When Steam introduced Early Access, it opened the flood gates for games like Rust, The Forest, and Hinterland’s The Long Dark. We’ve spent some time with each of these, and though they all have their merits, The Long Dark is the best of them. 

The Long Dark has a bit of an odd distinction as being one of the only survival Early Access games to actually leave Early Access. On the way to reaching this point, Hinterland provided quite a lot of content. There are three primary modes, all of which are for the most part variations on the “survive until you die” core gameplay that the title offers.

Survival is the most basic mode and brings with it relatively little hand-holding: your only goal is to not die. This mode is the most open-ended and has a variety of really interesting maps, which is why it’s good there are two other modes that are a tad more restrictive to draw in different types of players. Wintermute is the game's campaign, and it is being delivered in episodes. The first two episodes are available at launch, with subsequent instalments to follow. These two episodes already offer quite a lot of content, so after all five are released, it's going to be quite impressive. Wintermute is still, however, built around the survival mode, except with some cutscenes spliced in between areas, and some characters to latch onto and care about. This added structure is nice, and while the core narrative isn’t anything special – two people on a plane crash and you have to go searching for the other – the world building around it is exceptional.

The reason you are hanging out in the Canadian wilderness is because of a global disaster that seems to have rendered electronics non-functional, as well as having caused a plethora of Earthquakes. It’s not clear if the entire world was impacted completely, but it seems to be implied. These narrative ideas create a tough, treacherous world where survival is not guaranteed. Wolves in particular had us for lunch far more times than we’d care to admit. That's not to say the world is without beauty though. The skyboxes and environments are actually quite beautiful, and the aurora's lighting up the night sky in particular are nothing short of breathtaking. Not only that, but they actually have plot relevance, making it even more interesting.

Finding enough food also proves a challenge as well. There are plenty of rabbits around to hunt, but the fact you have to personally break its neck and hear its death throes turned us off the whole thing. In addition, staying hydrated and warm and clothed and all manner of other important survival techniques factor into the game. It's strange to think that a game in which harvesting sticks to make a fire, and eating lots of tinned food are exciting mechanics, but here we are. Finding tins of peaches when scrounging through abandoned buildings might as well be like finding a gold mine. All the little things like that truly elevate the title.

This constant need to juggle many aspects of your well-being could very easily have been bogged into a bunch of menus filled with tedium – much like the infamous inventory system in No Man’s Sky – but despite actually consisting of a whole bunch of menus to navigate, managing everything feels easy to do and sometimes even tense. For example, if you really want to finish sewing up your socks so your feet don’t get frostbite but it’s almost dark out, you have to figure out a way to find light. Do you use your lantern and waste precious fuel or do you find a building and hole up inside and wait until you can just use natural light? Juggling all of these options makes for a surprisingly exhilarating experience, even though much of it is just in menus.

If all of this sounds like positive feedback, that’s because it is. Outside of a couple small things – the game’s third mode, Challenge, which is somewhere in between the Survival and Wintermute modes, feels unnecessary as it’s just a combination of the other two modes – there is virtually nothing to complain about with this title. Sure the frame rate chugs once in a blue moon, but the brunt of the games issues will have already been patched out by the time you read this. The 1.00 version of the game had a horrifically frequent issue with crashes that has mercifully already been rectified. While that was frustrating, it is to the game's credit that even with constant crashes we still found ourselves enjoying it.

Conclusion

The Long Dark is a strong survival title, possibly even the strongest of the entire genre. A beautiful but dangerous Canadian wilderness provides the backdrop to a challenging but largely satisfying fight for survival. While micromanaging every facet of your well-being while trying to survive might sound tedious in description, it actually ends up being fun, satisfying, and even tense.  With three more episodes to come for this title's story mode, there's already tons of content to chow down on. Just watch out for the wolves.