The last time I played The Long Dark’s Sandbox alpha, it was in a very early stage with placeholder sound effects and many missing features. I thought I'd spend a couple hours resampling the game to evaluate its current state in order to write a quick and easy preview.
The next thing I knew it was seven in the morning; I'd played straight through the night.
A good long run in The Long Dark has a set of experiential stages that make this sandbox an absolute joy if you're willing to, in gamer parlance, “git gud”. It’s advisable to start on the easiest difficulty until you get the feel for the game. You're just attempting to stay alive for as long as possible, but a story of sorts does unfold if you manage to stay alive long enough to really see the survival mechanics develop.
When you're first dropped into the world, it's a panicked scramble to find the various essential tools, grab whatever wood you can, and get those first few fires going. The first few nights aren't pleasant because you don't yet have the essentials to be self-sufficient. Just give yourself over to the game at this point and realize this phase is supposed to suck.
The sounds of the forest torment you—is that howl a wolf, or just the wind? Buildings which should be safe havens creak and groan menacingly. The wind whips viciously around your ice fishing hut, reminding you of the frozen hell just beyond the glow of your fire. Gradually, however, you settle in and become more confident about venturing out into the world.
That's when the informal second phase starts, and you really start to appreciate the beauty of the game's stylized art direction. That brutal wind becomes like a companion—silence is unnerving because it means you might be dying. Conversely, the music that indicates you're near a point of interest boosts the thrill of knowing you're near safety. The bursts of colour in the various buildings deliberately stand out from the natural environment, adding to the psychological relief you experience when you catch sight of one of them in a snowstorm. The most notable use of colour is the Canadian flag flying over the Camp Office. That flag is often your favourite thing to see in the whole world.
Survive a few more nights and you get to the Sandbox mode's third act, and it's the most gruesome one by far. By this point, you're hunting, and it's not the quick, easy, videogame style of hunting. The weapons aren't terribly accurate, so instead of landing a head-shot you're more likely to hit an animal in the body. The animal then runs around bleeding for a torturously long time. Depleting resources mean you can no longer be live and let live; now it's kill or be killed.
You hunt animals not just for food, but for their pelts and guts as well. These innards need to be dried for days inside before they can be used for crafting, so you spread them out inside the various buildings, which by this point are fairly barren of furniture because you've broken most of it down for wood and cloth. These previously rustic safe havens are now warehouses of gore, and this striking transformation is done entirely through gameplay.
About two weeks in and your cloth supplies start to exhaust. That's when the final “act” of The Long Dark's sandbox transformation kicks in. Your clothes gradually get swapped out for garments made of fur and sinew, and your limited rifle ammo is replaced by arrows. Your prescription drugs run out, so you treat injuries using lichen, mushrooms, and medicinal teas. All those trappings of modern civilization that you relied on at the beginning are gone. Wrapped in fur and hunting to, the player character is transformed into something not unlike the wolves—your motivations for roaming and killing no different.
The only real flaw with The Long Dark’s Sandbox might come from The Xbox One version I used for this review. This version has some lag issues that aren't just annoying; they’re deadly. If the game lags at the wrong time, it can send you right into a campfire, resulting in nasty burns and ruined boots. This is how one of my longer runs at the game suddenly went downhill, leaving me feeling totally robbed.
I hope Hinterland can sort this out, because it's a notable dropped stitch on what's otherwise a thoroughly glorious tapestry. The Long Dark is a sandbox whose artistic concept comments on the game's mechanics, and the result is beautiful and brutal.
Disclosure: the author is a Kickstarter backer of The Long Dark