Early Access Previews: The Long Dark (10.19.2014)

Steam Early Access games get a whole lot of attention nowadays. It’s a pretty divisive topic, actually. On one hand, some people think Early Access games decrease the quality of the Steam storefront, as they’re usually far from polish and completion. A lot of the time, they’re actually pretty broken, too. But on the other hand, others believe Early Access is a great system to allow independent developers explore projects that otherwise wouldn’t get big-time publisher funding. A lot of the time, Early Access games are conceptually more interesting tha2014-10-19_00002n most of the standard games that get released nowadays. Does Early Access work? I’d argue yes and no. That’s why I’m starting this new series here, to look at a bunch of Early Access games and to see how they’re coming along. This first installment is about a game that has seemingly blown up in popularity since the Steam storefront implemented its new ‘discoverability’ features: The Long Dark.

Core Concept:

The Long Dark, as of now, is a first-person sandbox survival game. The player is spawned onto an enclosed, yet wide and meandering forest. You’re in the northern Canadian wilderness, therefore you must find warm shelter, potable water, and reliable food. While exploring, you need to keep track of six main metrics, your calorie bank, hunger, thirst, fatigue, exhaustion, and body temperature. Each of these metrics influences your overall condition, which is your critical measure of health (i.e when2014-10-19_00005 it hits zero, the player dies).

Along your search for supplies, you find different landmarks- such as abandoned hunting loges, derailed train tracks, and a desolate hydroelectric plant. All of these places have supply stores within them, but wolves commonly appear near their entrances, increasing the risk of venturing near them. With no traditional combat system in place, the player is relatively defenseless against wolves. Combined with scarcity of resources, harsh weather elements, and degrading quality of clothes, tools, and food, all of these elements make for a really interesting take on a survival game.

Playable Features:

As of this publication date (10.19.2014), the game is fairly bare-bones. The main menu has options for both a Story and Sandbox mode, however only Sandbox mode is able to be played. Beyond that, only one map is available for Sandbox, with another one supposedly to be released on 10.29.2014. At the beginning of a new game, the player has the option to play as either a male or female avatar.

2014-10-18_00001Mechanically, all of the systems you need in order to play the game are present. You can hunt (if you find the hunting rifle), light fires, scrap for supplies, heal wounds, sleep, etcetera.

Of note, a few of the core mechanics that are playable are actually done very well. Foraging for wood and animal meat isn’t done by monotonously hitting trees or animal carcasses. There’s a ‘forage for ____’ mechanic which lets you decide how long you want to look for a resource and after a tiny wait-time, you’ve got whatever resources your character could find. This comes at the cost of (obviously) time and calories. It is handled similarly with respect to the game’s sleep system, which also acts as the way the game saves your progress. You pull out your sleeping bag, or crawl into a bed and then choose how long you want to rest for at the expense of time and calories.

I’ve only hunted briefly, but so far it seems like a very fair system. Aiming is difficult due to weapon sway, your rifle degrades with use, and ammo is very scarce. Yet the payoff for successfully hunting is great, as fresh deer carcass is as good a source of food as you’ll find anywhere else in the game.

Traversing the wilderness is also very compelling. You have to manage your fatigue and body temperature metrics while also keeping a lookout for wolves. Your base walking speed is very slow, but sprinting takes a heavy toll on your fatigue and calorie count. It’s a huge balancing act of risk and resources. I’ve found myself asking tons of questions while trekking about: “Should I venture this far away from camp?” “Do I even need to be looking for food right now?” “Should I take the time to forage for wood?” “Do I build a fire to warm up now, or should I try to find a structural shelter?”.

Overall, for my taste these are very promising signs for an Early Access game. From the little bit I’ve played, I’m excited to keep playing to see how long I can survive in the Sandbox mode.

Missing Features:

Besides the aforementioned Story mode and the other soon-to-be released map, a whole other bunch of stuff is missing too.2014-10-19_00013

Firstly, I’d have to imagine there’s going to be more than two maps in Sandbox mode. Given some limited time with the game in the only map available to play, I’ve already gained considerable knowledge of the area. I feel like with extended periods of play, I’d get so comfortable with my surroundings and with my patterns that gameplay would get predictable and monotonous. For this reason, I’d imagine there’s going to be many maps available whenever the game launches, and because of that, I feel like a TON of content is currently missing.

There’s a few features in terms of UI which are missing also. Within your Survival tab (your menu to perform various utilities, such as inventory management and supply foraging), there is a ‘Map’ option which when toggled, indicates unavailability in alpha. Seems like a kind of important mechanic to leave bare from the game at any point, but perhaps the developers haven’t decided if they feel the game needs a map in the first place.

Furthermore, there’s no tutorial, or even mechanic descriptions anywhere in-game. Maybe there are and I haven’t found them. Either way, certain mechanics and the way they interact with each other have not been made clear to me. I don’t know to what extent any of the six survival metrics influence my condition. At which points of the scales am I in danger? Additionally, as far as item and food degradation, I can tell that the items are degrading as their quality measure is decreasing, but I don’t know what lower quality means for utility and I don’t know the rate at which things are degrading, or how I can slow the process down. This gets kind of frustrating at times. Does food spoil at 0% quality, or does it just gradually get more unsafe to eat?

Level of Polish:

2014-10-19_00009I’ve mentioned some features in UI that are missing, but I’d also like to take the time to explain the the Survival tab is pretty clunky in its current state. I hope this isn’t what the developers had in mind for when the game formally launches, as I have a hard time dealing with lists of items, equipment management, metric-checking, and forage actions all on the same screen. It’s very cluttered and I hope that some more simplicity is implemented into it at some point in the future.

Another item of note here is the game’s unsteady frame rate. I’ve set the game to every different level of graphical fidelity to see if it was my machine’s performance that wasn’t up to snuff for the game, but the frame rate varied in the same way at each interval. Most jarringly is when I pan my view quickly to left, where the frame rate falls to somewhere between 20 and 35 Hz. In general, there’s tons of dips and dives, but the game is playing on average somewhere between 40 and 60 Hz. It’s not a huge deal, as the game isn’t finished yet- all I know is that this currently is an issue and needs to be fixed. There’s no reason for this game to not hit a locked 60 Hz on a modern machine at launch.

2014-10-19_00004
Image taken while walking inside a rock.

There’s also some draw-distance, texture shading, and collision issues. At one point I was actually walking inside of a rock, which is both cool and unsettling. Anyways, I’d imagine all of these things will be fixed up by launch.

Wrap-up

I have no idea when The Long Dark officially launches, so I can’t say for sure how long you’d have to wait for it if you decide to skip the alpha. What I can say for sure is that The Long Dark very much is a project worth supporting now. I haven’t touched on a bunch of the awesome things about the game, such as its beautiful visuals or its looting mechanics- but I hope you’ve still gotten a good understanding of the unique systems in place here.

If some technical issues really bother you, or more importantly, if lack of content really bothers you, you should probably wait for the official release. I’m very aware that The Long Dark will get tedious when I learn the singular map available inside and out. Also, not having some greater context for the game kind of diminishes the overall experience. Why am I stranded in the wilderness? After I’ve survived  ten days of gameplay, why should I keep going?

That said, I think I’ve made my point. As tired as survival games are getting- this one is actually doing some things uniquely and effectively. If you’re a fan of the genre, you should want to see this game through, and by purchasing now you’d be helping out what seems to be a very creative and passionate team of developers.

Learn more at the Steam store page. http://store.steampowered.com/app/305620/

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