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