie and Great Bear Island’s other survivors and keep you invested in the action.
These story beats are pretty sparse, however, and the hours between each morsel are spent wholly on survival–with the odd contextual utterance from Will, based on where you are.
To get through alive, you have to balance four key statistics: temperature, tiredness, thirst and hunger. The Long Dark does well to separate itself from standard Early Access survival fare by introducing a few original ideas into the mix. You keep fed by managing your calorie count, making every meal count in the energy-sapping cold, which is a nice touch that lends itself to a more authentic experience where you’re actually trying to survive, not just spinning plates to fill arbitrary meters.
Resources are balanced towards scarcity, so slow preparation is key to success. The Long Dark: Wintermute isn’t something you can blow through in an afternoon, and this trudging pace might annoy more trigger-happy gamers.
Over the two episodes’ relatively lengthy run-time (roughly 4-6 hours for the first episode and as many as 12 for the second), there’s a multitude of abandoned locales to ransack, scattered lore to piece together, and a crafting and clothing system to get suck into–the latter of which leans toward an RPG-like system where your gear acts like armor against the cold, with stats for wind protection and warmth. It’s difficult to gauge how much real impact this has on gameplay, but it’s still fun to pull on the disused boots, scarves, and Canadian flag hats you find.
While there’s plenty to be getting on with in The Long Dark:Wintermute, I’m not quite convinced that story/gameplay cadence completely works.
The pacing feels slightly at odds with presenting a cohesive narrative, and a lot of the quests you’re given feel a little capricious, especially if you’re already in a bad way. In the first episode, without respite, you’re asked to stock-pile a massive amount of fuel which, unless you’ve got plenty of supplies already, is a pain to collect. Then in the second episode, one quest can involve literally hours of backtracking.
Personally, I found each scrap and hard-fought victory over Mother Nature genuinely gratifying, but backtracking is always contentious, and a positive or negative based on your perspective. The uncompromising gameplay of the original sandbox-only Early Access version of The Long Dark is unadulterated by the storyline, with each extended survival section feeling like a mini sandbox run. But that now comes with the added bonus (or limitation) of an attainable end goal. Really, Wintermute delivers just about as tight of an experience as possible without penning players in too much and nerfing the formula that won Hinterland so many fans.
In terms of performance, The Long Dark is not a particularly intensive game, so I had no problems running it on an HP Pavilion Gaming Notebook with 8GB RAM, an Intel i5-6300HQ and Nvidia 950m at the default settings. However, at launch there were a lot of bugs–many of them game breaking. I had to restart once because critical items I’d picked up in a previous save had disappeared after reloading, but Hinterlands Studio are proactively patching things to get The Long Dark up-to-speed.
All in all, Episodes 1 and 2 of The Long Dark: Wintermute are really quite easy to describe. They take the rock-solid gameplay foundation of the Early Access version and add a reason to survive, a vignette of story to give your wandering a purpose.
PUBLISHER – Hinterland Studio Inc. | DEVELOPER – Hinterland Studio Inc. | ESRB – T | PLATFORMS – PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
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Recommend – If you’re looking for a tough survival experience, where you’re just as likely to have your head freeze as succumb to vicious wolves, but with a bit more of a hand-crafted touch, then give The Long Dark: Wintermute a shot.