The Long Dark’s Vigilante Flame update sees the splendid survival game better than ever before

The thing I thought I wanted most from The Long Dark proved to be the thing I wanted least. For the many years I’ve been returning to this truly brilliant and most brutal of survival sims, I so wanted them to deliver on the Story Mode the title screen would always promise. To have a narrative motivation to persist against the odds and the elements seemed perfect. Then Wintermute was released and “perfect” wasn’t exactly a word being bandied around.

So I know now that what I really want from The Long Dark is just more of it. And now there is! Along with tweaks and an overhaul to cooking, a whole new region has just been added in, called Hushed Valley River, and it’s absolutely savage.

It’s probably important to stress up front that I am absolutely terrible at The Long Dark. I also think that’s kind of the point, too. To be good at this game would be to undermine its ethos and spoil its efficacy. It’s a game about only just being good enough to sort of keep going a bit until you fail and die. That’s The Long Dark at its best.

Which makes me very pleased to report that the difficulty settings are, at last, finally, quite good now! Each time I’ve played, each iteration has tweaked but ultimately misunderstood the difficulty that I – and certainly many others – wanted. We wanted to fail, we wanted to die, we wanted to always feel like we were barely coping, but all of that without having to eat a banquet every thirty seconds. The completely farcical demand to eat has, I’m just so delighted to say, finally been toned down at the so-called Voyageur difficulty level (essentially ‘Normal’, with Pilgrim’s ‘Easy’ below, and Stalker’s ‘Hard’ above – then there’s Interloper for ‘Nightmare’, I suppose).

Voyageur is perfect for a stumbling buffoon like me. And ensures my deaths come thick and fast when exploring the Hushed Valley River.

This is as bleak as I’ve seen The Long Dark. You begin at various points in a frozen valley, snow storms ripping through the barren landscape, with barely a scrap of shelter to be seen. There are no ruined buildings to hide in here, no ranger huts packed with drawers and cupboards to search. This is gruesome foraging, surrounded by vertical cliffs, your best hope chancing upon another even less lucky than you, and robbing his corpse of clothes.

There are caves to find, but they’re tiny, frozen, and offer little reward – just the chance to hold off hypothermia for a few more minutes. The only real hope of survival, and it’s scant, is spotting a climber’s rope dangling from a cliffside. And then, manage that, and you’ll discover a whole other raft of problems to be solved.

In my repeated failures at this scenario, I’ve told myself more tales, and more dramatic tales, than anything the anticlimactic Wintermute managed to offer. The Long Dark’s story mode ended up being gaming’s most grindingly slow tutorial, but lovingly crafted locations like Hushed Valley River prove vastly more successful. Letting the player create her own narratives, tell his own tales, seems to be the path to glory here.

Also new in the update is an overhaul of the cooking system. It’s the latest aspect of the game to be taken out of a clumsy inventory menu, and put into the real world. In the harsh climes of Hushed Valley, the aspect of this you’re going to see is the new means of boiling water and cooking food on campfires. You can now place empty tin cans on spots next to a fire, then fill them with snow to melt and boil for potable water, or put foodstuffs in the cans to heat them up. This means you can now get on with other tasks while food is cooking, or water is boiling, but comes with the catch that if you don’t return in time you could cook your food to a crisp, or boil the water away. Feedback makes it meticulously clear how many in-game minutes it’ll be until either happens, ensuring this isn’t a guessing game.

But step into a slightly less crazy scenario (or of course succeed in escaping the valley) and you’ll also be able to cook on stoves inside abandoned buildings, or on the hearths of fire places. You now place each food item onto the hot surface, and wait. Different food takes different lengths of time to cook. Having a quick go in the hilariously different setting of Mountain Town, I cooked some frozen salmon I found in a freezer next to the fireplace of a luxurious house, complete with hunting rifle and comfy double bed. (It’s most peculiar to jump from one setting to the other, where now my main concern was having far too many useful things to be able to carry.) To suit all this, the radial menu is now also more useful, letting you drop food into pots without having to switch out to the full inventory.

The other big new inclusion, which I admit my ineptitude/location means I’ve not properly explored, is Buffer Memories. These are the last scraps of data a computer terminal has in its memory, and may appear on mysteriously working screens when the aurora is out at night. These offer, they say, background information as to the circumstances that led up to the peculiarities going on in The Long Dark, for those who are either super-good, or playing on a very low difficulty.

I love how this game just keeps on improving. It’s better now than it’s ever been before, and there’s just so much variety in how you can approach it. Go for insanely tough near-impossible survival in terrifying climes, or explore abandoned towns and try to keep yourself alive with plenty of opportunity. Or pretty much any variant in between. All with an extraordinary sense of isolation, in a beautifully crafted vast stretch of Canadian wilderness.

The Long Dark is out on Windows, Mac and Linux, for £24/$30/35€, via Steam

14 Comments

  1. Moragami says:

    I’ve been wanting to sink my teeth into this game I got from the Humble Monthly bundle. This article has given me the nudge I needed. Thanks!

  2. Ben King says:

    This also sounds like just the news I needed to start up the game again myself. I had a very good time wandering around just one familiar area in the early access sandbox mode then after bouncing off the story mode hard upon full release I haven’t touched it since. this summertime update sounds like a good time to ease myself back into this winter horror.

  3. jj2112 says:

    So, is the story mode fully finished? I’m not interested in the sandbox mode, but I’d like to try the story.

    • malkav11 says:

      Not last I’ve heard. And I’m with you – I have no interest in survival sandboxes (or any sandboxes, really) at all, but the promise of an actual narrative to pursue with the survival mechanics was the key selling point for The Long Dark for me so I’ve been really disappointed with their priorities.

    • Henke says:

      2 of the 5 Story mode episodes have been released. They’re not working on ep 3 at the moment, rather they’re remaking ep 1 and 2. Good thing too, I played through both last winter and they are kinda crappy, with some annoying missions and objectives that don’t really make sense, and a narrative that keeps stomping in place instead of moving forward most of the time.

    • TheDesman says:

      They also have challenge modes, where you’re given an objektive to complete and often av timeframe in which you have to be done.

      These might not be story per se, but they do give you a goal with a definitive ending, which for me, is one of the important facets of a story campaign. Sandbox is really good in the long dark, but if you want something to work towards other than the goals you set yourself, then I can recommend the challenges.

      Most of them are simple in nature with a clear goal, but they’re open-ended in how you choose to execute them and you have a lot of freedom in how you complete them.

  4. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I just realized that the difficulty settings are a gentle dig at America and I find it hilarious. It’s kinda true, the pilgrims were playing on easy mode compared to the voyageurs up in Canada.

    • teije says:

      You’re right! And as a Canadian should’ve noticed too. This update sounds interesting, got pretty good at survival mode so a new challenging map sounds like a great time to shiver again during a hot summer.

  5. Rogerio Martins says:

    “It’s probably important to stress up front that I am absolutely terrible at The Long Dark. I also think that’s kind of the point, too. To be good at t game would be to undermine its ethos and spoil its efficacy.”

    No it ISN’T the point, the point is to survive as long as you can, explore, thrive for a while, despair as your resources start to dwindle and get better everytime. My God I’m tired of these so called critics not understanding the games they talk about, it was never the point of the game to be terrible, it’s quite the opposite, the encourages you to survive longer and longer, become better.

    • Mr4Goosey says:

      It uh… It kind of is, though. If the game wasn’t as punishing as it is, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun as it is now. It’s designed to be punishing. Not terrible, but punishing. And yeah, games being punishing does drive the player to become better at the game. Look at Dark Souls, for an overextended reference, DS is incredibly punishing, people still like it because it encourages improvement.

      So yes, the point is for the game to be hard, for people to not be good at it – and if they are, to make it harder – because it’s designed to have you as a player on-edge. And if you agree with me, but not with John… That’s just a debate of semantics, and not really worthwhile. I don’t disagree that there’s lots of writers that don’t seem to understand a thing of what they’re playing (looking at most writers for IGN, for instance), but this is not a case where I feel that way.

      • Rogerio Martins says:

        Hey man, thanks for the response. What I mean is, sure, the is supposed to be hard, but we are not supposed to be bad at it indefinitely, we are supposed to improve, get better and survive longer. Finding a way to thrive in this game’s environment is t he whole purpose of the long game and survive days upon days on Interloper is a great feeling the game encourages, this is a game that doesn’t get boring the better you get, quite the contrary.

        I don’t like the way he said, that the whole point is to be horrible otherwise the game would lose it’s appeal, because the game will always be hard but you got better.

        Maybe we are discussing semantics here, but I think it’s important to point out if you see an statement that sounds wrong.

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