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Winter Isn't Going: A Return To The Long Dark

And The Long Johns

I've long loved The Long Dark [official site], each time I've returned to it. It's been six months, and I've seen that a new zone has been added along with some major changes to crafting, so it seemed about time to take a look. But I don't want to go outdoors.

Alice recently wrote about the latest update to the game, pointing out that in her first experience of it, she found comfort within the first twenty minutes and saw no reason to carry on - she accepted her fate. I'm not the sort to be so sensible, and every time I've played it's been over-ambition that's seen me polished off, usually on the inside of a wolf's tummy. But this time back, well, I'm beginning to see Alice's point.

I started off in a newer region, Pleasant Valley, inside a building. It was very dark, but stumbling around I found I was in some sort of shop-front, with a warehouse behind. Exploring, digging through cabinets, drawers and lockers, I quickly found enough supplies to re-open the place as a convenience store. If only anyone else were alive in the world, I could have made a comfortable living. Dotted around were a few more houses, and each was replete with goods and equipment. Soon I'd gathered a lifetime's supply of stuff, popped it in the lockers in the warehouse, and starting crafting some bits and bobs on the workbenches in there. (The ability to store things in looted cupboards is one of the best recent additions.) And everything was grand! I had food, water, more soda than I could ever drink, enough wood to keep the fire burning perpetually thanks to the new option to break down wooden objects into firewood, warm clothes, a comfy bed - why would I ever leave?

Of course, I'd made the same mistake I made last time - I'd put it on the "easy" mode for the sake of quenching the tiresome hunger rates, and not getting randomly eaten by wolves every fifteen seconds. Sadly, my lament then remains my lament now: the absence of a difficult option that has realistic food and water consumption, slightly more sensibly tempered wildlife (yes, they excuse the savagery of the wolves with their meteorological anomaly or somesuch, but it's still far too daft), but without providing you with so many supplies that the game's rendered pointless. Right now, the more "realistic" settings are so wildly unrealistic in your character's voracious, insatiable appetite that things swing far too far the other way, meaning you can't sit still for instantly starving to death, despite having consumed your bodyweight in meat a couple of hours ago.

So I restart, and yup, it's still the other end of the scale. I don't know about you, but if I down a couple of cans of soda before bed, I'm weeing through the night, not desperately thirsty. But this is definitely the preferable way to play, with everything rare, survival tricky, and the cold constantly threatening your every decision.

It's here that the new crafting makes some sense. As well as being able to break down items in your inventory for scrap, such as creating tinder from newspapers, or scraps of cloth from old clothes, you can now scavenge more effectively from the world around you. Curtains hanging inside buildings can be torn off and used as cloth. Cardboard boxes, wooden tables and even metal shelves (should you have found a hacksaw) can be broken down, giving you firewood, fuel and metal scraps. And then all of this can be more effectively put to good use if you can find a workbench. These allow a more complex set of crafting options, from creating torches from wood, cloth and fuels, to fishing lines (from guts!) to bearskin bedrolls and bows and arrows. Yanking bits and pieces from all around you and putting them to use is perfect survival fun, and the crafting doesn't impinge on the brutal atmosphere of the game at all.

It's such a desperate struggle to not die. Night is barely worse than day for temperature, and being outside for a few moments is enough to send you into hypothermia. The only solution for that is keeping your ambient temperature above 0C for 24 hours, which is near impossible in the early stages. Trying to stay alive long enough to gather wood to keep your fire going so you can sleep for enough hours to find the strength to gather more firewood puts you in a position of wondering if there's any point in trying to go on. Perhaps it's better to accept your fate and just die in the snow.

And then be reincarnated afresh, back at the start, of course.

So therein lies The Long Dark's ongoing issue. It has a difficulty mode that's far too easy, and another that's far too hard. (And then a third that I daren't even touch.) I'm not for a moment suggesting they get rid of any of the current ones, as they'll certainly suit the ultra-casual and the hardcore, but it so desperately needs something in between. Something that pushes scarcity, but isn't utterly bonkers-ludicrous about food and water. I get the image of this vastly fat man waddling around the Canadian wilderness, ultimately searching for the end-game of a gleaming McDonald's, but in the meantime gorging himself on every jar of peanut butter and tin of dog food he can get his enormous hands on. "Oh boy, I haven't eaten for an hour - I'm LITERALLY STARVING." The fastest way anyone would really die in The Longest Dark is rupturing their stomach by stuffing it so full of chocolate bars.

I've not managed to find my way to the newest area added in, Desolation Point. You need to discover the way there, and just now it's the best I can do to run from fireplace-less building to fireplace-less building, trying to get an established start. And I'm absolutely loving it. I've died in heavy fog meaning I couldn't find anything. I've died in a blizzard that slowed me down and froze me to death. I've died because I jumped off a cliff after spraining my ankle, because really, what other chance did I have?

It's a real shame that six months on there's still no sign of the Story mode appearing in the alpha, which is what I'm achingly waiting for. And it's also a shame that six months on there's still no sensible balance of difficulty on offer. New regions are great to have, and the game's sense of place, of discovery, and that idiotic striving for hope amidst such utter hopelessness is delivered better here than in any other survival sim. But it's crucial that the smaller details get tweaked too, if it's to keep its audience for a long enough term. Me - I'm certainly looking forward to checking back in another few months.

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