It has been almost three years since The Long Dark first released in early access. Now the long-awaited story mode is finally here.

I’ve always wondered how a story mode would fit into The Long Dark. It was obvious that some of the locations in sandbox mode had something missing, but in a way, that’s appealing to me. This is a brutal landscape. Even the most experienced survivor could meet an icy end from a few bad choices. So, stumbling upon a well-stocked lodge always left me wondering: what happened to its inhabitants? Did they get lost in last night’s blizzard? Are they still alive? Are they coming back?

Well, now that Hinterland Studios has released the first two episodes of their story mode, the gaps are finally getting filled in.

In Wintermute, The Long Dark’s first season, you take control of Will McKenzie, a bush pilot flying a passenger over the harsh Canadian wilderness. Though a blizzard is a-blowing, it’s easy work for McKenzie. It’s not until a mysterious geomagnetic shockwave hits the plane that he’s really in trouble. The engine dies and they’re sent plummeting into the rocks and snow below.

Miraculously, he survives. Confused, beaten and bleeding, he drags himself to his feet and looks around for his passenger. She’s nowhere in sight. Quickly, he realises that his extremities are already numb from the cold – he must find shelter. It’s here that the tutorial comes into play.

Trapped in a crevasse and unable to climb out due to injury, you must make-do from the scraps littered around. Step by step, day by day, you’re acquainted with basic survival tasks such as making a fire, performing first aid, and harvesting food. The tutorial is actually a welcomed sight. A fair amount has changed since I last played The Long Dark back in 2014.

One of the most obvious improvements is the addition of a quick-wheel. All basic tasks can be accessed by holding down the spacebar, and selecting an action. This is an effective way to keep you out of fullscreen menus and reduce a lot of busy work. The last thing you want when doo-doo hits the fan is to fumble around in a bunch of cluttered UI. Lighting a fire or eating some food only takes a few clicks and I really appreciate that.

One thing I do find a little disappointing, however, is that all these actions lack animation. Instead, we’re presented with a circular metre that fills up as a sound effect plays. It’s not terrible. It’s just unexciting. After a few hours, I found myself checking my phone or tapping my foot impatiently through particularly long tasks. It’s here that The Long Dark excels at being engaging, but falls short of being immersive.

Once you’re strong enough to climb your way out, it’s time to track down your missing passenger. This is where The Long Dark becomes interesting. Not in terms of its story, necessarily, but how it blends that story with its survival gameplay. It’s a very directed, personal tale, yet you can complete it at your own pace. Often, I’d have to stop and find shelter for the night before continuing on. Moments like that make the experience more authentic – like the game world isn’t at the whim of the story. I expected something along the lines of Firewatch, so it’s good to see Hinterland Studios stay true to the survival aspect.

Unfortunately, and this pains me to say, but the story turns out to be rather lacklustre. You’ll meet characters along the way, all with their own tale to tell as well as a groan-inducing number of fetch quests. Especially in episode one, Do Not Go Gentle, where a blind woman forces you to replenish her supplies before she’ll help you. Even then, after traipsing around the map, the old bird doesn’t say much. I think it’s all well and good for newcomers, but veterans of survival mode may not like the forced direction. It feels like filler. Unnecessary tasks that aren’t at all interesting. I have grown invested over both episodes, but I can’t help but sigh when each character turned out to be just as selfish as the last.

Also, you’ll move from fully voiced, fully animated cutscenes to silent in-game dialogue sections. It’s very jarring. The first time it happened I thought I encountered a bug. Couple that with a shallow trust system that requires you to give characters supplies to uncover more dialogue options, and it all feels rather overlooked.

Despite this, the story mode is still a nice addition. But the survival mode – the thing they built to mould the story – still takes centre stage. My own experiences have been far more memorable than what has been offered so far. There’s still three more episodes of Wintermute to go though, and I’m interested to see where they take it. Personal, isolated stories are my jam, and it’s hard to scoff at another mode for an already fantastic survival game.

Have you played The Long Dark? What are your first impressions of story mode so far? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on twitter @VGOutpost. Or… you know… you could just follow us. That’d be good too.

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