One thing to keep in mind while reading this: The Long Dark is still in Alpha, and this is an Alpha preview. Many features, mechanics, etc. are not set in stone and are very likely to change. Also, many features are yet to be included in the game. This is solely an evaluation of the core concepts behind The Long Dark and its overall feel so far.
In one of my attempts at the sandbox mode, I began by being greeted by the snowy wilderness in front of me. I was up on a hill looking down on what seemed to be a logging camp with a few buildings. Immediately, I went down the slope to investigate the broken building missing its roof to scavenge for anything. Picking up a piece of wood, I heard a howl to my left. Peeking around one side of the building I didn't see anything, so I looked around the other. A black wolf leaped on me and battle ensued. Eventually, the wolf was dead by my hands but at great cost, as I was injured and had lost a lot of blood.
Even in that stupor I had the wherewithal to harvest the wolf's meat before I hobbled into one of the nearby buildings to care for my wounds. There I found a few useful items, such as a ski jacket which would help against the cold. After searching the remaining buildings, I was still sorely needing more resources. Without looking back I ventured into the wind in search of anything that could help, wincing and gasping in pain all the way.
For the rest of that playthrough I was constantly dealing with that injury. It didn't help when I got food poisoning from eating the wolf meat, when I looked over a ledge only to fall and sprain my ankle, or what led to my demise: finding a frozen dear carcass and harvesting its meat only to find myself in the middle of a blizzard afterward where there was no shelter, and I couldn't see more than five feet in front of me.
Brutal and unforgiving is probably the best way to describe The Long Dark. Everything is bleak and every event, item, and choice is significant. Right or left? Well right leads to a dead end after travelling for an hour where left leads to some more buildings to search through. Choosing when to build a fire and when not to can mean life or death as you may find yourself in a situation without any wood and a fire is a necessity. Can openers and newspapers become your greatest treasures. Cargo pants in reasonable condition become legendary treasures.
The Long Dark captures that feeling of the "First Night" in Minecraft. But it never goes away. Any who had that experience in Minecraft the first time they played know just how hectic it can be and how whatever you get done in time for night never feels like enough.
Now imagine that feeling of "never enough" being there for an entire game. Nothing seems enough for The Long Dark. Great, I found some more canned peaches and beans, but those won't last. Neither will the clothes I'm wearing, so hopefully I find some material to repair them before they become unusable. A hunting knife? Use that sparingly because it will eventually break and be gone forever.
Stumbling upon a new shelter is like finding a treasure chest. But in that same way, once you take away the treasure, you're only left with a chest. You can't live on chests, maybe in them, but not forever. Once you've plundered one area you go on to another. It's like you're a lone viking who has been trapped in both heaven and hell: a place with defenseless plunder, but only enough to barely sustain you.
While searching for more resources in The Long Dark, you constantly have to balance four things: fatigue, cold, hunger, and thirst. Those are bars you have to watch to make sure they don't go too far as that will mean you are starving, freezing, etc. all of which hurt your overall "condition" which starts at 100%. If you stay freezing for too long for example, your condition will slowly tick down and when you reach 0% you die. The Long Dark is all about finding the resources to stop those issues from getting out of hand so you can survive. Calories also seem to play some part of the game, but as long as you manage your hunger and thirst, they don't seem to be an issue. That could change in the future of course.
One of my worries for The Long Dark comes in how some items are discovered. Items are either laying out on a table or some other surface, or you find them in some kind of container like a drawer. So far, those that are out on like a table seem to always be there. For example, I know where to find a can opener or a ski jacket every time I play the game now. However, what you find in containers seems to be random. Sometimes you will be lucky and find a knife, other times it will be a candy bar. Though, all items are still very valuable.
My worry is that each map (and there will be multiple) will just become memorizing where certain items are and going to find them. While you can argue that is just figuring out the "level," it will eventually limit the replayability quite a bit because once you have it figured out, you should be able to survive a reasonable amount of time every chance you play.
One of the things I will be most intrigued to see develop is the Story mode which will be a story driven experience with The Long Dark mechanics. It will be interesting to see how they make a game about survival work within a story as the systems set up so far definitely cater to a sandbox feel more than a campaign driven game. That makes me speculate that the story may just be tied together events where travelling in between where you need to go is randomized in some way (like wolf encounters, blizzards, etc.).
The final thing I would like to mention is that The Long Dark taxed my PC heavily. The game is aesthetically pleasing, but does not look like it should be causing my machine to run at 20 FPS (closer to 35-40 on lowest settings). Of course, this is still Alpha, but I hope that is something Hinterland Games is taking into consideration.
Leaving on a positive note there are still many features yet to be added to The Long Dark that will greatly add to the experience like crafting, the ability repair certain items, building snow shelters, and the addition of an in-game map.
The Long Dark has my attention and has a good set of core mechanics around it to make for a great game. Now it is just up to Hinterland Games to do improve it. The Long Dark is available on Early Access for $19.99 on Steam.